Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Beaver: A Review (Review #297)


It is hard for me to watch The Beaver.  I would not have paid money to see a film with the virulent racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-Semitic person known as Mel Gibson.   Few people have come with such great talent only to see their own horrifying nature overwhelm whatever affection they had.

If it were not for Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence, two of our better actors, I would never have bothered with The Beaver, despite it having one of our best actresses, Jodie Foster, as both co-star and director.

After seeing it, I realize it really was not worth paying for.

Walter Black (Gibson) is suffering from an overwhelming melancholia; we know because we get that old standby, the voiceover, and one from an unlikely source but more on that later.  This depression, coming from an unknown source, has driven his family away: his wife Meredith (Foster), older son Porter (Yelchin) and youngest Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart). 

One night, his melancholia along with booze, has so overwhelmed him he plans to kill himself.  He has the booze, and along the way he catches the glimpse of a hand puppet in the shape of a beaver.  Walter bungles the job, but the next morning he finds that the hand puppet now speaks to him with a voice that sounds like Michael Caine.  The Beaver, as he bills himself, now grants him a way to express what's on his mind.

Image result for the beaver movieWhile Henry is thrilled to see Walter and the Beaver, Porter is determined to remove every similarity between himself and his dad whom he despises.  Porter, a bright fellow, has been running a side line: writing other people's papers for pay.  Business has been good, so good that the valedictorian Norah (Lawrence) has hired him to write her graduation speech.  Porter has his own issues, in particular his lingering resentment of Walter and fear he'll turn out just like his dad (cue Cat's In the Cradle), and the way he deals with this is by literally beating his head against the wall.

Walter's beaver has given him a new lease on life, but he now appears to be completely attached to it in almost every way: he showers with it, sleeps with it, even goes back to being the president of his toy company with the Beaver as his spokes-creature.  The loyal Vice President of JerryCo. (Cherry Jones) is slightly puzzled by Walter and the Beaver, but not enough to question either Walter or his plans to introduce a new toy: a Beaver woodcarving set.  T

he toy is a hit, such a hit that again, no one on JerryCo.'s board appears nonplussed to have their CEO go on The Today Show with The Beaver and have the Beaver do all the talking.

No one, after all, would think Walter (or Mel Gibson for that matter) could be considered insane.

The Blacks handle all this in different ways.  Meredith is amazingly patient with Walter's new puppet even making love to him (Walter, not the Beaver, but with the Beaver still on his arm); however, she draws the line at having to have a romantic anniversary dinner with the Beaver wearing a tux.  Needless to say, Walter doesn't take that at all well. 

Porter would normally not care about Walter, seeing he's too busy attempting to romance Norah.  However, he makes a mess of it: first, by bringing up her dead brother metaphorically, then by getting arrested for tagging on their first date. 

As it turns out, Walter's recovery thanks to the Beaver takes a psychotic turn: he now comes to believe the Beaver is fully and independently alive, and rather menacing at that,. Porter meanwhile has both lost the girl and had his paper-writing business exposed, which causes his acceptance at Brown to be rescinded.  Walter's mental collapse is complete after he tries to get rid of the Beaver in a remarkably gruesome way, while Porter now seems to be falling into that melancholia good old Pop got into.  Eventually, both Walter and Porter realize there is still a bond between them, and The Beaver ends on an upbeat note.

Image result for the beaver movieI figure it's easy to tell that The Beaver is Kyle Killen's first film screenplay just by the weird turn the third-act takes.  Allow me to digress on the subject of the story.

The Beaver asks a great deal of me.  It asks me to believe that people, rational people, people of some intelligence, would allow someone with Walter's deep issues to do things no rational let alone sane person would do.  The biggest implausibility is when Walter goes on national television with a puppet on his hand, and said puppet does all the talking for him to where Matt Lauer in a cameo basically has to address the puppet (not the first time I imagine, but I digress). 

What is truly astounding about that is that it appears no one: not his wife, not the board, not the Vice President of the company, ever stopped and said, "if the CEO of our company goes on national television with a hand puppet and insists on having others address it as if it were real, people might think he's, well, bonkers". 

Throughout The Beaver I kept saying and thinking to myself, "Please, get this man institutionalized".  It was obvious that Walter was quite ill, and while it's understandable that people would go along with the Beaver by the time Meredith and Walter have sex while he keeps the Beaver on him, I would have thought that everyone would see clearly that the puppet had become a crutch.

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Anyway, once we get that third-act twist where the Beaver now takes on a life of its own, it looks like Killen had slipped into horror-movie mode and attempted to get a Twilight Zone-like feel to The Beaver where it wasn't needed.  It's bad enough we really never know what brought about Walter's melancholia, but when we see him at war with his own hand he's gone beyond depressed into being downright bonkers.

The peculiar thing about The Beaver to me is that while we have the idea that the film may be a comedy or at least have aspects of comedy, particularly through Marcelo Zarvos' score, the tone shifts from time to time to heavy drama. 

Moreover, The Beaver appears to have two stories: Walter's melancholia and Porter's melancholia.  It would have been nice to see them come together, but they never seemed to meld into one story.  When we weren't watching Walter and his antics with his puppet, we saw Porter trying to woo the smartest girl in the world. 

If I might slightly digress, I never quite understood the scandal over Porter writing papers for other; it was not the fact that it was wrong for him to do so. It was how he was discovered.  If I understood it, he was exposed because the grandmother of one of his clients didn't believe her grandson could have written the paper and promptly went to the principal.  I never truly believed Porter would be so exposed in that fashion.

Now, I can see where the effort to make Walter and Porter have parallel lives since the son went into a depression mirroring the father's.  However, at least we know where Porter's depression came from, something we never saw with Walter.

Watching The Beaver, we do see where Mel Gibson still has the skills to give a good performance, but given his own meltdowns, it is hard to be sympathetic to someone who repulses you.  While Gibson does a good job showing us Walter's depression or plays his scenes with the Beaver in as realistic a way as possible, once the Beaver becomes possessed it just veers into farce.   Foster's role was a bit small but like Gibson, she was effective as the woman caught in a bizarre situation and doing the best she could.

For my money's worth, the best moments were between Yelchin and Lawrence, and their story was more interesting than Walter's.  I might have watched a film about them rather than the adults.  Both of them showed the slow fascination with each other mixed with a hesitance to get together. 

In the end, it isn't the fact that Mel Gibson is at the very least a highly troubled individual man in real life that would make me not recommend The Beaver (though granted, I have problems watching him on the screen).  Rather, it is the "shocking" twist involving the Beaver itself that I found was a bridge too far for me.  I thought it a silly way to get rid of the character. 

It also was a bit much to accept that people would willingly put a major company in the hands of someone who is clearly not in complete control of his mind.  The Beaver was a good shot at a potential story, but we really don't get a lot to munch on.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Drive (2011): A Review


It's the Only Way to Live, In Cars...

Drive isn't an action film, despite it involving fast driving and daring car chases.  Rather, it is about a hollow man who finds something that will make him take action.  There are a few moments of car chases and some surprisingly brutal and violent moments, but Drive shouldn't be considered a purely action film.  If one goes into it thinking that, one is in for a surprise, but at least a good one. 

