A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Mask of Zorro

November 9, 2011

The Mask of Zorro

About a year ago we picked up The Legend of Zorro as part of a big lot of movies we bought. Only when we went to watch it one night did I realize that it was not, in fact, this movie (which I enjoyed in an innocuous way back when it first came out on DVD) but its sequel. I didn’t mind owning that sequel, but it seemed foolish to watch that and not this movie first. So it has languished unwatched on a shelf until we eventually picked up this movie.

Of course I have always loved Zorro. I remember watching the old Errol Flynn version as a lad and enjoying the swashbuckling fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy a masked warrior for the people with a sword who slices his iconic Z into his victims? Clearly inspired by Robin Hood, and just as clearly the inspiration for Batman. He is the ultimate outlaw, a champion of the common man, his alter-ego a dashing playboy.

Of course this movie is not so much a big budget re-telling of the classic Zorro story as a sequel in its own right. It’s sort of Zorro TNG. It starts out with Zorro’s triumphant victory as he leads the people of California in their successful revolution over the evil Spanish governor who has held them under his bootheel. After Zorro, actually the suave Don Diego De La Vega rides triumphantly into the sunset to re-join his young wife and his newborn daughter he finds himself confronted by the deposed Don Rafael Montero, who has guessed his secret identity. During the confrontation De La Vega is captured, his wife is killed and his daughter is taken by Montero to be raised as his own.

Twenty years later Montero returns to the shores of California from his exile in Spain with a nefarious plot to regain power. De La Vega breaks out of prison and soon finds a drunken young thief bent on vengeance upon the sadistic army captain who slew his brother. He takes this young but inexperienced and unpolished lad in as his apprentice and trains him through a quick montage to be the new Zorro in his place.

I enjoy this movie a lot. I first owned it when I got it from some Columbia House DVD club I belonged to in the late nineties, and I watched it a few times back then. In the end though I eventually sold it during some purge of my collection because, let’s face it, this isn’t a very spectacular movie. I would say that it is a movie well aware of just how utterly unambitious it is.

There is not a shocking or surprising moment in this entire film. It is Utterly predictable and plays out like one long series of cliches strung together to make a single plot. What amazes me is how little I end up caring. The movie doesn’t have to do any dramatic heavy lifting or involve any cool plot twists – it just had to create a plausible excuse for a series of action scenes, sword fights, cool stunts and snappy dialog. In that regard it succeeds wonderfully in every way.

There is an impressive amount of high difficulty stuntwork in this film. Acrobatic leaps and bounds, flips, dives and jumps from great heights. One chase scene in particular, as Zorro defeats a whole cadre of soldiers by knocking them off of their horses in creative ways, involves some of the greatest trick riding I have ever seen. The sword duals are plentiful and enjoyable.

Also enjoyable is the great cast the producers have brought in to fill the space between stunts and swordfights. Anthony Hopkins plays Zorro the elder with his usual panache. In the role of his daughter, raised in Spain by his mortal enemy is Catherine Zeta Jones, and she has just the right combination of sultry bravado and believable innocence. Then there’s Antonio Banderas. If ever there was an actor born to play Zorro this is he. I never really bought the notion that he learned to imitate a suave Spanish aristocrat in a single afternoon, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch him trading quips and crossing blades with everybody else in the film. Hopkins lends the film a sense of gravitas and Banderas provides that essential sense of fun.

In no way is this a great movie, but there’s no denying that it can be an entertaining way to spend a couple hours. Maybe not worth owning, or worth buying twice as I now have, but nonetheless perfectly entertaining mindless fun.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 579 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – September 30th, 2011

I admit, I have fallen way way behind with my reviews. I’m writing this almost three weeks after seeing it. It’s not easy writing a substantial review every day even when the movie really deserves one. It’s almost harder when the movie deserves something good. If I’m tired or not terribly sharp or just cranky, then whatever I write is going to be crap. And that feels so unfortunate to me. But then I get hung up on whatever review I stopped at, and if it’s something I’m having trouble writing about, I don’t go on and write others. Not easily. I sit there and stare and wonder just how to say what it is I want to say. Fortunately, I made some notes here, so I can remember a few of the points I wanted to make. And this isn’t the review I got hung up on, so hopefully I’ll get back on track soon.

I remember when this came out I was working at the video store in Pennsylvania. It was a huge big deal, this gorgeous wire-fu movie with a romance and action and a sweeping story of struggle and yearning. And the cast! Michelle Yeoh and Yun-Fat Chow got the most attention when I heard the movie spoken of, but Ziyi Zhang gained steam quickly because she’s fucking awesome. And it came very very close to being overhyped to me. It was like The Matrix, where every person who came into the store would ask if I’d seen it and if I said yes, they wanted to have deep and insightful discussions and if I said no I got a long diatribe on how much I needed to see it and how it would change my life. So, I avoided it. For a little while. I don’t remember what made me break down and watch it, but I did. And I was so glad I did, because it is indeed a beautiful and beautifully made movie.

The thing is, I don’t really want to have deep and insightful discussions about this movie. I just want to appreciate it. The fact of the matter is that I do not know nearly enough about the culture(s) portrayed here or the time period they’re portrayed in to feel comfortable viewing this movie from anything but a modern and decidedly white US perspective. But then again, I think that might well not be a bad thing. I’m curious just how much of the movie’s content is modern commentary on women’s lives in an earlier time period. I don’t doubt that women did at times stand out and go against the grain, but I don’t know just how prevalent that was in this time and place. If much of the point of the movie is that the women in it have been outsiders (and that is key to the plot), then of course there will be women in it who try to break in.

