On Sunday, March 26, we went to see the new movie of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney (mostly) live action adaptation of their 1991 all-animated feature. I say “mostly” live action: Belle, her father Maurice, villain Gaston, Le Fou, and the other villagers are live-action. Dan Steven’s Beast form and all of the enchanted servants, Lumiere, Cogsworth, et al, are CGI until the curse is lifted from them.

The movie looks great. The village is beautiful, the Beast’s castle fantastic, costumes excellent and casting all very good.

There are significant changes from the original other than the medium. There are some “new” songs, brought in from the musical play version, and some minutes of new music specifically for the film, none of which are very consequential or memorable. Some, such as “Evermore,” a song for the Beast mourning Belle’s departure to rescue Maurice, seem strongly influenced by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

My major disappointment with the 1991 movie was that Belle had no “big song.” It was a letdown when the orchestral musical buildup following “Belle” (“Isn’t she a funny girl—“) peaking in her sung line “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!” just stops. Brave, bookish Belle is my favorite Disney/fairy tale heroine, and I’ve always wanted her to have her own anthem, her own equivalent of “Let it Go,” but we still don’t have it. To be fair, the Beast doesn’t get a “big” song either: all the really memorable songs are for the ensemble or the servants: “Belle,” “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and that hasn’t changed.

The singing is very good, and on the film, you will hear the actual actors doing the songs, which shows that Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) all have very creditable singing voices. Frankly, I think they are preferable to some of the more professional singers that are featured on the soundtrack album.

There are some significant changes to the characters, which are mostly to the good. Maurice is played with more dignity and as less of a screwball, which makes him a more sympathetic character, but makes Gaston’s railroading him into the madhouse less credible.

Gaston, as played by Mr. Evans, initially comes over a bit more likeable. He seems humanly smitten/obsessed with Belle, and less just convinced of his entitlement to her. Ultimately though, he’s even more rotten than his cartoon counterpart, as his murderous streak comes out earlier in the film. He’s also a bit psychotic: LeFou (Josh Gad) heads off a berserk episode by saying, “Go to your happy place, Gaston! The war! All those widows!” “Widows!” murmurs Gaston in reply, with a glassy grin. Whether he’s remembering exploiting them or creating them is left unsaid--.

While I kind of miss the evil Monsieur D’Arque and the “Maison de Lune” song, it’s apparent they don’t fit in with the style of the new production. Instead, we have more dialog, particularly between Belle and the Beast which helps develop the growth of their relationship.

There were some bits that were overdone: “Be Our Guest” is always an over-the-top production number, but this version went ridiculously far. It’s a bit much even for magically animated crockery and flatware to improvise indoor fireworks and disco lighting effects on short notice.

So, it’s a really good film, and we liked it a lot. I still think I like the cartoon one better, though.
On Saturday evening, March 18th, we went to the Skylight to see their new production of Beauty and the Beast, based upon Zemire et Azor, a 1771 opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, with libretto by Jean François Marmontel, after the story La belle et la bête by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and the play Amour pour amour by P.C. Nivelle de La Chaussée.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.

The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.

Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.

At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.

When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.

After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”

Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.

This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.

This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.

On Wednesday evening, July 6th, we went to see The BFG, the new movie adapted from the book by Roald Dahl. We enjoyed it very much.

Set in 1980’s Britain, orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives an insomniac existence at an unlikely Dickensian orphanage on a back street. When she breaks her own rules about noised in the night (“Don’t get out of bed, don’t go to the window, don’t look behind the curtain,”) she sees The BFG (Mark Rylance) going about his business of distributing dreams. He sees her seeing him, and steals her away with him so that she can’t tell what she has seen.

Initially outraged at her kidnapping, she attempts escape, but finds that BFG’s cave is in the middle of Giant Country, which is the home of nine other much less civilized giants, all of whom are man-eaters and at least three times BFG’s size.  Eventually, she learns that BFG (Big, Friendly Giant, as he wishes to be called) is tender-hearted, and, even on short acquaintance, cares for her more than the orphanage keepers. He shows her the marvelous Dream Country, where he gets the makings for the dreams that he puts out to those that need them.

When she has a close call with the other giants, who have names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), BFG decides that Sophie has to go back to the orphanage. However, this won’t do for Sophie, who has realized that the other giants are a deadly threat to other children. Together, they come up with an audacious plan that involves going to London to see the Queen.

We would disagree with the critics who say that The BFG is somehow lacking. Indeed, The BFG does not have the transgressive or satirical edge that shows up in adaptations of others of his works, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, or the explicitly anti-authoritarian Matilda. Instead, The BFG is a more pure children’s story, and is charming, sweet, and sentimental. It is also magical, beautiful, and tells a solid story of empowerment without doing harm.

It is also wonderfully funny, especially in the sequence of BFG’s visit to Buckingham Palace and breakfast with the Queen.  Penelope Wilton (“Isobel Crawley” from Downton Abbey) plays the Queen wonderfully. She’s open to new things, but never at a loss and always in control. Her place staff, lead by lady in waiting Mary (Rebecca Hall) and First Footman Mr. Tibbs (Rafe Spall), show us how the truly professional do it, when confronted with the requirement to provide breakfast for a thirty-foot tall unexpected guest. That the scene is also the set-up for perhaps the most elaborate “fart joke” in movie history is just lagniappe.

We became aware of distinguished actor Mark Rylance watching him play Henry the Eighth’s ‘fixer’ Thomas Cromwell in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, and were most impressed by the subtlety and depth of his acting skills. His basic solemn expression is perfect for the giant, and his ability to portray wonder, awe, fear, and anger with fine nuance does everything that is needed to convey the Giant’s character, when combined with the marvelous voice characterization. Rylance’s skills provide an excellent setting for Ms. Barnhill’s Sophie, who is a very naturalistic yet forceful young girl. The BFG is a fine, fine piece of fantasy cinema, and should be seen by all who still have a sense of wonder.

 

Last night (May 3rd) we saw the new movie of The Jungle Book, and were very pleased with it. The CGI world is just gorgeous, and the animated animal effects, although subtly fantastic, are quite believable and easy to accept.

Neel Sethi, who, as Mowgli, is the only major character not animated, is amazingly good. He’s a charming kid, but not too cute, who looks about as much like the 1967 animated Mowgli as a human being could. He has a very expressive face, and acts very well, especially considering that most of the time he’s working with puppets and stand-ins for the other actors. He also has a good degree of athleticism, handing the character’s running and jumping quite credibly, although I suspect the more dangerous stunts were also computer augmented.

Despite the awesome cast of actors providing animal voices, I frankly wasn’t as impressed. Sir Ben Kingsley, inheriting the role of the reluctantly kind Bagheera from Sebastian Cabot, gave the role the right mixture of concern and annoyance, but many actors could have done that. Scarlett Johanssen didn’t really bring anything special to the role of Kaa. Idris Elba was unobjectionable as Shere Khan, but I remember George Sanders as bringing a greater menace to the vocal role in 1967.

