January 2, 2015
I brag about one thing I’ve done more than any other. More than being a bestselling author, more than hanging out with George R.R. Martin. The thing I brag about most: getting to see the original production of Into the Woods on Broadway with Bernadette Peters. This musical is becoming one of the great classics, and Peters’ basically owns the role of the Witch. I feel like, just by being an observer, I’m a participant in a classic moment of American theater. I imagine it being like seeing Ethel Merman play Annie Oakley or Robert Preston as Howard Hill. It was pure luck that I was there, but I’m incredibly happy about it nonetheless.
So you can imagine that I approached the movie with a great deal of trepidation. I had the perfect Into the Woods experience once. That would never happen again. Why was I even here?
Turns out, I didn’t need to be worried. The open song made me cry, just like it always does, because it’s perfect and beautiful and one of the most high-energy openings in any musical anywhere. The entire first act is just about perfect, really. Great singing, great story, great cast. Loved it. “Agony” is worth the price of admission all by itself. (And not just because for a split second you see Chris Pine singing it, and think, “Captain Kirk is singing this!” and it’s so very appropriate…)
Unfortunately, the bliss was not to last because the filmmakers took a bit of a machete to the second act, much to the detriment of the play’s very rich themes and meanings. I’m very curious — how did the movie go over for someone who doesn’t know the stage version like the back of their hand? Because yeah, I know this show, and I missed what was missing.
SPOILERS: Just a brief discussion of what was cut. I know everyone’s mourning the loss of “Agony (Reprise),” which is one of the cattiest, most brilliant bits of story ever, and I would have just adored seeing Pine and Magnussen chew the scenery with it. But the song I missed most was “So Happy.” This is the start of the second act, and it resets all the characters with their “new normal.” It lets us all catch our breaths after the manic energy at the end of act one. But more than that it shows us a) what our characters have to lose now, and b) that not everything is perfect after all. By skipping that, the second act arrives abruptly with the Giant’s Wife smashing everything, and it feels like it’s come out of left field. And then there’s Rapunzel, who actually apparently gets a happily ever after in this version when none of the other characters do, which doesn’t feel right at all. This made the whole second act kind of a big “WUT?”
Anyway. The singing and music and acting was all just fine. Go for the music. Go for “Agony.” And then go look up the PBS American Playhouse video of the original Broadway production. Because Bernadette Peters.
December 29, 2014
Short review: If at any point during a movie ostensibly called “The Hobbit,” the phrase “The spice must flow!” passes through one’s mind, something has gone quite definitely wrong.
I’ll get this out of the way up front: all of the scenes with Bilbo Baggins in them were perfect. Wonderful. Martin Freeman lit up the screen, and I loved that thread of the movie to bits. The thing is, I wager those scenes account for less than half of the whole movie. This is a bit of a problem I think.
Really, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie filled with more extraneous b.s. Irrelevant b.s. Any sort of plot and character thread involving Bilbo and Thorin and the quest and the mountain became so diffuse in this installment, it was hard to pick out at all. The more I think of it, the angrier I get, so I’m going to stop.
Except for just one more word about Tauriel, or as she is known among my friends, Extraniel, or sometimes Superfluel: She didn’t even get to do anything. If you’re going to build up this tragic romance between her and Kili, Sexiest of All the Dwarves (TM), at least give her the dignity of being able to destroy his killer, instead of having her fail and spending 15 more minutes of the movie watching Legolas almost kill him over and over and over again before finally killing him. (I don’t want to be the person who bitches at how the movie isn’t like the book — but Legolas isn’t even in the frakking book! Argh!) I’ve said it before — sometimes, a token female character really is worse than no female character at all.
I’ll give the movie one more bit of credit, so I can leave on a positive note: the ending was great. I had fears of a patented Peter Jackson drawn out extravaganza with lots of singing and Dwarven funerals and Tauriel in the Grey Havens taking a ship into the West, and a “where are they now” of every single extraneous character we ever got a glimpse of, up to and including young Strider/Aragorn among the Dunedain, and we didn’t get any of that. So, well done, movie.
December 26, 2014
So I’ve finally started watching Penny Dreadful. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but I’m already simultaneously amused and frustrated, because it’s such the standard Mythic Victorian London. With a little more horror, maybe — but even then, it’s bouncing up against From Hell and various Wolfman and Jekyll and Hyde retellings. Look, everybody: Grubby slums! Garish prostitutes! Jack the Ripper! Upperclass gents in cravats with deep dark secrets! I’m going to keep going with the show, because this is an excellent take on the Frankenstein story so far. I love Proteus. He’s broken my heart three times in two episodes, and I want to see more. (I’d been drinking the rest of the champagne from what was leftover after making cheese fondu — in other words, a lot of champagne — and I turned to my friends and said, “You know why this story’s going to break my heart? Because in every version of Frankenstein, Victor’s always such a shit!” Yeah, I got a bit emotional.)