You have a man with no name, someone who if he's ever referred to at all is mostly referred to as the Driver (avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling).  He is a stunt driver for hire, in the day as one for the movies, at night as one for getaways.  Driver is both emotionless and uninterested about exactly what one does in the time he is working for them: he will give the the time you paid for, no questions asked, but once you're time is up, it's up. 

While he's on the job, Driver is the ultimate professional: if the police are after you while you're with him, he will find a way to get away.  Driver's skills get his boss at the auto-repair shop, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) to think Driver could be the racing car driver he needs.  However, Shannon needs money to be a racing impresario, so he turns to failed ex-producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a nice but shady fellow.  Bernie's partner is Nino (Ron Perlman), who is not nice and extremely shady.

That's how Driver lives his life: without attachments, without personal involvements of any kind.  That is, until he meets a Woman, one who has an actual name: Irene (Carey Mulligan).  While he shows a glimmer of emotion with Irene, it's her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) that brings Driver any sense of caring or loving.  Irene's husband Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac) has just gotten out of prison.  

Standard would like to go legit, but he's been pressed into doing one last job to pay off a prison debt.  Luckily, Driver is there to be the getaway driver.  However, both of them were set up, and while Driver gets away Standard isn't so lucky.  It turns out Nino had a hand in the botched pawn store robbery, and in the ensuing chaos Bernie has to dispatch off his friend Shannon and Driver, even going after Irene and Benicio.  That, Driver won't stand for.

Image result for drive movieDrive is another tour-de-force for avant-garde actor Gosling, who lives to be brooding and perpetually morose on film, like the long-lost son of Daniel Craig.  Avant-garde actor Gosling's Driver is someone who appears dead inside, who is either emotionless or intensely self-controlled.  It works for the character since Driver's entire profession both legal and illicit depends on him being in total control and having complete precision. 

That Benicio should give Driver a touch of humanity is evident: when Driver comes across Standard bleeding in the apartment's parking lot, Driver is oblivious to him but walks slowly, calmly, coolly, to Benicio to see if he's all right; as to why Driver cares or comes as close to having human emotions for Benicio we don't know.   Driver also appears to have some semblance of romantic yearnings for Irene, and we see this when he saves her from one of Nino's henchmen.

Allow me to digress that Nicolas Winding Refn sets the scene between Driver, Irene, and the henchman in the elevator in a surprisingly artsy though clever manner.  In slow motion, Driver moves in to kiss Irene, unaware she's just become a widow, and as he does so, the lights in the elevator dim.  Whether the kiss is Driver expressing any romantic inclination toward Irene or just as a way to set her aside to kill the henchman we do not know.  However, once the kiss ends, the elevator gets bright again.

Avant-garde actor Gosling never gives us any idea as to how Driver feels, but in this case, that is exactly the right interpretation on the character.  Driver is not someone who expresses much if anything about anyone or to anyone.  I can't recall any time in Drive where Driver went beyond a cold, remote, distant manner in dealing with anyone.  The only hints that he had a beating heart was when he was with Benicio, but while he showed that Benny had reached him on some sort of emotional level, Driver was still never overtly demonstrative with his emotions. 

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When Driver is killing the hitman sent after Irene in a shockingly brutal manner, he was slightly more intense, as if this burst of violence allowed him some outlet to self-expression, but not a great deal of it.  It was a great performance of an extremely tightly-wound man who has no interest outside of his job, and avant-garde actor Gosling should be congratulated for doing his job of never allowing Driver to have anything other than a removed way to him.

Mulligan matches him as Irene, who finds Driver appealing but who also loves her husband and especially their child.  Isaac, in the smaller role, makes Standard sympathetic in his real desire to go straight even though the cliche about him having one last job is something the script couldn't get around. 

This is in sharp contrast with Bryan Cranston's Shannon. Cranston is an actor with an amazing range who makes you forget his previous performances, be it the dim-witted father on Malcolm in the Middle, his frightening turn as Walter White on Breaking Bad, or as Shannon, a weak, wimpy, needy man yearning for a shot at racing fame.

As for Brooks, while his role as Bernie Rose isn't as revolutionary as perhaps it has been built up to be, it is surprising, even shocking, to see a man best known as the intelligent but bumbling fellow take a sharp turn into this cruel thug.  Brooks creates someone as far removed from Broadcast News as anything: Bernie is ruthless, cold, not above killing someone he thinks of as a friend in order to protect himself but who is also one of the brightest men in the room, or at least the most calculating.  It is surprising to see an actor best known for Woody Allen-type comedies play such a dangerous man, but Brooks goes for broke and nails his role.

One of the benefits of Hossein Amini's screenplay based on James Sallis' book, is that it keeps tight control on the story.  Drive never meanders into tangents trying to explain Driver's withdrawn nature or give him a backstory as to where or how he became what he ended up being.  Instead, we start with Driver getting ready for his job, neither interested in what they are hiring him for or passing judgment. 

Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography captures the darkness of the world Driver and those around him live in; even when they are in the light there is a sense of menace coming from the screen.  Finally, Cliff Martinez's score, that neo-techno music that sets Drive's remoteness, is one of the best pieces of music all year.

There were moments of self-conscious art in Drive, such as the entire elevator scene, but on the whole this can be forgiven.  It should be noted that this isn't a traditional action film in that the chases or violence aren't the central point of Drive.  Rather, the film is really about Driver: a shadow of a man who finally allows a sense of emotional intimacy to dictate his decisions rather than not care one way or the other. 

You have good performances, a fascinating story, a brilliant score, in short, Drive is a thinking-man's action film, but don't let that discourage you: it's a good movie too. 


Sunday, November 27, 2011

If A Tree Falls: A Story of The Earth Liberation Front. A Review


While I love nature and respect the glories of the wilderness, I also know there has to be a delicate balance between the needs of the planet and the needs of humanity.  I don't think highly of those who think trees have feelings, and while I respect the passion an environmentalist has for the Earth at times I am puzzled by the idea that the ends justify the means.

Such is the case with the Earth Liberation Front, a controversial organization some billed as an eco-terrorist group that struck fear by setting fire to lumber mills, government offices, or any other entity they believed was a danger to the planet, though never targeting people in their acts.  If A Tree Falls delves not only into the story of the ELF, in particular of member Daniel McGowan, but also into the entire idea of whether groups like the ELF are themselves terrorists.

If A Tree Falls really is the story of McGowan, who appears to be a nice-enough fellow.  We go through his journey as to how he became enmeshed in one of the most controversial groups on American soil. 

Daniel was not someone who gave much thought to the environment, until a woman brought him to a Wetlands benefit, and his eyes were opened to the extent of the dangers the Earth was facing.  It isn't until he joins protests in Eugene, Oregon and in particular the WTO protests in Seattle that McGowan becomes truly radicalized. 

The threat to the Earth prompts him to join with the ELF, and they begin their attacks.  While McGowan served as mostly a lookout, once participating in the actual burning of property, eventually he realizes that the group was going too far.  However, by this time it really is too late: the FBI is already on the ELF's trail, determined to bring them down. 

The group eventually collapses on itself, but both the FBI and local investigators are determined to bring in all the ELF they can find.  Eventually, they get a break with Jake Ferguson, another ELF member who becomes a stool pigeon and helps them find more members, including Dan McGowan. 