The roles of Balloo and King Louie were re-written substantially, partially as part of the general updating of the script, and perhaps partly to take advantage of the talents of the assigned actors. Bill Murray’s Balloo is a wheedling con-artist, something Murray does very well, but which is quite different than the joyous loafer role given to singer Phil Harris. In the 1967 movie, the role of King Louie was also given to a performer best known for music, jazz man Louis Prima, who made the most of his musical number, “I Wanna Be Like You.” In the new film, King Louie is voiced by Christopher Walken, who does one of the things he does best, making the monstrous character quite creepy. Interestingly, the 1967 movie was noted for its edgy casting, not only in Sanders, known mostly for classy dramas, but Harris, who had invented the boozy entertainer character later patented by Dean Martin, and Prima, who, having been married five times, was not what one usually expected to be found associated with movies for children. (Both Harris and Prima went on to work with Disney on other projects.)

A word about the songs: the movie retains parts of the 1967 songs “Bare Necessities,” “Trust in Me,” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but they are more integrated into the action and not done as set pieces. Murray is no singer and there’s no attempt to match Harris’ performance. Walken, who actually has a song-and-dance background, made King Louie’s song a megalomanical rant, which implies the question, if he wants to be (like) you, who do you get to be afterward? Johanssen gets to do a full-length and more seductive version of “Trust In Me” as part of the end titles, which are cleverly done and worth sitting through.

The updating of the script adds back some of the drama and darkness of Kipling’s work that had been sacrificed for humor in the 1967 film. In particular, the climactic confrontation with Shere Khan was exciting and satisfying. Other, more solemn elements, such as the “Law of the Pack,” and the awesomeness of the elephants, added gravity to the film.

Interestingly, the movie also departs from the 1967 version at the ending, in which Mowgli, despite having in many ways become a “man,” and no longer a “man-cub,” does NOT leave the jungle—which leaves the door open for a possible sequel.
I laughed about the science-fantasy violations of the laws of physics in A New Hope back when it first came out. Beam weapons that end at three feet, and will cut anything except each other? Six energy beams that cancel vectors and merge? (I always thought that Lucas missed the boat on light-sabers: instead of glorified samurai swords, imagine fighting with weapons that can’t be parried or blocked, except with the Force itself. Then, you’d have to be a Jedi to duel with one, since a battle would be an aerial dogfight of Force flying and Force pushing as each tried to get inside the other’s guard without getting tagged in turn. I originally speculated that the lightsaber was actually a “Force” blade with the laser effect there merely so you could see where it was, but material published since is to the effect that the blade is a contained plasma effect and it’s well established that you don’t have to be a Force user to wield a lightsaber, although it helps--.)

In a number of ways, The Force Awakens is even worse, and in possibly damaging ways. The biggest one is the change in hyperspace travel. In the Starkiller battle sequence, not only do the Rebels have real-time intelligence of what’s happening at Starkiller Base (weapon status, etc.) which has to be light-years away, but then, the fighter wing is launched and instantaneously transitioned to the Starkiller planet. In the previous episodes, hyperspace voyages took days if not weeks. I suppose it’s possible that, in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi hyperspace drives might have progressed, that doesn’t explain how the Millennium Falcon (that hasn’t even had the interior cleaned in 30 years, evidently) can do the same trick (let alone operate--).

Spaceship hulls are evidently composed of something with a strength approaching Larry Niven’s monocrystalline “hullmetal*”. On Jakku, we see the hulks of at least two Star Destroyers that have crashed there, but retain most of their hull integrity, very surprising for vessels that were presumably built in space with no capability for landing. And, again, the Millennium Falcon seems well-nigh indestructible, surviving Han Solo’s below nap-of-the-Earth approach to the Starkiller, which shears off a sizable forest of mature trees, as well as Solo’s controlled flight into terrain landing.

Which makes one wonder, why don’t they make Storm Trooper armor out of that stuff? The standard plastic/ceramic seems to be totally useless. If you are a Captain, like Phasma, not only do you get issued a name instead of a number, you can have metal armor, which is way heavy (based on the footstep sounds) and probably power-assisted, but she still gives up immediately just because a pistol is pointed at her helmeted head. So, what good’s the armor?

Of course, blasters, or their ammunition, seem to have been upgraded, too. Bolts even from Rey and Solo’s pistols detonate with the effect of a concussion grenade, sending troopers flying, which makes one wonder what the minimum safe range for use is? If Solo had shot Greedo with a bolt like that, Greedo would have splattered, the table would have gone through the roof, and Solo probably would have been blown backward through the wall.

The Starkiller is frustrating, since it’s one of those descriptions where the ludicrous explanation could have been vastly improved with a few added words of dialog. As written, the Starkiller uses the entirety of its star for power, literally causing the star to “vanish” at peak power. The star magically reappears after the dirty work is done. Instead, one could have said that the Starkiller uses the entire output of the star, causing it to become briefly invisible due to sucking up all the visible light. Given the science-fantasy milieu it’s not reasonable to expect the production to bother with a science consultant, but couldn’t they have a “does this make any sense at all?” consultant?

*Hullmetal

Better known as the “General Products hull material”, it is made of energetically reinforced nano-scale macro molecules. Transparent to visible light, and highly durable, the nearly impervious state allows for vehicles and structures to be built to withstand ridiculous amounts of punishment. GP hulled ship Lying Bastard crash landed on the Ringworld floor while moving at over 770 miles per second. It was also blasted by a large ultraviolet laser, the Ringworld's meteor defense, triggered by the Ringworld in its own sun (Stasis field triggered in defense as well).
On Sunday, Dec. 27th, we went to see the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. We were pleased and satisfied with it, although not perhaps thrilled. (I would like to know the reactions of someone who came to it never having seen any of the prior installments--.)

Quite a bit has been said and written about this film’s similarities to the priors, in particular A New Hope. I think almost all of this is intentional, not just in putting in characters and visual references from earlier movies, but in overarching theme and plot. I rather suspected/hoped that this would be the case after viewing the much-maligned The Phantom Menace. The plot of that film, with its discovery of the talented young one, and the battle culminating in the destruction of the enemy’s flagship by an attack from within its defenses, also echoes the theme and plot of A New Hope, and seeing this recur again makes me “hope” that this also was not an accident nor a failure of invention. Remember, that George Lucas supposedly had nine episodes plotted out in “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker,” and it is just possible that even those years ago, an overarching plot had been envisioned, in which the cycle of time returns on itself in a spiral, not quite coming back to the same point. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history—the always short-sighted “Sith”—build ever larger and more terrifying super-weapons, only to have their technological Goliaths destroyed by the Light Side’s Davids. *

At the beginning of The Force Awakens, the galaxy is in a state of low-intensity warfare, pitting a renascent “Republic” against the remnant Empire lead by the “First Order”, with the “Rebellion” staging an anti-Empire insurgency. The McGuffin this time is not a set of plans, but a star map showing the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, who has become a hermit. Incidents surrounding the attempts to recover the data heat up the war, causing the First Order to activate its “Starkiller Base,” a planet-cracker that is an order of magnitude more dangerous than either version of the Death Star.

