Friday, January 4, 2013

Tarantino Does Slavery

I've taken a healthy break from writing in the old blog this past week because, frankly I've just enjoyed having no obligations.  As I sit here on the sofa, enjoying the last work day off for winter break (yes I still have Saturday and Sunday off before I go to work...but those don't count) I have to contemplate this year's vacation.  Was it as good as I hoped?  Well, yes and no.  Christmas and New Year's were great, but these last few days of break have been poisoned with boredom and illness.  I suppose it is my own fault, as I didn't make any concrete plans for post-Holiday fun...largely because I knew I'd have a glut of films to watch before school started again leaving me with no time at all to enjoy them.  And no one could have suspected that I would have an ulcer flare up in the middle of this week, thus limiting my movements even more.  However, there is still some time left until work resumes and I plan to enjoy it (currently I have 6 films left to get through....2 Bonds and 4 Hitchcocks).  Speaking of enjoyment, I watched another late-year blockbuster a week ago and I feel as though I should review it from that standpoint...one of enjoyment.  I should note that the director, Quentin Tarantino, doesn't normally appeal to me.  I have seen all of his films, save for three (Inglorious Bastards and Kill Bill 1 and 2), and can safely say that up to now I had only enjoyed two of them, Death Proof and Reservoir Dogs.  However, the trailer for this latest effort really looked appealing to me so I made it a point to see it upon release.  Would it impress me or would I find it bloated and uniteresting (like I had felt about the others)?  Let's find out as we explore Django Unchained.

At the start of the film, Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), are sold at a slave auction. While Broomhilda is sold to an unknown buyer, Django is bought by the Speck brothers (James Russo and James Remar). When Django and a number of slaves are being transported across the country, the Brothers are confronted by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter who uses his former profession as a dentist as a cover. Schultz frees Django and kills one of the Speck brothers, leaving the other trapped. He reveals that he sought out Django because Django can identify the Brittle brothers (Doc Duhame, M.C. Gainey, and Bruce Dern), a band of ruthless killers with a price on their heads. Although Schultz confesses that his bounty hunting profession is opportunistic, he also emphasizes to Django that he "despises slavery". Schultz and Django come to an agreement: in exchange for helping locate the Brittle brothers, Schultz will free Django from slavery and help him rescue Broomhilda from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a plantation owner who is as charming as he is brutal. On his plantation, Candyland, male slaves are trained to fight to the death for sport, while female slaves are forced into prostitution. Django agrees, and the two go after Candie and the Brittle gang. Django is initially uneasy about his newfound role, but soon proves himself to be talented. After collecting a number of bounties, Schultz and Django confirm that Calvin Candie is Broomhilda's current owner. After scoring an invitation to Candyland, they devise a plan where the two of them pose as potential purchasers of one of Candie's slave fighters to reach Broomhilda. Upon their arrival, Schultz introduces Django as his equal, which causes hostility at Candyland, where racism is extreme. The plan goes awry when Candie's head slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), realizes that Schultz and Django are more interested in Broomhilda than purchasing a fighter. Now begins a game of cat and mouse to discover if the boys will get away with their plan or if Candie will have the last laugh.

