Archive for March, 2006
First off, I haven’t seen the new Lord of the Rings musical, which opened on March 23 in Toronto, so I won’t be commenting directly about it. I have been reading its reviews avidly for the past few days, though, as I’ve been sick at home with the flu. Most of the reviews are mediocre-to-negative, which I kind of expected, but I’m struck by a few common themes that have popped up among them.
Both the New York Times review and the Entertainment Weekly review (available in print, but not online yet) described the new musical as a ritual incomprehensible to the uninitiated. The last paragraph of the Entertainment Weekly review is so interesting that I have to quote it here:
“Yet Rings is more passion play than puppet show, and like all passion plays, it’s best at moving the hearts of the already faithful, those with the scriptures memorized and no disbelief to suspend. The less-than-observant (in every sense) may not have the slightest idea what’s going on, though they’d have to be made of troll-stone not to be moved by the abundant magic of Warchus [the director] and Co.’s propulsive visual storytelling. Tears will be shed by believer and nonbeliever alike. But if you’re looking for a close personal relationship with Frodo, I’d recommend private devotion. No one comes to a cathedral for the intimacy.”
I’d argue that both grandeur and intimacy are possible in a cathedral . . . but can they both be present in a theater production of Lord of the Rings?
Film is perhaps the best medium for conveying both grandeur and intimacy, and the Peter Jackson films can take you from sweeping mountain vistas to the agony, joy, or relief on human faces (or to Elijah Wood’s buggy eyes, which failed to convey any of the above). Those of you who know me know that I had some major problems with the film trilogy, but I acknowledge that film is indeed the best medium for giving the audience everything they want in a fantasy epic.
Theater, however, does not merely “give” to an audience. You have to invest yourself in it to get something out of it, and in that way seeing a play is more like reading—or like worshiping in a church service. So I’m not sure a theater production of Lord of the Rings should try to convey large-scale visual grandeur. Create characters that are real, and the audience will suspend disbelief and see the world that the characters see.
I admit that I’m biased because, before the Jackson films, before the Warchus musical, I saw excellent theater productions of The Two Towers and The Return of the King (they’d done The Fellowship of the Ring previously, but I missed it—there were two years between each volume of the trilogy) at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago.
The sets were minimalist, the actors wore all black, fantasy creatures and whole armies were evoked through shadow puppetry, yet both the mythic scope and the depth of human (yes, human, even if they’re hobbits!) emotion shone through. And I can guarantee you that they had a small budget.
What I can’t comment on is if this intimate version of Lord of the Rings would have spoken to the uninitiated, since I’ve been of the Tolkien elect since age 7 (the same year I was baptized into the Church, actually . . . hmmm). But I was pleased that the Lifeline productions invited me in, asked my imagination to be involved, and let me become part of the Fellowship.
Daily Telegraph reviewer Charles Spencer writes of the Toronto Lord of the Rings musical, “How could any stage production hope to match the thrills of the Oscar-winning trilogy of films, which used no end of CGI effects to make the dreamlike and the fantastical come true? Well, now we know. It couldn’t.”
Maybe not. But good theater productions of Lord of the Rings do exist, if not in Toronto, and they offer the grandeur of Myth (which doesn’t “come true,” for it always is true) that stirs the soul.
March 27th, 2006
I’m resisting the trend of titling my V for Vendetta post “V for Victory” or “V for Virulent” or anything silly like that. It gets old after a while.
And that’s kind of how I feel about all the reviews of V that I’ve been reading. Critics who celebrate it and critics who abhor it alike have been highlighting the supposed references to our current U.S. government. Various reviewers claim to see overtones of Bush, Cheney, Abu Ghraib, the Twin Towers attacks, and anything else current, you name it, in the film.