All this is told through McGowan, who in If A Tree Fell is most of the time under house arrest awaiting trial, along with interviews with other ELF members, investigators, and victims of the acts of arson.  The film ends with the verdict: McGowan will serve seven years and be on a terrorist watch list, restricted to an ultimate maximum security prison, away from his family and new bride.

Image result for if a tree falls a story of the earth liberation frontDirector Marshall Curry has a personal connection with McGowan: his wife worked with him, though unaware of his ELF affiliation.  If A Tree Falls is brilliant in its objectivity: it neither attempts to make McGowan heroic for his actions nor does it condemn him for them. 

In fact, the film does well in interviewing the owners of the Superior Lumber Company where they get to talk about the fire that caused damage, not just to their property but to their sense of security.  We also get to hear from the detectives, whom we see as professionals who are not against the environment but are not amused by the ELF's actions.

If A Tree Falls is the first true documentary I've seen in a long time.  Unlike other films that bear the name 'documentary', the film presents the story of the ELF and of McGowan without trying to show one side or the other as either good or bad.  In short, we get to focus on how a basically good guy like McGowan got mixed up with the group.  McGowan himself appears often in If A Tree Falls, and he comes across as a very sincere, even pleasant person, nowhere near the raving lunatic one might expect an environmentalist to be.

Nowhere in the movie does it attempt to endorse the ELF's actions or to make them out to be monsters or vigilantes.  Instead, If A Tree Falls is the portrait of a man who is sincere in his beliefs but nevertheless went about it the wrong way.  McGowan talks about the last fires he was personally involved with at a poplar farm where the group believed the trees had been genetically altered; he talks about how they were given wrong information and that attacking the place was a terrible mistake, and the regret was palpable.

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In fact, If A Tree Falls could be accused of taking sides, it would be about whether labeling McGowan or any of the ELF as 'terrorists' on the same level as Al-Qaeda is appropriate.  The ELF went out of its way to never set arson where people could be harmed or killed, and McGowan was in the majority of the ELF who were dead-set against targeting people, which some now wanted to do in order to protect Mother Gaia.  It all seems so unfair to have this plump, pleasant, sincere individual labelled a terrorist, and perhaps this is as close to taking sides If A Tree Falls ever gets.

However,  I'd say that If A Tree Falls comes as close to any documentary to live up to that title, to be a fair film that tries to place complex issues like terrorism and radical activism and environmentalism with an even-handedness.  Unlike other documentaries which are really advocacy films asking me to take sides one way or another, If A Tree Falls is only interested in exploring all these issues within the story of Dan McGowan.  It also has the benefit of having sparse narration.  It is one of the best and fairest documentaries I've seen all year. 

The film ends on a sad note: McGowan has decided to take a plea bargain where he won't have to testify against others rather than have his family endure a difficult trial.  For his efforts, he continues to serve a prison term which will end in 2014.  Just before he goes, McGowan and his family, including his new bride Jenny Synan, go to the forest, and there is something sad and tragic at seeing McGowan walk around that beautiful nature, the one he so loved and which he sacrificed so much for.

Dan McGowan is neither to be commended for committing acts of arson nor vilified for being passionate.  In the end, you understand his motives but don't approve of his actions.  You feel for him but you also see he did harm to both the movement he worked for and to others who were doing him no harm. 

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front doesn't ask for either approval or condemnation.  It only asks that we listen and learn from his story, and draw our own conclusions. 

Born 1974


Hanna: A Review


Hit-Girl Revisited...

Perhaps I was misled as I watched Hanna.  I thought it would be an action/thriller about a teen assassin with pulsating music by The Chemical Brothers.  Instead, Hanna is a vaguely artsy film that involves a girl trained to kill but is both innocent child and cold killer, an odd hybrid of Frankenstein and Kill Bill

Up in the frozen tundra of Finland, we have young Hanna (Saoirse Ronan).  She's your average teenage girl, at least one that's been trained in several languages and in various killing methods by her father Erik (Eric Bana). 

As can be expected, living in isolated Finland, she has not grown up around people or with anything close to civilization: she has never heard music or seen airplanes.  All her years, she has been carefully trained by Papa Erik to memorize the house of the Brothers Grimm as a meeting point once they have dealt with the mysterious Marissa.  This Marissa has been like a shadow over Hanna's life, a source of danger that she and only she can deal with at a time of her choosing.  All she has to do is flip a switch.

It goes without saying that eventually Hanna flips the switch, and the transmitter within gets in touch with the desired target: said Marissa (Cate Blanchett).  This CIA mastermind wants Hanna and Erik taken alive.  However, Erik has gone ahead to meet Hanna at the agreed meeting place and Hanna herself is captured.  Marissa is suspicious, and with reason: in short order Hanna dispatches the False Marissa and makes a daring escape. 

We find that she somehow was smuggled from Finland to Morocco, where Hanna just happens to come across a British family on holiday.  You have the dim father Sebastian (Jason Flemyng), the slightly hippie mother Rachel (Olivia Williams) and their children, sweet Miles (Aldo Maland) and bratty Sophie (Jessica Barden).   From Morocco, Hanna sneaks away into Europe, hitching a ride with Sophie's family until Marissa and her minions track her down and Hanna again has another daring escape.

Finally, she reaches the rendezvous point: Berlin.  Marissa is in hot pursuit, aided by Isaacs (Tom Hollander), her own hit man.  In Berlin, all the pieces come together: Hanna is the result of genetic engineering to create super-soldiers, but when the program was iced all the babies and their mothers were to be exterminated.  Despite Marissa's best efforts, one managed to slip through, and Erik, who reveals he is not Hanna's natural father, sacrifices himself to give Hanna more time.  At last, the confrontation between Hanna and Marissa comes amid an abandoned amusement park, and Hanna manages to triumph and go into a sequel, I mean, get away.

Image result for hanna movieI could not help think just now that the abandoned Grimm's Fairy Tale-like setting was perhaps subconsciously or deliberately taken from The Lady From Shanghai.  In fact, that is one of the things I disliked about Hanna: how despite the story, director Joe Wright couldn't help himself in throwing these deliberately and self-consciously artsy touches to what should have been a good action film. 

There's for example, the moment when Hanna comes across Miles and Sophie.  Here is this extremely pale, almost ghostly-looking girl in an orange jumpsuit coming across two kids in the desert with only the vastness of the Sahara as background.

I digress to point out just how bizarre the set-up was to me, let alone the curious lapses of logic.  Here is this girl wandering around the desert, obviously not a native Morrocan, and both Sophie and Miles react as if there is nothing particularly out-of-the-ordinary in this sight.  That is bad enough, but to think that neither Sebastian or Rachel don't think there's anything slightly weird in Hanna just wandering around the desert with no family and no real understanding of the world around them makes them downright stupid. There is a surprising, almost shocking lack of curiousity by the British family about Hanna herself that to my mind just didn't make any sense.

As I've stated, there are many shots within Hanna that call attention to themselves, from the opening of her tracking down a caribou to the final confrontation between the Southern-accented Marissa and the Germanic Hanna. 

Side note: I wasn't too overwhelmed with all the accents floating about, but bless Australians Blanchett and Bana for how they handled them, so they get some credit.

Seth Lochhead and David Farr's screenplay (from a story by Lochhead) had me thinking of another story.  There was a story I once heard of a child who was targeted for death but who managed to escape, even if it did cost the child the parent's life, and taken to be watched over by a foster parent until they were ready to meet the one who wants said child dead.