The next generation of heroes are caught up in the tide of events. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Rebellion/Republic’s ace fighter pilot at least signed on for this. “Finn,” (John Boyega) a reluctant Storm Trooper dragooned into the Imperial forces as a child, finds an opportunity to desert. And Rey (Daisy Ridley) is an orphaned scavenger inhabiting a Tattoine-like desert world when Fate, perhaps literally, seeks her out. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a conflicted Vader-wannabee, the genuine next generation of Dark Lords.

They have time to establish themselves firmly as the protagonists of the film before the old guard, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), “General” Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (now apparently a genuine robot, as Kenny Baker is listed only as “R2-D2 Consultant”) put in appearances.

The plot cycles through an arc familiar from Episode 1, and especially Episode 4, but with enough variations and diversions (and one very significant surprise) to make it fresh, fun, and entertaining for the aficionados.

Saturday evening, October 24th, we went to see Crimson Peak, it being the right season for a ghost story. Crimson Peak is such a story in which, as Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) tells us in the first line, “ghosts are real.”

The story, written by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is a proper old-style Gothic thriller, which Mrs. Radcliffe or “Monk” Lewis would have been proud of, had they been able and willing to put the occasional gory killing directly on stage.

When the plot proper begins, Edith is the bluestocking daughter of Buffalonian businessman Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), she meets and is attracted to penurious nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe, Bart., (Tom Hiddleston) who is seeking to raise money to continue work on his prototype excavating machine, with which he hopes to restore the family fortunes, which rest (literally) upon played-out deposits of a rare clay.

Cushing puts a stop to courtship after having a detective dig into Sharpe’s past, but his objections are ended by his sudden death, and Sharpe consoles the grieving Edith by making her his bride.

The remainder of the story plays out in England, at the Sharpe’s ruinous Gothic monstrosity of a mansion, which sits alone in an empty landscape in one of England’s most desolate regions. Sharpe’s brooding sister, Lucille, (Jessica Chastain), is a resentful presence, and Edith is soon haunted by the ominous and grisly spectres of the hall’s past.

The story very stylishly plays to its somewhat Grand Guignol climax along themes that are equal parts Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Perrault. While there are some plot holes, much can be forgiven for the fine acting, marvelous cinematography, horrific special effects, strikingly eerie sets, luscious costumes, and very good acting. I will admit that Del Toro does not admit logic as a barrier to effect. For example, the Hall is shown as sitting in an empty plain, with a single November-bare tree in sight. Nevertheless, autumn leaves continuously drift down through the gaping hole in the atrium roof, until they are at last replaced with snow.  The bloody-colored clay that causes the area to be known as “Crimson Peak” has supposedly been mined out of easy reach, but oozes through the manor floorboards and stains the snow red around the house.

While we didn’t find Crimson Peak to be particularly thrilling or shocking (with a couple of exceptions), we were just pleased and amused to see someone tell a story that aspires to stand with The Fall of the House of Usher, or The Mysteries of Udolpho, in this day and age. Recommended for those who enjoy an occasional infusion of the Gothic, the melodramatic, or the weird.
 

On Wednesday night, October 7th, we went to the Times Cinema for our last showing in the Milwaukee Film Festival series, “Extraordinary Tales,” an animated anthology of 5 stories adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Directed by Raul Garcia, each segment was animated in a different style. The pieces are tied together by a framing story, in which the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe (voice, Stephen Hughes), appearing as a flame-eyed raven, haunts a graveyard where the stones bear names of his characters. The voice of Death (author Cornelia Funke) cajoles Poe to come to her, but he initially refuses, concerned with fame and the remembrance of his name. To convince him, Death causes him to recall his stories, and how they reveal his love for Death.

The first segment, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is animated in a stylized and sculptural style that works well for the subject. There were features I liked, such as the gradual progress of the house’s collapse, mirroring that of the inhabitants, and some ambiguity introduced as to whether the climactic appearance of Madeline Usher is physical, ghostly, or a figment of Roderick Usher’s fevered brain. One can’t fault the delivery of the narration by Christopher Lee, but, as adapted by Mr. Garcia, the story falls flat. The faults lie in the timing, and in the lack of emphasis at the climax. The narrator runs from the fragmenting house, and it is shown to collapse in on itself, but the ending has none of the power of Poe’s prose: “While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher.”

This was a problem with most of the segments. The best one was “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narration consisted of a recording of the story as read by the late Bela Lugosi. The animation was done in a wonderfully eerie style of black on white, with the white background being negative space and all from defined only by shadows. In this piece, the pacing and action had to follow the recording of Lugosi’s reading, which makes it the most successful of the five segments.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” was next. I enjoyed the old-style horror comic style, including the fact that the main character (voice by Julian Sands) resembled Vincent Price as he appeared in the Poe-based films of the 1960’s. Again, however, the adaptation blew it at the climax. The rapid decomposition of Valdemar, the ultimate horror of the story, occurs in seconds, in distant silhouette, leaving only a man-shaped stain on the mattress. There is no voice-over at this point, so we are robbed of the power of “As I rapidly made the mesmeric passes, amid ejaculations of “dead! dead!” absolutely bursting from the tongue and not from the lips of the sufferer, his whole frame at once — within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk — crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.”

“The Pit and the Pendulum,” narrated by Guillermo Del Toro, is perhaps the least successful. Done in a more photo-realistic style, the animation often directly contradicts the text, even as adapted. Admittedly, since the much of the time the character is supposed to be in pitch darkness, it’s difficult to do that in a movie, but his cell is shown as having a window to daylight even as the narration bemoans being immured in darkness. While the pendulum device is well done and matches Poe’s description, the piece totally fails to capture the terror of the pit.

The last segment, “The Masque of the Red Death,” was done in a water-color style that was beautiful to look at, and captured the decadence of Prince Prospero’s castle very well. There isn’t actually much action in Poe’s story—a lot of it is setting the scene, so the animated vignette takes us very directly to the masked ball. Annoyingly, when the specter of Red Death appears, it’s a conventional robed skeleton, rather than the blood-bedewed plague victim in Poe. (In these days of Ebola awareness, one would think that the artists might have portrayed something close to the type of hemorrhagic fever described by Poe--.) One nice touch is that the few lines given to Prince Prospero are voiced by Roger Corman, famous or directing his own freely adapted (but shocking) movie versions of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (in the 1962 anthology film, “Tales of Terror”). This version of “Masque” is done without narration, so we again loose the impact of Poe’s words, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Conclusion, a frustrating film. There was so much wonderful work and talent expended, all vitiated by the clumsy scripting. I think the lesson here is that, if you are going to play with the finely honed works of a master like Poe, great care is required to preserve his effect.
(Quotations are from the “Griswold” edition of Poe’s stories, archived on the Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore’s web site.)
On Sunday morning, September 27th, we went to the Downer Theater to see the Milwaukee Film Festival's showing of "Song of the Sea," a 2014 animated feature by the same group that had done "The Secret of Kells," (2009), which we had enjoyed and admired.

We also enjoyed and admired "Song of the Sea." Unapologetically hand-drawn, two-dimensional, and often highly stylized, "Song of the Sea" is a truly beautiful film.