The story follows four or five main characters as their lives converge around a legendary sword. Li Mu Bai (Yun-Fat Chow), a martial arts master who hopes to retire from a life of combat brings his sword, the Green Destiny, to the supposed safe-keeping of a friend. He entrusts it to another friend, Yu Shu Lien, for the journey. Yu Shu Lien is also a skilled martial artist but was not trained like Li Mu Bai because she is a woman. The two have long been interested in each other romantically but due to social and cultural traditions, they’ve never spoken of their feelings. While Yu Shu Lien is visiting the friend the sword is being given to, the sword is stolen by a masked thief who displays amazing martial arts skills. Eventually it’s revealed that a young woman, Jen Yu, is the culprit, but she’s a noblewoman due to be married soon. Her teacher is her nurse, a woman made bitter by rejection from the best martial arts school because of her gender. And so the movie goes, with Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien (along with a few others) facing off against Jen Yu and her teacher, Jade Fox.

Ostensibly, the impetus for it all is the sword, which is pretty awesome I will admit. But really the impetus for it all is society and the restrictions it places on the women in the movie. Jade Fox took on Jen Yu because she wanted an apprentice to help her get revenge for being excluded. Jen Yu wants a life of adventure that she could never have under the societal restrictions she’d be held to as a married noblewoman. She’s had a taste of that life before, living in the desert when her family moved for a time. She ran off after a group of bandits and ended up falling in love with their leader, Lo. But she had to go back eventually and found herself trapped. And then there’s Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, who seem at first to be the focus of the movie but end up a tragic side note to Jen Yu’s story.

Now, I did a little poking around when we watched this and came across some scholarly opinions. But I reject the interpretation that claims that Jen commits suicide in the end and that it’s a sign of her hopelessness in regard to freedom in a patriarchal society. That interpretation seems to completely miss the more fantastical bits of the movie and the direct reference to a legend told by Lo earlier in the movie. The way the legend is told, anyone who reaches the top of one particular mountain can make a wish and dive off. The young man in the story made his wish, dove off and flew away, knowing his wish had come true. So when Jen tells Lo to make a wish and then dives off, there is some ambiguity there, but I don’t see it as helplessness. The ambiguity is more as to whose wish will be fulfilled. Lo is the one with the faithful heart mentioned in reference to the legend, so perhaps it will be his wish. But Jen is the one who dove, so perhaps it will be hers. And perhaps they’re one and the same. That’s the unknown, and as she flies away, Jen is clearly at peace with whatever the outcome will be. She spent the whole movie railing against authority and fighting for the right to make her own choices. She made a choice in the end. What it was isn’t important.

The story is a sad and beautiful one, with a lot of little stories woven together to make a whole. But I realize I haven’t even touched on the visuals. Obviously the acting is superb or the story wouldn’t hold up as well as it does, but the visuals truly complete the movie. And I don’t just mean the backgrounds and settings, though those are amazing and lush and real in a way many movies fail to make one feel from the other side of the screen. I also mean the fight scenes, which are plentiful and impressive. In a movie where part of the story hinges upon the physical skills of the main characters, this also has to be spot on in order for the story to work, and it does. It is a gorgeous movie from top to bottom, inside and out.

September 30, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 564 – Orlando

Orlando – September 15th, 2011

I don’t recall when I first saw this movie. I have the impression of having seen it in college, but whenever I think back through my classes I can’t really pinpoint which class I would have seen it in. I was an English major and I took a lot of classes that featured films. I went to a women’s college and so a lot of the classes ended up touching on gender roles even if that wasn’t the focus. And I do not remember what class I saw this for. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t something I picked up on my own and I have a vague memory of being told something about the history of the time periods. But regardless of why I saw it and when, as soon as I did see it I fell in love with it. It’s stuck in my head, probably forever. I bought the soundtrack and listened to it on endless loop for a while. And I became convinced that Tilda Swinton is one of the most amazing actresses I have ever seen or will ever see.

The movie is based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. I’ve never read it and I really should, though from what I read while watching the movie, there are some rather substantial differences between the two. But I do like that the movie’s director, Sally Potter, was very cognizant of the fact that there were differences and that the changes were quite deliberate. It is as I have said before (such as in yesterday’s review): The page and the screen are different mediums and you have to use them differently to tell a story. Having not read the original book, I can’t speak to how good an adaptation this is. But I can speak to whether or not I think the movie itself has a clear vision and does a solid job with it. And I think it does. I also think it’s a beautiful bit of film regardless.

The story follows Orlando, who begins as a young man living with his parents in a manor in the British countryside near the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. When the queen visits she becomes fixated on him and eventually bestows upon him a house and lands of his own, provided that he never grow old. And so he doesn’t. Years go by. Decades. And Orlando remains the same, just with new fashions and new politics and new people surrounding him. Until one night, after a battle in Turkey where he is serving as an ambassador, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up as a woman. And as she says at the time “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.” Being accustomed to two hundred years of rights, respect and privileges accorded to men, Orlando finds being a woman to be rather different. For one, she cannot own property in her own name as a woman and besides, legally she’s considered dead. And so she lives in the house Queen Elizabeth gave her while the courts wrestle over the issue of her existence and some time later she finds that unless she has a son she will lose everything. But she doesn’t have a son. She has a very short affair with a man she meets in a field and he won’t stay. So instead we move on, watching Orlando move through time until the modern day. And she is still as young as she always was. She is slightly androgynous and seems to have embraced it. She has a child, a daughter, and she goes back to her house which she no longer owns and she publishes her story, that took her centuries to write. And that is the story. Just a little meta, there at the end.

There are two moments in this movie that make me tear up. One is the end, with Orlando and her daughter. And one is earlier in, when Orlando runs off into a hedge maze after being told she’s going to lose everything. It’s worth mentioning here that the soundtrack for this movie is absolutely beautiful and that the track playing during the labyrinth scene is key to its emotional impact. But really, I can’t watch it without feeling something. There’s no dialogue and no plot points, just Orlando running in the maze. And it is sad and beautiful at the same time. Were I to be writing about this for a class I’d have things to say about metaphors and the like, but I leave you to draw your own conclusions. All I can say is that it is one of my favorite moments in the movie.