Can I call her Hanna Potter?

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I don't want to say that there aren't things to admire in Hanna.  Chief among them are the performances.  Blanchett is excellent as the methodical and dangerous Marissa, a woman who is single-minded in her determination to wipe out the last of the super-children.  Bana continues to impress as Erik, a man whose motives are sincere from the time of his training to his end, though  again, was a bit cinematic in my view.

Ronan is the real star of Hanna: her mixture of curiosity and wonder at the outside world and her efficiency in killing is remarkable and the signs of a growing talent.  Take the scene in Morocco, where she is shown her room.  All the electrical appliances from the magic of the sounds a television makes to the fear a coffeemaker unleashes in her, overwhelm our heroine, and Ronan's performance capture both Hanna's fascination with and fear of electricity. 

However, to my mind the negatives become too many to Hanna's positives.  For getting star billing in the trailer, The Chemical Brother's score isn't a big part of the film.  In fact, the movie is remarkable in that for long stretches there isn't much music or perhaps much music that was particularly memorable, with only the musical section Container Park worth anything. 

I also wondered why people always pick Edvard Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King to create a sense of danger and menace?  The fact that Erik's friend the magician was playing a record when Marissa's henchmen arrive does not help.  Again, cinematic...

I also was displeased to see Isaac always whistling a little ditty to signal that he's dangerous.  We've seen that before in other films, and it's not particularly clever or adds anything to a remarkably blank personality like Isaacs.

If anything else, leaving Hanna free to walk away has me highly suspicious that Hanna is the first part of a hoped-for sequel or worse, franchise.  It would be strange given that both Marissa and Erik don't make it to the final reel that Hanna would have more adventures, and it would have been interesting to see her explore the world of which she's always heard of but never actually experienced herself. 

It may be just my general fear and dislike of films setting up sequels, but after finishing Hanna I couldn't help think a second part would be hoped-for.  There is some action, which is good for an action film, but a bit too much art for its own good. This child won't lead the way.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Week With Marilyn: A Review


Me and Marilyn Monroe...

I've read Barbara Leaming's wonderful biography of Marilyn Monroe, which goes into the chaotic and highly problematic production of The Sleeping Prince, but have not seen The Prince and the Showgirl, as The Sleeping Prince was re-titled. Therefore, I go into My Week With Marilyn with some idea as to the backstage confusion, resentments, and/or bitter recriminations The Prince and the Showgirl evoked from its participants but without knowing whether their tortured collaboration bore anything good.

From what I do know, My Week With Marilyn got a great deal of the behind-the-scenes difficulties right, but whether it got the actual story of the relationship between Monroe and Colin Clark, whose memoir The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me the film is based on, I cannot say. 

My Week With Marilyn really is less about Monroe or the actual production of The Prince and the Showgirl.  Instead, it's the story of young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) the youngest son of a privileged background who does not want to be an intellectual like his father and brother.  Rather, he wants to go into show-business, but behind the camera.  With persistence and a vague promise from Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), Colin gets a job of 3rd assistant director on his new film, The Sleeping Prince. It will star Sir Larry and the glamorous Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams), who recently married playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).  Colin, like all men, is excited to see and work with Monroe, but we soon see that she's a rather delicate person.

She shows up late, doesn't know her lines, and is extremely dependent on the Method style of acting as well as her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker).  Any one of those acts sends co-star/director Olivier batty, but all together it makes working with her a nightmare.  Not that he doesn't make matters worse: berating and bullying the visibly fragile star, he goes one too far when he tells her to use her natural talents and be 'sexy', which proves the worse thing he could tell Monroe, someone desperate to be thought of as a serious actress.

Another Prince & The Showgirl co-star, Dame Sybil Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench) is the only one on-set who shows Monroe genuine kindness; at one point Thorndike puts Sir Larry in his place for how he treats Monroe in front of everyone.  However, most everyone else appears exasperated by Monroe's behavior: from her guard Roger (Phillip Jackson) to her producing partner Milton Greene (Dominic Cooper).  Only Colin appears bedazzled by her beauty.

Colin, however, forgets that he too has become smitten, with costume assistant Lucy (Emma Watson).  He wants to romance her, and she's open to it, but she also understands no woman could ever compete with Marilyn Monroe.  In that glorious but too brief time Colin spends with the goddess, she all but kidnaps him, and in their journey go to Windsor Castle where his connections allow a brief visit to his godfather, royal librarian Sir Owen Morehead (Derek Jacobi), his old school of Eton, and finally, a quick swim.

Whether they actually became lovers is not specifically shown but is implied.  However, her needs are many, and she cuts him off.  Somehow, The Prince and the Showgirl is finished.  However, while Olivier knows Monroe has great screen presence and has great qualities within her, the experience is so disheartening he never directs another film.  Colin eventually moves on, always carrying memories of his week with Marilyn.

Again and again, I couldn't help think of Me and Orson Welles while watching My Week With Marilyn.  The primary reason for it is because like in Me and Orson Welles, My Week With Marilyn really isn't about the star in question.

Rather, it's about the person connected with said star: the "Me" and "My".  I don't begrudge them this, after all, the story should be primary about the narrator and how he sees the famous person they are working alongside of.

That being said, the fact that Monroe is really a secondary character should not be a big source of frustration, except to Monroe fans who may expect a behind-the-scenes profile of their favorite star.

That may be why My Week With Marilyn takes a great deal of time focusing on Colin: on his desires to enter that world of filmmaking, his eagerness to please everyone around him, and his connection with the most famous woman in cinema.  There isn't a great deal of just how fraught with difficulty the production of The Prince and the Showgirl was, and this is best seen whenever Julia Ormond's Vivien Leigh appears.

Leigh had originated the role on the stage, so something could have been made of Lady Olivier being replaced by a much younger woman.  It also could have dealt into Leigh's manic-depression, which made things extremely difficult for Olivier.  In short, he was under extreme duress himself: a mad woman at work, a mad woman at home. 

Also, while there are hints as to the tensions in the early days of the Miller-Monroe marriage, there are only one or two scenes dealing with it, both very short.  In fact, Miller is almost non-existent in My Week With Marilyn, to where despite his needed presence, one wonders whether he had a role there at all.

He wasn't the only one short-changed.  Watson isn't the greatest actress in the world (I'm one of the few who was not overwhelmed by Hermione Granger) but she isn't given all that much to do in the film.

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However, on the whole the major roles are given greater attention.  Branagh brings both a prickliness and vulnerability, even fear, to Olivier, someone who sees a danger in both the Method which he detests, and who is unhappy about both Monroe's lack of punctuality and his own sense that life is slipping away from him.  Dench's Dame Sybil is a source of proper British behavior and professionalism along with genuine fascination and kindness for everyone, an actress who knows what pressure everyone was under.

Wanamaker, granted, appeared to be channeling another Sybil (Branagh's ex-wife Emma Thompson's Sybil Trelawney from the Harry Potter films) with her large glasses and black garb, but she did show both how she was able to pump up Monroe and do damage by making the fragile star depend wholly on her for directing (which must have caused a professional like Olivier fits of fury).

Another highlight is Cooper's Milton Greene.  I'm amazed at just how well and efficient his American accent is, so authentic it even sounds like he's an actual New Yorker to where we forget he's actually British.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a large role, and for most of the film he was reduced to being a short-tempered individual rather than one who was way over his head in the producing side.

