Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

sherlock winsIn preparation for the American premiere of the third season of PBS’ Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons and reading the original stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Sherlock is superior to its source material.

Explaining why I think Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptations are better than Conan Doyle’s work is relatively easy. Deciding how much credit Moffat and Gatiss get for their success was more more tricky. In the end, however, I think Doyle gets most of it.

What Arthur Conan Doyle Did Right

What Conan Doyle did superbly right in his stories and novels is create the vivid, particular character of Sherlock Holmes, who deserves his enduring fascination and appeal.

I think this fascination springs first from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fully-formed literary character who is at the same time largely two dimensional (a quality he shares with the other characters in Conan Doyle’s stories, unfortunately).

The reason this contradiction succeeds so brilliantly is that Sherlock Holmes seems to be suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder, which explains his intellectual powers, his deep knowledge of arcane subjects, his passionate focus on problems that interest him, his inability to read social cues or manage social interactions (though indifference might be the cause), and in particular, the but-faint glimmers we get of Holmes’ interior life.

With most of the characters in Sherlock Holmes, we cannot penetrate beyond their surfaces because they have no character beyond their surfaces. With Holmes, his impenetrability is part of his essence; we don’t understand him well because Holmes is indifferent to such questions himself; and perhaps the greatest mystery of all in the stories is the nature of Sherlock Holmes’ soul.

Conan Doyle gets full marks for investing Holmes with extraordinary powers of observation, analysis, reasoning, and deduction, and for creating compelling examples of these qualities in action.

Finally, he gets credit for filling his stories with intriguing hints: the loneliness of John Watson after his return from the Afghanistan wars; the suggestion that Mycroft Holmes occasionally “is the British government”; and of course the huge dramatic potential found in the character of Professor Moriarty.

What Conan Doyle Did Not Do At All

The problem is that Conan Doyle often does too little with these characters, and frankly too little with many of the stories in the Holmes canon; and I keep thinking the problems rise from either Conan Doyle’s lack of skill as a writer or his lack of interest in the stories themselves.

A Study in Scarlet is a good example. All the good things about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are right there, already in place, right out of the gate: the character of Sherlock Holmes most especially, his great intellectual powers, and an impressively worked-out mystery.

But then there are the problems. Holmes and Watson meet cute, and Holmes jumps right off the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, but the management of the beginning of their relationship feels perfunctory. Doyle needs Watson and Holmes to come together and so they do; and the most basic of Holmes-ian questions is not answered, namely “Why?”

Then it is hard to read A Study in Scarlett and without concluding that Doyle simply does not manage plots very well. The majority of the story is advanced through exposition and halfway through the novel, the telling is handed over to the murderer and the scene abruptly shifts to the American West, where begins the long and tedious explanation of the murderer’s motives which involve dastardly Mormon polygamists and the outrages they commit against an innocent girl. (I’m not making that up.) Holmes utterly disappears and it is Holmes that makes Doyle worth reading.

The Final Problem – the story that features Holmes’ famous death at the Reichenbach Falls – has related problems. Here we discover Moriarty and see the only time Holmes and his arch-nemesis meet face to face. Moriarty is interesting. The conversation between Moriarty and Holmes is interesting. Doyle makes the friendship between Holmes and Watson, as they flee Moriarty, feel convincing. But the great chess game of move and counter-move Holmes tells us he’s playing with Moriarty happens entirely off the page, and we get no hint of the details. Worse, the death of Holmes also happens off the page. All this material has huge potential. Conan Doyle, and his readers, just need someone to come along and exploit it.

That’s Where Moffat and Gatiss and Their “Sherlock” Comes In

Perhaps the reason Sherlock Holmes is so enduring in adaptation is precisely because Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material is so full of untapped possibility. In any case, along come Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – the latest in a long succession of people to take on the job – and succeed brilliantly.

First, they add a layer of internal conflict to the stories by filling out the characters and making their emotions drive the stories as much as the criminal mysteries. Holmes isn’t a natural candidate for the role, but Watson with his war experience and manifest loneliness is.

Moffat and Gatiss bring that loneliness forward, use it to help us understand how the friendship between Watson and Holmes developed so quickly, and most importantly make Watson the main character of their stories and his friendship with Holmes the show’s great beating heart. (I should say that Martin Freeman gets equal credit for the success.) Doyle gave us stories that entertain and delight. Moffat and Gatiss make Sherlock move us as well.

They get even more out of their adaptation of Mycroft Holmes. They add the perfectly logical deduction of sibling conflict between Mycroft and Sherlock; give the brothers contrasting yet similarly cold temperaments; and follow-up on Conan Doyle’s hint that Mycroft “is the British government” and make him England’s spy-master which opens up a rich vein of new conflicts and stories to pursue.