Contemporary in setting, the story incorporates classic elements of Celtic myth and legend. Bronach (voice by Lisa Hannigan), the wife of lighthouse keeper Conor (Brendan Gleeson), turns out to be a selkie, or seal-woman. About to give birth to their second child, she is compelled to return to the sea, leaving her newborn daughter with her husband. Before going, she exacts a promise from her elder child, Ben (David Rawle), that he will be as good a big brother as he can be. She also gives him a horn or pipe made out of a nautilus shell as keepsake.

Six years later, Ben is experiencing the typical frustrations of a brother with a young sister. In particular, Saoirse (pronounced "Sirsha") is fascinated by the ocean, whereas Ben is morbidly afraid of the element that claimed his mother. Added to his frustration is the fact that Saoirse, though a bright child has never spoken, which gives his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) ammunition in her battle with her son, Conor, over taking the children away from the lonely lighthouse to give them a "more normal" upbringing in Dublin.

When Saoirse plays her mother's shell-pipe, magic lights appear that lead her to the chest where Conor has hidden the "selkie coat" that she was born with. She puts it on, and spends a night swimming with the seals, which puts both Conor and Ben into a panic. Reluctantly, Conor agrees to send the children to the city with Granny.

Almost immediately, the children run away, intending to get back home, but are lead by the magic lights to a fairy mound (located in the middle of a Dublin traffic circle!), where they learn that Saoirse will be hunted by the goddess Macha (also Flannigan). Macha was the mother of Mac Lir (here portrayed as a giant). Unable to bear Mac Lir's grief at the loss of his children (in legend, turned to swans for 900 years by their stepmother), Macha stole away his emotions, which had the side effect of turning him to stone. Herself unhinged, Macha sets out to "help" all the spirit beings of Ireland by giving them the same "cure," which can only be undone by the song of the selkie.

The children have but one night in which to evade Macha's clutches, and find a way to get Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell), who still shows no signs of having a voice, to be able to sing the magic song.

What follows is a mythic adventure, as the children try to get home with both help and hindrance from the remaining mystical beings of Ireland. It works out to a beautiful, sad-sweet conclusion.

The artwork is powerful and expressive and does all that is needed to put the story across, amply aided by the voice acting and a sometimes poignant, sometimes rousing musical score.

"Song of the Sea" has our highest recommendation.

The movie was part of the Festival's "kid friendly" programming, and by all standards, it is, though may be intense for younger children.

"Minions"

Jul. 14th, 2015 08:51 pm
On Friday evening, July 10th, we went to see “Minions,”the new animated movie by Universal Pictures, which gives a featured place to the small yellow beings that work for Gru in the “Despicable Me” movies.

I had always assumed that the Minions were creations of Doctor Nefario, Gru’s staff mad scientist, but the Minions movie tells us that they evolved from a primitive life form that hit on a form of symbiosis no unlike that practiced by pilot fish or “crocodile birds”: that of following, and attempting to assist an apex predator. This developed, evidently, into a deep psychological need, so that, by Jurassic times, the Minions were attempting to follow and worship tyrannosaurs,despite themselves having developed human-ish levels of intelligence. (This evolutionary history begs the question as to whether or not Minions are mammalian. Some of the scenes in the movie make it questionable if they are even vertebrates--.) It’s also questionable whether or not “symbiosis” is the proper word for a relationship that so often destroys the organism they are attached to, although it’s also a novel form of parasitism--. By the time humans have taken over the world, the Minions tropism for the most predatory behavior draws them to the most villainous, or "evil" humans.

Having ticked off Napoleon, the Minion tribe is chased into the polar wastes and languishes in exile until the 1960’s, when the visionary Kevin, accompanied by Stuart and Bob (all voiced by Pierre Coffin), sets out on a quest for a new life. After a sequence of adventures, they arrive in Orlando,Florida, for “Villain-Con,” and succeed in obtaining the coveted post of hench-beings to the super-villain “Scarlet Overkill” (Sandra Bullock), who covets the crown and throne of Great Britain.
“Mrs. Overkill” as the British refer to her, is a great creation, a James Bond villain that never was. (Her appearance is heralded with Bond-like trumpet riffs--.) She’s gloriously vain, amazingly flamboyant, and highly deadly.  Her loving husband(really!) is mod mad scientist Herb (Jon Hamm), who resembles a caricature of Noel Harrison from “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.”. When she sends the Minions out to fetch her Queen Elizabeth’s crown, the caper goes amazingly off the rails in ways disconcerting to both the villains and the British Empire.
Since the Minions speak chiefly gibberish with a few recognizable words for comic effect, both the makers and reviewers of the movie have tended to compare it with silent film comedy, which isn’t quite the case.

Instead,the movie is a lot more like one of the Three Stooges more elaborate plots:everyone assumes the minions/stooges are idiots; they both succeed and screw up beyond all expectations; and havoc ensues.

The movie is purely silly, which is fine if you go expecting that. Although quite kid-friendly, there’s lots in it for older folks as well,not least the 60’s rock soundtrack, but a lot of in-jokes as well. (When the Minions, fleeing through the sewers, surface at an exit labeled “Abbey Road” we know whom they are going to encounter when they surface--.)

Animation and character design are consistent with the “Despicable Me” films, with settings and backgrounds more elaborate since the plot takes place in real world locations (New York, London) as distinct from the more purely cartoon world of the earlier movies. There are also some very nice cameos by Michael Keaton and Allison Janney as leaders of an American “crime family,” and Jennifer Saunders as a feisty Queen of England.

Recommended if you can enjoy a bout of over the top slapstick with some charming characters.

Inside Out

Jul. 2nd, 2015 06:45 pm
On Wednesday evening, July 1, we went to our local Marcus Cinema to see the new Pixar/Disney movie, “Inside Out,” which personifies a young girl’s major emotions, chosen as Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling, respectively). The story deals with the emotional upheavals attendant upon the sudden transplantation of a young girl, Riley (Catlin Dias) from Minnesota to San Francisco, and the conflicts in her mind/brain complex that result. The film ends up being a sweet, slightly sad story (though with a happy ending) that has some moments of real tension.

Joy is a charming sprite who is the most intelligent and flexible of the emotions, and the de facto leader. Her mission is to ensure that Riley leads a happy life and to keep her existing mental structure (visualized literally as an internal landscape) functioning smoothly. That all of Riley’s “personality islands”, Family, Friends, Honesty, Hockey (her sport), and “Goofball” (her sense of fun), are positive, shows that Joy has been relatively successful so far, or anyway that Riley has had a very good life.

The unanticipated participation of Sadness into Riley’s new situation throws Joy for a loop, and a substantial monkey wrench into the functioning of Riley’s mind. This tends to be taken rather more seriously than intended by adult critics, who see memory loss, personality disintegration, and emotional flatness as indicative of serious mental illness, rather than the transitory loss of balance the movie shows us. However, the metabrain we see in the film is a virtual mindscape optimized for storytelling, and not intended to represent reality.

Pixar continues to delight and amaze with its animations. The visualization of “Inside” is quite creative and interesting, but the most fascinating constructs are the emotions themselves, which get more detailed the more closely you see them. It takes a good close up to see that Joy and the others don’t have smooth “skin” or even a textured integument, but that their borders are a zone of fine pixelations, almost as though suggesting the emotions were fractal in nature—as, indeed perhaps they are.