For cryin’ out loud, people, it’s a comic book movie! And it’s a comic book movie based on a British comic book from the 1980s. The original creator, Alan Moore, apparently had some beefs with Thatcherism, and no doubt this influenced his work (I’ve never read it, so I can’t say for sure), but I would guess that he was simply imagining what a totalitarian state would look like if it happened, say, 40 years down the line, in Britain. Hence the much-commented-upon government oppression of Muslims (which is actually barely mentioned in the film): Muslims of Pakistani origin make up one of Britain’s more visible minority communities, so if a totalitarian government were to arise, they would be likely victims.
Though the movie is set in the twenty-first century, the totalitarian regime is pretty old-fashioned. It’s clearly based on Nazism and Stalinism, as the film’s red-and-black color scheme suggests. Why does Sutler’s government oppress homosexuals, in addition to religious minorities? Probably because that’s what Hitler did, too. It has little to do with Bush, and I would suggest that those who make that comparison, either from a liberal or a conservative perspective, are guilty of watering down the true horrors of the Holocaust and the Gulag. I’m no fan of the Bush administration, but it isn’t guilty of genocide.
So V for Vendetta is a comic book movie, plain and simple. Most of its faults are inherent to the genre. Yes, it glorifies violence, and if I watched the movie from an almost-pacifist perspective, I would have a problem with that. But I have to admit that even almost-pacifists like watching buildings get blown up on the screen, as long as no one’s in them (which is the case in V for Vendetta—we wouldn’t want V to have to face any actual moral dilemmas).
This almost-pacifist also likes to watch strong women take on fearsome foes, and for me this was the greatest disappointment of the movie. Natalie Portman’s Evey, though well acted, was annoyingly passive for most of the movie. This isn’t Portman’s fault: it’s the screenplay’s (and perhaps the original comic book’s as well). Same thing happened to her in Revenge of the Sith. For goodness sakes, Natalie, if you’re going to keep taking roles in action movies, insist on ones where you get to kick people!
The one intelligent review I’ve read (and now I can’t remember where I saw it) of V for Vendetta agreed that the film’s antagonist was old-style fascism, not any contemporary situation. But the reviewer also suggested that, in the wake of 9/11, it’s naïve to make a hero, sans complexities, out of a terrorist. The Wachowski brothers began working on V long before 2001, but, as the reviewer suggested, they can’t avoid its shadow. Even in a comic book movie, you could make room to explore the issue of using corrupt means to tackle corruption.
SPOILER ALERT! Do not read past this point unless you’ve already seen the movie, or you never plan to see it, or you do plan to see it but you don’t care about suspense.
So, my biggest problem with the movie is one that I can’t talk about with people who haven’t seen it, because it would ruin a crucial surprise. You know the ubiquitous images of Natalie Portman’s head getting shaved on screen, after she’s been captured by (we’re led to believe) the government? Well, Evey thinks it’s the government who’s torturing her, too, in an effort to get her to reveal V’s whereabouts. But it turns out that it’s V. He is torturing her and interrogating her and threatening her with death in order to make her into a strong and “free” person. (Yes, he seems to have constructed a fake prison cell and interrogation room adjoining his lair. He is cuckoo, and he resembles the Phantom of the Opera more than a little.)
When Evey, threatened with execution, says that she would rather die than give them the information she wants, V lets her go and reveals that the whole thing has been a ruse. She is understandably quite a bit miffed, but the movie never really develops what she does with that anger. She’s just supposed to swallow it and use it to fuel her newfound strength. And how does she use that bravery? Not really at all. At least not that we see. By the end of the movie, she’s spouting all sorts of stuff about how V gave her the most important gift of all—freedom from fear—but never really addresses the awful means he used to bring that about.
It may be the pacifist idealist in me (not to mention the Christian), but I would have liked to have seen strength grounded in love rather than anger. Of course, that wouldn’t have fit the movie’s genre or its title, so I would settle for at least some good character development. How exactly does Evey transform anger into strength? And can we PLEASE see her using that strength? Perhaps using her strength by rebelling against her mentor and refusing to continue his violent means? The latter might be too much to ask, but the former two seem necessary, especially since in the first half of the movie, we are bombarded with images of Evey as victim.
