Thursday, September 01, 2011

Movie and Television Reviews for August 2011

I’ve decided to try to pick the “one best” to begin these longer review pieces.  It may be the “one best movie” and “the one best television series” so I may fudge on the definition of “one” but this will allow the cream to rise to the top rather than get lost in the rest of the content.

I did not like the book.  I didn’t hate it but I thought (and still do) that the characters were two dimensional and the entire story was predictable from the first few pages.  Nobody, not even Griet the protagonist, evolves emotionally and I was so disappointed by this overly praised novel that I’ve avoided anything else written by the author and didn’t go out of my way to watch the movie.  I can’t even explain why I chose to do so now but I have to confess that I’m glad I did.  The acting is adequate; I can’t praise it beyond that because even in the film the characters do not grow in depth.  However, the cinematography more than makes up for this as the lighting and camera work are brilliantly used to evoke the artistic work that Vermeer was doing.  There are scenes in which a perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson is lit with a delicacy that is impossible for any art lover to overlook.  I can’t help but appreciate what the director has visually created.  Colin Firth and Essie Davis do a wonderful job of taking flat characters and at least trying to round them out on film.  It is not the fault of anyone except the original author if anything falls flat for even the screenwriters had the sense to adapt the screenplay by dropping the contrived and trite ending the author shoved down her reader’s throats.  Seriously, I didn’t like the novel so how much more remarkable must it be for me to say that I think this movie is lovely and anyone who appreciates Vermeer’s artwork or a beautifully filmed movie should seek this one out.

And now on to the rest of my reviews.  Movies/documentaries first, followed by television shows.

Beautiful music.  Jane Austen.  Keira Knightley.  Does it get any better than this?  No but then there are other versions that are at least equal to it. To be honest, I went into this adaptation prepared to be disappointed.  At the beginning, it was too noisy and the clothing dark and inelegant. But then, Donald Sutherland as Mr Bennett? Oho!  We have a chance at capturing the character’s sardonic humor and perhaps I can enjoy this.  HBO does an adequate job of condensing the novel without losing any of what really matters and, in spite of the rather bleak choices made in tone, there are nevertheless some truly lovely moments.  Whatever there is that is light and bright is within the characters and the dialogue.  Knightley does a lovely job playing Elizabeth Bennett and Matthew Macfayden is wonderful as Mr Darcy.  I’m beginning to think that Darcy is not that difficult a character to play as I originally thought because I have loved them all.  Or perhaps I just love the character so that I’m bound to love anyone who can perform the role well.  I recognized Macfayden and eventually figured out that he played Prior Phillip in Pillars of the Earth which I enjoyed very much.  (I still prefer the A&E version but this will do in a crunch.)

At this point I am just wanting to see them all the same way that someone finishes reading a book that they don’t like at first in hopes that it will somehow get . . . what?  Better?  Who am I kidding?  This was such a perverse concept from the first movie and it has neither degenerated along similar lines nor found a more interesting path.  Except . . . well, this one is at least interesting, giving a nod to film noire with a police detective who is good at solving puzzles being pulled into the word of the Cenobites.  I actually found myself surprised at the attempt to do “something more” which succeeded.  Well, it was a success for a horror movie, anyway, much as any horror movie that references anything beyond itself can be a success.  Whereas the first movie in the series fully merged the concept of sex and violence, perversion and damnation, the more you go into the series, the less immediately are the two combined.  Yes, the detective’s choice to have sex with a prostitute is part of what precipitates the rest of the movie’s action but it is not as tightly woven into the overall concept as in the previous movies.  Certainly not as much so as in the first.  And clearly, I am over intellectualizing a horror movie so I should probably stop watching them now before I get too cerebral.

This is one of those times my interest in a film had more to do with an actor than anything else.  Kate Winslett is so luminous and I’d pretty much want to watch her in anything.  So I suffered through this movie which had some interesting moments but truly it was just exploitative.  What the screenwriters did to communicate the fantasy world that these young girls created for themselves was odd and yet that seemed effective to me because it heightened the sense of how off they were, obsessive and living in a mindset that didn’t align with reality.  It felt like there was much more truth that never was explored and over all the film was unsatisfying. 