It also took me a while, and some of the darker scenes, to realize that Joy, is—well—radiant. The subtlety of this effect, and the modelling of her light on the environment around her is a triumph of the new art of animation, and one of the few things I think I have seen that absolutely could not have been done by more conventional means.

“Outside,” the Pixar artists have done an excellent job of balancing cartoonishness and the “uncanny valley,” so that it’s easy to emphasize with and accept the human characters. Ms. Dias as Riley does a good job characterizing a troubled pre-teen, and Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan do good jobs as Riley’s loving parents who are also distracted by the big move.

The film is not without its flaws, but they are minor. At points we see inside other people’s heads, where all five emotions are represented as the same sex as the outward person, as opposed to Riley, where Fear and Anger present as male. Perhaps this is something that changes during “Puberty”—which has had a big red alarm signal installed during the latest upgrade?

Highly recommended for fans of animation mature enough to understand the somewhat complex and esoteric storyline.
On Friday, March 27, we went to see Disney’s new live-action “Cinderella.” I had wondered what they would do with the story that they had not done in their famous animated version. The answer is: lots!

For one thing, I do believe that it is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen. Every shot is meticulously composed. The settings (largely, but not all, CGI) are amazing, the costumes gorgeous, and the actors all good to look at in their own ways.

The story has been expanded in satisfying ways beyond Perrault. We get to see young Ella’s happy life before the death of her mother, her father’s hope in his new marriage, and the devastation wrought not only upon Ella, but also upon her stepmother, when the news comes that her father has died in a distant land.

Director Kenneth Branagh has brought out some remarkable performances. In the scene where she is on her deathbed, Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother does much more than the clichéd “sick” performance, instead portraying profound sorrow at having to leave her daughter and husband. Lily James, as Cinderella (known as the light-hearted Lady Rose MacClare in “Downton Abbey”), arriving at the ball, radiates innocent joy at being there. When the wise King (Derek Jacobi) lies dying (it is a hard movie on parents) his son (Richard Madden) cries unashamedly, and the King in turn weeps for the Prince’s grief. Cate Blanchett proves that she can channel the late Joan Crawford, with her glittering eye, cruel laughter, and ruthless determination, aided by the character’s blood-red lipstick and corsetry that somehow manages to suggest a 1950’s era ‘bullet’ bra. Her Dior-inspired costumes also hark back to the great days of Crawford and Bette Davis, which really does work in the context. We also get a bit of back story on Stepmother, so we see that she isn’t entirely spiteful just for the sake of spite.

There are many other marvelous moments. The sequence in which the madly careering pumpkin coach and crew, overtaken by the strokes of midnight, reverts to its component parts, is worth the price of admission alone. The CGI mice, although they don’t talk, sing, or wear clothes, are utterly charming.

The story also grafts in some useful fairy tale tropes. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) tests Ella before agreeing to aid her, by appearing as a strange old woman and begging for some milk, in order to see if Ella has kept her mother’s precept to “have courage, and be kind.”

Georgie and I have both long maintained that Cinderella is not, unlike Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, a character that needs to be ‘rescued.’ Instead, the beauty of the Cinderella story is in being recognized, in being seen for who you truly are, and being valued therefore. In this version, Cinderella, does have to be rescued, having been locked in the attic by Stepmother, in order to add a little dramatic tension, but the recognition scene that follows does much to restore the original emphasis.
Beautiful, touching, uplifting—it is my opinion that “Cinderella” is nothing short of a masterpiece.

World premieres of new operas are fairly uncommon, although we’ve seen a few, such as Rio de Sangre at the Florentine Opera in 2010, and The Rivals at the Skylight in 2011, but it must be fairly rare for the average opera fan to be able to attend a premiere of an opera by a composer with which he is acquainted.

That was the singular experience we enjoyed on March 13th, as the Skylight Music Theatre opened The Snow Dragon, with music and libretto by Somtow Sucharitkul. During his career as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, Somtow had been author guest of honor at Milwaukee’s X-Con, and was remembered as an excellent guest, erudite, witty, and excellent company. Therefore, we had to attend. We got main floor seats as part of a block with “OperaCon” (of which more later) and had a very good time at this remarkable opera.

The opera is based upon a story by Somtow, called “The Fallen Country.” Inspired by the experiences of a friend, the story deals with violent child abuse and the generational cycle by which it is perpetuated. The story did not find a publisher for some years (It was vehemently, but ultimately fortuitously, rejected for inclusion in The Last Dangerous Visions--) until picked up for an anthology by Terri Windling.  Since then, the story has been recollected, and was also substantially reworked as a Young Adult novel for Bantam. However, the opera libretto is closer to the original story.

The opera opens with a magical overture, during which we see the protagonist, Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood), a young boy, rescued from a high place by firemen. We learn that it is a church steeple, and a mystery as to how he got up there, as well as how he got frostbitten in the oppressive Florida heat.

Billy is referred to the school counselor, Dora Marx (Collen Brooks), who recognizes the signs of physical abuse in Billy. In order to get him to open up to her, she encourages him to tell her what she thinks is his escapist fantasy, of finding his way into the “Fallen Country,” a cold gray land where there is no pain because there is no feeling. The Fallen Country is home to the marvelous Snow Dragon (Cassandra Black), who befriends the boy, but also to the sinister Ringmaster, who rules the world with “his whip of burning cold.” Billy, who has not yet given up all feeling, finds that there he can channel his anger into power and perform feats like breaking shackles and freeing princesses. He longs to meet the Ringmaster, who is the alter-ego of his mother’s brutal lover, Stark (Dan Kempson) so that he can kill him, but his anger doesn’t sustain him in the Fallen Country long enough to reach the Ringmaster.  Dora thanks Billy for sharing his story, to which he replies, “It isn’t a story.”

In the second act, Billy is hospitalized by Stark’s brutality. Dora confronts Billy’s mother, Joan (Erica Schuller), who at first maintains that Billy had a bicycle accident. Then, she breaks down, saying that Stark isn’t a man, but “a force, a wind.”  Stark, alone with Billy, whispers threats to the boy, which tell us that he, too, is aware of the Fallen Country.

Dora decides she has to call the police to intervene. When she comes with them to Billy’s house, Stark is sleeping, but talks in his sleep, saying, “I never asked to be hated. I never asked for the cold to sink into my heart,” and other things that let Dora know that the Fallen Country is indeed real.  Stark becomes the Ringmaster, and opens the way to the Fallen County, dragging Joan with him, where she becomes the captive Princess. Billy pursues, but calls to Dora, telling her he needs her help and belief to reach and defeat the Ringmaster.

With Dora’s help, Billy gets to the Ringmaster’s tent lair, and the final conflict is initiated, with a twist due to the revelation of the Ringmaster’s dire secret.

Somtow’s libretto brings us the affecting story very effectively, and is totally integrated with the score. The music is both modern, and tuneful and sonorous, with just enough eerie effect for a magical plot without resembling a “Harry Potter” soundtrack in the least.  Somtow achieves that rare thing in modern music, harmony, especially with the second act trio for the three female voices.