The film’s naivete lies not only in its willful ignorance of 9/11, but also in the way it deals with the victimization of women. That’s my two cents.
March 24th, 2006
Ten years after everyone else, I’ve finally seen Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Honestly, I think I avoided seeing it because Leonardo DiCaprio was in it, and I fully expected him to whine. And he does—which, come to think of it, is kind of essential to Romeo’s character. That’s the other reason I’d never been that interested in the movie: I’ve never liked the play that much. Romeo and Juliet die because they’re stupid, self-pitying idiots, not because they’re star-cross’d. Maybe I had more patience for them when I actually was a teenager, but, if so, I can’t remember it.
Porpoise’s fascination with Luhrmann’s quirky oeuvre (which, as you probably already know, includes Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge), coupled with the recommendation of another good friend, were enough to make me reconsider seeing the film, and I was glad I did.
Luhrmann’s stated intent for the film was to de-Victorianize Shakespeare, to present the Bard’s work in a form accessible to people from all walks of life, as the original Globe productions were. True Renaissance Shakespeare plays had to keep the attention of drunken, rowdy audiences with all sorts of gimmicks, and Luhrmann saw no problem with doing the same for contemporary moviegoers. Hence the 1990’s “Verona Beach” (I wasn’t sure whether it was supposed to be like L.A. or Miami—turns out it’s Miami) setting, complete with gangsters, transvestites, and priests—and did I mention the hit soundtrack?
The “gimmicks” work, and Luhrmann’s choices make sense within the world he creates. If he’s making a bit of a stretch, he calls attention to it, so that you end up laughing—for example, the guns with a prominent “Longsword” brand label. I accepted it all as part of the bizarre life of his Montagues and Capulets.
The only moment that jerked me out of my immersion in the film was the final double suicide. You know how it’s supposed to go: Romeo hears that Juliet is dead (when she’s really not), he procures some poison, goes to her tomb, drinks it, kisses her, and dies; then Juliet wakes up, sees that Romeo is dead, and stabs herself. But in Luhrmann’s film, Juliet actually begins to stir as Romeo is blabbing on about how miserable he is—and then she wakes up just as he drinks the poison. He therefore has a moment before he dies in which he actually knows that she is alive and that he’s killed himself for nothing. Ouch.
Then things proceed as normal, only with Juliet shooting, instead of stabbing, herself.
I had to find out why Luhrmann had Juliet wake up early, so I indulged my new obsession and watched the commentary for that scene. It turns out that this was the one place in which he actually borrowed from the Victorian productions he researched, which sometimes ended this way (and some also ended with Romeo and Juliet coming back to life, but thank goodness he didn’t do that). He did indeed choose the overlapping approach because it intensified the torture for the two, thus heightening emotion for the audience as well.
As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve also realized that you could justify Luhrmann’s choice based on the usual tragic convention of giving the hero a flash of insight before he or she dies (and sometimes, of course, he has to poke his eyes out before he can “see”). The brief moment of overlap does make Romeo and Juliet fit the usual tragedy pattern better.
But are Romeo and Juliet really capable of tragic insight? They are just whiny, lust-stricken teens, after all. Or am I being too harsh?
What do you think?
March 19th, 2006
I have to start off by saying that nothing will ever replace The Definitive Pride and Prejudice. Nor will any film adaptation, small-screen or big-screen, ever manage to completely capture the biting wit and laugh-outloud humor of Jane Austen’s novel. The latest big-screen Pride and Prejudice—you know, the one with Keira Knightley—didn’t even really try much for the latter. It had its own humor (in fact, I think Porpoise laughed more at this version than at any other P&P), but it was of a very different sort from Austen’s.