But it’s got me thinking about mythic settings. Especially mythic historical settings. Because it seems to me at this point most of the shows/stories I see set in Victorian London have very little to do with Victorian London, and are instead amalgams of all the stories about Victorian London that have been handed down to us. This setting got its start with Dickens and Conan Doyle, but it’s now taken entirely for granted that a story set in Victorian London will have grubby slums and garish prostitutes and upperclass gents with deep dark secrets.
World War II is another space where this is happening, and it’s really come to a head over the last few years. We don’t see too many stories about Vietnam anymore, but darn it if we haven’t had half a dozen World War II stories — Monuments Men, Fury, Unbroken, Defiance, Enemy at the Gates — even Captain America counts. Heroic men, impossible odds, triumph over evil and adversity, etc. The mythologization of World War II really comes clear for me when I watch movies about that war that were made in the few years after — because the war in those stories isn’t the mythologized one we’ve grown familiar with. Even the frame story in White Christmas (released 1954, I think) deals with issues we don’t see told about that particular war anymore — coming home, the way war experiences continue to affect the people who fought. But since then, we don’t really tell stories about World War II — we tell stories set in this backdrop that’s been handed down, with a certain expected set of tropes, whole cloth.
Not sure where I’m going with all this. Except maybe that it reinforces my feeling that if you’re going to write about a familiar historical setting, it’s very useful to research that setting, rather than to take for granted the familiar — perhaps overly familiar — tropes of that setting that have been packaged up and handed down to us over and over again. This is not to say using those tropes is automatically bad, but it’s important to recognize which details are perhaps overused tropes, and which are details that will actually seem fresh and interesting.
December 22, 2014
I’m delaying seeing the third Hobbit installment until next weekend, when I can gather my usual posse of friends together for an outing. In the meantime, have two other movie reviews.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
I really do like this series of movies, because they have a lot of heart and they’re great for history geeks. In this one, the gang goes to the British Museum. So, drool. Except, I’ve actually been the British Museum, and the British Museum does not have dinosaurs. Anyway, on the other hand, they got the Elgin Marbles room exactly right, and those things coming to life were just creepy, which I was not expecting. So yes, this was nice, simple and straightforward.
And utterly, completely heartbreaking when we get to the part where Ben Stiller’s character has to say goodbye to Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt, and I’m sitting there watching and knowing it really is goodbye and just crying my eyes out. Too much sad.
This is ostensibly a ghost story — a small town cook can see ghosts and takes it upon himself to avenge murdered spirits, and prevent their killers from doing more harm. So actually, really, it’s a stealth superhero movie, and taken from that point of view, I really liked it. I also liked it because in other versions I’ve seen of this basic story, a big chunk of the conflict comes from people not believing the guy’s power, thinking he’s crazy, etc. etc. But here, he has a cadre of friends who completely back him up. The police chief in town believes him and covers for him. He has friends throughout the movie, which becomes more about teamwork than a lone wolf, and as I’ve discussed before, that kind of story is appealing to me more and more. This flick has a ton of heart, even with a sad ending, and Anton Yelchin (new Chekov!) is just splendid as Odd. Makes me want to read the book, and I’ve never read a Dean Koontz book.
And I’ve also now seen both The Muppet Christmas Carol and White Christmas, which are my two holiday must-see movies.
December 12, 2014
We’ve talked about this before: Sneakers, a great cyberpunk film or the greatest? I’ve been interested in and thinking about heist plots, and decided to analyze the plot of this to try to pick apart just what makes it tick. Let’s go!
We meet two hacker characters who will soon become our protagonist and antagonist. What’s established here: They start in the same place, but Cosmo is the kind of guy who will pull a sleight-of-hand trick on his friend to make things more convenient for himself. This will be important later. The whole movie is about reality, perception, and deception.
The Introduction: This is part of every heist movie. This is the normal job that our characters pull, that introduces everyone, their quirks, their personalities, etc. This film does a great job of making everyone distinct and interesting: the Blind Hacker, the ex-CIA Guy, the Conspiracy Nut, the Kid (oh, my dear River…), and the Boss.
The Inciting Incident: The group gets hired, and it’s an offer they can’t refuse because the clients know who Marty is — a fugitive. The stakes are suddenly big, more than just a paycheck.
