Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stage Beauty

Year 4, Day 193 - 7/11/12 - Movie #1,190

BEFORE: Time for one more film before I break for Comic-Con.  I should be packing my bags, but posting, then packing.  Tonight it's another film set behind the scenes of Shakespearean plays.  Lucky for me, Vanessa Redgrave from "Anonymous" was also in a film called "Wilde" with Tom Wilkinson, one of tonight's players.

THE PLOT: A female theatre dresser creates a stir and sparks a revolution in seventeenth century London theatre by playing Desedmona in Othello. But what will become of the male actor she once worked for and eventually replaced?

AFTER: It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when women were not allowed on stage.  I'm trying to discern the exact reason(s) for this, and the general consensus seems to be a combination of the Puritan influence, plus the arrogance of men who assumed that women were incapable.  Throw in a few dashes of "Well, we've always done it this way" and that's how the glass ceiling gets formed.  It's a bit funny, if the religious figures of the time didn't want women to be performing lewd acts on stage with men, but if two men were making out on stage, apparently that was OK.  More on that later.

So at a time when no women were allowed to act, men had to have special training to act like women.  But when the restriction was lifted and women were granted permission, and the word "actress" was apparently coined, the first women on stage started acting like the men they'd seen playing women.  In this film, a man who only knows how to act like a woman has to then learn to act like a man, but first he has to teach a woman (who acts like a man acting like a woman) how to act like a woman.  Geez, you'd think that would come naturally.

Why didn't the men just act like men?  Apparently, there's no art in that.  That's not acting, that's just being themselves.  But then we come to the off-stage romance between the man (again, who's used to acting like a woman, if you know what I mean...) and the woman.  This is the real gender confusion, between the sheets.  You know what, people should just get nametags.  They can say "dominant" and "submissive" or "pitcher" and "catcher", whatever helps clear things up.

The relevance of this film comes into focus when you think about our paparazzi-based economy, and the fascination that the TV shows and magazines have whenever a scandal hits - at least two recent ones come to mind (no names, please) but just as frequently in the last decade whenever they say that a star "admits" that he or she is gay.  Right there, what's with the word "admit"?  It implies wrongdoing, and unless there's something non-consensual or harmful going on, I thought we were past all this.

Why is anyone still surprised when a star's off-screen proclivities don't match his or her on-screen image?  They're ACTORS.  They pretend for a living - they are who we want them to be for an hour or two a day, and then they get to be who THEY want to be.  How can you enjoy the benefits of your own private life, and then be shocked by what's going on in someone else's?

Besides, people change over time, and therefore who people are attracted to also changes over time.  Sexuality is just one part of the equation, and sexual preference can change too - I had a front-row seat for that movie, once upon a time.  But I walked out of it once I felt the plot wasn't going anywhere.  You move on, you reinvent yourself.

Some might take issue with the turn the lead character takes here - you don't have to be gay to be a drag queen, but I bet it couldn't hurt.  The male actor here does seem to qualify, though - but it seems like the love of a good woman straightens him out (so to speak), and to some it might appear that his homosexuality was therefore a problem that needed correcting.  Again, if you're going to champion sexual freedom, then it has to go both ways (so to speak), and if straight people can be allowed to identify as gay, then you've got to allow for the reverse.  Some people are just pan-sexual.

Speaking of godless heathens, with that I'm headed to the West Coast for the biggest promotional event of the year, 5 days in San Diego and then a side-trip to San Francisco.  Back in one week. 

Also starring Claire Danes (last seen in "The Mod Squad"), Billy Crudup, Rupert Everett (last seen in "Hysteria"), Ben Chaplin, Richard Griffiths (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1", there it is again!).

RATING: 6 out of 10 powdered wigs

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Year 4, Day 192 - 7/10/12 - Movie #1,189

BEFORE: I picked films this week just because they were all (semi-)biographical, but an unintended theme has shown itself - that of skepticism, or perhaps debunking.  We had Charles Darwin's evolution theory debunking creationism, and Houdini's skepticism toward psychics and mediums.  Tonight, the authorship of Shakespeare's plays gets called into question.

Linking tonight is again made possible by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1" which starred both Timothy Spall from "Death Defying Acts" and Rhys Ifans (last seen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), who appears at the center of tonight's film.  It makes sense, there were a ton of British actors in that Potter series.

THE PLOT: The theory that it was in fact Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, who penned Shakespeare's plays, set against the backdrop of the succession of Queen Elizabeth I and the Essex rebellion against her.

AFTER: In addition to the theme of skepticism, this is the third film this week to attempt to tell a story in a non-linear fashion.  Like "Creation", this film toggles back and forth between two timelines, one when Queen Elizabeth was young, and one when she was old.  In an inspired (or lazy?) bit of casting, the Queen is played by 2 actresses, who are mother and daughter in the real world.

But there's very little warning when the film shifts from the older past to the umm...more recent past.  It's very confusing at first, but eventually if you pay attention you can see resemblances among the characters, and if you can keep the names of the various earls and court ministers straight, you can then tell from the visual cues when a time-jump has been made.  Normally here I would accuse the filmmakers of attempting to cover up a weak narrative, but despite my personal vendetta, this is one of the rare cases where mixing up the scenes is justified.