And I’m actually fine with that, as long as I don’t really think of the movie as Pride and Prejudice. It is a work of art in its own right, a work sometimes more akin to the Brontë sisters’ novels than to Austen’s. This version chose to focus on the messy family life of the Bennets and on the romance between Lizzy and Darcy (long passionate looks, in settings that just cry out “Wuther, wuther!”).
This is one film of 2005 that I actually did see in the theater (um, twice), and I enjoyed it then, but watching it on DVD with the director’s commentary track playing was so fascinating. I have to confess that I’m really not a visual person. Great camera shots, special effects, background details—I don’t usually notice any of these unaided. I suppose I’d notice them if they were bad, but if they’re good, they just serve to draw me into the world of the characters, and, for a couple of hours, I forget that that world isn’t real.
(So you’ll rarely see any insights about the visual aspects of filmmaking on this blog. Perhaps because my parents read to me so much as a child, I hear a movie more than see it. The script and the score are hugely important for me. And I do notice the actors’ eyes and ways of carrying themselves, too, and sometimes the costumes, but that’s about it. Sigh. That’s me, amateur movie critic for the nearsighted.)
Director Joe Wright’s commentary on the Pride and Prejudice DVD is quite unusual. Perhaps because this was his first feature film, he mentions a lot of shots he wasn’t happy with, mistakes he thinks he made. But it’s mostly done with self-deprecating humor, and though I’d never notice any of the “mistakes,” it’s interesting to hear about them. And Wright always credits the actors and designers and technical specialists for moments of brilliance in their work. We learned, while watching, that Emma Thompson actually wrote a couple of scenes for the movie. Any guesses about which ones they were?
When Porpoise and I saw the film in the theater, he noticed how many long shots it had. “Oh,” said I. “There was actually a camera following Lizzy and Darcy and everyone else, wasn’t there?” (Takes me a while to unsuspend my disbelief). There are indeed many long shots in the movie, and in the commentary Wright talks about how they were set up and filmed. They’re particularly useful for the dancing scenes, since they help to convey a sweeping motion.
Apparently, when you’re making a long shot scene, you spend hours and hours rehearsing it, and then maybe an hour filming it (as opposed to scenes with lots of cuts, in which you devote less time to rehearsing and more time to actually filming). I think these long scenes particularly reflect Wright’s perfectionist aesthetic of imperfection. Several times, he mentioned scenes that he had the actors do again because they were technically perfect but lacking in energy. He preferred—and kept in the final version—performances where they gave it their all and made mistakes.
Somehow I think otters would approve.
(Oh, one more thing: I was waiting for Wright to explain why that idiotic “Mrs. Darcy . . . Mrs. Darcy . . . Mrs. Darcy” scene is even in the film, let alone being the last thing viewers hear. I’ve heard rumors that this scene was only in the American version, but I haven’t seen anything to back that up. Anyway, Wright didn’t say anything about who was responsible for the syrupy scene or about the reasoning behind it, so I’ve just decided to view it as noncanonical. I hence excise it from the film. There.)
March 12th, 2006
I’m still in Oscar-frenzy mode, so you’re seeing more posts than usual from me this week.
So far I have refrained from commenting on any of this year’s Oscar fashion choices, but I have to take a minute to laud a very encouraging trend: pockets in women’s gowns.
Porpoise and I first noticed that Amy Adams seemed to be hiding her hands inside the folds of her skirt when she was being inanely questioned by a red-carpet interviewer (who probably hadn’t even seen Junebug–grr!). InStyle.com has confirmed our suspicion: Adams was indeed wearing pockets, as were Sandra Bullock and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Hooray for pockets! Death to stupid little clutch purses!
March 7th, 2006
At the Academy Awards on Sunday night, host Jon Stewart joked that Walk the Line was a remake of last year’s Best Picture nominee Ray, only with white people. Unfortunately, he was sort of right.