Artistic Director Vishwa Subbaraman, who also conducts, assembled an extremely talented and skillful cast and crew. Luke Brotherhood as Billy has a long and challenging role for a child singer, and did superbly well in both vocal and physical acting the part of the abused but defiant boy.  Ms. Brooks was totally believable as the tired social worker who has seen too much, heard too much, and known too little success in her work. Strong and handsome, Mr. Kempson embodied the kind of attractive man that needy women are drawn to, only to discover his core of violence after it is too late.  Ms. Schuller, as Billy’s mother also did an excellent job in the role of the conflicted mother/princess figure.  The role of the Snow Dragon should be considered a plum role, and Cassandra Black inhabited it, sounding and looking magnificent in her glittering costume and spiky headdress. The orchestra presented Somtow’s score without noticeable flaw, and in excellent balance with the singers.

The setting, by William Boles, was largely symbolic, there being a small set of mundane rooms for Dora’s office and Billy’s house. The stark Fallen Country was represented by the bare concrete of the stage back wall, with bits that flew in and out, representing giant ice crystals, stars, and the circus ring emblematic of the entry to the Country. One puzzling bit was a number of pairs of white shoes dangling from ropes. (Even Somtow wasn’t sure what they were supposed to represent--).  However, the best piece was the great Dragon, which, in flight, was represented by a twenty-two foot long puppet, borne aloft by the choristers, fins gently waving as it ‘flew’ about the stage, softly glowing under ultraviolet light.  The elaborate lighting plot by David Gipson added greatly.

Costumes by Jason Orlenko were generally simple but effective.  The “real world” costumes were subtly suggestive: Billy’s torn t-shirt, the color of dried blood.  Stark’s sleeveless shirt, showing off his brawny, tattooed arms, emphasized his power and dangerousness.  Dora’s lightweight and pastel colored ensemble perfectly portrayed an office drudge who hasn’t quite yet given up all hope. She clutches her leather messenger bag—her “baggage”—to her as though it were a teddy bear. Joan’s outfit of tunic top, Capri leggings, and flat Mary Jane shoes made her look like the most childlike of all the cast. The effect in which she changed her bathrobe into the elaborate Princess’ gown was just nifty—there’s no other word for it. The Ringmaster’s uniform was wonderfully elaborate with its own dark beauty—many young boys would have, at least figuratively, killed for it--.

 The Snow Dragon captures and sets to music the problem of domestic violence against children, and plays it out as an Oedipal contest of wills, which, ultimately, can only come to an end when one party finds a strategy other than the obvious. It is quite powerful.

 The Skylight has partnered with local anti-abuse groups and resources, including arranging to have a child psychologist on hand during school showings, and listed contact information in their Audience Guide for the production.

 The Snow Dragon continues through March 29th.

We saw "Into the Woods" this afternoon (Dec.28th) and liked it quite a bit. Of course, it's a show we particularly like, and have seen some good stage productions of.

"Into the Woods" was one of the first major works to use the conceit of putting well-known fairy tales into the same milieu, an idea that has since been used with considerable success by the comic series "Fables," and the TV show "Once Upon a Time," among others. The four items needed by the Witch tie together four plots into a single braid, an idea which works well in my opinion, and devices such as the Baker being the man who buys Jack's cow being rather clever.

(For those not familiar with the musical, the first act ties together the stories of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) with an arc in which the Baker (James Corder and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who are the second generation of the Rapunzel story, deal with the Witch (Meryl Streep) in order to be able to have a child, also a classic myth trope. In the second act, things go south as the Giant’s Wife (Frances de la Tour) devastates the kingdom seeking revenge on Jack, and the characters’ community is torn apart by loss and bickering as to who’s to blame.)

The plot actually has considerable philosophical depth, not only with the frame metaphor of the Woods being the place of transformation, where the "hero's journey" begins. I also like the losses of innocence experienced by Red Riding Hood, Jack, the Baker and his Wife, and Cinderella. There is also the question of the transience of satisfaction once the hitherto unattainable has been gained, as personified by the Princes (more so in the stage version than the movie).

We particularly liked Meryl Streep as the pivotal character of The Witch (although Bernadette Peters, who played the role on Broadway, is still THE Witch,) and Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. All the actors did their own singing, according to the credits, and did very well, handling Stephen Sondheim’s occasionally challenging music deftly. Sondheim’s score for “Into the Woods” is rather more tuneful than say “Sweeney Todd,” or “Assassins,” and there are many powerful "motivs" such as the "Into the Woods," theme, "Agony," and "Children Will Listen," all of which usually stick with me for days after hearing a performance.

Due to limitations on practical staging, the typical stage version is played in front of The Woods, with a few set pieces that move on and off, and you never actually see the Princes' castle, either of the Giants, or some of the other locations opened out for the film, which did expand it quite a bit. (On the other hand, I appreciate bits of stagecraft in theatre such as having the presence of the Giant Wife indicated by her broken spectacles on stage--.) I did think the scenery additions were an enhancement, and liked it that they kept themes such as never seeing the Giant’s Wife fully.

Your mileage may vary, but I would class "Into the Woods" as highly recommended for fans of musical theatre.
The third installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” “The Battle of Five Armies,” as the British say, “does exactly what it says on the tin.” That is, it is mostly made up of combats of one sort or another, beginning with Smaug’s disastrous attack on Laketown, followed by the White Council’s raid on Dol Guldur and rescue of Gandalf.

Before the main event, however, there is some respite, in which we see Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) descent into “dragon sickness” effectively developed, which makes Thorin’s callous dismissal of the survivors of Laketown credible, although approached by Bard (Luke Evans) for help in a very reasonable manner.

Fortunately, once the main battle starts, it isn’t just an hour of crashing and bashing. Taking a leaf from classic war films such as “The Longest Day,” the film moves around from character to character as the day of warfare develops. Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) in the field with the Iron Hills dwarves; Azog (Manu Bennett), masterminding the battle; not-quite-as-big-a-bastard-as-before Thranduil (Lee Pace), having some hard choices forced upon him; Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), being part of those choices; the Company of Thorin reacting to their leader’s paranoia; and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) each in their own way trying to save something from the wrack. In these days, when we have ready reminders of the plight of civilians in war zones, I was particularly gratified by the portrayal of the desperate situation of the Laketowners, who, compared with everyone else, are outnumbered, poorly armed, and encumbered with non-combatants. It’s hard to care about legions of largely faceless (and computer generated) dwarves, elves, and orcs, but the humans are all individuals and it’s easier to be worried about what happens to them when the ruins of Dale change from a sanctuary to a hunting ground.

The deaths of the major characters are handled sensitively and in good harmony with Tolkien’s story. I liked it that the aftermath of the battle was shown as far more melancholy than glorious. (“Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.” –Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington).