Image result for my week with marilynNow, as to our actual leads, Redmayne brought a wide-eyed fascination to his Colin, one who appears to realize that making films can be a trying experience.  Throughout the film, Colin remains dangerously close to permanent naivete, but given the story, we're willing to give a little way in the performance.

As for Williams, there are certainly moments when she appears to look so much like Monroe we could be forgiven in thinking she was Monroe.  I think she did as good a job at getting the distinctive screen image of Marilyn Monroe as we've seen in a long time.  She does convince people that the woman was both a wreck and a wrecker, badly damaged and damaging to everyone around her. 

My one caveat on Williams as Monroe is that I wonder if director Simon Curtis couldn't have had her tone down the breathy, distinctive "Marilyn Monroe" voice.  Having seen footage of her interviews, Monroe did not always speak in that particular baby-like sotto voce, and I imagine when she was off-camera Monroe's voice wasn't as breathy. It would have been good to get Williams to make her on occasion rage rather than be perpetually frightened.  However, Michelle Williams did a great job of doing a strong Marilyn Monroe interpretation as opposed to either impersonation or caricature, and for this she should be congratulated.

This is where I would say that Adrian Hodges' script would have been best served to, like in Me and Orson Welles, focused more on the difficulties The Prince and the Showgirl had and less on how Colin Clark was a protector to Monroe.  The story of how both Olivier and Monroe were facing dramatic personal and professional struggles that this film brought them makes for an interesting story in and of itself, so there's very little need to have Colin's romances to keep us fully interested.  A little less Me and a little bit more Marilyn Monroe would go a long way.

However, again on the whole these are details that don't take away from the strong performances by Williams and Branagh or the overall interesting story in My Week With Marilyn.  There's never been a definitive Marilyn Monroe biopic, and My Week With Marilyn ain't it.  She really is a supporting character in this story; given that it's Colin's version of events, I don't hold it against the movie.

I can't say the film is as great as the projects Monroe and Olivier made after The Prince and the Showgirl (Some Like It Hot and The Entertainer respectively) or even The Prince and the Showgirl itself.  What I can say is that My Week With Marilyn has its share of problems, but the overall results are quite good.

A bit like Monroe herself.

Forever beautiful, forever lost, forever lovelorn, simply Forever...


Friday, November 25, 2011

Shame (2011): A Review


Baring Body and Soul...

Allow me a little discourse on intercourse. 

I have never accepted the idea that God intended sex to be solely for procreation.  My belief is that God intended his Creation to achieve pleasure from sex and that a husband and wife should have sex simply to enjoy the physical satisfaction of intimacy with each other without thinking about making babies. 

Note that I said 'intimacy'.  Sex for one's own physical gratification is empty, hollow, and ultimately leaves one unfulfilled.  This is why casual sex, so-called 'friends with benefits', and pornography are things I don't understand.  The few times I've seen a pornographic movie (thank you, Cinemax), my mind has been so trained that I did ask myself every time there was a sex act, 'how is this relevant to the plot?' 

I also found the actual sex in these 'Skin-emax' films neither erotic or tittilating.  I found it actually rather sad.  The performers may be simulating physical pleasure, but there was always something mechanical, robotic, perfunctory in the sex acts.  In short, they didn't seem to be enjoying themselves or interested in giving true pleasure to the person they're having sex with. 

To my mind, sex without intimacy, without a sense of wanting to make the experience pleasurable to the other, just reduces sex to a mere physical activity no different than defecating or urinating.  The point of sex, I feel, is to not just get the physical satisfaction out of it. One should never deny sex can be extremely pleasurable if between consenting adults, but sex is not about that. It should be about giving both physical and emotional satisfaction and yes, intimacy, to your partner.  Otherwise, sex for one's own gratification will be at most a temporary high and will probably lessen the succeeding sexual encounters.

While I admit I was surprised that my thinking on sex was similar to C. S. Lewis' in Mere Christianity, I came to my conclusions on sex versus love-making on my own, basing them on both my own experiences as well as observations of my friends both Christian and Secular.  Professor Lewis merely gave my own ideas on sex intellectual weight and prestige. 

Image result for shame movieNow, what did all that have to do with Michael Fassbender showing us his envy-inducing penis?  In truth, a great deal, since Shame deals with a man for whom sex is more compulsion than anything else.  His life is consumed with sex but not love, the physical side of it without the intimacy that truly brings about the pleasure it brings.  In terms of a character study of a man undone by pleasures of the flesh, Shame is a strong film.  In terms of causing scandal, I may be in the minority, but I find there really isn't much that should cause people to flee from  or be excited over. 

Brandon (Fassbender) is successful in whatever he works at: the story is vague about what his job actually is, but I think it has to do with advertising/public relations; however, he has no real life.  Instead, all his extracurricular activities revolve around sex: getting sex either through casual encounters or prostitution, viewing sex via Internet porn and magazines, or through auto-erotic exercises.  He doesn't look like he gets much if any pleasure out of his sexual encounters or self-stimulation.  Rather, it is just something he does. 

His life is disrupted by the sudden appearance of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An aspiring singer, she quickly hooks up with Brandon's friend/boss David (James Badge Dale), a man who likes sex but is really trying too hard to get some.  In any case, he manages to score with Sissy, displeasing Brandon immensely.

Brandon has his own issues; while trying to keep control over his sexual desires, he begins a romance with Marianne (Nicole Beharie).  While she is not averse to a little on the side, she does believe that people should look for someone to connect with.  Whether it's a desire to finally let someone in or just being tired of how sex dominates his life, Brandon begins to clean house.  Unfortunately, cleaning house also means throwing Sissy out.

Brandon then indulges all his sexual urges in one lost night: he openly stimulates a woman and brazenly tells her boyfriend what he'd like to do to her, getting him quickly beat up. After getting turned away from what I presume a sex club he frequents, he goes to a gay bar and allows a man to give him oral sex, culminating going to a sleazy hotel for a threesome.  After this night of debauchery, he fears for Sissy, rushes home, and finds she has slit her wrists, barely alive. 

We end Shame pretty much where we started: Brandon is on the subway, attracting the attention of an unknown beauty.  She signals that she would like him to follow her out, and we're left wondering whether he does.

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It might be just a personal issue, but such open-ended endings have never been a particular favorite of mine.  At times they can be good (Inception).  However, I just didn't think we saw exactly what would have compelled Brandon to hold back on his urges.  I figure his sister's attempted suicide might have, but given how his desires trump almost everything in his life, it does make one wonder why director/co-writer Steve McQueen (with co-writer Abi Morgan) would introduce this element.

I think that's being a touch picky.  Shame on the whole is a strong film about a subject that could be salacious but turns into a story of addiction and the hollowness of an individual.  One doesn't feel particular sympathy for Brandon, but one always senses that the pleasure one gets from sex is one that he both seeks and never gets. 

Let me get the issue of the nudity out of the way first.  I'm not shocked easily, and I wasn't shocked by all the nudity in Shame.  There is a great deal of it: there are many nude women in Shame, and Mulligan is fully nude in the film as well, so the idea that this is somehow a showcase for Fassbender's Teutonic/Irish manhood is rather idiotic. 