I can’t imagine a child of my generation or younger who is not familiar with a song or two written by these brothers.  This documentary does a good job of showing how their opposite personalities worked to create musical magic.  Lively songs have a hint of the sinister and other songs sound like lullabies they are so delicate.  Years of working with Disney Studios resulted in classics from such films as Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh and, after they left the studio, they continued to write scores for films, wonderful scores.  What is not so wonderful is the relationship between the two and nowhere in the film is it explained why the two were not closer than they were.  Is it enough to say that they were so unalike that they could not like one another?  That seems rather simplistic.  My guess is that the older brother, the one who served in the military, came back from that experience changed, disconnected from his family because he was no longer connected to himself, the boy he was before he left. That is only a guess.  This documentary doesn’t explain anything really except that these two wrote some pretty darn good music. 

Of course, I’d heard about this movie for ages and I even tried to read the novel but didn’t get immersed in it sufficiently to finish it.  So I finally wanted to get around to watching it and now I have.  Is it supposed to be ironic that John Boorman directed this thing?  I mean, I kept looking to Rob and asking, “Seriously?  Is this it?  Is it just me or is this movie incredibly boring?”  Albeit, Burt Reynolds does a very good acting job, surprisingly so all things considered.  (I have a theory that his skills were lost when he grew the mustache and only returned much later in life when he lost his hair.)  I have the distinct impression that there is a lot of symbolism one would find on the page that is lost on film. You get glimpses of the possibility of such but the movie doesn’t fulfill.  And it was nominated for an Academy Award?  WTF?  I must be seriously deficient because I truly do not get it.

Every now and again I feel obliged to prove that I am a woman and so I watch a chick-flick and this movie is a perfect example of the mediocre cinematic attempts at making magic that should make me hang my head in shame.  And yet, I do like this movie.  Maybe it’s because of Johnny Depp.  Okay.  I admit it; it’s totally because of Johnny Depp.  Johnny Depp and the relationship between the older couple played by Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway.  I love how they fall in love with one another long after they have fallen into a relationship rut.  If romance is a state of mind, then it’s nice to believe that we can all find a way to infuse our lives with the romantic.  Frankly, I should be ashamed to admit that I’ve watched this movie more than once but why bother?  I’m bound to watch it again and I can try to muster up some shame then.

Great music sung by brilliant Broadway performers.  What more can one ask?  Well, given Sondheim’s portfolio, a lot more songs because there are so many more brilliant songs available.  In fact, let’s just have a Sondheim festival and let everyone sing his songs all day long, for however long it takes, to sing them all.  And then we can sing our favorites again and again just for the hell of it.  I love singing Sondheim because his music is more complex than some more popular and less deserving songwriters.  His use of melodic refrains and atonal notes is what makes his music so exciting to feel in one’s throat.  And I miss Broadway terribly.  I wish more musicals would be made into movies but only if it can be done well, which I realize may be asking too much.  Or better yet, I wish more stage productions would be brought to dvd so those of us who cannot get to the theater can still luxuriate in seeing Patti LuPone as Mrs Lovett.  (What I wouldn’t give for a dvd of the Sam Mendes’ revival of Cabaret which is only zoned for non-American dvd players.  I continue to pout.)  Anyway, I have a dream and it involves dvds and Broadway and miracles. 

The minute I saw the word “unauthorized” I should  have walked away.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I gave vague attention to a mediocre documentary.  Obviously, only someone who appreciates John Lennon would bother to watch this documentary and therein lies its major flaw because this show offers nothing new.  If you like Lennon, you already know everything and probably know still more.  What’s the point?  There aren’t even quality clips from any of the musical performances or videos that exemplify at least part of his career.  Why his sister agreed to be in this is beyond me.  I’m tempted to stop watching any and all Beatles related documentaries because so far everything I’ve seen has been biased or boring. 

I was prepared to enjoy this movie, perhaps more than the novel as it would speed up some of the slower parts of the story.  However, the director and screenwriter took such liberties with the story that it is hardly recognizable.  Fanny Price is a feisty and independent woman who is prone to jump on her horse at night in the rain to get away from the idea of being forced into the slavery of marriage.  At one point she accepts the attentions of a man that she never esteems in the novel.  Her brother William is completely written out of the text, a relationship that was the most important to Fanny in the novel.  Her aunt is an opium addict and her uncle a lecherous slave owner.  The only possible improvement, if one can consider it such, is the choice to have Fanny writing stories to her sister, including a history of England which is actually from Jane Austen’s juvenilia.  This does not, can not, make up for the rest of the liberties taken and I was disappointed from beginning to end although I begrudgingly concede it is well acted.