They do the job. There are lots of clues, a few red herrings, some comedy, lots of competency. Basically, continuing the tone that was established with the introduction.
Note: The crew’s motivation in this act is money, and to clear Marty’s name. But mostly money. We learn each character’s heart’s desire, when they talk about how they’re going to spend the money. This too is important later.
End of Act One: The celebration at the end of the job, and the discovery that the job was maybe not what they thought it was. The stakes suddenly become huge, and motivations change: Now, Marty just wants to get rid of the box. The plot blows up and becomes something different than it was before.
We now have a villain. Our heroes have been played, and they must figure out by whom.
The tone changes: allies are murdered, our hero is kidnapped, and there is a revelation: Cosmo is still alive. The stakes become very huge indeed, as Cosmo specifically reveals Marty’s identity to the Federal database, the very thing Marty was trying to avoid. This is Cosmo’s revenge, and the low point of the second act.
Second half of second act: Marty has no choice but to go on the offensive. His first goal is to protect himself and his people. After contacting the NSA, he learns that the only way he can do this is by retrieving the box. So that’s the new plan. Again, the goal has changed.The movie’s third heist/job proceeds, with the highest stakes yet.
The third act begins with Liz’s capture, and Cosmo’s discovery that Marty has stolen the box back. Once again Marty has to reassess the situation and what his goals really are: the safety of Liz and the rest of the crew. Not money or freedom, but their lives.
The real pleasure of this story is that solutions to each problem spring from the personalities of the players. By this point, each member of Marty’s crew is already in place in make the rescue happen, by the events that have happened leading up to this moment. No shuffling is needed; they’re all right there, and we know they’re capable of what they do by everything that’s come before. This is extremely satisfying.
Marty retrieves the box by playing a sleight-of-hand on Cosmo, just like at the start. And Marty is confirmed to be someone who not only ended up in a very different place from where they both started — he is a better person, because he never once threatens to kill his former friend. For all his fugitive status, Marty really is a good guy, and Cosmo really is the villain.
This is where Abbott of the NSA shows up and agrees to supply them all with their hearts’ desires. The beautiful thing about this scene is that all the goals of all three acts, and the aspirations of all the characters, converge here. They retrieved the box and delivered it to the NSA, just like they originally planned in Act One. They’re able to guarantee their safety and amnesty for the crap they found themselves wrapped up in, just as they planned in Act Two. And they saved their skins. Even though they don’t get the money, they get everything they had planned on spending that money on. Their goals changed with each act, but they still managed to accomplish them all. They totally win.
This is really quite a simple plot, for all red herrings and complex heist sequences. Really, it’s a back-and-forth negotiation between three players: Marty and Crew, Cosmo and Henchmen, and the NSA. (Marty at first thinks he’s dealing with the NSA when he’s really dealing with the Henchmen. Then, he has to deal with the NSA in earnest. Marty’s motivation bounces back and forth between those two entities, Cosmo and the NSA.)
Things I noticed this time around
With the possibly exception of Marty, the characters aren’t doing this to save the world. They are motivated by money and by saving their skins. The movie fools you into thinking the characters aren’t quite so self serving because they’re all so likeable and charming. But no, they’re all totally self serving.
I didn’t think it had been all that long since I’d seen the movie, but this time around some of the outdated tech stood out more than it had before: they’re splicing magnetic tape to fake sound clips and that sort of thing. Hacking still needs hard lines. Fortunately, we watch for the engaging characters, not the tech.
Alas, some aspects of the film don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Namely, Liz. She’s kind of useless. There are two failure points in the third heist, and they’re both things that Liz does, glitches that are specifically hers — leaving her purse out for the target to discover her real name, and mentioning computer dating in front of Cosmo. It’s almost like the movie doesn’t want any of the guys to seem incompetent after it’s spent an hour and a half showing just how cool they are. The thing is, Mary McDonnell is so freaking charming that we don’t notice that Liz is basically there to make things go wrong so that the protagonists can look even better by solving the problems she causes. This…annoys me, that they gave this role in the plot over to the token female character. And she doesn’t even ask for anything from Abbott at the end. Grrr.
At the end, when Marty tells Abbott that the only thing the box is really good for is spying on Americans? Yeah, that scene kinda plays differently in a post-Snowden world. Erp.
November 24, 2014
Big Hero 6
This was fun and straightforward. The best part for me was having a movie where all the kids (a diverse group of kids!) are scientists, interested in science, and being interested in science is shown as a good thing that can solve problems and do cool stuff. Between this and Interstellar, maybe we’ve turned a corner on the “science=bad” in movies thing.