In fact, his penis isn't on screen all that much, so women and I suppose some men who might be tempted to rush out to get a load of a rising star's rising member will find that for the most part, we don't get to see it all that much. 

The NC-17 rating Shame received made sense because of both the subject matter as well as some of the graphic sex scenes in the film.  Then again, I'm not shocked by much, and seeing Michael Fassbender as God created him is neither a selling point or something that would keep me away from Shame if I thought it a good film.

Image result for shame movieThat is the positive thing about Shame: it is a good though not great film.  As I've stated, the open-ending was not something I was particularly thrilled at, and I found it curious that both the characters of David and Marianne basically disappeared halfway through Shame, never to be heard from again.  It's almost as if McQueen just dropped them or even forgot about them.

However, the flaws within Shame are more than made up by the performances.  Fassbender is already a great actor (ex. Jane Eyre) and a rising star (ex. X-Men: First Class).  In Shame, he makes Brandon not a lusty and selfish man but a deeply haunted one, a man who uses sex because he doesn't have any other way to bring even a semblance of connection with people.  Brandon is so consumed with sex that when we see his total collapse: when this thoroughly heterosexual man engages in a casual same-sex encounter or when he becomes part of a threesome, it isn't to get pleasure but to get emotional release.  For Brandon, sex is no longer even for self-pleasure, it is to feel anything.

McQueen also gets great performances out of his other cast members.  Mulligan scores another excellent performance to match her role in An Education; she makes Sissy's need for love one where sex is not important, but connecting with people is.  She loves and needs her brother, and his constant rejection, in particular whenever she finds him in an awkward situation, pushes her over.  Dale's David is brilliant as the man who is trying too hard to impress the ladies, making him both clumsy and slightly sleazy.  Behaire's Marianne comes across as a regular person, interested in Brandon but interested beyond a mere physical relationship which Brandon is only capable of.

There are other things I should compliment Shame on.  First is Harry Escott's sparse but haunting score.  It is rather reminiscent of the score to RAN in its mournful, sorrowful quality.  Escott creates a mood of sadness with his music throughout the film to great effect.  Sean Bobbitt's cinematography doesn't paint the sex scenes, in particular Brandon's night of debauchery, as beautiful or romantic but as hazy, almost frightening to compliment Brandon's mental and emotional emptiness. Joe Walker's editing also adds to what makes Shame a good film.

People going into Shame may expect something close to a porn movie, and there was more nudity than perhaps the film needed.  On the whole, Shame works in spite of the naked bodies because it isn't about sex but about how sex is empty without love. 


Meek's Cutoff: A Review


If it were not for the fact that Meek's Cutoff has two of my favorite actors (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano), I would have found the film beyond redemption.  I find that if you have certain actors in film, you can endure so much.  Such is the case with Meek's Cutoff.  You always sense that there is a great story somewhere in there, and you have good performances in it, but somehow you just think like the pioneers in the movie: 'when are going to get there'.

On their way to Oregon, a small group of pioneers are crossing the American frontier.  They are being led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a mountain man who claims to know a shortcut.  Needless to say, the shortcut seems longer than the set route would have been, and our group of pioneers become lost.  They wander, and wander, and wander.  Water supplies are running low, while tempers and fears are rising. 

While pioneer women like Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Emily (Williams) look on with growing paranoia and cool anger respectively, their husbands Solomon (Will Patton) and Thomas (Dano) cannot seem to decide to dump Meek (basically kill him) or keep going with him, hoping that he does indeed know the way.  The White family, father William (Neal Huff), daughter Glory (Shirley Henderson) and young Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) keep to themselves for the most part. 

As they keep going and going, hoping to make the Columbia River, the party comes across a wandering native (Rod Rondeux), billed as the Indian.  While Meek would rather just kill the Indian, Solomon and Thomas believe he might know where there is water, so they keep him alive.  Soon, the party starts following the Indian, but whether they are following him to get water or following him into their destruction we do not know. 

Millie is convinced that the Indian means to do them harm, while Emily believes the danger comes more from Meek than from the Indian.  Finally, Solomon is the one who falls ill, and Meek reluctantly begins to take orders from the strong-willed Emily.  The Indian walks away, while Emily looks on.

Related imageAs I think on Meek's Cutoff, I think both the positive and negative aspects of the film come from Kelly Reichardt's pacing.  On the one hand, she captures the monotony of the pioneer experience as they made their way across the American frontier to the Pacific.  On the other hand, said monotony soon starts dragging the film to where you wonder when anything will happen. 

Credit should be given to how well the emptiness of the prairie and desert of the unconquered West were visualized in Christopher Blauvelt's cinematography, but so much of Meek's Cutoff involved this group just march on and on and on.

Now, that might have been part of the point in Meek's Cutoff: to show how our ancestors trudged onward, and we could accept that.  What was becoming more difficult to bear was how we really never got to know the characters. 

Does it matter why they were going to Oregon?  Does it matter how they managed to get mixed up with Meek?  Do they as individuals actually matter?  My sense is that the answer is no. The point of watching stories such as Meek's Cutoff is to gain an emotional involvement with the characters on the screen.  For most of the movie, we weren't even sure how they all connected with each other.  We never got a firm answer as to whether Meek was deliberately leading them into disaster, was sincerely but wrong or was just an idiot. 

Jon Raymond's script never appears interested in answering any of these questions or trying to figure the motivations of any of the characters, from Emily to Meek to the Indian.  We're always presented with situations but never get a definitive resolution to them.  For example, the Indian leaves marks on rocks along the way.  Is this a way to signal to his nation where they are headed as Millie fears, or just a way to express his religion as Solomon believes. 

Solomon and Thomas don't appear to trust Meek as the journey continues, but they never appear to want to make a decision one way or another to either commit or dump him.   Does the Indian care about Solomon's death (since he performed some sort of death rite only he understood) or just wants to live?

Given the fact that Meek's Cutoff is an hour and forty-four minutes, one gets the sense that it is truly far longer because again, so little appears to actually happen to any of them save the journey. 

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I will give Reichardt credit where she deserves it: she gets good performances out of her small cast.  Emily's strength comes through, as does the insecurity of both Thomas and Solomon and Millie's growing sense of fear about their situation.  Nelson's Jimmy showed how a child would find a character like Meek, with his wild hair and rather dirty demeanor, fascinating.

Again, I go to Blauvelt's beautiful camera work: early in Meek's Cutoff, we see a transition to where we first imagine a ghost rider in the sky only to find that what we are seeing is the travellers going through the plains.  Reichardt, who also serves as editor, brought sequences like that flawlessly, and all those are enhanced by Jeff Grace's sparse but elegant score.

I get the sense that Meek's Cutoff will try many viewer's patience.  First, the film is intolerably slow.  Second, we don't get to know any of the characters or their motives particularly well.  Third, the film is intolerably slow.  Fourth, Meek's Cutoff really doesn't have a beginning or an end: we jump in when the group is already lost, and we just end the film with the Indian walking away, so we don't know whatever happened to any of them.  That it is based on history does not absolve the film from either lacking in catharsis or from being intolerably slow. 