I’ve seen this movie before so was fully prepared for the violence, etc.  I was reminded, while watching it, how much it all reminded me of The Hunger Games.  Or should I say the book reminded me of the movie which preceded the book’s publication?  It’s a moot point.  The concepts are similar but different enough and this dvd we watched had some extended scenes, which is something I am always a sucker for anyway.  I’d forgotten some of the more cheesy moments but these don’t detract from the over all merit of the film and I really do think it’s one of the lesser appreciated ones out there.  It deserves, in my opinion, a far larger cult following than it has.  I am eager to see Battle Royale II: Requiem although one would think that Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day and all of the sequels to The Crow would have taught me better by now.  One would think and yet here I am, waiting for the dvd in eager anticipation.

I wasn’t sure why I should or would want to watch another version of this story.  The truth is, I had this on the “to be watched” list for quite a while and was only recently inspired to sit down with it because of my reading choices.  This is an interesting production, one in which Anne is less idealized, drawing on the extra pages from her journal.  So for those only familiar with the traditional view of Anne is a romantic and optimistic young girl who idolized her father and perhaps didn’t appreciate her mother sufficiently might want to check this version out.  My only major complaint is that I found some of the accents distracting as I tried to appreciate the implications of why one actor spoke in a specific dialect and not another.  I am sure that if I knew more about the differences in British speech patterns I would have caught some more subtle characterization than I can due to my ignorance.

I actually saw this when it first came out at Radio City Music Hall.  I remembered very little of it except Bob Fosse as the snake and Gene Wilder as the fox.   The novel itself is far more indelibly etched on my memory.  Marc had given this movie to me ages ago and we finally got around to watching it together and it is a cute movie, with some effective moments but the problem is simply this:  the novel is written for adults although it looks like a child’s book and the movie doesn’t enhance the theme nor intention of the book.  Worse, there is an implication at the end of the movie that takes away from the entire story.  It’s almost an outrage.  I honestly wonder if there is a way to translate this delicate and lovely book to film, short of using animation inspired by the illustrations.  Then I rethink myself and wonder why anyone would bother when we have this lovely book already?

I don’t know which is more perverse:  that a live action version of the animated series was ever made, that the live action version tried to compress hours of animation into a couple of hours of movie, or that Rob and I bothered to watch this.  I know a lot of people took exception to one of the changes made by the director, casting non-Asians in some of the significant roles.  While I can’t disagree with those who took offense, I can appreciate the decision to try to make the movie characters more ethnically diverse.  Unfortunately, even Dev Patel, who was so wonderful in Slumdog Millionaire, could not elevate this film to get remotely close to the animated original.  Terribly disappointing because there was simply no way to develop the characters or the emotional depth of the story in so short a time.  Thankfully, it doesn’t look like there will be a sequel in spite of its cliff-hanger conclusion. 

And now for the television shows . . .

Ahhhh, leave it to me to start watching a show after it’s been canceled only to fall in love with.  Yes, they took some liberties with the “traditional” story but when you’ve read enough of the medieval versions of these stories you quickly come to realize that there is no traditional story.  Some core moments, yes, but they all riff on the same tune to make it their own.  And frankly, I was really liking how this one was playing out.  Joseph Fiennes as Merlin was great and the writers came up with some clever explanations for the myths that come out of Arthur’s history.  Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur is pretty but Claire Forlani as Igraine is mind-blowing.  She is just so stunning that every time she was on screen I fell in love with her all over again.  Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere is lovely and Eva Green as Morgan delivers the kind of intensity her role demanded.  I couldn’t even finish the first season of Merlin because it was so ponderous and uninspired.  This version is so damn good and it’s a shame not to see it explore all the way through the final battle between Arthur and Mordred (albeit I wasn’t convinced the very pretty actor would be able to age as well as say Jonathan Rhys Meyers did in The Tudors).  Hugely disappointed that this show is gone so soon.