And really, it’s saying something that I put that moment above all others since I love this whole movie. The earlier scenes are difficult, with Orlando a privileged young man of means. He’s never had to face much criticism and he’s always had money and he’s never been denied. The movie does an excellent job mirroring many moments from his early life into his later life, showing Orlando the opposite side of his previous actions and words. He tells a young woman, a Russian princess, that she belongs to him because he adores her. When the tables are turned, Orlando of course is appalled by the very idea. I have no idea how much of an impression this sort of thing might make on a man watching it, but as a woman watching it I can’t help but sigh a little. Because really, some of what Orlando learns feels obvious to me. And much of it is, by its nature, dated. It is taking place well in the past, after all. At the same time, having it set out there, that a person was (and is) judged not on merit but on gender, and that the same person with the same qualities and the same intellect and the same physical fitness and the same everything but gender might suddenly be disqualified for all manner of things? That’s an important point to make, regardless of the time period.

It is impossible to truly capture the spirit of this movie in a review and I suspect that reading the book would be an entirely different experience. A good one, I hope, but different. Because so much of what makes this movie magical to me is in the music and in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I truly enjoy what Sally Potter put on the screen, regardless of its changes to the original work it’s based on. And the concept of it is sound. It doesn’t need a boat load of back story or explanation. What does it matter why Orlando doesn’t age or by what mechanism he becomes she? It doesn’t. And the movie doesn’t really invite you to wonder. It is simply stated: This happened. This happened and this is the life that was led as a result.

September 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 558 – X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class – September 9th, 2011

Let me just say, this summer was pretty good for superhero movies. Or rather, it was good for Marvel superhero movies. We did go to see Green Lantern and we’ll probably buy it, but that doesn’t mean it was all that good. Poor DC. Marvel, on the other hand, had this, Captain America and Thor in theaters this summer. And we loved all three. This is the first to hit DVD, so we watched it right away. How could we not? After all, I am, first and foremost, an X-Men fan. Cap, Iron Man, they’re great and all, but I say bring on the mutants.

As I’ve said before when it comes to comic book movies, people can piss and moan all they want about continuity but it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Comic books, and Marvel in particular, have been mucking with continuity for decades. Marvel’s even numbered their various AUs and made up extra ones for kicks, like Earth-1002, where everyone’s a canine and the team is called the Rex-Dogs. I’ve mentioned before that the Summers family is a perfect example of what happens when you cross AUs, so I don’t see the big deal in changing up the specific first members of the X-Men, or having Alex Summers older than the other movie-verse versions of Scott Summers. So what you will not find in this review is a nitpick on continuity or canon. Yes, things deviate from the other movies. Emma Frost being the best example there. Yes, things deviate from the comics. No, I do not care.

I love this movie. I don’t love everything about it (and I’ll get to that) but I love a lot of it. I love seeing Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr before they became Professor X and Magneto. I love seeing the team grow and train. I love seeing little hints at the future, like General Stryker and the proto-Cerebro. I love the use of the time period for clothing styles, slang and most of all, plot. Because this movie is set in 1962, right on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis, into which the mutants are thrown. It makes the team an integral but secret part of an event that truly happened in our own world. Really, I think the set-up for the team and the overarching plot are really nicely done, leading to a fantastic climax where not only is the team battling against what they perceive as their enemies, but also against the humans and then we get changes in loyalty too. Very nicely orchestrated.

Really though, in my heart my favorite bits of the movie are just the whole building of the team. Also, Erik and Charles. I don’t care who knows it: I honestly think this movie was Erik and Charles’ epic love story and breakup. And it’s not just me. Ian McKellan and James MacAvoy both agree, so I stand firm on this. Even if you don’t want to go with the love story aspect, they are certainly very close friends. The closest of friends. And their worldviews just aren’t compatible by the end. It’s tragic. And what I think this movie does excellently is present both sides as being potentially valid and potentially flawed. We know Magneto turns out to be “evil” later on, but the background they gave him here? It’s difficult to deny that his views are, at least in part, accurate for the world he’s lived in. Same for Charles, who has a much easier childhood and adolescence. Where this movie’s real strength is for me, is in its character arcs. Charles, Erik, Raven? They’re all given some truly good material to work with that makes what we know of their eventual futures that much more interesting.

Then too, you have the rest of the recruits. I love the recruitment montage, with Charles and Erik traveling to find mutants and make their case for joining the CIA. I love the little displays of power and quick character introductions. They’re not terribly heavy-handed but they give an idea of who’s who and who does what. And the cameo at the end of the recruitment montage? Perfect. Well played, good sirs. The recruits hanging out and goofing off together? Also fun, and a nice way to show off their powers. Training montage? Better than most montages because there are pauses for dialogue and context. I especially enjoy the interactions between Sean and Erik. They make the characters a little deeper and a little more real. And the chemistry between the various cast members is great. It seems like they had fun making the movie together, which translates well on screen.

What I find most frustrating about the movie is how piss-poorly it handles the races and genders of its characters. As ensemble casts go, it’s got a decent (but not great) assortment of genders and races. There are two women on the team, one of whom is Hispanic. One of the men is African American and while I’d love to see more diversity there I will give them credit for not having an entirely pasty white crew. The thing is, by the end? The team is Professor X and the three white recruits. Okay, one is blue by then, but he started out white. Granted, the divide between sides is made out to be very grey here and I can see how the justification might have been made for Angel switching over, I cannot for one second excuse how they handled Darwin. Okay, so you don’t want an overpowered character mucking up your main action scene. Then why introduce him in the first place? It’s not like Alex ends up being super useful (Sean’s more useful in the final battle and the poor guy gets left off every poster), so if you want to up the ante for the characters by killing off an ally, go for it. But why him?

Similarly, I totally understand Mystique’s character arc. And as an individual character, divorced from the larger cast issues, her story carries a hell of a lot of weight. To be honest, I don’t blame her one bit for leaving Charles on the beach. Charles is a privileged douche for much of the movie, spouting “mutant and proud” when it suits him but expecting his adopted sister to hide her true nature. So when she walks away, I get it and I do not question it and I think the writers gave her a wonderful arc. But taken in the larger context, when she switches sides, that makes all three female mutant characters on the “evil” side. And again, while I like the individual stories (Emma Frost being with Sebastian Shaw as part of the Hellfire Club is a wonderful little callback to the comics and Emma herself has switched sides numerous times) when put together as a whole they paint a picture full of unfortunate implications. And when you’re going to change the origin story for the team, adding in characters who weren’t there in the comics and using canon characters for new roles, you’ve really got a shitload to choose from. This particular team, with these particular issues, did not happen by accident. And it could well have been done differently.