Why?  Because there's valuable information in both storylines that needs to be revealed slowly, bit by bit.  If these scenes were laid out chronologically, the audience would learn things before the characters would - and this way we're just as much in the dark as they are, until they're not.  As both storylines progress, we eventually learn that the Virgin Queen might not have been so virginal, and therefore the line of succession is jeopardized.

Oh, yeah, the Shakespeare thing.  The film points out that the Bard of Avon might have been just this side of illiterate (he could read, but not write?) and that it does seem a little funny that an actor with no formal education failed his way upward to becoming the world's greatest playwright.  That he was able to write so many brilliant plays in such a brief period of time - one explanation is that he was just a figurehead, and that the well-educated Earl of Oxford, who had been writing plays in secret for years, was supplying him with finished plays, each at the appropriate time to further his own political agenda.

I know there's a literary movement to discredit Shakespeare as a playwright - I wonder if those people saw this film and thought, "No, this isn't what we meant at all!"  There is an attempt here to show the genesis for certain characters in De Vere's backstory - and it does give special meaning to Hamlet's play-within-a-play that was meant to expose a royal scandal.  Why wouldn't Shakespeare's plays be targeted at specific political targets as well, to rally public opinion against them?

But, saying that Richard III was designed to discredit the queen's advisers, just because Shakespeare's character was a hunchback, that seems like convenient retro-fitting.  It's a bit like saying you know God exists because someone wrote a book about him.  This is all a bit of a stretch, and it makes me wonder about the agenda of the people behind this film - see, it's just as easy for me to be skeptical.

Tomorrow night, we prove that men didn't walk on the moon.  Just kidding.

Also starring Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "Mary, Queen of Scots" - ooh, the irony!), David Thewlis (last seen in, you guessed it, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"), Joely Richardson (last seen in "King Ralph"), Rafe Spall (son of Timothy, last seen in "Hot Fuzz"), Sebastian Armesto, Edward Hogg, Xavier Samuel, Sam Reid.

RATING: 4 out of 10 quill pens

Monday, July 9, 2012

Death Defying Acts

Year 4, Day 191 - 7/9/12 - Movie #1,188

BEFORE: A couple biopics in a loose chain are going to see me through until my upcoming break - I'm certainly not going to start another big topic with three days to go until Comic-Con.  There may not be a connection between Charles Darwin and Harry Houdini, but it's sort of my job to find one.  Speaking of connections, Toby Jones from "Creation" also supplied the voice of Dobby the house-elf in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1", which also starred Timothy Spall (last seen in "The King's Speech"), who's in tonight's film.  

THE PLOT: On a tour of Britain in 1926, Harry Houdini enters into a passionate affair with a psychic out to con the famous magician.

AFTER: Luckily, this does sort of connect with the themes brought up in last night's film - the question of an afterlife, which both fascinated and confounded Houdini.  You have to appreciate that the man who was known as a master showman and illusion practically demanded to know whether the supernatural was real, or just a series of parlor tricks.  As he traveled around the world, he took the time to debunk mediums and psychics and various charlatans - I guess it takes one to know one.

But this film suggests that at the same time, he was desperate to believe that there was something after death, for he was still grieving the loss of his mother.  He offered a cash prize for anyone who could contact her in the great beyond and repeat her final words to him.  And that's where I think a true agnostic/skeptic should stand on religion - we want to believe in it, but we also demand some kind of proof.  It seems like Houdini was playing both sides, but I can see where he was coming from.

He also stated that if there were an afterlife, he would find a way to get a message back from the spirit world, one that everyone would be able to understand.  Still waiting on that.

The film has a great deal of ambiguity about Houdini's intent after he comes to Scotland and crosses paths with Mary McGarvie, who works a psychic stage act that relies heavily on information garnered from pickpocketing and the local obituaries.  While other psychics continued to make bad guesses about Mom's last words, McGarvie played it cool, and appeared to have Houdini convinced of her abilities. 

Or was it possible that Houdini was wise to her con, and got her ensnared in a game of his own?  Maybe he saw in her a kindred spirit, or was starting to develop genuine romantic feelings - though it gets a little muddled about who's zooming who, I kind of like it that way.  You can choose for yourself who's the player and who's getting played, or third option, just enjoy it as a love story.

If there's anything missing, however, it's some kind of message - some point to it all.  What, exactly, am I supposed to take away from seeing this specific series of events?  I say this in the most constructive way possible, when you tell a story, you really need to make sure that there is a reason to tell it.  I'm just not seeing it tonight.  It's interesting to note that this film was released one year after "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist", so maybe there was a run on magician-based films, however, both of those films were better constructed, and secured higher ratings from me.

Also starring Guy Pearce (last seen in "The Road"), Catherine Zeta-Jones (last seen in "The Phantom"), Saorsie Ronan (last seen in "The Lovely Bones").