My mother asked me if I was watching this show and I said no.  She said she was so Rob and I did a quick catch up and watched all but one episode of season one before I found out she wasn’t watching it anymore.  The truth is, I thought they would just cancel the show.  It was okay but it wasn’t drop dead interesting.  There were a few people on the show who were fun to watch but not enough to keep us watching.  Then along comes season two and there’s practically a whole new group of women except for the one we liked perhaps the most.  And some of the others are recognizable as secondary people from season one.  So a few one night stands . . . or two and three night stands . . . are now front and center and a few new faces are added along to make it a different type of cast altogether.  Aha!  But why?  I mean, why not follow the one woman after she breaks her girlfriend’s heart and the other couple as they head to the altar and the other couple as they take their relationship to the next level as well?  Why not stick with a good group of women?  My guess is that they couldn’t get most of those women to sign on to showing more flesh because holy cow but there are some surprising moments in this season.  I would have blushed at the thought of my mother watching this season and, as I’ve said before, I don’t blush easily. 

NY Ink

I never watched Miami Ink and Rob got me involved in LA Ink during season two but it made sense to just sit beside him for this new show because New York is home and I do enjoy watching tattoo artists, especially good tattoo artists do their thing.  Rob said that he thought LA Ink was canceled but then there were commercials for the west side show and we figured they would just swap out the two shows to sort of balance out their line-up.  Then TLC announced they are canceling LA Ink so I guess NY Ink is on its own.  The final episode was pretty clearly meant to be a cliff-hanger which suggests they will be back again soon.  But this isn’t brilliant reality television, to be honest.  Unless you’re into tattoos and such, it’s actually fairly dull.  The stories behind why people get tattoos are interesting, some even heartbreaking.  I usually watch while doing something else because I really don’t get so immersed in what’s on the screen that I get lost in the show

Next Food Network Star

I’ve come to realize that the best way to watch these elimination reality type shows is to wait until the first few contestants have been voted off or lost their place and are no longer in the running.  Then you can watch and focus on the best without worrying about remembering the easily forgettable.  By the time I joined, the people were beginning to grate on one another’s nerves, the crème de la crème were already shining and the outcome, barring some major mistake or brilliant performance, was pretty much a lock when one of the judges said, “He’s cute.”  So the Sandwich King wins and you can see his show on Sundays at 10pm on the Food Network Channel.  And the guy Rob was rooting for made it to the final three, which made Rob happy.

I should explain that Rob is really into these cooking reality shows and I just join him for the ride, as it were.  This is especially the case on this program where I really don’t care who wins, have no desire to buy the cookbook, and rarely think that what the contestants make sounds irresistibly delicious.  So why do I even bother?  Well, I like Joe Bastianich.  I love that he rides up on a Vespa rather than a Hog in one challenge.  I love his aloof and unflappable exterior as he tastes things . . . unless he decides something is terrible and he gets angry.  I think he and the other judges are fun and I would love to see the three of them just battle it out in the kitchen every week.  But that’s me.  I suppose other people actually buy the cookbooks.  As for this season’s winner, I was disappointed.  No doubt she is an excellent chef and deserving of the title “master chef” but my hopes were leaning in a different direction.

Have you ever had an experience where you saw a single episode of some television program and thought it was pretty damn good so you wanted to see more but didn’t for some reason only to one day finally see it on dvd and realize shortly thereafter that you had seen the best episode of the season?  I am assuming that this doesn’t actually happen to other people but it happened to me with this show because, as much as I liked that one episode I happened to catch that one time, I spent the rest of the dvd wondering why the rest of the series seemed to miss the mark.  The concept is good and it is funny to see Joan of Arc as an emo-goth and Gandhi as a horny teenager.  John F Kennedy and Cleopatra are stereotypes, as is Abraham Lincoln, but they should all be able to make one laugh.  Unfortunately, it never really hits the right notes often enough and I can see why this show lasted only the one season.  Maybe it needed more time to simmer as an idea before it was put out for the world to judge.

Scrubs, Season One

Have you ever watched a mediocre show and then randomly, for no reason really, decided to watch something else, something someone recommended to you and you really enjoyed it only to discover that the same people who were responsible for the mediocre show were responsible for the one you like?  Again, I’m assuming that these things only happen to me but I settled down to finally watch Scrubs and I knew I was in love by the fourth episode which allowed some real drama to occur during this comedy show.  I was reminded of M*A*S*H, which I do not doubt is not coincidental, and reminded of the classic show again during an episode where the doctors and interns are interviewed for psychiatric purposes.  The ensemble cast is wonderful and work very well together.  I am already looking forward to watching Season Two.  If only I had more time . . .

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