Other things: It was a smooth blending of anime aesthetics and western superhero tropes, and I can’t help but think this is totally on purpose, given the city’s name is San Fransokyo. Also — very, very cool villain. Awfully scary. The plot: predictable. I understand why people like this a whole lot, but I wasn’t engaged, not like I expected to be on a film like this.
Another observation, and this is just an observation not a dig — this felt young to me. Like a middle grade book as opposed to YA. The target age I’m guessing is 10-12. I’ve gotten used to animated movies that aim older, or at least work on multiple levels, so this had a different feel. Although as a friend pointed out, the lack of shoehorned romance (part of what made this feel young) was really nice.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1
Loved it. My favorite scene is when Haymitch asks for people to think of times Katniss inspired them and Effie is the only one who says anything. Effie’s just great. And then I had a bit of a gut punch seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sigh.
Anyway, this is the first time I feel like splitting the book into two movies was justified. There’s a complete story here, and I have every confidence they’re going to stick the landing in the next film. I love the books, I love the movies, and here’s why: It’s a character study, one designed to take down the trope of the uber-competent action hero. It’s a picture of heroism tempered by a post-Vietnam understanding of post-traumatic stress. Katniss is absolutely an uber-competent action hero. But she doesn’t have any of the trappings normally associated with that character type. She isn’t in charge — she’s never in charge. She’s reactive, she’s a tool, she’s constantly being manipulated and she knows it, but there’s not much she can do about it. She isn’t going to get a reward. She isn’t going to win romance or acclaim, or even safety. She never smiles because her victories aren’t celebrations. She’s deeply, deeply broken, and that’s the point. I’ve never seen a character quite like Katniss. Except maybe in Robin McKinley’s books, and that may be why I’m liking this story so much.
As we left the theater, my friend who has not read the books announced that he hates President Coin and thinks she’s an awful person. I just laughed. He’s going to love the next movie.
November 10, 2014
I rewrote the whole thing in my head so it’s okay now. And with the following handy formula, you can too!
Remove 95% of the dialog — 100% of Michael Caine reciting Dylan Thomas.
Remove 85% of the character interactions — 95% of Space Madness Matt Damon.
Remove 99% of the two women characters being weepy and irrational.
Replace the bombastic soundtrack with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or something. I mean, the movie borrowed a bunch of other of its best stuff from 2001, why not have a classical soundtrack?
And, that’s about it, really.
As you might guess, the movie’s greatest weakness is its cheap-ass melodrama. And its length. Some of those scenes just didn’t know when to quit. Oh, and I called the plot just as the second act rolled up — but that wouldn’t have been a problem if we hadn’t had people yelling at each other about love through the rest of it.
The thing is, and the thing that makes the rest of this so frustrating, is that what the movie did well it did very, tremendously well. Tidal Wave Planet is my new favorite thing. (Neil deGrasse Tyson says Tidal Wave Planet is plausible. Phil Plait doesn’t agree. Isn’t speculation/extrapolation wonderful?) Saturnscapes — brilliant. The ship imagery, the astronomy, the fascinating visualization of some far-out concepts — great, great stuff. This was full of real speculation about what wormhole exploration and colonization might be like. It plopped a black hole in the middle of it all and asked, Huh, what would that be like? And worked hard to visually demonstrate what that might be like. Just beautiful.
But once again, the filmmakers didn’t have faith that material about space exploration and saving humanity is enough on its own to carry the movie. So they added people yelling at each other about love. Through stretches of the movie I got the feeling I was reading one of those big mind-blowing novels that form the bedrock of science fiction — stuff like Cyteen or Dune. But I was never able to shut off my brain and fall into the world. The emotional side of the story was just too forced.
There were a number of rather egregious plot flubs (ship needs a booster rocket to leave Earth but is able to leave a planet with 130% of Earth’s gravity with its own shipboard engines?) but I’m only going to talk about the one we cleared up on the drive home. This conversation really happened.
FREIND: Don’t the Chinese have a space program? Where are the Chinese during all this?
ME: Maybe everybody in China died after the okra crop failed. OKRA! And you realize, given it took a few hours to drive to Norad their farm was probably in eastern Colorado. Does okra even grow in eastern Colorado? What is it with the okra? Oh no, the okra crop failed, we’re really in trouble now!
FRIEND: Think about it: that’s how bad things have gotten, that the only crops left are okra and corn. I’d get in a fucking spaceship and leave too.
ME: You have a point.
In conclusion, it was really lovely seeing John Lithgow in a new movie. Love that guy.