RATING: 5 out of 10 newsreels

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Year 4, Day 190 - 7/8/12 - Movie #1,187

BEFORE: I bought a new DVD recorder the other day, so I'm on my third one now.  I guess I'm a little rough on them, they tend wear out after 3 or 4 years.  The VHS deck on the last one broke two years ago, but I kept using the DVD burner, dubbing in the signal from another VCR.  With the hundreds of DVDs I've made, at least I got my money's worth.   I put the new one right to work getting the James Bond films on DVD, though I won't be able to watch them until next year. 

From Charles Lindbergh to Charles Darwin - just two famous people with movies made about them.  Lindbergh has his own thoughts on eugenics, and of course Darwin concerned himself with evolution.  Tough to find an acting link, but Jimmy Stewart voiced a character in "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West", along with John Cleese, who was also in the remake of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" with Jennifer Connelly (last heard in "9").

THE PLOT: English naturalist Charles Darwin struggles to find a balance between his revolutionary theories on evolution and the relationship with religious wife, whose faith contradicts his work.

AFTER: Well, if I took "The Spirit of St. Louis" to task for its use of flashbacks, then I have to criticize this one as well, for excessive jumping around in time, a.k.a. non-linear storytelling.  You can't really call these "flashbacks", it's more like 2 narrative timelines playing out concurrently, one in the older past and one in the present - or more accurately, the more recent past.  One timeline shows Darwin as a caring, hands-on father, and the other as an ailing, more distant man.  The dividing point is a family tragedy, an intense personal loss.

In one case, we see the older Darwin remembering a day at the beach with his daughter, when he tells her a story about his encounter with an orangutang, which we then also see play out.  So, a flashback within a flashback - is this "Creation" or "Inception"?

Again, I struggle with this kind of storytelling, especially when it's done to be "arty" or "trendy", or used to make simple connections between two storylines that I, as an audience member, should have been able to make on my own.  It's like the filmmaker doesn't trust me to see the echoes of one storyline in another, so those similar events have to be placed right next to each other, because someone is assuming that all of the viewers are idiots.

Or perhaps it's done to cover up a weak story - who wants to see scene after scene of a man who's having a tough time struggling with illness while deciding whether to publish his scientific findings?  It's not very cinematic, this decision-making process - but then, neither is the act of writing.  Whatever the instrument - quill pen, typewriter, or laptop - nothing slows down a movie like watching a character write.  Ah, but if we drop in a scene from earlier in the man's life, like an eventful family outing, that will keep people entertained. 

Here's my advice to writers - if you've got a weak story outline, no amount of time-jumping is going to help.  You'll just get a weak movie with the events told in the wrong order.   When you realize you've got a weak subject, throw the paper in the bin (be sure to crumple it first, I'm not sure why) and start again with a more interesting subject.

There might even have been an interesting subject here, but it feels like they came at it from the wrong angle - Charles Darwin, family man?  OK, that's an interesting subplot, admittedly it's not a side of him that most people know about.  But if you want to show what inspired his book "The Origin of Species", why not show him doing the research?  Traveling to the Galapagos Islands, finding giant turtles and examining finches.  Dealing with the natives, living on a ship, far from home.  You know, the stuff that the book was actually about.  I would watch that film.

The only stuff here that I did find interesting, and it's not all that cinematic either, was Darwin's agonizing over the effect that his book might have on religion.  He seemed to be caught in the middle between the scientists who wanted him to publish to dispel creationism, and his more religious wife, who was concerned for his soul if his work did turn out to be in conflict with the church.  It seemed like Darwin had given up on religion, but then how can a marriage survive when two people have such different beliefs? 

As a recovering Catholic myself, I can see it's no fun to be stuck there - when you're agnostic and surrounded by people who seem to be believers, it does seem like everyone is somehow delusional.  If you buy into the Bible then you've got to buy into heaven and halos and harps, and this fairy story that everyone who dies goes to live on a cloud somewhere.  And then maybe you start to ask questions about whether animals have souls, and where exactly heaven is, and how you get there, and who determines whether you get in, and you realize all the answers we have to those questions were written by imperfect people, and the whole business just starts to unravel.  Science tells us the simplest explanation is usually right (the conservation of bullshit theory, I believe) so why don't more people believe that when you die, it's over?  Doesn't it make life that much more precious?  Doesn't it make you want to make the best out of whatever time you have left?

Darwin saw the big picture - he saw that whatever the species, life is a struggle, and only the strong survive, until they don't.  Animals and humans didn't evolve quickly, but over millions of years, with lots of false starts and dead-ends - and that everything is part of the natural order, everything eats and gets eaten.  Everyone begins and ends - humans are just a bit more aware of the process, that's all.  But religion is something of a distraction, something to keep our minds off our fates so we can go accomplish something of perceived value.  And that's the sad, terrible, beautiful truth as I see it.

Also starring Paul Bettany (last heard in "The Avengers"), Martha West, Benedict Cumberbatch (last seen in "The Other Boleyn Girl"), Toby Jones (last seen in "W").

RATING: 4 out of 10 cold showers