I don’t mean to harp too much on my issues with the movie, but I feel they warrant saying. They certainly didn’t make the movie unpleasant for me to watch and I’ll gladly watch it again. And as I said, each individual choice and action makes sense on its own. They just add up to something that makes me heave a heavy sigh. But I can focus on the good and hope that future installments (or any future X-Men based movies) will handle things better. Certainly, I think this movie handled the universe better than, say, Wolverine or X3 did. I enjoy the character arcs and I like the decision to go back to the beginning and reboot the whole thing, starting a new continuity. I just wish I didn’t have anything negative to say. I wish I could applaud everything. I’ll just have to be content, for now, with applauding the majority of it.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 555 – Pink Floyd: The Wall

Pink Floyd’s The Wall – September 6th, 2011

I think I’ve mentioned my parents’ collection of vinyl albums before. Probably in my Woodstock review and likely in my reviews of various Beatles-based movies and I’m sure I mentioned it when we watched the Pulse concert on DVD. But I think it bears mentioning again, because my love of Pink Floyd comes from that collection. My mother, as it so happens, still loves Pink Floyd. I bought her a copy of the Pulse concert album when it came out on audio cassette so she could listen to it in her car and sing along. My brother tried to “lose” it once, but he didn’t succeed. My parents owned every album except, oddly enough, The Wall. That I had to bum off a friend from school, then buy my own copy of. I recently learned that my mother has never seen this movie. It seems like a strange absence, doesn’t it?

When Andy and I met we found we had many things in common when it came to media interests. We both loved MST3K. We both loved Doctor Who. We had similar taste in books. We had similar taste in movies. In television. And we had similar taste in music, largely centered around The Beatles and Pink Floyd. I hadn’t seen this movie when I met him, but it was on my list of things to see. And my first impression of it was that it was just as strange and dark as I’d been led to expect. And really, despite it being decades old and used as a visual backdrop for many a teenager’s angst-ridden years, I think it still holds up. Mostly because I think while it’s about angst in general, it’s also specific in the right ways and general in the right ways as to connect with many people outside of a specific time period while maintaining a story that doesn’t feel muddied.

Now, on one hand I’m tempted to roll my eyes. I mean, the story is, on the surface, about a white British guy, referred to as Pink, who lost his father in World War II. He becomes a rock musician, and then either goes insane and imagines himself as a fascist dictator or actually does become one and apparently blames it on a number of external reasons: His mother was overprotective. His father died in the war. His wife was predatory. Fame is hard! On the other hand, the movie takes a lot of what’s on the album and presents visuals that are far more conflicted. His mother is never really all that overbearing. His wife apparently truly cares for him and only turns on him when he’s already pretty much completely shut her out. His father died, yes, and that sucks. Everything else seems to be exaggerated in his own mind. His actions are out of proportion to the events around him. The turmoil in his head has roots outside of Pink himself, but where it could come off as an elaborate blame game it instead shows a tragedy of one person failing to cope.

There’s very little spoken material in the movie. It’s almost entirely the album, but with a few additional songs and bits of music. The spoken lines are mostly in the background. They’re things said while the music plays and they’re important for the setting, but more than that they’re a clue to the audience that what we’re hearing isn’t what’s actually going on. We’re hearing Pink’s internal thoughts. Which is really very revealing if you’re going to go trying to analyze the movie for its psychological meanings. I’m not well enough versed in psychology to go making judgements and slapping labels on anything here beyond being able to see that there are two very distinct worlds at play on the screen. One is the real world and one is the fantasy playing out in Pink’s head. The line blurs quite a bit when it comes to the fascist dictator parts, but anything animated is obviously not actually going on.

The ending does imply rather heavily that the entire fascism bit was all in Pink’s head. There’s certainly a good bit of animation in it, with hammers marching in lock step. But there’s also a lot of live action. It’s not entirely clear. I choose to believe that it’s a fantasy. I’m sure if I spent more time on it I could draw some interesting conclusions about Pink’s father’s death and his later Nazi-esque fantasies. I’m sure other people already have. The fact remains that plenty of other people lost their fathers in the war and plenty of people continue to lose parents in wars. It’s terrible and traumatic, but it doesn’t seem to produce vast numbers of ex-rock star fascist leaders. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t so much about a general trend as it is about a single person’s reactions. And in that, the movie certainly adds to the music.

I am a little (okay, more than a little) uncomfortable with the knowledge that the filmmakers hired real skinheads for the fascist concert scenes, ostensibly for “realism”. It’s good to know that they got uncomfortable too, when a couple of the audience cast came in with the hammer symbol shaved into their hair. The danger here is that in presenting these scenes with catchy music, the line between encouraged and discouraged is very much blurred. While I can look at the movie and see that it’s very much against the nastiness that plays out near the end, other people might not see it that way. It’s a risky step. But I’m sure someone out there would say that’s what makes it good art. Fine.

What I think makes it good art is the combination of music, live action and animation. Granted, nothing in this movie is subtle and the animation is the least subtle part of it, but the combination all works. And it’s good animation. It’s just that it’s a bit of an anvil, metaphorically speaking. Fortunately, it’s not the entire movie. If it was it would be too much. But combined with Pink Floyd’s music and the acting from the main cast, it’s given just enough of a role. I do think Bob Geldof was a good choice for Pink and I was amused to realize that we’ve seen Eleanor David, who plays his wife, in something else (Comfort and Joy). Geldof has the most to shoulder, being the center of the entire piece, but the rest of the cast fits nicely. And overall the movie simply works for me. It’s a sad story, but it’s meant to be sad. And while I will continue to listen to the album, and I’m sure radio stations will continue to play Another Brick in the Wall out of context (which I feel is sort of like only playing a small piece of Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick), the movie is excellently done as a complete package in a way that just one part of it could never be.