On the positive side, it is as close to an accurate portrayal of what crossing the frontier would have been like as we're likely to have.  We also have both Williams and Dano, two fine actors, in the film, and a chance to see them on the screen is always a welcome one.  Those, however, are small comforts to how intolerably slow Meek's Cutoff is.   The fact that I was so looking forward to it because of Williams, Dano, and the subject matter makes it all the more frustrating.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Melancholia: A Review (Review #290)


These are two points where Melancholia writer/director Lars von Trier and I disagree on: self-consciously artsy films or "understanding" Adolph Hitler.  After watching Melancholia, my mind reverted to Rachel Getting Married: a great performance stuck in an obsessively serious and self-important film.

We begin with a series of very poetic images, all involving a young woman: slowly running through a field, being surrounded by flies, observing a child whittling a large branch, all culminating in a slow shot of a planet crashing onto another.  After this tableau, we head to a wedding in what is billed Part One: Justine.

The bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and the groom Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) are navigating a stretch limo to the golf course chateau where their reception will take place.  After a long time, the couple finally arrive, much to the irritation of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland).  We then go through a difficult reception, where Justine is slowly falling apart.  Michael is a weak man, incapable of getting his bride through whatever stress is overwhelming her.  Justine's mother Gabby (Charlotte Rampling) does not hide her resentment of marriage in general, while her ex-husband Dexter (John Hurt) is having too much fun with his broads to care about anything.

Meanwhile, Justine's employer Jack (Stellan Skarsgard), trying to get a tag line from her, gets his nephew Tim (Brady Corbet) to follow her around.  Justine becomes so emotionally distraught that she wanders all around the golf course, culminating in her having sex with Tim in a sand trap.  As Justine slips further and further into 'melancholia', Michael leaves her and she tells Jack off, which prompts her to get fired.

Image result for melancholia movieNow, we go to Part Two: Claire.  Justine is now alone at this seemingly empty golf course, with only her sister, brother-in-law, and nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr).  John is an astronomer and is convinced that a new planet, called Melancholia, will not crash into Earth and obliterate the planet but will merely pass very close by.  Now it's Claire who is going bonkers: not only does she have to care for the brittle Justine, but now is convinced they are all going to die.

As two worlds come closer, Justine doesn't exactly rally or become suddenly cheerful but instead gains some sort of stability, even acceptance of where she is at.  As we come to the literal end, Claire realizes that yes, Melancholia will indeed crash into Earth and that there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  At the end, while Claire constantly cries, especially after John has bumped himself off, and Leo is a bit oblivious to it all, Justine merely accepts the end of the world as the end of all things.

Again, I'm not a big fan of films that call too much attention to how artistic they are, both in tone and visuals.  Melancholia does this starting from the get-go, with rather a elaborate and grand opening sequence which in a dreamlike way state all the things we are going to see, in short, tells the story without giving away too much.  Chief among Melancholia's artistic aspirations involves the dialogue: not the words actually spoken, but in how it is spoken.

I'm learning that you can tell an 'art' film by all the whispering going on.  This type of delivery: all this whispering when characters speak to each other, I find to be general nonsense; people speak to each other in a even tone of voice neither soft whispers or general shouting.  By having all this breathy delivery by nearly all the characters, it draws attention to the unreality of the film.

Image result for melancholia movieThe problem I had with Melancholia is that I thought the actual story was quite inventive and clever: a woman sinking into depression at what would be her happiest day but finding an equilibrium before the world literally ends.  However, I found that von Trier's handling of his story is what sank the film into bordering on the slightly pretentious side.

A more realistic tone where people don't whisper, where the camera doesn't zoom in and out all over the place, one where Wagner's Tristan und Isolde doesn't announce great tragedy or romance, or at least so often, would have made Melancholia a much better film in terms of drama.  As directed by von Trier, there is never any true sense of impending disaster, no sense of doom with Melancholia about to obliterate Terra Firma.  Instead, there is basically what I call bored fear: a sense that there might be something but nothing that will cause great worries.

This isn't to say there aren't great things in Melancholia.  I find that the performances are far better than the directing.   It's been a long time since we've able to appreciate what a good actual actress Kirsten Dunst is.  Last time I saw her, she was screaming her way through Spider-Man 3, but in Melancholia, she creates this woman who we can see is unraveling before us.  Her range from a sense of being overwhelmed by something within her to expressing anger at Jack through her acceptance that the world will end show her to be an extremely accomplished performer who hasn't done enough.

Actors or actresses who can express so much with just their faces, the look in their eyes for example, those who say a lot without dialogue, are the type that overwhelm us.  Kirsten Dunst overwhelms us in Melancholia.

We know she must be crazy: any woman who doesn't want to schtupp Alexander Skarsgard has to be a bit nuts.
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I was also highly impressed by the younger Skarsgard: it was an interesting turn for someone best known as the virile vampire in True Blood to be such a whimpering, almost pathetically weak man.  His performance was remarkably small: midway through Melancholia, he disappears, but in the few scenes he's in, not only does this Swede maintain a perfect American English accent, he also expresses the weakness within him, how he simply does not know how to handle either Justine or her family.

Gainsbourg was a bit too whimpering as Claire, but seeing her growing panic as she knows of the world's end was almost haunting; almost, since all that whispering got in the way.  As Justine and Claire's parents, Hurt and Rampling were excellent as the irresponsible father and the bitter, bitchy mother.

Truth be told, I thought that one could have made a whole story about them; actually, a better, stronger film could have been made if the focus had been on the story and not the visual grandness of Melancholia.  Again and again, if it were not for all the pseudo-artsy aspirations of Melancholia, the film would have been brilliant.

In technical matters, certainly Manuel Alberto Claro's cinematography, in particular the visually stunning opening sequence with a hint of Hamlet's Ophelia when we see our bride floating above the water, is spellbinding.  There isn't a score to speak of, but while Tristan und Isolde at times was a bit too dramatic for my tastes, I have to admit Wagner's music was used very efficiently in creating that quasi-dream quality in Melancholia

On the whole, however, I found Melancholia too involved in its aspirations to be "art" to be entertaining.  It isn't that I didn't get the idea that inner turmoil wouldn't appear to be the end of the world, and on a certain level the film works if you yearn for those artsy endeavors.

However, the wild camera work put me off, the naked aspirations, figuratively and literally, put me off, and all I could think of was that Melancholia was The Tree of Life meets Deep Impact with a mix of Rachel Getting Married.

Melancholia would not be my choice as the last thing I'd see when the world ends.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Anonymous (2011): A Review


A Battle of Wills...

I am a firm believer that the author of such works as Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry V, Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Tempest among many, many others is one William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon and no one else wrote the plays or the sonnets under his name.

Now that bit of wisdom has been challenged in film.  Anonymous purports to tell the True Story: that the man we know as Shakespeare was really a front for a high-born nobleman: Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.  The idea that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare has been around for a long time, and the candidacy of Oxford is now the latest one.

Anonymous, oddly, doesn't make its case by doing anything as mundane as providing any evidence to back up this claim.  Rather, it gives us a rather perverse albeit visually interesting view of Elizabethan theater and court intrigue, one that ultimately drowns in its own seriousness.

Image result for anonymous movie shakespeareWe begin in present-day, when Sir Derek Jacobi is rushing to the theater.  Once there, the curtain literally rises as he begins to present his proof that one Will Shakespeare could not have written the plays, poems, and sonnets credited to him; Will's father, a glove maker, of all things, his wife and daughter were all illiterate (ergo, Will couldn't be educated).