The espionage thriller aspects of Sherlock work particularly well with the increased role Moriarty plays in these stories (an idea that long pre-dates Moffat and Gatiss of course). Moriarty runs a vast, shadowy international criminal conspiracy which in technique and operations is largely indistinguishable from a nation-state’s intelligence service or for that matter a terrorist group. All three run themselves in similar ways: it is their motives and goals that differ.

So Moffat and Gatiss use Mycroft and Moriarty to produce both long-arc conflicts, that is plots that arc through a season or several seasons and tie the whole show together, and as drivers within individual shows, which each have a beginning, middle, and satisfying end. (Well, except for the Hound of the Baskerville’s episode, to my tastes.) Watson plays a similar role, with the emotions of his character producing both long-arc and short-arc conflicts.

I like Moffat and Gatiss’ updating just fine too, although I suppose I can see the point of those people who think it is “gimmicky”.  But to set the stories in modern London, you really do have to lay aside Holmes’ dependence on tobacco and cocaine, and you really do have to add cell phones, the internet, and texting.

I also like the “flashy” or “showy” editing, when the scene goes slow-motion and text labels and assorted graphics fly across the screen to illustrate Holmes’ thoughts. These are gimmicks. But they also solve the problem of having Watson ask, “My god, Holmes, how did you figure that out?” and Holmes saying “Elementary, my dear Watson ….” I think we all have had enough of that, haven’t we?

Then there is the running joke about Holmes and Watson being gay. On the one hand, I confess to thinking it is sort of funny. On the other, I’m beginning to think that cheerful jokes about homosexuality are as reactionary as the homophobia still rampant in America and elsewhere. After all, on the most essential level, it should be irrelevant whether Watson and Holmes are or aren’t gay. What is essential is that they care for each other.

Maybe the most interesting question of all is “Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to be so popular?” There must be something about the character that resonates deep in the culture. I have no answer, currently. Maybe after I watch Season 3 I will. Can’t wait to start!

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desolation of smaug hobbit peter jacksonThe only element of any real interest in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the question “What went wrong?” and even that is a pretty dull question because the answer is clear enough: the money people wrapped their fingers around the neck of this movie and strangled it to death.

By saying this, I am not trying to absolve Jackson of his responsibility. He signed the contract, cashed the check, and put his name on the film.

But Jackson was faced with formidable challenges in making Smaug. The biggest challenge was how to manage the legacy brand that he had created through Lord of the Rings, in which the safest route to profit was to deliver basically the same goods in basically the same package, even if those goods had grown a bit stale (ie, the preferred approach of the money people).

Jackson also had to keep his eye on the huge non-English-speaking and/or non-Western audiences for The Desolation of Smaug, since spectacle translates more easily than dialogue, and since special effects are less likely to cause cultural offense than stories or characters.

Jackson decided (or was asked) to pad out a book that would have potentially made one good film into three movies, with a total running time pushing eight hours. And while we’re at it, let’s note Smaug is the middle of the three films, with no natural beginning or end to help give shape to the story.

But with all that said, I’m surprised by how badly Jackson flubbed Smaug considering how well he managed the earlier Lord of the Rings films, in which he balanced character with action, drove the story through both internal and external conflicts, and gave shape to the overall plot.

The Desolation of Smaug is a plodding, tedious, frantic mess. I think the main culprit is the decision to expand the book’s story rather than edit it down. All the padding – particularly filming events that occur off the page in the book – destroys whatever dynamic tension the story arc in the Desolation of Smaug might have achieved and gives us a jumbled collection of scenes instead.

These scenes are not driven by situation, since the situations in Smaug are so many and so various that the connections among them quickly become lost; and these scenes are certainly not driven by character or emotion, which means the talents of at least two very good actors – Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellan as Gandalf – go entirely to waste, with what moments of real human feeling they sometimes find soon swept away in the general noise and hubbub.

The result is a whole-movie version of what happens when actors find themselves stuck in a play that really doesn’t work. They fall back on acting bigger, louder, faster to cover up a lack of sense.

In the case of Smaug, this bigger-louder-faster extends to the action sequences and special effects, which are fine as far as they go, but they turn the film into just a roller-coaster ride: viscerally thrilling at times but empty of meaning.

I don’t have a problem with entertainment being entertainment, and businesses working to cash in big by selling to big audiences, but films don’t have to be as desultory as The Hobbit is to earn money for their investors. Joss Whedon’s The Avengers demonstrated that last year. Peter Jackson proved it with his Lord of the Rings movies. Entertainment can excel as high craft, without aspiring to or needing to achieve the goals of art. Craft is a worthy goal. Unfortunately, Smaug isn’t craft. It’s crap.

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hollow crown henry iv part 1The 2012 BBC “Hollow Crown” production of Henry IV, Part 1 is the perfect public television adaptation of Shakespeare. It is superbly acted and directed, cleanly written, and briskly paced, without offering large innovations in staging or interpretation.

These kinds of productions of Shakespeare largely succeed or fail on the quality of the acting, and Eyre’s four core players deliver the goods in aplenty. Joe Armstrong’s Hotspur lives up to his name without the one-note shouting the role makes all too easy. Simon Russell Beale is superb as a panting Falstaff stripped by age of his vitality. Tom Hiddleston mines gold from a core of sadness in his appealing Prince Hal.  And the incomparable Jeremy Iron combines his delectable trademark world weariness with a relish for power as King Henry IV, convincing us we are watching a man who would seize, and keep, his crown at any price.

Richard Eyre’s understanding of the relationships between the characters is as good as his actors. Henry IV, Part 1 is a play of fathers and sons, or more accurately mismatched fathers and sons, with Eyre’s screenplay and direction emphasizing how much Henry IV believes Hotspur would make a better Prince of Wales than his own son – even saying as much to Prince Hal’s face. And yet, there is a foundation of love and respect between the two men which eases their reconciliation.

Eyre’s Falstaff is even more interesting. Falstaff’s behavior has always been objectively ugly: he is a drunkard, a liar, and a thief who will do anything to promote his own self interest regardless of the consequences to other people.

But Falstaff is usually played as a person who successfully hides his ugliness behind his enormous wit and affability as well as his genuine affection for Prince Hal. With Beale’s Falstaff, the ugliness shines through and we are left in doubt of his real affection for Prince Hal in every scene except one, when Falstaff asks Harry to “banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

Harry does and will, of course. Harry often treats Falstaff with contempt and that Beale’s Falstaff is contemptible makes Harry’s rejection of him, and of the tavern life, easier to understand and accept. But not completely.

My major problem with Henry IV, Part 1 has always been Prince Hal’s sudden – I would say extremely sudden – transformation from antic to earnest. Shakespeare has Hal explain it this way:

So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

But I’ve always found this explanation perverse, and particular, and not very convincing, and more, disappointing because  Shakespeare is a master of ambiguous characterization and this piece of exposition ain’t.

I like the idea much better that a young man, born to rule and expected to rule, might wish to hide from the role he ultimately can’t refuse, and that this would explain his behavior, and make him more sympathetic.

Hiddleston’s sad Prince Hal reaches toward this explanation.  His Harry is not antic and then earnest, but instead there is an earnestness beneath the antics that makes his performance particularly moving.

The “Hollow Crown” production of Henry IV, Part 1 zips along at a clean two hours and gives you a sense of the whole play while allowing each scene to breathe. Eyre does not make an effort to approach the play on terms other than its own. There are no striking modern parallels or contemporary topical relevance slapped on the drama. Instead, Eyre trusts – and trusts right – that a genius author, good actors, and the enduring universality of human nature are all the justification the performance needs.

Henry IV, Part 1’s production design, sets, and costumes will strike the modern non-specialist historian eye as consistent with how England in 1403 might well have looked, except for the smart, beautifully tailored leather jacket Hiddleston wears. (Tom gets to keep his movie star locks rather than submitting to the punishment of a bowl cut too.)

Those who have Branagh’s 1989 film version of Henry V fixed in their memory will find the Boars-Head Tavern a familiar place and Eyre’s Battle of Shrewsbury a close copy of Branagh’s Agincourt, except for the snow. But these are quibbles. This film is a fine achievement and well worth watching.

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the tempest christopher plummerDes McAnuff’s 2010 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest starring Christopher Plummer is less like a violent storm at sea than a warm spring shower that freshens the flowers.

Plummer delivers a pleasing, avuncular Prospero who is mostly good company and who finds the most comedy in the banished Duke of Milan’s lines. This allows Miranda (Trish Lindstrom) to be funnier, too; and the lightness extends through the whole production, especially into the exquisite and hilarious clowning of Trinculo (Bruce Dow) and Stephano (Geraint Wyn Davies).

These choices cause several problems, however. A post-anger Prospero, who has already chosen forgiveness over vengeance, drains the play of much of its drama. It also makes the character of Prospero make less sense. Prospero is a benevolent bully, and Shakespeare gives you plenty of examples of both benevolence and bullying throughout the play. When McAnuff underplays the bullying, it leaves the viewer feeling something is a little off.

This feeling is intensified by the casting of a white-skinned and red-haired Miranda, an African Caliban (Dion Johnstone), and an Indonesian Ariel (Julyana Soelistyo). I’m not a huge fan of “critique of colonialism” productions of The Tempest, but I can see their point, and McAnuff seems to have gone out of his way to emphasize the critique and then dismiss it.

On the plus side, Plummer is a delight throughout the production and gets to stretch his wings at the end of The Tempest, when he is renouncing his powers. The emotion of these scenes is intensified by the fact Plummer was 80 at the time, so that the actor and the role merged.

Finally, this is a filmed stage play, but it is a play filmed with great care. You never lose the sense you are watching a play, performed before a live audience, but at the same time you don’t feel that the camera work has been inhibited by the constraints of the theater’s physical space.

Overall, I liked this production of The Tempest and encourage you to seek it out. It is currently available on Netflix in the States.

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UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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Breaking Bad season 05Since I am perpetually behind all trends in popular culture, I am just now discovering that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is as purely addictive as the crystal meth his anti-hero Walter White cooks on the show.

I’m also just discovering how Breaking Bad has so magnificently balanced its “entertaining” and “serious” elements, which is another way of saying – broadly – that it has succeeded as a narrative built on character and situation as well as a narrative based on plot.

Before I get around to solving the problem of how I’m going to watch Season Six when I don’t have cable, let me throw a few semi-organized thoughts at you.

Breaking Bad Season Five: Addicted to Story

All stories are driven by conflict. And to vastly over-simplify matters, these conflicts fall into two broad categories: interior conflicts, which tend to emphasize character, and exterior conflicts, which tend to emphasize plot.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad placed greater emphasis on internal conflict. Walt is a high school chemistry teacher driven to cook crystal meth because he fears he will die of lung cancer and leave his family penniless; and while the mechanics of working in the drug business are explored, more time is devoted to the conflicts Walt’s illness and the lies he tells to hid his business cause in his family, and then to conflicts Walt’s wife’s discovery of his profession cause in their marriage.

This balance begins to shift in Season 3 as Walt’s involvement in the drug business deepens, and he is increasingly threatened by other criminals and by law enforcement agents. The latter half of season four delivers a rush of pure narrative delight as Walt scrambles to kill his former business partner, before he kills Walt and his family; and the story barrels into the shows of Season Five with Walt declaring he wants to build his own drug “empire”.

It would be hard to over-praise Breaking Bad for how beautifully it manages its story, like a thoroughbred running the best race of its life, hitting all the beats, managing the minor cliffhangers of a commercial break and the larger cliffhangers of each episode’s conclusion.

Add to this “the mob meets MacGyver” elements, as Walt applies his Mr. Science skills to eliminate one threat after another. And top it off with a question: how does Vince Gilligan make story lines that sound ridiculous when you describe them to your wife so convincing and affecting on screen?

Walter White: Lured by Vanity, Enthralled by Winning

One answer is Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who Vince Gilligan describes as a person who begins as Mr. Chips and who ends as Scarface, but who I think is much more interesting than Scarface.

Walt doesn’t really want money, although he begins cooking meth as a way to pay his medical bills and provide money for his family after his death. What Walt really wants is agency and recognition.

This becomes evident fairly early in the show, because Walt quickly makes enough money to take care of his family, but he is more concerned about his image as a nice but feckless and impoverished cancer-stricken dweeb than by the practical problem of how he is going to launder a half million dollars in cash.

Walt craves success then, and even more importantly, the recognition and respect that come with success. This is one of the reasons he keeps getting lured back into the drug business, because only there is his success – as the well-paid maker of the world’s best crystal meth – recognized.

It is also in this world that Walt’s intelligence and (as it turns out) decisiveness is acknowledged. He’s driven in part by desperation. He has to kill his business associates before they kill him. He has to elude the DEA. But the more often he wins, the more he likes it and the more he doesn’t stop to count the bodies that are piling up on route to his next victory.

Only when his wife shows him the pile of money he’s amassed, literally as big as a Mini Cooper, that he retires – right at the end of season five. What was Walt chasing? What were all those deaths worth?

We’ve Been Seduced by the Monster Who Is Walter White

This is a popular opinion and it’s true. Walt is a monster. The list of murders he’s committed prove it. So why are we on his side?

Part of the answer is that Walt wants what most people want: to be self-sufficient and respected. Part is that we humans are social animals who chaff at the restraints our societies put on us even as we embrace them, and stories about criminals or seducers or other people who break the rules are a safe way to dream away our frustrations with society’s restraints.

But a greater part of the answer is perhaps the loveliest fact in all narrative art. The social purpose of story and character, the moral purpose of literature – regardless of medium – is to teaches us empathy.

Story asks us to inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters on which it turns its powers, and to understand them, even if we don’t like them – even if in the end we are right to condemn them. Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, Humbert Humbert, Walter White.