September 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 554 – Hamlet (2000)

Hamlet (2000) – September 5th, 2011

We’re running rather low on Shakespeare adaptations in our collection. I think there are two more left on the list at this point? Maybe I’m forgetting one. I can think of one more we’ll be buying, but other than that, really, we’ve watched what we had. And we’ve seen some good stuff and some interesting stuff and the weirdest I can think of is still to come. But this is definitely its own creature. It’s not quite a modern retelling since the language used is Shakespeare’s and the editing is mostly to pare it down, not to change its plot. But the setting is thoroughly modern, with Denmark a corporation and the story taking place in New York City among high rises and city streets and the Guggenheim.

I first saw this while I was in college and I will admit, I’m sure it’s not everyone cup of tea. It’s not the most polished of adaptations. It’s got rough edges and I’ve got some issues with it and it’s a far cry from Kenneth Branagh’s epic version of the same play. Still, it’s an interesting idea and for the most part I think it’s well conceived and well executed and it has my favorite Ophelia ever, both in that I feel that Julia Stiles plays her well and I feel that the modern trappings given to the role work excellently to give her a solid character arc. It doesn’t work everywhere, but it does work there, and well in enough other places to make me feel like it’s worth watching.

I don’t think I need to really rehash the entire story of Hamlet here. Let’s face it: Hamlet’s one of Shakespeare’s most well known and oft-reproduced plays. It’s fodder for a ton and a half of literary allusions and references and academic works. The high school I went to offered a full year of Shakespeare as a senior year English option, but in addition to that it also offered a full semester on Hamlet alone. Personally, I love Hamlet. Not because I particularly like the main character, but because I think it’s an interesting play that has a whole lot going on in it. And the main character isn’t a black and white character. Not many of the characters in the play are. I’d have to say with the exception of Claudius everyone in the play is pretty grey. Even Ophelia, though she does skew towards the lighter end of the scale. I honestly think characters and plots are more interesting when they’re conflicted.

The alterations to place the story in modern day New York City are largely cosmetic, but oh do those cosmetic changes make an impact. It becomes obvious early on that we’re dealing with CEOs and pampered rich kids, that the castle is a skyscraper and the ghost is appearing on a security camera. Hamlet is an amateur filmmaker and Ophelia a photographer. And somehow the language all works even in apartments with views of the skyline and on crowded city sidewalks and in taxis. I wouldn’t have picked Ethan Hawke to play Hamlet if I’d been asked, but I think he does an admirable enough job with the part with one notable exception, which really isn’t his fault.

It’s the soliloquies. The soliloquies are largely done as voiceovers, which I’m not really in love with. It feels almost as though they were an afterthought, which they shouldn’t be. But they feel almost shoehorned into the movie, played over scenes of Hamlet brooding in various places. And I can see the intent there is to make the soliloquies his internal thought process, kept in his head and never spoken where anyone else could hear. After all, the scenes show him going about his life in the city and that much works. He goes to the library, strolls down the street, sits in an airplane with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and works on his film to try and catch his uncle out. As a New Yorker, clearly he has Things To Do and Places To Go. It wouldn’t really work for the tone of the movie to have him sitting in his room, moping aloud to his editing equipment. But at the same time having the soliloquies as voiceovers during scenes where Hamlet is out doing things ends up making them feel detached from the actions on display. They feel like they’re being added in post, which of course they are, instead of being his thoughts during the scene playing out on screen. Which makes them all feel less immediate and more rehearsed. Which isn’t at all how I want them. Hamlet’s soliloquies should be the thoughts of a mind in turmoil as they occur to him, not later on, carefully pondered.

Fortunately, that’s really my only quibble with the movie. Sure, it’s pared down quite a bit. It’s a short rendition of the play, really. But it does handle a lot of the key issues the play presents. I love the “play” Hamlet shows redone as a film collage. It cuts out the Players, but then they’re mostly important because of the play within a play bit. I enjoy seeing the ghost as an appearance on a security camera. I love that messages are delivered by fax machines and that the letter sent with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is on a laptop. And I especially love that when Ophelia is sent to talk to Hamlet and try to divine what his intentions are, she’s wearing a wire.

Let’s talk about Ophelia for a moment before I wrap up. Wearing that wire is a fantastic piece of character motivation. While the concept of her spying on Hamlet for her father and Claudius is, of course, going to cause her emotional anguish, having the apparent betrayal discovered by Hamlet in a tangible form makes it all the more damning. How can she deny it? How can she argue it? Hamlet’s already angry and dismissive of her. And now she knows that he won’t trust her, if ever he was inclined to again. And in turn, who can she trust? It makes her death (also handled nicely, and I love the conceit with the flower photos) all the more tragic to me. I truly love this Ophelia, both for the performance and for the presentation that allowed the performance.

Overall, like I said, this isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. If you’re looking for a traditional and complete (or close to complete) rendition of Hamlet then this is most certainly not it. Mark off a day on your calendar and go find the Branagh version if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’d like a fascinating cross between an adaptation and a traditional performance, then this is it. It’s got good acting, excellent visuals and interesting choices, which is really all I ask from an adaptation. Do something interesting and at least do it well most of the time. I can forgive some flaws, but so long as the heart of the play is there, then it can be made to work. And this does.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Hamlet (2000)

September 5, 2011

Hamlet (2000)

We own about four versions of this most famous Shakespeare play. We’ve already reviewed for our project the complete and uncut play as produced by Kenneth Branaugh. We’ve also reviewed the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) wherin Adam Long and his compatriots do a very much abbreviated version of Hamlet, then do it faster, then do it faster still, then do it backwards. Although we haven’t reviewed it (because our vast MST collection is not a part of this project) we even have a black and white version of the film produced for German television. So come we tonight to this, the millennial adaptation of the film set in the modern day and starring, amongst many others, Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

This version of the takes the tale replaces the medieval kingdoms of the play with the modern royalty of today – the uber-rich aristocracy of the corporate aristocracy. Denmakr, therefore is a corporation, the head of which has recently died. The son of the head of Denmark Corp, Hamlet, returns from school for the funeral and is shocked to find his mother already being betrothed to his dead father’s brother. The story is unchanged of course, and the dialog is all Shakespeare, but it is much truncated and the order of some scenes is altered (for example it begins not with “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt” but with Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about what a beast is man.)