With that, we have a transition to the main setting of Anonymous: London just as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I is in her final days.  Poet and playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armento) has been taken to the Tower for questioning at the hands of Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg), the hunchback son of the late Master Statesman William Cecil (David Thewlis).  He wants to know where 'the plays' are, the ones he was seen with just as Cecil's men burnt the Rose Theater in an effort to literally smoke Johnson out.

We jump five years earlier, where Jonson is watching his latest work performed.  Among those in the audience is the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans).  Oxford now believes he's found the perfect man to serve as his stooge.  He presents Jonson with a shocking proposition: Jonson will take the plays De Vere wrote and present them as Jonson's own works.  De Vere, as a nobleman, cannot be seen to be associating with literature, so he obviously cannot take credit for anything as lowly as playwriting, especially since he is married into the House of Cecil, and especially with such works as A Midsummer Night's Dream, a personal favorite of the now-doddering Gloriana (Vanessa Redgrave). 

Not that he hadn't already written plays before hooking up with Jonson: Anonymous has another flashback within the main flashback where a young Queen Bess (Redgrave's real-life daughter Joely Richardson) is watching A Midsummer Night's Dream, with none other than a young Edward De Vere as Puck!

Allow me to digress for a moment.  In Anonymous, we are suppose to believe a child of around six to ten has come up with a major work of literature already fully formed, with Good Queen Bess being aware that it came from the little one, yet we're also asked to believe that anyone in Merry Olde England would believe that A Midsummer Night's Dream, which had been performed forty years prior to the end of the Elizabethan Age, was written by someone who wasn't even born when she would have seen the play for the first time (Her Majesty died in 1603, so take forty years away and we're in 1563; Shakespeare was born in 1564).  

Related imageTherefore, if one takes a logical look at Anonymous, by the time Elizabeth I took her last breath she was completely out of it that she died thinking William Shakespeare had written a play she had first seen some forty years earlier when the author wasn't even alive!   Take that, Claudius!  

As things turn out, De Vere's perfect scheme would go wildly wrong.  When Henry V premieres to a rapturous audience, who should take credit for this brilliant work but one William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), a self-absorbed actor who is also an idiot.  When the public clamours for the author, our boy Bill pops out and takes the bows.  While De Vere is infuriated that someone as lowly as Shakespeare: a barely literate actor should take credit for his brilliant works, he decides it will be a fluke.  The plan continues, with Oxford handing Jonson the complete manuscripts of such trifles as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Romeo & Juliet all at the ready. 

We then shift between the end of Elizabeth's reign and the beginning of it, when she was young, nubile, and extremely horny.  She and Oxford begin a passionate affair which results in a bastard, a situation that according to William Cecil is a regular occurrence for the Virgin Queen.  Oxford learns that the Queen's bastard by Oxford is now the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel).  Shakespeare, meanwhile, blackmails our noble noble for money and to keep the plays rolling along.  However, Oxford finds the dimwit Will has a purpose after all: a subtle attack on the hunchback Robert Cecil via a new play, called Richard III.

De Vere hopes that the anger the play will arouse will somehow help Southampton as well as the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) get rid of Cecil and now gain Elizabeth's favor.  Naturally, the plan not only flops but Cecil gives De Vere the biggest shock of all: he, Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is really another one of Elizabeth's many bastard children himself!

I digress to point out that, if we are to believe Anonymous, not only had Elizabeth committed incest with her own son and been so idiotically unaware that she was schtupping her own son, but that Essex is simultaneously Elizabeth's son and grandson since he was both her natural son and the son of her own son!

Even more insane, Elizabeth may have been getting on with others in her Court who may have sprung from her virginal vagina (perhaps Southampton himself, thus possible making her son/grandson another lover).  Mercifully, we go back to De Vere, dying but not before giving him his complete works and having a convenient way of having "Shakespeare" working postmortem. 

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How strange that for all the stubbornness of the Oxfordians or as I like to call them, Shakespeare deniers, Anonymous fails in its efforts to support their claim.  John Orloff's screenplay takes the Oxfordian claim as virtual gospel, so it works straight on through without stopping somewhere in its meandering story to bring about anything that would support its premise.

We see Oxford writing something, which horrifies his wife, but we never have anything that actually shows him taking an interest in writing, no salons where literature is discussed, no circle of people with whom he could discuss writing in general, no memories of love's labors lost in Italy or dealings with Jews in Venice or a temperamental shrew of a wife he was forced to tame.

If Anonymous was made to convince us that William Shakespeare was not "William Shakespeare", it fails because it doesn't present any evidence that Edward De Vere was "William Shakespeare". 

Furthermore, Orloff's screenplay was ridiculously complicated by the transitions between the time of Old Queen Bess and Young Queen Bess.  We jump back and further back and then back to where we were without any sense of direction as to where the story is going.  It isn't impossible to follow, but it is a bit perplexing why we're jumping around to begin with.

Finally, let me discuss this incest thing.  There is no way to prove that Elizabeth did not have children during her reign; it's highly possible that despite how she did protest too much, the Virgin Queen was not. However, by making De Vere her lover despite their seventeen-year age difference it only makes the whole thing beyond grotesque into downright barbarism and needless barbarism at that.

It really is quite a sick thing to introduce not to mention historically irresponsible. There is no proof that Her Majesty was this wanton slut who screwed every nobleman within reach.  It is one thing to have her take a lover, but to throw in this loony twist makes the entire spectacle both crazy and disgusting.

Related imageIn terms of the film itself apart from the story, Anonymous does have some wonderful moments, in particular the recreations of the Elizabethan theater world.  Seeing the recreations of how Macbeth would have looked like at its premiere is a highlight of Anonymous.

The work of the costume designers, particularly in Elizabeth's lavish gowns, and the set designers bring a beauty to what would have been a rather dingy London of the Golden Age.

Roland Emmerich, best known for disaster films like Independence Day and 2012 now goes all costume drama with Anonymous, but he still can't get good performances in all the ruffles and feathers.

Redgrave is all dotty as the terribly senile Elizabeth, and her real-life daughter Richardson has nothing to do except look pretty and screw her own son.  Ifans' De Vere poses a great deal but why he was compelled to write is something he couldn't bring to life.  The biggest problem was with Spall: it would be easy to make Shakespeare this shallow idiot, but just making him too stupid to have written Hamlet does not proof make. 

The only real good performance was Armento's Jonson: the conflict between the brilliance of the Shakespeare plays with his loyalty to the Crown or fear of the Cecils is brought to full measure by his performance.

I also single out Robert Emms as fellow playwright Thomas Dekker: he showed himself as a dim person who is overwhelmed with passion at the brilliance of the plays, even crying at one point. If perhaps Anonymous had focused more on trying to ferret out how an allegedly dumb actor suddenly comes up with brilliant plays, even ones written before he was born, we could have had at least a good movie.

Ultimately, Anonymous doesn't prove Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the true author of the plays of William Shakespeare.  It has good moments of drama courtesy of the real Shakespeare, but all the costumes and sets can't cover up some awful performances and a jumbled story-line that goes past and present with abandon.  Frankly, if Anonymous is the best Oxfordians can come up with, the Sweet Swan of Avon can rest easy.

Finally, I add my own Personal Reflections on Anonymous and the Oxfordian debate.

Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

William Shakespeare