I haven’t seen Ray, but I did watch Walk the Line this past weekend, and while the music was enjoyable and the acting good (hurrah for Reese Witherspoon’s accent), the film suffered from too close an adherence to “biopic of a musician” genre standards. They tried to cover too many issues and too many years, and there wasn’t time to sufficiently develop any of the themes.
The film opens with the tragic death of Johnny Cash’s brother, setting this up as the event that defined Johnny’s life. Johnny’s father says to him, “God took the wrong son,” and the film thus introduces what seems like it’s going to be a theme for the rest of the movie: Johnny’s troubled relationship with his father and with other authority figures.
However, except for a couple of moments near the end of the movie, the father theme gets dropped. Porpoise pointed out that there are hardly any scenes involving Johnny’s producers or managers. It seems like developing these characters would have been the natural way to continue the father theme while Johnny’s father isn’t actually on screen.
That’s just one example of the several rabbit trails the film introduces, drops, and then speedily resolves in the conclusion (Cash’s faith is another–there’s one scene in which he and June approach a church, but that’s about all we get). I much prefer biographical films that take a small slice of their subject’s life, and let that part represent the whole. Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (Queen Victoria) and Shadowlands (C.S. Lewis) are good examples of this approach.
Anyway, I was glad to have seen Walk the Line, for a refresher on Johnny Cash’s and June Carter’s music, if nothing else. I’ve been singing their songs non-stop for the past few days.
Speaking of which, here’s something for all of you out there who are also fans of both Johnny Cash and J.R.R. Tolkien!
March 7th, 2006
Host Jon Stewart was the best thing about last night’s Academy Awards (well, the best thing other than Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit winning Best Animated Feature and its creators placing bow ties on their Oscar statuettes). Without him, the ceremony would have been three-and-a-half hours of Hollywood actors, producers, and directors praising themselves for being more forward-thinking and socially conscious than the rest of America.
It started early in the evening, when the usually funny and charming (as well as openly political) George Clooney accepted his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Syriana and launched into a speech about how, yes, Hollywood was “out of touch” with the rest of the U.S., but how this was a good thing because Hollywood could lead—and had led—the way for social change. Then he cited Hattie McDaniel’s 1939 win for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind, pointing out that this was at a time when African Americans had to sit in the back of movie theaters. Clooney didn’t point out that McDaniel and her husband also had to sit in the back of the auditorium the night she won her Oscar, nor did he mention that she won for playing Mammy, a role that hardly challenged white viewers’ stereotypes. More than one of the people assembled to watch the Oscars at our house saw some irony here.
The self-congratulatory tone continued with the Academy president’s speech, as well as a montage of “issue” movies that are credited with changing the way we think: Gentleman’s Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Philadelphia, etc. There were lots of stellar films in the bunch, excellent and important films. But the high-blown tone of “three cheers for Hollywood” was too much. Fortunately, Jon Stewart managed to bust the balloon immediately afterward by deadpanning, “And none of those issues were ever a problem again. Congratulations to us.”
I don’t deny that movies may have the power to change society. But I think there may also be some validity to the argument raised in a couple of articles last month, the argument that movies simply reflect back to us the ways we’ve already changed. As Beliefnet blogger Paul O’Donnell wrote in his “Moving Mountains” post, “Hollywood is a generally a pretty conservative place, as any industry would be that places such large bets on what the broad audience will pay for.”
Maria DiBattista, writing for the L.A. Times, responds to the claim that Brokeback Mountain will change the way America thinks about homosexual relationships, saying, “Movies can envision the need for social change, but it is unclear that they can help bring it about. They are better at pointing the way to a different, happier, more fulfilling life.”
According to DiBattista, it’s hard to translate those semi-escapist fantasies of social change into real life. If they do succeed in real-world change, she argues, it’s because of the movies’ powerful images, not because of their agendas.
As I listened to actors, directors, and film executives praising their own agendas (many of them important agendas–I don’t question that), I began to wonder, “Do they actually think that box office revenues were down in 2005 because the ‘conservative’ American people couldn’t handle the ‘progressiveness’ of Hollywood?”