Hawke’s Hamlet is not so much mad as sullen. He’s an artist and a angst ridden recluse, but he never seems insane. He toys with video cameras and monitors and a small portable editing deck. The play-within-a-play takes the form of a home-made film. (The players are gone entirely.) Hamlet’s melancholy airs fir perfectly into the generation-why mould of an idle teenager in the late nineties. His many soliloquies are split between voice-overs of his inner monologue and video diaries.

Ophelia, for her part, is a photographer in this version. The flowers she presents to her brother during her final speech are polaroid pictures. When she is sent by her father and Hamlet’s uncle the new king to spy on Hamlet they listen on on a concealed wire. It is during these two scenes that I am most moved by this production. Julia Stiles is an exceptional actress, and her Ophelia is almost painful to watch in her desperation as Hamlet, in his obsession, first denies his love for her and then accidentally kills her father. Really hers is the most tragic story in the entire tale of Hamlet – an innocent who is used and discarded – who looses everything she holds dear.

The modern day setting of the story works pretty well for the most part. The substitution of faxes for messengers, computer documents for missives, planes for ships all do not feel inappropriate. There is a very odd couple scenes that take place in a Blockbuster store which feel particularly strange to me, since I worked in a store that looked just like that (beck before DVDs replaced all the tapes on the shelves. Only for the climactic scene does it seem a little odd that Laertes and Hamlet choose to duel using foils. (The first time I watched this I wondered through the entire film how they were going to make this scene work since they had replaced swords throughout with guns. They do modernise it somewhat using electric fencing gear and dispensing with the poison-tipped sword, but the duel itself seems an anachronism in the world of the movie.

As is often the case with high profile Shakespearean adaptations there’s a fantastic cast gathered together here. Bill Murray in the role of Polonius does what I think is the best job of taking the Shakespearean dialog and making it feel understandable and natural in the mouth of a modern character. There are all kinds of familiar faces throughout the production from Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius to Liev Schreiber as Laertes and even brief appearances by Tim Blake Nelson and Paul Bartel. My favorite moment in the entire film is the epilogue, delivered by Robert MacNeil (familiar to any fan of PBS news in the eighties and nineties) as a news report.

I do admit that Hamlet is not my favorite play of all time. I’m just not a fan of tragedy in general, and there is so much angst and pain in this script. I do enjoy seeing different interpretations of the same work though. I like seeing how a new cast and director can breathe new life into a familiar subject. This is a great example of that, and it makes me want to see other versions as well. I don’t think we’re likely to get the Mel Gibson one, but I’d very much like to get the Laurence Olivier some day. For now we’re done with Hamlet though. More’s the pity.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 549 – Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko – August 31st, 2011

Gee whiz am I glad that I didn’t see this movie when it came out. Not because it’s a bad movie. On the contrary. But at the time it came out I was still dealing with some pretty nasty depression and let me tell you! This movie would not have inspired me to look on the bright side of life. In fact, at the end of it I watched the credits and thought “Well. What a great movie to convince people the exact opposite of It’s a Wonderful Life!” Maybe that wasn’t the outright intent, but it’s certainly a large chunk of what I got out of it.

The movie revolves around a young man named Donnie. He’s had some troubled times in the past year or so. Or maybe longer. I got the impression that it wasn’t more than a year, but not much less either. The movie doesn’t bother to make it clear and that’s okay, because ultimately it doesn’t matter how long he’s been having trouble. What’s important is that just recently he’s started sleepwalking and having hallucinations of a giant grey rabbit. Or a man in a giant grey rabbit suit. Either way. The rabbit’s name is Frank and Frank tells Donnie that the world is going to end soon. In 28 days. And he has things he needs to do. And so Donnie does them. The prior troubles Donnie’s had involved setting an abandoned house on fire and getting suspended and having to see a psychiatrist and take medication, which he doesn’t want to take. And it would be one thing for this movie to be about a teenage boy having a psychotic break and not knowing what’s real or not. It’s an entirely different thing when his sleepwalking and hallucinations keep him out of the house when a jet engine appears out of nowhere and falls right through his bedroom ceiling, crushing where he would have been.

It’s an event like that which lends credence to a paranoid mind’s obsessions. With Frank’s encouragement Donnie floods the school and sets fire to another house. He worries his parents and fights with his sister. At home he seems to be a typical teenage guy. I knew plenty of teenage guys who fought with their parents and acted out. Most of them did not go on to perpetrate enormous property damage. They also weren’t hallucinating and starting to believe in time travel. So, that’s where they and Donnie differ. Anyhow, Donnie’s kind of obsessed with this whole idea of time travel and that he’s seeing things like trails showing the paths people will take. He’s still seeing Frank and Frank is still incredibly creepy. His psychiatrist is growing alarmed at his talk about Frank and the end of the world and his parents are perplexed, unsure of just what to do. Meanwhile, Donnie’s leading sort of a double life. He hangs out with his friends and gets himself a girlfriend – the new-to-town Gretchen Ross – and when he’s not seeing paths or Frank or causing destruction he appears “normal.”

It’s an odd movie, really. Because one could take it as a commentary on the nature of teen angst. It’s full of things like unrequited crushes and bullies and school officials being pressured to fire staff members for their reading list choices. It’s got a smarmy self-help guru the gym teacher’s bought into and Donnie’s a middle child with a cool older sister who’s going to Harvard and a cute younger sister who’s a dance team champ. And there’s Donnie, who had to miss some school and see a shrink and take pills. Of course he’s angry and angsty. And through it all the movie has an almost dream-like quality. It’s early autumn and school’s just starting for the year and Donnie’s not quite entirely present in reality 100% of the time. Thinking back on it now I have this impression that many things happened in slow motion even though I know it can’t be as much of the movie as I’m thinking.