It’s a great paradox of narrative art that rooting for bad guys can make us better people. But it can. At least when the bad guys are creations as brilliant as Walter White.

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before midnight linklater hawke delpyIn the movie Before Midnight, the team of director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke set themselves the monumental task of portraying a single day in the life of a privileged Franco-American couple, while summarizing the last nine years of their relationship, and fall just short of creating a masterpiece.

Before Midnight is the third installment of a series that began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004).

Each film portrays less than twenty-four hours in the lives of two characters, the French environmental activist Celine (Deply) and the American writer Jesse (Hawke), entirely through conversations.

All of the films are deeply committed to a realism that emphasizes the flow and rhythm of actual talk. So the movies allow Celine and Jesse’ words to jump wildly from point to point, and expose their characters’ thoughts and emotions in ways that are raw, immediate, sometimes uncensored, and sometimes painfully unflattering.

Which means the experience of the Before movies is much closer to the experience of living our lives than watching a typical movie, in which a controlling intelligence works hard to clean up the dialogue, make the characters look good (or chooses exactly how and how much they will look bad), and impose a structure on events that gives them an implicit sense of purpose and meaning.

These choices are particularly effective in Before Midnight because you no longer have the pleasure of watching Delpy and Hawke meeting or re-meeting cute, with an unknown happy future in front of them, but rather seeing them living the reality of that future in which their romance, their jobs, and the work of raising their children have become highly specific and in many ways, unsolvable problems.

Before Midnight is also powerful because the movies gets so deeply into the characters of Celine and Jesse that whether we as the audience like them or don’t like them, or whether Linklater-Delpy-Hawke care if we like them or not, is irrelevant.

The questions are whether Celine and Jesse can like themselves, or each other, or find a way to preserve the mystery of the love between them – now that the persuasion of its first blossoming is long past – or find happiness from lives in which it seems clear no transcendence will emerge.

Both Hawke and Delpy should get medals for acting courage in Before Midnight, but Deply in particular deserves praise. Her Celine is in a state of greater crisis than Jesse, and she holds nothing back. She looks and feels her age in a way women in movies rarely look or feel.

My only quibble is a technical one. Because Before Midnight has nine years to cover in the life of Celine and Jesse, it sometimes feels over-packed and over-busy.

For example, during a long argument in a hotel room, Celine brings up a whole basketful of problems she’s had with their relationship, and the realism of the conversation slips into the feeling that Linklater-Delpy-Hawke are trying to shove a summary of their last nine years into a single take.

An even bigger problem here is that they are asking us to believe that Celine kept many of these problems to herself all this time, and Celine is a character who the films have conclusively demonstrated keeps NOTHING to herself.

But these are small flaws compared to what the movie achieves. Few films hold a mirror up to its audience as relentlessly and unflinchingly and persuasively as Before Midnight. Go see it.

Other Massey Movie Reviews – kinda random as selections go, but what the hey

Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon

Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino

Sunset Boulevard directed by the great Billy Wilder

The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross


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much ado about nothing whedon movieIn his new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, director Joss Whedon has made a movie which is both funny and affecting – but funnily enough, more affecting than funny.

A great deal of Whedon’s success comes from solid performances by most of the cast and his choice to have his actors read their lines “naturalistically” –  i.e. as normal conversation rather than as the impossibly articulate prose or the poetry it actually is.

The result is that the dramatic elements in Much Ado About Nothing, which I usually find thin and forced, work pretty well in this movie.

Hero and Claudio, the young lovers who can easily come across as pretty blanks, are brought to moderately complex life and real pain by Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz, enough that I was wiping away a tear or two during Act V and hoping my wife in the next seat didn’t notice.

Clark Gregg as Leonato and especially Reed Diamond as Don Pedro both express the easy humor and hard anger of men used to power. Sean Maher finds a convincing seam of quiet malevolence in the two-dimensional villain Don John. And let me give an enthusiastic shout out to the comic constable Dogberry, who is underplayed by Nathan Fillion to a perfection of sublime silliness.

The major problem in this Much Ado About Nothing comes exactly where the play is – and where I expected Whedon to be – strongest: the brilliant and beloved sparring between Beatrice and Benedick in the first two acts.

This is a result, in part, of the naturalistic line readings that I thought served the weaker elements of the text well. The difficulty is that these passages are performances by Beatrice and Benedict, for the people around them, for each other, and for themselves. Turn them into conversation and you leave the audience crying, “Where’s the sparkle? Where’s the snap?”

Some of the fault lies with the actors, however. Neither Amy Acker as Beatrice or Alexis Denisof as Benedick seem to have clicked with their roles in the early parts of Much Ado About Nothing. The good news is that Acker plays Beatrice transformed by love very well, and is strong during the rest of the film.

On the other hand, Denisof never does much better than muddle through. The idea behind his Benedick appears to be that the character has been made awkward and embarrassed by love. But I could never suppress the impression that it was Denisof playing Benedick awkwardly rather than playing Benedick as awkward.

Don’t let this dissuade you from seeing the movie, however. Overall, I think you’ll be pleased. Whedon filmed this Much Ado About Nothing in a luminous black and white that pleases the eyes. His smooth jazz soundtrack is somewhere between innocuous and fine. And the de rigueur celebration scene and kiss right before the credits will leave you smiling as you exit the theater.

Related Shakespeare Blog Posts:

“Henry V” by William Shakespeare | 100 Word Reviews

“As You Like It” by William Shakespeare | 100 Word Review

The 11 Best Movie Versions of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

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Django Unchained by Quentin TarantinoWhat is the relationship of movies to reality? In a strict sense, there is no relationship at all. The world of imagination, and the conventions and techniques of movie making, exist entirely on their own terms and make their own reality.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any successful movie that does not deal with the truth, at the very least the emotional truth, of human experience. Music and painting can traffic in abstraction and succeed. But movies? Rarely if at all.

Between art and reality comes the great mediator, the artist, who imposes her or his vision on art and reality. Sometimes the result is a rare gift of sublime pleasure and transcendental insight bequeathed to us, the grateful audience, for all time.

And sometimes the result is a steaming hot mess, dumped in our laps, for us to clean up and figure out. Or not.

Ladies and gentlemen, in case you couldn’t guess, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is irrefutably the latter. Whether it is a brilliant mess, or simply a mess full stop, is the question.

Django Unchained: The Obligatory Plot Summary

Tarantino’s latest movie primarily concerns Django, a slave played by Jamie Foxx, who is purchased and then freed by a German dentist and bounty hunter, King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz.

Schultz initially buys Django because he can identify the Brittle brothers, who were brutal overseers at a plantation where Django was enslaved and who Schultz wants to track down and kill to collect the reward. After this is accomplished, Schultz frees Django, trains him as a bounty hunter, and decides to help Django find his wife, who has been sold to a particularly sadistic Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Django and Schultz agree on a plan to free Django wife’s which does not go smoothly, to say the least.

Like many of Tarantino’s films, Django Unchained is a movie about movies. His famous love of old B movies and exploitation flicks is again on overabundant display, in this case spaghetti Westerns and the 1975 movie Mandingo among others.

Also again, Tarantino demonstrates his inability to distinguish his A material from his B material, which is reflected in the movie’s 180 minute running time; in the conversations which spin on at length; in a story line that manages to be too busy and meandering at the same time; and in the climactic gun fights which continue long after real-world human beings would have run out of bullets and blood.

Complicating  Django Unchained, and making it more than a fan-boy exercise and a guilty pleasure (if watching Django is the sort of thing you’d call  pleasure) are its anachronistic sense of humor and especially the moments, which are not frequent but are significant, when Foxx’ Django and Waltz’ Schultz step out of their roles as “characters in a B movie” and into scenes that confront the lived horror and violence of slavery.

Even more complicating is Samuel Jackson’s performance as Calvin Candie’s head house slave, Stephen. Jackson makes Stephen an Uncle Tom so malignant, a character so utterly twisted by servitude and yet so utterly invested in the slave system, that he threatens to break the movie apart; similar to the way that Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice can bring the play to a dead stop (at least for modern audiences).

Django Unchained: Blazing Saddles with Blood and Vengeance

There were moments during Django Unchained when I swore I was watching a Mel Brook’s movie.

This was particularly true during the sequences when Django and Schultz visit a Tennessee plantation owned by Big Daddy, who is played by Don Johnson.

There is a long conversation where Big Daddy tries to instruct his slaves how to behave toward Django, who can’t be treated like a slave because he is a freeman, but who can’t be accorded the same courtesy as a white man. There is also an utterly inept Klu Klux Klan raid led by Big Daddy which Tarantino plays for laughs (and which is an example of Tarantino’s ubiquitous and happy indifference to historical accuracy, since the Klan was founded seven years after the movie is stated to take place).

Equal ridiculous are the clothes Tarantino puts on Foxx for him to play the role of Schultz’ “valet” as they visit Big Daddy’s plantation. Django is decked out in a sky-blue satin fop suit complete with knee breeches and an enormous white neck cloth tied in a bow.

But in these clothes, Foxx’ Django simmers with barely contained anger. He and Schultz have come to the plantation to find the Brittle brothers, the men who also savagely whipped Django’s wife.

At the plantation, Django finds two of the brother’s preparing to whip another young black women for the crime of “breaking eggs”. Ignoring the plan, Foxx shoots the first brother, then seizing the whip, beats the second brother into submission with a ferocity founded in authentic anger, then coldly shoots him as he lies prostrate on the ground.

A British critic noted that Jamie Foxx often seems to not be in on the movie’s joke during Django Unchained.

But I think the truth is that neither Django nor Foxx can accept – could make themselves tolerate, if they tried – that the movie is a joke because the experience of African-Americans under slavery in the United States was manifestly not funny.

This approach to violence is not consistent in Django Unchained. In particular, at the end of the film, Django enters a fantasyland of violent revenge. But the cycling between different attitudes toward violence in Django Unchained keeps demanding we try to reconcile its fake artifice and real truth (yes, I know the redundancy is redundant) while guaranteeing that we can’t.

Which is one of the reason I speculated the adjective “brilliant” might apply to the noun “mess” when discussing Tarantino’s film.

And Django isn’t the only character that complicates our judgments about the film.

King Schultz Gets the Joke in Django Unchained … Until He Doesn’t Anymore

In the beginning of the film, Schultz is a dapper, eloquent bounty hunter who is in the business of “selling corpses” as he cheerfully explains to Django.

Schultz may not necessarily enjoy killing men, but he clearly enjoys outwitting and outgunning them, and his good humor doesn’t obscure the fact that he kills ruthlessly.  (Schultz goes so far as to persuade Django to gun down a wanted man in front of the man’s young son because this is what bounty hunters do.)

In a similar way, Schultz is perfectly reconciled to the existence of slaves and slavery. He despises slavery, mocks those who engage in it, shoots slavers without compunction when it suits his purposes, and befriends Django against all the customs of the time, but at the end of the day, Schultz sees slavery is a nasty fact that doesn’t have very much to do with him.

Until he meets Calvin Candie, at least.  Candie owns Django’s wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington), and Django and Schultz agree that they will try to rescue her by pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo” slaves who Candie buys and trains to fight to the death for entertainment.

Schultz can barely disguise the horror he feels watching Candie relish a Mandingo fight, and Schultz is further unnerved the next day as he witnesses Candie taunt a slave who has been traumatized to helplessness by the three matches he’s been forced to fight, then has his dogs tear the man apart.

Still, Schultz retains his humor and his cool enough to carry out their plan, which is to persuade Candie to sell them Django’s wife. The plan goes awry but still succeeds. Candie discovers their intentions, but does sell them Broomhilda at an extortionate price.

Candie draws up the papers nice and legal, Schultz signs them, and then expresses his disgust and contempt for Candie. Candie, in return, demands Schultz shake his hand to finalize the deal.

Instead, Schultz shoots Candie and unleashes a series of events that threaten Django’s life and end in a bloodbath.  Just before he is killed in turn, Schultz apologizes to Django, “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

What was tolerable to King Schultz at the beginning of Django Unchained became intolerable to him at the end. The violence is “fake fun violence” until it isn’t. We are watching a “movie about movies” until we aren’t. And Tarantino keeps throwing questions at us faster than we can answer them.

Samuel Jackson’s Stephen is the Shylock of Django Unchained

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the villain and an object of “amusing” abuse who refuses to play his role. He insists on his humanity so powerfully that he fatally disrupts the play’s comic and romantic storylines and sours us on the drama’s heroine, Portia.

For modern audiences, Shylock renders the drama almost unplayable. Shakespeare’s treatment of him so offends our fundamental principles that witnessing Shylock’s humiliation and punishment can only be painful; and since we are a willing audience for the play, it also delivers a sense of complicit guilt.

Samuel Jackson’s head-house slave Stephen plays a similar role in Django Unchained. In front of his masters and other white people, Stephen puts on a minstrel show (there really is no other phrase to describe it) that left me squirming in my seat and grabbing my head. And the fact that it was Samuel Jackson playing Stephen – an actor who I am used to see playing characters with power and agency – made it worse.

In the kitchen and servants’ rooms, Stephen was a tyrant every bit as sadistic as his master, Calvin Candie. Stephen also seems to hate Django, a free black man with power, even more than the whites do, and he conspires to think of a punishment for Django more harsh than anything the whites could think up.

Through it all, Jackson makes us feel that Stephen is still a man – not a character in a movie, not stock villain, not a comic type – but a man who has been horribly damaged by a long life of servitude.

At the climax of the movie, after Django has killed all the whites, he and Stephen confront each other in the plantation house. Django shoots Stephen multiple times, then leaves the old slave screaming in pain as he lights the fuse that will blow up the house and Stephen.

Is this justice? Is this mercy? Or is it Tarantino getting rid of a character no one wants to confront? Amid all the B movie artifice and random jokes, Tarantino asks a lot of hard questions.

Django Unchained – Mess or Brilliant Mess? You Decide

My judgment is brilliant mess because I believe as Chekhov believed, that the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them; particularly since when people demand that art answer questions, what they really mean is that art should ask THEIR questions and offer THEIR answers. Thus it has always been with philistines, ideologues, and tyrants. That’s why tyrants don’t much like artists, and artists don’t much like tyrants.

I can’t tell if Django Unchained is the result of deliberate strategy, careless accident, unconscious inspiration, or a byproduct of Tarantino’s unrestrained enthusiasms, but whatever the causes – the results are challenging, disturbing, puzzling, funny, sometimes annoying. For me, that’s plenty.

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The Hunger Games movie posterFor a carefully engineered pop-culture phenomenon and money-minting machine, the movie version of The Hunger Games ain’t half bad.

As you likely know, the film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has become the totalitarian nation of Panem (a country that seems to be built from equal parts Walker Evans photography and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).

Every year, the rulers of Panem hold the Hunger Games, a live televised gladiatorial spectacle for which 24 teenagers are chosen by lottery to participate. These children are required to fight and kill each other until a single boy or girl remains alive.

The movie follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who volunteers for the games to save her younger sister, and who joins the boy chosen from her “district” to participate in the games – a boy we’ll discover soon enough has a crush on her.

What The Hunger Games Gets Right: Totalitarian Brutality, Katniss, and Haymitch

Gary Ross’ film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel gets many things right. The bland, calculating ferocity of Panem’s leaders – who use the games to terrorize the half-starving masses and distract the luxury-addled ruling class – is persuasive as is the palpable fear and loneliness you can read on the children’s faces each time no one, except the audience, is watching.

Ross and the actress Jennifer Lawrence also get Katniss right. She is brave and resourceful, but she is not a preternatural self-confident and decisive Alpha girl. Katniss possesses an awkwardness and uncertainty that make her seem like a real teenager, too, although these qualities can also make Katniss a blank sometimes.

Woody Harrelson, as former Hunger Games’ winner Haymitch Abernathy and Katniss’ mentor, does more with a smaller role, suggesting both the damage the games have done to him and the caginess of a man who knows that the rulers of Panem still want to use him as a pawn.

Finally, and thankfully, the deaths of the Hunger Games participants’ are brief and discrete, rather than exploitive, although this discretion is much more about making the movie safe for mass consumption than it is about making a statement concerning the violence itself.

What The Hunger Games Gets Not-So-Right: Moral Quandaries and Teen Romance

Rendering The Hunger Games safe for mass consumption requires more than not lingering over the dramatization of children killing children, however.

It also requires contortions to prevent the moral depravity of the movie’s premise from tainting its heroine and our sympathetic identification with her (not to mention our willingness to pay $12.00 to watch fictional children slaughter each other).

To do this, the movie turns some of the Hunger Games’ victims into villains: specifically the kind of sadistic bullies that have populated movies for teenagers every since Hollywood started making movies for teenagers, except instead of insulting your clothes or hitting you in the nuts during dodge ball, they – you know – stab you in the heart with a sword.

This same requirement also demands that Katniss never have to make a morally compromised choice. She only directly kills one on the villain-victims as an instantaneous, defensive reflex. She is the indirect cause of the death of two other bullies, both of whom were threats to her. And she is the stalwart protector of the games’ youngest and most vulnerable participant as well as that boy with the crush on her, a doe-eyed but strapping young fellow by the name of Peeta.

Peeta is, of course, the other great concession the story makes to the imperative of mass consumption, in this instance to the ostensible requirement of young female audiences that a movie have a romance no matter how utterly out of place it is.

For example. When a girl is trapped in a high-tech colosseum run by dystopian dictators, what does she need more than food and shelter? More than medicine? More than better weapons or allies? More than a Deus-ex-machina revolution breaking out to save her?

She needs a boyfriend, apparently.

Anyhow, following the old formula, Peeta is sexually non-threatening, but following the newish formula (I’ll date it from the 1997 appearance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV), he is less lethal than Katniss, but still able to throw a pretty kick-ass sack of flour in a pinch. I’m not making that up.

So The Hunger Games distorts itself around the creation and preservation of this relationship, to the extent that even the ruthless despots running the Hunger Games are helpless before it.

When Katniss and Peeta decide to go Romeo-and-Juliet on the murderous bastards, rather than decide who will die for the other, the bastards cry “Uncle!” and declare both can live.

Thus it appears the moral of The Hunger Games is that when Power Lust throws down against Puppy Love – Puppy Love wins. It sure sells more tickets, in any case.

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