Of course, the real reason box office revenues were down is because, frankly, going to the movies is expensive, and Netflix is cheap. Period. I intend to see many of the Oscar-nominated films. But I’ll do it once they’re released on DVD.
Anyway, Hollywood last night seemed intent on deepening the divide between so-called “red” and “blue” America (a distinction that I really don’t believe exists). All the more need for films like Junebug, which challenge and question that divide. If there is a film from 2005 that changes the way we think, I hope it’s Junebug, because, really, this liberal-conservative war is getting pretty silly.
Sadly, Junebug’s Amy Adams did not win Best Supporting Actress last night, though she did pick up an Independent Spirit Award on Saturday night.
Oh, and I have to mention one more funny line from Jon Stewart. At one point, he quipped, ”I do have some sad news to report. Bjork could not be here. She was trying on her Oscars dress and Dick Cheney shot her.” Ah, that swan dress will live on for years to come.
March 6th, 2006
Yesterday the short film “The McPassion of the Christ,” a satire of the way Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was marketed to churches across the U.S, premiered. Yes, its timing with Ash Wednesday was no coincidence, since that was also when The Passion opened in 2004. The 4-minute film will be available online for forty days—and, again, the correspondence with Lent is no coincidence.
So, is “The McPassion”’s writer and co-producer Rik Swartzwelder calling on someone to repent? And if so, who?
According to an interview with Mark Moring of Christianity Today, Swartzwelder doesn’t blame Hollywood, saying he has “the utmost respect for their ability to market and sell.” “This is not about Hollywood,” he continues. “It’s not Hollywood’s responsibility what happens in churches. That’s the church’s responsibility.”
What Swartzwelder most objected to was the way many church leaders advocated The Passion from the pulpit. Says Swartzwelder, “It’s one thing if a pastor sees a film and wants to share that with his congregation. It’s another thing when you start marketing a film sight-unseen just because you’ve been pitched it.”
On the “Discussion” section of the “McPassion” web site, Swartzwelder further explains his objection to the placement of the movie sales-pitch in worship: “Why can’t at least some of our gathering times be a sanctuary from commerce? Why can’t the church be the one place lost and hurting people can go to heal and seek shelter from financial exploitation? From being told their lives will remain incomplete without buying this book, this pill, this…one…more…thing?”
Later on, he comments, “One thing I do know, the only time Jesus got intensely angry in the New Testament was when commerce got too close to the worship at the temple…adding unnecessary merchandise to the shoulders of those that were already burdened and broken. That’s worth paying attention to, I believe.”
Swartzwelder doesn’t want churches to stop talking about movies—on the contrary, he finds it exciting that they’ve begun to do so. “For the first time,” he says, “there’s interesting films made by Christian filmmakers, and we’re really opening up doors there. But I think there’s a danger of getting so excited about that, that we forget to remember that films, at the end of the day, are products. They shape culture and they’re stories, but they’re also products that people sell. I’m just hoping to spark discussion about where that line might be. I’m hoping that leaders and pastors can talk about these issues, and we can together find out where that line is.”
This is Swartzwelder’s hope, but he also acknowledges that many Christians may find “The McPassion” offensive. I watched it last night, and I guffawed quite a bit. But I do wonder if that’s because I’d heard about the “McPassion” from Christianity Today’s web site, and I knew it bore the ultimate stamp of approval (ironically, the same stamp that caused many to trust The Passion): it was made by a Christian.
In addition to questioning the marketing of films within worship, I think we also need to be wary of dubbing a movie “safe” based on the religious affiliation of its creator. I’m much more likely to be curious about a movie if I know it was written or directed by Christians, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But Jesus can work his way into a film, regardless of who made it, and I don’t want to close off the possibility of finding him where I don’t expect him.
And then there’s the issue of a film’s quality and artistry, but I’ll leave that for another day . . .
March 2nd, 2006