The movie’s ending, which is where the time travel really comes in, is one of those endings that one could take in several different ways. It could be a time paradox, or it could be an alternate reality or it could have been imaginary or it could be all three. I know for a fact Andy interpreted it differently than I did and I hadn’t really considered his interpretation and it’s entirely possible that had I not spoken during the credits he wouldn’t have considered mine. On one hand, that sort of writing can come off as hopelessly pretentious. On the other, if handled well I think it can work without making the viewer feel baffled. And I think this movie handles it well largely because there’s enough material in the movie to work with. And that says to me that the people making the movie considered what people might interpret it as, instead of just being mysterious and hoping people made up their own meanings.

Personally, while I’m not about to tell anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong, my initial interpretation of the movie’s end is rather bleak. Well, bleak for Donnie. I meant what I said about the movie feeling like an anti-It’s a Wonderful Life. With the engine falling on Donnie instead of Donnie being out with Frank when his bedroom is crushed, it changes everything. But instead of seeing what the world would be like without Donnie, we see what it’s like with him. Sure, at least one person gets what’s coming to him, but other innocent people get hurt. Without Donnie around causing trouble the school wouldn’t flood. People wouldn’t die. So Donnie dies. And when he does the ripples through the timeline are felt by all the people affected.

It does leave the question of Frank’s identity and importance and just how he came to be Donnie’s hallucination rather up in the air. But then most interpretations probably would. Certainly the real Frank seems affected by Donnie’s death, but up until the end he didn’t seem to have much of any connection with Donnie. He was just an artist, making a twisted mask for Halloween. Who is he? Who was he? Why did Donnie see him? I don’t know. And to be honest, I prefer not knowing. I like the idea that there’s something supernatural and mysterious at work in this movie. I like the idea that regardless of the science discussed and the technical aspects of time travel, there’s something unknowable at work. For much the same reason I love that the movie is set in the 1980s. Why is it set in the 80s? Who cares? It just is. And it suits the movie. It’s not an overt stereotype of a movie. It’s a sci-fi supernatural period piece. Which works. And apparently it works for people in vastly different ways. And I like that too.

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Donnie Darko

August 31, 2011

Donnie Darko

I bought this movie because I was reassured by a wide range of people how unbelievably messed up it was. And, yes, it is a strange, what with its dreamlike daze state, time travel and visions of the future. It’s more than just random weirdness though. It’s probably the quintessential movie about teen angst – and I have to admit that I absolutely love it even though I was in my thirties when I first saw it.

Donnie is a troubled teen. There’s nothing in particular wrong with his life – his family is a typical eighties yuppie clan. He goes to a clean looking school with your typical mix of wasters, pretty people and rejects. He’s prone to sleepwalking. He’s in therapy and medicated because of a senseless act of arson he committed a couple years ago. For some reason he finds himself compelled to do things and he doesn’t know why.

Then things start to get weird.

An extremely creepy rabbit named Frank appears to Donnie and tells him that the end of the world is just 28 days away. The detached engine from a jet airliner crashes through the roof of his house and into his bedroom while he is out sleepwalking. Donnie proceeds to drift farther and farther out of touch with the world, while at the same time he finds himself caught up in some kind of time-travel paradox. There’s a sense that some of his actions are predestined – he can almost see what people are going to do before they do it, and his own actions feel like something he has no control over.

On the one hand he’s being forced by the voice of Frank to do some things that are dangerous and destructive. Such as flooding the school by smashing a water pipe with an axe or burning down the palatial estate of a loathsome self-help guru. He finds himself getting his father’s gun from his closet. He takes a knife to the bathroom to try to break through an invisible wall to reach Fred.

At school Donnie becomes prone to outbursts. He talks back to his gym teacher during an insipid ethics class based on the work of a self made guru named Jim Cunningham who offers thin platitudes and sells advice about the eternal battle between love and fear. Strangely only Donnie seems to realize that Jim is a scam artist who is lining his pockets by selling his courses and lectures to the school.

Everything builds to the climactic moment where it is revealed why Frank has been haunting Donnie and why he has the bunny suit. There’s time-travel involved and a convergence of multiple plot lines in an instant that has been pre-destined since the beginning of the movie. Which is cool and all, but it’s not really the point of the movie for me.

Okay – some spoilers now. Donnie dies at the end of the film, which wraps back around to the beginning so that all the events of the movie are shown to be an alternative universe. My interpretation of the movie is that what we get to see of Donnie’s life is a sort of idealised wish fulfilment. Before he dies he gets to see what life would be like if he came out of his shell and did the sorts of things that teenaged boys wish they could get away with doing. he floods the school. He talks back to teachers. He gets the girl. he knows the answers. It’s sort of one last hurrah for him because everything comes crashing down and he has to accept his fate.

This movie is so layered and complex that it necessitates multiple viewings. It could be read as Donnie coming to grips with his fear of death and accepting that death is not such a dreadful fate. Or you could view it as wish fulfilment as I do. Of you could see it as an exploration of multiple parallel universes. I enjoy the fact that it’s ambiguous enough to be open for interpretation.

No matter how you chose to understand the film it cannot be denied that it’s wonderfully made. Richard Kelly, who went on to direct that utterly impossible to describe Southland Tales, directs here with flare and panache. This movie combines a fever-dream feel accomplished with muted sounds, cool digital effects, and lots of manipulation of the film speed with a more normal feel at times. There are lots of scenes that are very slickly edited together with intercut views of different unrelated events which heighten the tension. There are parts of the movie that feel almost like a horror film (one of my favorite moments is when Donnie is hypnotised by his therapist and is describing his terror at the impending end of the world and he looks up and sees Frank right there in the room with them. “I see him right now!” he exclaims and chills run down my spine.)