Django Unchained is the kind of excessive, gory fun that I expected from other Tarantino projects and was left wanting.  At it's core there is a decent story and a fair examination of slavery practices that we might not be aware of, and all wrapped inside of a mock-exploitation tale that makes the heavy subject easier to swallow.  Like Mary Poppins sang, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and Tarantino clearly knows this tactic in his storytelling.  All of his films have a message and a deeper meaning wrapped inside them that is made more palatable by giving it a candy coating of excessive violence and fun dialogue.  I think that is why (my personal opinion aside) his films have remained critical and audience favorites for years, because they combine a filmlover's two favorite things...poignient cinema and excessive spectacle.  Django, I am pleased to say, has made it's way into my 'liked' group of Tarantino movies, bringing the total to 3.  It is the perfect mixture of what he does with every movie, a grand concept with a deep message made easily accessible thanks to a violence level racheted up to 100%.  In many ways, Django is a near-perfect entertainment with memorable characters (my favorites being Candie, Stephen, and Dr. Schultz) and a captivating setting.  Instead of modern day gangsters, Samurai trappings, or World War II shades, Tarantino has now taken on the Old South before the Civil War.  This is a setting ripe for exploitation from Tarantino's usual grime and penchant for violence.  This time, however, the film takes more of a stance against violence than for.  Unlike other protagonists in his filmography, Django actually resists violence and killing to start...he even attempts to not kill a bounty because the man's child is present, but he learns that violence against the violent is acceptable when it is the only thing that can make a difference.  This is strikingly different in comparison to other characters he has written who take to violence like a duck to water.  It is also worth noting how Tarantino explores the hierarchy of slaves (house slaves vs. field slaves) and how some slaves, like Stephen, were the trusted confidantes of their masters.  Stephen, indeed, ends up being much more evil than any of his white masters because of his willing betrayal of those who share his race.  Will you enjoy Django Unchained if you haven't enjoyed other Tarantino works?  Maybe, but you may notice more of it's flaws than people who love him.  For example, the film is about 20 minutes longer than it needs to be largely due to Tarantino's choices in the finale.  On one hand, I love the final finale...but I don't like the writing choices that lead us to it.  I won't ruin it if you haven't seen it, but let's just say that at least one character takes a huge choice leap that doesn't jive with what we know about him from earlier.  It's not a deal-breaker, but it does make me like the film just a little bit less than I could have.  Still, it is an excellent film and one worth seeing this Holiday season.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Miserable Ones

Every year there are a handful of films that I get obsessively excited about, and usually one of those occurs during the Holiday Movie Season of November and December.  Last year it was The Muppets, the year before it was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and the year before that it was Avatar.  You can usually count on me being gaga for one film or another and this Holiday Season was no different.  There were a great many films that came out in Novemeber and December that I wanted to see this year and was excited about (and several that I have not seen and either can still catch or have to see on disc) but only one worked me into an obsessive frenzy matching the excitement I felt for The Muppets.  It was sure to be epic, emotional, and full of beautiful music.  It is based on one of the most popular and well known musicals of the last 30 years, which itself was based on what is considered Victor Hugo's masterpiece...the novel "Les Miserables" (which has been adapted in upwards of 30 times as a film already).  As the film's star, Hugh Jackman, stated, film musicals can either be amazing or can "stink to high heaven" and this one was sure to divide audiences across the board.  However, any way you sliced it, the film was going to be a financial success due to it's enormous built-in fan base.  The real question then, is it any good.  Let's dig deep into the grime of 19th century France and uncover, Les Miserables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a petty thief who stole a loaf of bread and then tried to elude punishment, so he has been a prisoner and slave to the French government for the past 19 years.  Finally he is released on parole by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) with a yellow ticket of leave which identifies him as a dangerous criminal to anyone who demands to see his papers.  Valjean believes himself to be free and able to start a new life, but everywhere he goes he is treated with fear and hatred due to his parole ticket.  Finally, when he is cold, shivering, and at the end of his rope, he is saved when a kindly Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) offers him shelter.  The Bishop feeds him, warms him, and gives him a comfortable bed to sleep in.  Valjean, now cynical from his treatment by others, then steals the expensive silver he ate from from the Bishop and quickly takes flight.  The next morning he is captured and the officers tell the Bishop that Valjean said he gave him the silver.  Knowing he is caught in a lie, Valjean awaits the Bishops condemnation.  Instead, the Bishop saves Valjean's life by corroborating Valjean's lie and then offering him the silver candlesticks from the table to match.  Valjean, touched and shaken to the core by this, decides to start a new life and to endevor to show the same love to others that the Bishop showed him.  He breaks parole and takes on the identity of M. Madeline.  Eight years later, Valjean is Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner.  At that very factory, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is exposed as having a child out of wedlock and the Foreman, having been denied sexual advances from her, fires her to shame her.  Valjean does nothing to intercede because at that moment he spots Javert, who has been assigned to the town as the newest inspector.  Javert is sure he recognizes Valjean, but he is unsure from where.  Meanwhile, Fantine spirals into prostitution and disease in order to pay M. Thenardier, a con man who is taking care of her child.  She has a run in with a gentleman and Javert threatens to put her in prison.  Valjean steps in and stops the punishment and takes her to a hospital where she dies.  On her deathbed she makes Valjean promise to take care of her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).  Javert confronts Valjean about his true identity and Valjean is forced to go on the run again.  He rescues Cosette from the evil Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and she lives in his care for nine years in Paris.  Suddenly it is June of 1832 and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfield) locks eyes with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and soon they are in love.  This conflicts with both of their lives as Valjean is very protective of Cosette and Marius is involved in the Rebellion scheduled to occur and led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).  Marius also has a friend in the Thernardier's daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks) who secretly loves him.  As the characters all barrel towards their fates at the hands of the June Rebellion, what will happen and how will Valjean keep his daughter and her love safe?

Les Miserables was a behemoth as a novel and the fact that the stage musical managed to adapt it fairly faithfully into a three hour performance was fairly amazing and required some careful cutting and clipping to shoehorn all the parts and characters together.  The film manages to faithfully adapt the play (which is a pop-opera with a completely sung-through libretto) and still add back in material that was cut from the novel to make it work as a play.  The result is an adaptation that is more like the book with music and less like the play that many have come to know and love due to several songs being shortened and the order of the tunes rearranged to better film the narrative of the film.  That will tick off the most pure of the purists, but considering that the book was fairly faithfully adapted in the first place, the film will still grab the not-so-stick-in-the-mud-ish ones. 

 Where the film is most likely to lose devotees is in its direction, which has been deftly handled by Tom Hooper.  Hooper, well known for his controversial Oscar win for The King’s Speech over The Social Network, has attracted a lot of hate in recent years from people who either were ticked over his win or who simply don’t care for his style of off-kilter dutch angles, fish eye lenses, and reliance of close-ups to capture the actor’s emotions.  He uses these along with sweeping camera moves to capture Les Miserables, in a 1.85:1 ratio no less (rather than the traditional 2.35:1 wide used for big musicals).  This film is not shot at all like a traditional musical…in that I mean that there are very few wide shots that capture scenery, costumes, choreography, and other hugely theatrical techniques that often set a musical apart from other films.  It is shot more like a narrative film where people don’t sing.  This is likely to tick off people who expected a more traditional film musical.  I however do not think that any of these tricks are too the film’s detriment.  I felt an abnormal amount of attachment to the proceedings, even more so than when I saw the stage production, because I had actors in close-up singing their hearts out to me and I could not escape into an edit or point-of-view shift.  I was forced to watch the pain and degradation and to feel it along with them.  It achieved the maximum emotional reaction from me.

 Next is the unconventional design which highlights the grime and filth of the period.  Samantha Barks as Eponine, who is a lovely person, is shellacked with grime throughout the picture.  Anna Hathaway, also lovely normally, appears with bad teeth and is completely emaciated.   Even the sexy Hugh Jackman, whom it would be hard to make look bad, gets absolutely covered in feces and muck in a scene which takes him through the sewers of Paris.  As one negative reviewer already wrote, this is an ugly movie.  However, he wrote that intended as an insult.  I think it is more of a compliment to Hooper and the production team’s intent to capture as realistically as possible the filthy and miserable world that Hugo described in his novel.  I noticed this many times and every time I saw something not look pretty or eye-catching I was pleased.  I didn’t want this to look like The Phantom of the Opera or Chicago with their bright colors and sparkles.  I wanted it to look like filth.

Finally, the performances are going to split the field hugely given that Hooper decided to cast great actors who could sing rather than great singers who could act.  This is a huge decision for material like this because the musical’s score is so important to so many people and they want to hear it presented in the most perfect and definitive way possible.  For those people, I would suggest either the 10th anniversary concert or the 25th anniversary concert, both of which are on DVD and Blu-ray.  This is NOT meant to be a recital where all the songs are sung perfectly and to the rafters.  This is meant to be a story told through music, which is why Hooper’s decision is not only correct but essential for the film he chose to make.  The film’s stage actors, Wilkinson, Barks, and Tveit all sing marvelously but also act through their songs in keeping with the tone and vision of the film.  Redmayne also has an impeccable voice and has been given many accolades (deservedly so) for his vocals, particularly in his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.

The Hollywood actors who can sing include Jackman (who did indeed win a Tony on the stage but I include him here anyway), Crowe, Hathaway, Cohen, and Carter are more of a mixed bag.  Crowe is the weakest link in the cast, which has been noted in other reviews for this film.  However, the reason he is the weakest link comes down to the fact that he simply doesn’t sing as strongly as everyone else.  His voice is actually lovely and I found myself loving his rendition of “Stars” for its understated qualities (because Javert is restrained and repressed and therefore should not be as big vocally as Valjean).  Jackman is next in taking some flack because he is a known singer and he makes the biggest target since it is his character who carries the movie.  For every amazing moment he has a few pitchy ones and it would be easy to write him off as a flaw if you were just focusing on the sound his vocals make.  What you’d miss is the incredible acting that drives the vocals and cements him, for me, as the definitive film Valjean (that’s saying something when Liam Neeson has played him before).  During his Soliloquy there is a moment where he is sobbing and singing and it sounds like the song is ripping its way out of him rather than being sung and it is like a dagger in the gut emotionally.  Overall, through incredible acting and very good singing, Jackman commands this role and is a revelation.  It is probably his best work to date.

 Anne Hathaway has gotten nothing but raves for her portrayal as Fantine and for good reason.  She works so many nuances and subtle facial ticks into “I Dreamed a Dream”…which for many seemed a one-note song before…that she manages to achieve the film’s first full-on tissue moment in that scene (it should be noted that the majority of the song is captured by Hooper in an extreme close-up of her face that never cuts away and it is devastating).   Seyfield, on the other hand has divided many with her thinner voice.  Her light touch and reedy tone really help make Cosette seem very innocent and inexperienced however…and her acting touches, like Hathaway’s, add subtle nuances to a character that always felt like a two-dimensional character rather than a fleshed out person we could relate to.  Overall, the singing – which was recorded live on set to capture every aspect of the actors’ performances – is more triumph than failure and fits completely in Hooper’s vision of making a realistic world that you would connect to emotionally.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I loved this film and have not gotten it out of my head since I saw it, but that does not mean there aren’t a few flaws.  At over two hours and thirty minutes, you’d probably be surprised if I told you I wished it was a little longer to give some pause from one number to the next.  There were several moments where a fade or a pause would have helped cushion us from jumping to the next thing.  Instead, Hooper makes constant use of jump cuts and keeps the film moving at a frenetic pace.  This isn’t necessarily bad because boy does this film move!  I was shocked when it ended and I thought I had been duped on the running time because it seemed to have flown by, however I think an extra two minutes of fades and pauses might remove this flaw.  While we’re talking about editing, this film is a bit messy toward the beginning with its cutting.  I was familiar with the story and the shooting script (I told you I was obsessed) but there were some very fast cuts in the opening prologue and during the Fantine section where I felt the audience might be missing what was happening (because I was blinking and missing things I knew were there).  As the film progressed, either the editing smoothed out or I got used to it (probably the former), but some cleaner cutting in the beginning would have helped make the story clearer.  Some of the singing, while the majority is great, does suffer a bit at the hands of the live-recording.  There are pitchy moments and places where I was very sure that the notes hit were not the ones expected…however this was largely in the recitatives (or the sung dialogue in between big songs) and happened rarely.  A re-recording of those scenes to dub the actors might have been nice to keep it all sounding pretty, but that also would have taken away from the magnificence of the emotion they managed to capture live on the set.  I don’t think there’s an easy fix for this.  Aside from these, I did not notice any other real flaws (yes, some critics are calling Hooper’s directoral style a huge flaw, but I feel it works).

So to reiterate, if you are coming to this film expecting to see the stage version you love sung perfectly and in its entirety in a Hollywood-film-musical style…you are in the wrong theater and should seek out either one of the recorded concerts or the nearest live performance of the musical instead.  Your preconceptions will make you hate it (or at the very least feel underwhelmed by it)  If you want to see an innovative, inspiring, slightly flawed but moving motion picture adaptation of both a book and stage show…you owe it to yourself to buy a ticket to this outstanding work of art.  I cannot in words tell you how this made me feel in an effective way (the most articulate way I’ve found was to say I felt “emotionally bludgeoned”) but trust me when I say, through all the tears and the emotional exhaustion I felt at the conclusion, I loved the experience and I cannot wait to see it again. 
 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 25: A Christmas Miracle

You won't believe this, but I just wrote a fantastic post about Christmas miracles and the importance of family and all that rot while tying it to Miracle on 34th Street.  It's also one of the rare posts I wrote on my iPad because I couldn't get my laptop to work...well in trying to publish it and share some videos to it, it erased.  Nothing I wrote, as lovely as it was, was saved and there's no way to recapture it.  I'll admit, at first I just wanted to pout and say "insert curse here this!", but then I decided that that attitude would fly in the face of everything I just wrote.  How could I talk about the importance of Christmas and little miracles (especially when so many have so little to be happy about) if I let one stupid cock up ruin my good will? So, a little Christmas miracle just occurred and here I am...again writing this post...because I believe that it matters.  I have faith, and isn't that what this film is about?  So let's all enjoy some holiday cheer as we experience Miracle on 34th Street.

Kris Kringle is indignant to find that the person assigned to play Santa in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Percy Helton) is intoxicated. When he complains to event director Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), she persuades Kris to take his place. He does such a fine job that he is hired as the Santa for Macy's flagship New York City store on 34th StreetIgnoring instructions to steer parents to buy from Macy's, Kris directs one shopper (Thelma Ritter) to another store. She is so impressed, she tells Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tonge), head of the toy department, that she will become a loyal customer. Kris later informs another mother that arch-rival Gimbel's has better skates. Fred Gailey (John Payne), Doris's attorney neighbor, takes the young divorcee's second grade daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) to see Kris. Doris has raised her to not believe in fairy tales, but her lack of faith is shaken when she sees Kris conversing in Dutch with an adopted girl who does not know English. Doris asks Kris to tell Susan that he is not really Santa Claus, but Kris insists he is. Kris then makes it his personal mission to convince Doris and Susan that he really is Santa Claus by making their Christmas wishes come true.

There's something timeless about this film and I think that is part of why it endures, because as long as we live there will be children and adults who doubt the existence of Santa Claus. One of the things I love the most about the film is that it never says one way or another whether Kris is or isn't Santa. Sure there are a lot of moments where Kris does something that seems magical, but at the end there is nothing to prove that he is anything more than a very talented old man.  However we, like the characters in the story, choose to believe in him because we have faith.   Faith is the most important part of the human capacity for belief and it is the one thing I think we all need to hold on to during the holidays, what with the endless to-do lists and the assurance that if we don't do this or that somehow it will ruin Christmas.  We must have faith that everything will work out...especially those of us who are in much worse places this Christmas.  With the recent tragedies still fresh in our minds and the knowledge that there are many people who aren't as well off as the rest of us, we need our faith to tell us that everything will be ok.  Miracle on 34th Street is about all of that and more.  If you can find the time this year, please watch this with your families.  It really is one of the very best.

(Forgive the lack of trailer today: the iPad just won't cooperate)

Monday, December 24, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 24: Monsters in Bedford Falls

Well it's Christmas Eve again and we are a mere 24 hours from concluding yet another Christmas season (fear not though, the holiday season continues until New Year's) and I honestly couldn't be more excited.  We've got a ton of good food in the house, good people to share it with, and a really good pile of gifts under the tree.  I know that the pile is only huge because now there are two kids (and let's face it, once you have kids Christmas is...nay SHOULD be...about them) but it still inspires excitement and visions of torn paper and tall stashes of loot.  Tomorrow seriously can't get here soon enough so it can reveal it's secrets to us (I for one can't want to find out what I got, but I also can't wait to see everyone else see what they got).  To add to this year's Christmas anticipation, I am scheduled to be one of the first in Gallatin, TN to see Les Miserables when it is released on Christmas Day (cue me singing "One Day More") so there is a lot to be excited about.  However, part of what makes the excitement so sweet is the anticipation, or rather the suspense.  I think Christmas Eve is one of the most suspenseful nights of the year (albeit a rather playful suspense) so I think it only appropriate that I should write about a rather playfully suspenseful film.  It is one that is almost always worked into my Christmas movie roundup because I adore it so, and one I try to watch every Christmas Eve because of the juxtaposition it offers the holiday.  It's like someone opened a crate of monsters and released them into the idyllic world of It's a Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls. So without further ado, I give you that seminal Christmas classic...Gremlins.

Billy Peltzer is an average 20-something living in a small town named Kingston Falls and he is finding his life going nowhere.  He works in a dead end job at the local bank, his mother and father are on the verge of losing their home to foreclosure, and his Christmas is shaping up to be one of the worst.  That all seems to change when two things occur.  One, Kate Berringer finally agrees to go out with him (he's been infatuated with her since high school) and two, his father has brought him home a very unusual Christmas present.  It is a small, furry animal called a Mogwai (which his father has taken the liberty of naming Gizmo).  Gizmo is an amazing pet.  He sings, he talks, he is clever, and he clearly loves Billy.  However, Gizmo comes with a rather strange set of rules: 1. Don't let him near bright light or sunlight (it will kill him), 2. Don't get him wet, and 3. Don't let him eat after midnight.  The first rule is broken pretty quickly when mom takes a flash picture and scares the bejesus out of Gizmo.  The second rule is also broken in an accident and causes Gizmo to multiply.  These little Mogwai are not nearly as cute and cuddly as Gizmo and they soon are breaking the 3rd rule on their own.  Billy awakens the next morning to find several green, slimy pods where the Mogwai used to be.  Not knowing what to do, he visits a science teacher friend at the local high school to get some answers.  Meanwhile, it's Christmas Eve, and it isn't just Santa Claus that is stirring.  The pods have begun to hatch and what is inside is not cute, cuddly, or clever.  It is mean, it is ugly, and it has very sharp teeth.

Gremlins reminds me of those wonderful 1950s horror films where some seemingly innocuous discovery turns into a horrific experience for everyone involved when a dumb-luck accident takes place.  Granted, most of those were played seriously (usually to unintentional comic effect), and Gremlins prefers to play to the laughs.  Does that mean Gremlins isn't terrifying?  Well, you have your five year old watch it and then get back to me.  This film is very playfully scary and certain scenes (such as Mom alone in the house with the gremlins) are the stuff good horror films are made of.  Things get a little lighter once there are more gremlins in the picture, but they intensify again in the finale when there is one gremlin left fighting for it's life against Billy.  This really is, despite it's comedy and broad appeal, first and foremost a horror movie.  Enough cannot be said about it's brilliant effects work, which makes a viewer believe that (at one point) there are HUNDREDS of this vicious little monsters destroying a town.  The multiplication scenes and the hatching pods are all handled wonderfully as well, with practical effects and puppetry....good old-fashioned movie making.  Jerry Goldsmith's score is also wonderful with it's fiendishly clever little theme and creepy bits keeping us aware that this is a horror movie but one that is more fun than fright.  Joe Dante's direction too is wonderfully tongue-in-cheek and constantly acknowledges the films that inspired this one...such as featuring It's a Wonderful Life and Invasion of the Body Snatchers in key scenes.  Everything about Gremlins works and it really could be good counter programming to all the mushy and heartwarming fare that is currently on the television.  So if your kids are a little older and you don't mind them seeing some violence (and for god's sake, please explain the difference between movie violence and real violence), put on Gremlins this Christmas Eve.  I guarantee they'll enjoy it.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 23: A Little Ballet

I'm currently sitting in the guest room of my sister's new home...it is a generous sized and comfortable room that I am only using because my sister has asked my mother to move out of it for a few days this Christmas so that there would be room in the house for my father and I.  Mom has been living here for a few months now as she waits for her new condo to be finished and so for all intents and purposes, this has become her home.  So you can imagine the enthusiasm with which she met this idea.  I can sympathize, and in fact I will be spending the afternoon with her to help her not feel so left out this Christmas, but I wish she and my sister were getting along better this Christmas.  I'm not saying either of them is being a huge witch or anything like that, but there have been more than a few choice words between them over the subject and really the situation is very simple: My sister wanted some quality time with my father (with whom relations are always strained when mom is around due to their divorce back in 1989) because she has not seen him EVERYDAY for the past few months and it is Christmas...that's her side.  Mom is feeling under appreciated and unloved and feels as though she is not allowed to be part of Christmas this year (never mind that she is going to be here Christmas Eve and Day) because she has been asked to stay in a hotel to make room for time and space in the house...that's mom's side.  If they weren't so alike, I think this would be less like two bulls butting heads and more like a friendly compromise.  At any rate, I hope one of them apologizes to the other by Christmas.  This was a little off topic, but it was on my mind so I figured I'd vent a bit.  I suppose this comes with the territory this Christmas, being the first one since we were kids that both of my parents attended simultaneously.  There was bound to be tension.  So I try to escape into fonder memories of Christmas, which is where I found today's film.  I've written about it before, but now that it is on MOD (Movie on Demand) DVD I figured it was the perfect time to mention it again.  It is a fairy tale and a fully-mounted ballet that is still one of the best film versions (in my humble opinion) of the ballet ever put to film.  I give you, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.

The story begins in the large and ominous looking workshop of Herr Drosselmeyer, the godfather of the story's protagonist...Clara.  He sits thinking at his desk until he gets an idea.  As the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky's music swirls to life, he creates a magnificent toy castle that is inhabited by many motorized characters.  He falls asleep next to it and the castle opens, revealing the inner dreams of Clara.  It would appear that Drosselmeyer's work has been to send a nightmare to Clara, punishing her for not wanting to be close to him.  In the dream she imagines a fight with her brother culminating in a rat bite that transforms her.  Suddenly the dream leaps to a different setting, that of her family's Christmas Eve party.  It appears to be a facsimile of the one she is about to attend (as I assume this nightmare was given to her in the early hours of Christmas Eve) and Clara is amazed to recieve the motorized castle as a present.  However, the toy she loves best is actually a wooden nutcracker that falls from the Christmas tree.  Later, when everyone else is asleep, Clara comes into the great hall to dance about with her nutcracker and this is where she sees the mice.  It seems the Mouse King (a three headed beast) has infiltrated the room and all of his minions are stealing the presents.  The Mouse King also has magical powers and he makes Clara shrink to his size.  Suddenly, the nutcracker comes to life to defend her.  As they both defeat the Mouse King, Clara magically becomes an adult and the nutcracker becomes a handsome prince who takes her on a marvelous adventure.

This production was very much a filmed version of a stage production which was produced by the Pacific Northwest Ballet of Seattle, Washington in 1983 and was so popular that it was decided that the production would make an entertaining movie. This version differs greatly from other versions as it omits the Sugar Plum Fairy (who has an entire dance written for her) and The Kingdom of Sweets and replaces them instead with a harem run by a sultan who resembles Uncle Drosselmeyer greatly. Also notable was that the production's sets and costumes were designed by Maurice Sendak (author and illustrator of "Where the Wild Things Are") and its staging stays much truer to E.T.A. Hoffman's original fairy tale (which was much darker and ominous). Also of note was that the production was staged with two Claras. One who represented Clara as an actual child, and another who was meant to be 'Dream Clara' and would dance and be a part of Clara's dream world. Clara also seems to share a strange love/fear relationship with Drosselmeyer which adds another aspect of depth to the proceedings, especially when the Drosselmeyer sultan shows a desire to compete with the Nutcracker Prince for Clara's affections and nearly causes their demise at the end of the film as they freefall away from each other...causing Clara to awaken in her bed as the curtain falls. It is a sumptuous and lively production and will always be one of my favorites to see every year.  You can stream it on Netflix or buy the disc from Amazon...it makes a wonderful antidote to the bland 90s film by George Balanchine.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 22: Love is All Around

If there's anything that we all can agree on, it's that the Holiday season is largely about love.  We share love with our families, our friends, our significant others, and all the rest of the special people in our lives.  So it shouldn't be surprising that a good chunk of romantic comedies take place on Christmas, given the built in seasonal expectations and universal appeal of the holiday.  One of my favorites incorporates a great deal of Christmas cliches, music, and customs into an ensemble piece that features some of my favorite British actors and actresses.  It is a story about how love exists everywhere in the world around us in many different ways, all we have to do is look for it.  I give you, Love Actually.

The film begins with a voiceover from David (Hugh Grant) commenting that whenever he gets gloomy with the state of the world he thinks about the arrivals terminal at Heathrow Airport, and the pure uncomplicated love felt as friends and families welcome their arriving loved ones. David's voiceover also relates that all the messages left by the people who died on the 9/11 planes were messages of love and not hate. The film then tells the 'love stories' of many people including an author who falls for his Portuguese housekeeper but is unable to communicate with her, a husband and wife who are growing apart, a woman who loves her co-worker but must care for a brother with a disability, and a man who's best friend just married the love of his life.  During the course of the film the stories intertwine and some will turn out well and some will fail...but that's how love works isn't it?

The message of Richard Curtis' 2003 romantic comedy behemoth, Love Actually, which showcased no less than 13 celebrities in starring and supporting roles and also featured at least 4 or 5 separate romantic storylines that interweave in and out of each other, is so simple that it almost seems to go missed by many.  Curtis wanted to show that, even in dark times like ours when events like 9/11 can make us doubt that the sun will shine again (yes, I'm being overdramatic for a purpose), love is everywhere if you look for it. And this film, set in the weeks leading up to Christmas in London, has almost all of it. Young love, old love, wounded love, lost love, parent/child love, first love, family love, etc. You name it, its there. Yes, some of the tales are just so precious you might want to brush your teeth afterwards from all the sweetness, but conversely some of the stories are bittersweet and/or complete failures (such as Laura Linney's thread with her sexy co-worker or Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman's tiny saga) and in doing this, Curtis creates one of the most realistic romantic comedies ever made. I don't mean realistic in that in real life anytime you walk around the corner love could run right smack into you...no, but it is difficult to deny that somewhere around you, someone is expressing love. And its not just romantic love. We love our friends, we love our pets, we (sometimes) love our jobs, and we love our family. Love, contrary to what some films show, is not just about falling in love with a mate. Love is also the small kinds of things that we take for granted in our everyday lives. And yes, Curtis does develop the romantic plots a little more than the other subtle love plots, but he kinda has to. I mean, that's what we came to see. However, one cannot scoff at love the way it is used in the film because he really has tried to include so many varieties of it. Its rather a corny concept actually and I'm amazed that he got it made...but the finished product is one of my favorite feel-good experiences. And what better time is there to feel-good than at Christmastime?


Friday, December 21, 2012

25 Days of Christmas Movies 2012 - Day 21: A Christmas Carol in Reverse

We all know the familiar story of Scrooge and his change from a bad man into a good one, so I'll spend no more time going over that here...however today I will be discussing a Christmas Carol that works in reverse for the sake of satire.  I don't know about any of you, but while I love and adore Scrooge's transformation, I always thought Scrooge's rampent overspending and charity was going to bankrupt him really fast if he didn't do some massive rebudgeting really fast.  I suppose that is why I have chosen tonight's Television special for your consideration.  It is a satire of the ideals and themes of "A Christmas Carol" put through a somewhat extreme lens, but it's all in good fun.  So I present to you, Blackadder's Christmas Carol.

Ebenezer Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), the Victorian proprietor of a "moustache shop", is the nicest man in England. He is everything that Ebenezer Scrooge was by the end of the original story; generous and kind to everybody, and sensitive to the misery of others. As a result, everybody takes advantage of his kindness, and all but Mr. Baldrick (Tony Robinson) view him as a victim, although even he is slightly more cynical than his ancestors. His business turns no profit, all his earnings going to charity and to con artists, and he lives a lonely, miserable life.  One Christmas Eve, Blackadder's destiny changes when the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane) makes the mistake of calling round to congratulate him for his ways. The spirit lets him see shades of the past: his ancestors Lord Blackadder and Mr. E. Blackadder, Esq., the butler of the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie). Instead of being convinced that he is better than them, he grows to admire them and their wit and asks the spirit to show him what could happen if he became like them.

This is the kind of program that makes people love British comedy.  I love how the show lampoons the wealthy, the leeches of society, the dumb, and yes, even the good people of the world.  Like "The Simpsons" no one is spared in the satire.  The Blackadder version of the Carol is nothing short of comic genius.  The way Ebenezer Blackadder comes to the realization that "Bad Guys Have All The Fun" is so wonderfully inspired that it made me wonder why someone hadn't done a film or tv program like this one earlier than the late 80s.  The actors are also something of a rouge's gallery of famous brits including Robbie Coltrane, Miranda Richardsom, Rowan Atkinson, and many others.  In fact, I was surprised at what a who's who of British thespians (and ironically, Harry Potter alums) the piece was.  If you want a good laugh and an answer to all the sentimentality of the usual Christmas Carol, give this one a whirl...you will laugh.  I swear.