All in all, a satisfying conclusion to Jackson’s retelling of “The Hobbit,” which somewhat compensates for the over-blownness of the first two parts. Taking the events and the characters of “An Unexpected Journey,” and “The Desolation of Smaug” as givens, I had essentially nothing to quibble with.
Tuesday the 9th, we went to see “The Book of Life,” the new animated movie by Guillermo del Toro (among others). This beautiful film is set in a mythic world where Mexico is the “center of the world,” and the town of San Angel, the center of Mexico. Three children, the vivacious Maria (Zoe Saldana), the soulful Manolo (Diego Luna), and the dashing Joaquin (Channing Tatum) become the subject of a wager between the Lords of the Dead. Ugly Xibalba (Ron Perlman) is tired of ruling the gray and despondent Land of the Forgotten, and wants to trade places with the beautiful La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) who rules the colorful and joyous Land of the Remembered. Their wager is on which of the two boys Maria will eventually marry, Xibalba choosing Joaquin, and La Muerte, Manolo. If Xibalba wins, he gets the Land of the Remembered. If he loses, he must cease meddling in the affairs of the living.

The plot is mostly straightforward and satisfying, with a few twists to keep it fresh. The movie design is bold and unique. In a framing device, schoolchildren visiting a museum are told the story by a docent, using wooden toy figures to illustrate it. We then see the action played out, but the people still are made of wood, with visible, toylike joints. Even given that, many of the characters are extremely stylized, old men in particular tending to have long snoutlike noses, influenced by Basil Wolverton or Mad Magazine. The visions of the lands of the dead are of course based on the folk art prevalent at the Day of the Dead time, with decorated skulls a particular motif. The result is one of the most visually creative and exhilarating films seen in years.

All the voice acting was quite good, with a few surprises (Placido Domingo!). The sound track was also enchantingly eclectic, ranging from mariachi and opera to pop ballads and original pieces.

Most highly recommended and good for most ages. Some scenes may be too intense for the younger viewer.

Noah

Apr. 14th, 2014 08:19 pm
BEWARE, "spoileriffic" if you haven't seen the movie and think you may want to see it--.



When I first saw a trailer for the movie "Noah," I wasn't particularly attracted. Then I thought, I go to see films about every other culture's myths and epics, so why shouldn't I see this one? I was pleased that I did go, as much out of the satisfaction of curiosity as anything else, but I must say that overall "Noah" is, in my opinion, a very well done movie and interesting to watch.

The movie begins with a very brief version of the Creation and Cain's murder of Abel, then goes on to set the scene by stating that the descendants of Cain has overrun the world and despoiled it with an "industrial" civilization. Meanwhile, only the direct line of Seth, Adam's third son, has maintained reverence for the Creator (as God is referred to throughout the movie) and his works. The small tribe maintains a nomadic existence, seeking to live lightly on the land. Meanwhile, where ever the Cainites spread, desolation follows in accordance with both the Creator's curse on Cain ("When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth." (Genesis 4:11-4:12)) and their own destructive ways. Young Noah's father, Lamech, is killed by a marauding band of Cainites, leaving the boy to become the patriarch of his clan.

Flash forward years, to when the adult Noah (Russell Crowe) has a wife, Naamah (Jennifer Connelly), and three young sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth. He is troubled by what he believes are visions sent by the Creator, and decides to seek out his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). On the way, they come across the site of a Cainite massacre, and rescue a wounded girl child, Ila. Fleeing from the Cainite brigands, they run into territory held by the few remaining "Watchers".

The Watchers are writer/director Aronofsky's largest "whole cloth" addition to the Noah story. Derived from the "giants in the earth", in this story they are rebellious angels who came to Earth after Adam's fall, taking pity on him and intending to lend him aid. The Creator punished them by imprisoning the spirits of light in rocky earthen carcasses. The Watchers found the Cainites ungrateful and hostile, and withdrew into the wilderness after many were destroyed. One of them recognizes a spark of goodness in Noah, and persuades the others that they should help Noah and his family instead of killing them.

Noah meets with the hermitical Methuselah, who gives him a drink that clarifies his visions. He lends further aid by giving Noah a seed "that came from the Garden"-potentially useful, since Noah needs to build the Ark, and, so far, we haven't seen a single tree in the barrens they inhabit. Noah plants the seed and beds down for the night.
In the morning, they are threatened again by the Cainites, who are driven off this time by the menace of the Watchers, and the miracle of a mature forest coming into being within minutes.

Flash forward again a number of years, when the Ark is nearing completion. (Kudos to Aranofsky for this, showing that the massive structure takes Noah years to build, even with the Watchers to do heavy lifting--.) Noah knows that time is getting short, however, because an enormous flock of birds come to roost and sleep in the rafters of the Ark. (Another inspired touch: all the beasts hibernate during the voyage of the Ark, so Noah doesn't have to feed them or clean up after them--.)

Unfortunately, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of the Cainites, has also seen the birds pass over, and is wise enough to know this has meaning. He and a warband follow the flock to the Ark, and try to take possession of it, but are cowed by the Watchers and put to rout by the appearance of all the land animals coming to board the Ark.

Tubal-Cain retreats only into the outskirts of the forest, where he sets up a camp and calls other bands to him. The encampment speedily degenerates into a hell-hole of debauchery and ruthless criminality. This doesn't prevent Ham (Logan Lerman), envious of Shem's burgeoning relationship with Ila, from going there incognito in hopes of finding a girl of his own. He does, but just as he and Na'el (Madison Davenport) are trying to sneak away, the rain starts to fall. Tubal-Cain understands what this means, and orders the attack. Ham and Na'el are one jump ahead of the horde when Na'el is caught in a trap set by Tubal-Cain. Noah arrives in time to rescue Ham, but leaves the girl to be trampled by the Cainites.

Battle ensues at the Ark site, where the Watchers sacrifice themselves so that the Ark can be closed. A flash flood overwhelms the combatants, and Tubal-Cain alone manages to cling onto the Ark and, rat-like, pry a way inside, hiding in the dark reaches.

The Ark begins its journey with Noah's family grimly huddled around their fireplace, trying to ignore the screams and cries from outside. It is at this point that we really see Noah beginning to decompensate, as he starts to be convinced that his mission is to shepherd the blameless birds and beasts into the world to come, and then to allow humankind to die out. Therefore, he's not pleased when given the news that Ila (Emma Watson) is miraculously pregnant with the child of Shem (Douglas Booth). Noah declares that if the child is a son, he will allow it to live to be "the last man," but if the child is a daughter who could mother more humans, he will kill her. (Rather short-sighted on all their parts, since it assumes that Shem and Ila couldn't have further children--.)

Meanwhile, Ham has discovered the recovering Tubal-Cain, and fallen into his thrall as he inflames Ham's resentments of his father.
How these tensions are all worked out at the major, and generally satisfying, crisis of the movie.

It winds down to the expected conclusion, glossing over Noah's curse on the descendants of Ham, although the episode of his drunkenness (shown as the effects of post-traumatic stress and depression at having "failed" in his mission) is shown. (Anyway, one would think that having gotten bamboozled into helping Tubal-Cain would be more worthy of a cursing than making fun of Noah naked--.)

Overall, I was impressed with the movie and the efforts made to both iron out the major implausibilities, while adding to the humanity of the characters in a most terrible situation. The script is not in the least "preachy", and, if anything, could be taken as an environmentalist tract, since the despoliation of the Creation under the rubric of "dominion" is repeatedly stated as the Cainites besetting sin.

The relationship of God with Man does come into play, as Tubal-Cain and Noah both address the Creator in nearly identical terms: "Why won't you speak to me?": Tubal-Cain as he's planning to assault the Ark, and Noah on the drifting Ark, agonizing over the fate of humanity. Neither one of them then realizes that God has deliberately left the choice of action, for good or ill, in their hands.
On Sunday, February 23rd, we went to see "Winter's Tale," a film by Akiva Goldsman, adapting the novel by Mark Helprin.

We found it much better than most critics. It is a beautiful and touching story, well told, with necessary, but not overwhelming special effects, and well worth seeing.

I suppose being veteran fantasy fans may make it easier, but we did not in the least find the movie "confusing" as some critics did, and the cosmology of the milieu seems straightforward to the extent it is revealed to us. Some of the plot developments are mysterious at the time they occur, but all is explained if you are paying attention. It helps to bear in mind that this is a sentimental fantasy, and not a hard-edged thriller.

We thought the acting by Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, and Russell Crowe were all quite good, with interesting supporting roles by William Hurt and Will Smith.

The settings of 1914 New York were interestingly done, and good to look at.

Over all, we were well pleased with the film, and thought it a good entertainment for a winter's afternoon.

Recommended for those not too jaded.
We finally got out to see the second installment of “The Hobbit,” and enjoyed it. I found that I did not mind the additions to the original plot, most of which you couldn’t really argue with, and some that were just inspired.

After all, why shouldn’t a female Elf be Captain of Thranduil’s guard? After all, we saw female Elves defending Lothlorien in “The Lord of the Rings,” and no one of note objected. Legolas is Thranduil’s son, so it’s right and proper that he be present, even if neither he nor Thranduil (Lee Pace) were given those names in Tolkien’s book (Thranduil was just “The Elvenking”). The attraction between Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and Kili (Aidan Turner) is harder to justify, but acceptable given that some of these Dwarves are a lot handsomer than I ever pictured them, and it does sort of act to prefigure the eventual friendship between Legolas and Gimli. The expanded role we see for Thranduil makes him out a right bastard, which, along with the siege mentality, seems to run in the line of Elven kings, cf. Thingol.

The interpretation of what Gandalf was doing while away from Bilbo and the Dwarves may be stretched a bit, but Jackson and company do obey the film-makers’ rubric to show, rather than tell. Gandalf proves to be formidable in combat against the servants of the “Necromancer”, but his “cliffhanger” at the end of this installment seems rather unimaginatively close to his imprisonment by Sauman in LotR.

Bilbo’s role in the adventure is expanded even beyond the original. Besides saving the Dwarves from the spiders of Mirkwood and from the Elves, he becomes the groups’ cheerleader, and is the one who solves the puzzle of Erebor’s hidden door. This last bit seems to have been put in only because the original wasn’t dramatic enough for Jackson, and adds some nonsensical elements unless certain heavenly bodies behave differently in Middle Earth than in our earth.

The plot as we knew it makes a sharp turn at the point Bilbo enters the lair of Smaug (Benedict Cumberbach). Shocked by feedback through the Ring due to the activity of the Necromancer as stirred up by Gandalf, Bilbo has to become visible, and is engaged by Smaug in a game of cat and mouse very different from that in the novel. The Dwarves get to be more heroic in coming to Bilbo’s aid, and, instead of having to avoid Smaug as he scours the mountain slopes outside, the encounter becomes a running battle in the halls of the Mountain, with an audacious climax that sets up the events of the next film.

Smaug, as created with CGI, is one of the best dragons I have seen. I applaud the decision to make the dragon quadrupedal (rather like a giant bat) rather than hexapedal (four legs plus wings). The dragon’s neck and tail are given unexpectedly snakelike sinuosity that shows another incremental advance in CGI, and is very effective and lifelike. Sorry, though, I still like Richard Boone best as the voice of Smaug. The smoke-destroyed roughness of his voice just seemed to suit the dragon well. Cumberbach’s voice, electronically distorted to suit coming from a multi-ton monster, loses some of its insinuating quality. I had hope to hear his version of the lines where Smaug, in his role as seducer, tries to drive a wedge between Frodo and his “employers,” but those got cut in favor of having Smaug chase Bilbo around the great hall of the mountain.

Stephen Fry as the corrupt Master of Laketown was a nice surprise, although his 16th century-inspired outfits clash with everything else in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films and so are inexplicable.

So, while it’s not the “Hobbit” movie I would have made, it’s still a pretty good movie, and we enjoyed it. We will be looking forward to seeing “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” when it comes out this coming December.
On Saturday evening, December 28th, we joined friends to see the new film of “47 Ronin”.

Having seen trailers for the movie, my original expectations for the film were low. Women turning into dragons, walls of fire, and warriors scaling icy cliffs do not figure in the historical tale, so I had guessed that the only resemblance to the original would be the title. Fortunately, as I had noted from other reviews, this wasn’t actually the case, so I was more prepared to appreciate the movie when we actually got to it.

After a short sequence introducing the character of Kai, the foundling played as a grownup by Keanu Reeves, it is established that the film is set in a fantasy, “Mythic Japan,” as Kai, now working as a gamekeeper for Lord Asano (Min Tanaka), leads the lord and his men on a hunt for a marauding beast, which turns out to be an enormous six-eyed dragon-horse. So, we are definitely not in historical Japan, or the historically-styled fictionalizations of the “Chushingura” (忠臣蔵 The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, as it is often titled).

I won’t go into plot differences between this movie and the most commonly accepted versions of the historical facts: if you have encountered the story before, you know the gist of them; if you haven’t, you don’t need to know them to enjoy the new movie.

“47 Ronin” has many good points. Keanu Reeves, the only non-Asian in a major role, although given an important role, is not the leader of the Ronin, nor does he dictate their strategy. That role is correctly given to Lord Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a veteran actor, previous mentioned in this journal for “Twilight Samurai,” who does an excellent job, and he is well supported by a strong cast as the Ronin. Tadanobu Asano, as Lord Kira, plays the villain as a calculating but vicious brute who employs the Witch (Rinko Kikuchi) against his targets with cunning and spite. Whether Kira is using the Witch, or the Witch using him is a nice question, never clearly answered. The Witch’s true nature is never clearly defined, either, also left nicely ambiguous.

In Japanese mythology, Tengu are goblins/demons/spirits, often portrayed as dressing like men, but with the heads of birds. They are known for their sword skill, which they will sometimes teach. The Tengu as portrayed here have vulture-like features, which was quite effective. The magic skills taught by them to the foundling Kai play an important part in the movie, but only insofar as required to overcome the magic of the Witch. For the rest, the Ronin’s skill and daring are sufficient for them to accomplish their mission of righteous revenge.

Costumes are gorgeous and fantastic, being designed from a mashup of Asian cultures and periods. Settings are dramatic and interesting, and the special effects well done. Surprisingly, given that there’s quite a bit of sword fighting, beheadings, and two instances of ritual suicide, or seppuku, there’s very little blood on screen, and the violence is very tastefully done and actually restrained.

All things considered, “47 Ronin” is nicely done, and worth seeing for fans of fantasy action movies.

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