There’s a great cast of talented actors from Drew Barrymore to Mary McDonnell to Patrick Swayze. Jake Gyllenhaal really steals the show though as Donnie himself. he’s so sinister and sullen, so dangerously hard to read. You get a sense that his family and therapist don’t just not understand him – they fear him a little. It’s a fantastic performance full of desperation and pain.

Add to all that an absolutely astonishing soundtrack. Every song here is so perfectly suited for the tone and feel of the movie – even more impressive given that some of the music is apparently last minute replacements for temp tracks that the producers couldn’t secure the rights to. It makes me want to download the soundtrack right now (although in truth I don’t tend to buy compilation albums – I’m more likely to buy all the original albums the songs came from. I need more Tears for Fears and Duran Duran on my iPhone.)

The world needs more slick, inscrutable, inspired movies like this. Any movie that forces you to think about it as much as this one does for me it a big plus in my book. And of course the creepy bunny mask that Frank wears will be forever burnt into your mind once you have seen this. “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

August 31, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 546 – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair – August 29th, 2011

Where the current series of adaptations has stopped and gone back, the BBC series went on for one more in the timeline while they still had the actor who played Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader at the right age for The Silver Chair. I can’t fault them that, though I have to say that this is my second least favorite of the Narnia stories (the very least favorite being The Horse and His Boy, which I could never quite get into). It’s not the concept so much as the characters. And it’s not the characters in general so much as Jill Pole. I want to like it a hell of a lot more than I do and that’s frustrating.

The thing about the earlier stories is that they’re mostly about grand adventures in the wondrous land of Narnia. The children brought through from our world to Narnia have a sense of epic destiny and importance. And while there’s plenty of danger to go around, there are also friendly allies and the general knowledge that the heroes aren’t alone. This story, on the other hand, is rather dire. And made more so because of the air of missed opportunity. Eustace Scrubb returns to Narnia in this story, having entered when he and a schoolmate, Jill Pole, wanted to get away from some bullies. The thing is, their adventure starts quite differently than all the others. They start in Aslan’s country. And instead of organically finding out what needs doing by exploring in Narnia, Aslan sets out specific tasks for them. Tasks they mess up at every opportunity.

On one hand, things go awry as soon as Eustace and Jill arrive, so perhaps if they hadn’t, Aslan would have just sent them on their way without any instructions and trusted that they’d figure it out along the way. On the other hand, he didn’t drop them directly into Narnia, so I take that as an implication that he was planning on talking to them at the outset anyhow. Regardless, Jill earns some distinct grumbling from me when she shows off, makes Eustace fall over the edge of a cliff and then has such trouble remembering four simple directions from Aslan that she arrives in Narnia too late to convince Eustace of the first one. And that right there sets the tone for the whole thing.

The purpose behind Eustace and Jill being in Narnia this time is to save Caspian’s son, Rillian, from a witch who has kidnapped him and imprisoned him for years. Caspian is now old and sick and they witness him leaving to sail out to the islands, Eustace not realizing that the elderly king is his old friend. Of course, the first instruction Aslan gave Jill was to tell Eustace the first person he saw would be an old friend and he should go to him at once to get the help they’d need for their quest. Jill gets there late, Eustace doesn’t understand what Aslan meant and Caspian sails off without speaking to him. No help for them! Fortunately for them, the talking owls help them out, deciding that the assistance they need is a Marshwiggle.

Now, Puddleglum the Marshwiggle is one of my favorite parts of this movie, and not just because he’s played by Tom Baker, though that is certainly amusing. But he’s one of the few touches of Narnia in the story, since the adventure itself takes Jill and Eustace far to the north. He’s much like Trumpkin the Dwarf was before he believed in Aslan. Very pessimistic and talking down much of what he encounters. But he’s also quite brave and he knows more about the land than either of the two human children, so he’s a good companion to have on an adventure like this. So with Puddleglum in tow, they set off northwards to find the missing prince and return him to Narnia.

And as they go, Jill manages to forget pretty much everything she was told by Aslan. She and Eustace fight and bicker and prod at each other constantly. Puddleglum’s dour and negative nature eventually wear the two others down and they start ignoring his advice. They miss two instructions and end up almost eaten by giants. And through it all I can’t help but think “If Lucy was there, she’d have found Rillian, brought him back and thrown a party by now. Get on with it!

Now, I’m pretty sure that’s the story itself as written. As I said, I’m not as fond of this one as I am of the first three and the last two, so I haven’t read it as many times as I’ve read the others. But given how faithful the other BBC adaptations were, I expect that holds true for this one as well. Which means I can lay it all at C.S. Lewis’ feet. On one hand, I understand that after writing the first three, with the Pevensies and grand armies and adventures with kings and all, writing a different type of adventure must have been nice. They can’t all be romps with royalty through beautiful Narnia. There’s a widening of the world here as Eustace and Jill discover places that we were never shown in the earlier stories. And I appreciate that. I just wish that these dangerous and grim lands had been explored by people a little more likeable, who could see the mysterious magic of their surroundings better than Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum do. As it is, while Eustace is a good deal better here than he was when we met him in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I like Puddleglum as a character, Eustace and Jill aren’t a great pair. It’s as if the entirety of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was told with Lucy and Edmund traveling together, before Edmund spoke to Aslan.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s just not fun to watch this group have an adventure. The movie was shot in lovely country and I like all the ideas of there being a ruined giant city and the “gentle” giants who are only gentle in that they’ll cook you before they eat you. The underground kingdom isn’t anything terribly special, but the costumes are amusing and there’s a nice blueish cast to everything that sets an eerie otherworldly mood. I’ve got no fault with the acting. It’s not the performances that keep me from enjoying this. After all, I like the David Thwaites, who plays Eustace and I love Tom Baker ad Puddleglum and while I don’t like the character of Jill I do think Camilla Power did well with her. And then there’s Barbara Kellerman as the witch. And I really kind of love that the White Witch, Green Witch and the hag from Prince Caspian are all played by the same person, as if all the witches in the stories are one force. It’s the story. And since the BBC sticks close to the stories with these adaptations, there really wasn’t ever going to be anything to help that.

August 28, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment