Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #20: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM directed by Nick Park

The Plot: Hermia and Lysander want to get married. But Hermia’s Dad wants her to marry Demetrius. Add into the mix Helena, who wants to marry Demetrius, and we’ve got some matchmaking to sort out. Since this is Shakespeare, we better head into the forest! In the nearby woods, the fairy king and queen are fighting and both want custody of the kid. In a third plot, Theseus is getting married soon and is throwing a big party with entertainment. A group of local artisans wants to get on the bill, so they get together (also in the forest) to rehearse what is easily the most incompetent stage production of all time. The fairy king’s servant, Puck, is so offended by the rehearsal that he gives the leading man, Nick Bottom, the head of a donkey, leading his fellow thespians to run away screaming, "I hate you and I hate your . . . ass . . . FACE!!!" Puck takes the gag further by using magic to make the fairy queen fall in love with his hideous creation, much to the delight of the fairy king. He also attempts to use his magic to get the young lovers to pair up nicely, but screws it up, leaving both Lysander and Demetrius now in love with Helena. But never fear, by the end, there’s ton of marriages and the local group of actors gets their moment in the spotlight.

Why Park?

For a play that is frequently produced and ultra-familiar to some viewer’s minds, Park is a director that would truly be able to give us a production unlike any other. All the elements are there within Wallace and Gromit, as well as Chicken Run: romance and action, suspense and comedy. Plus, he would be able to provide inventive visual effects to accompany the more mystical aspects of Shakespeare’s play without resorting to predictable CGI. With Park, a whole new world of possibilities open up. He could decide to do Midsummer with humans, or he could do it with penguins or badgers or whatever he saw fit. The humor in Park’s characters often comes from unwarranted courage in the face of danger. This gift would serve all three of Shakespeare’s interwoven plots and result in a film that captures both the comedy and magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Park could provide a freshness that allows even those who have seen it countless times to enjoy it anew.

Park films I have seen:

1. The Wrong Trousers ****
2. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit ***1/2
3. Chicken Run ***1/2
4. A Close Shave ***1/2

Also recommended: A Grand Day Out

Monday, January 23, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney, 2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck is a high stakes drama in which protagonist and antagonist never meet. They exchange words, but always indirectly, through the media. This is perhaps the most striking success for George Clooney as director -- the way in which he demonstrates that words which may have changed the course of a great country were uttered in a situation where the speaker could have little to no idea of how they were being received. Following each controversial broadcast, there is a wonderful delay where Murrow (played by David Straithairn) and his team of journalists and crew members wait for the inevitable response, both from supporters and detractors. What tense, agonizing moments those must have been – and Clooney captures beautifully the sense of fear and excitement that the key players may have felt while waiting for the morning ‘reviews’.

It’s a shame that the lessons learned from the strange belligerent career of Joseph McCarthy have to be retaught to a new generation, but Clooney’s film comes at a perfect time, when the sweep of emotionalism in politics and public discourse has largely drowned out reason and fact-based decision making. Clooney aptly identifies Murrow as a role model for our times and there is exhilaration and joy to be had in watching him calmly weather intimidation from McCarthy and the money-minded reins of his superior. In the lead role, Straithairn is utterly convincing, masterfully handling Murrow’s on-air monologues with dignity and charisma. However, it is the way he embodies the off-camera Murrow that I found most impressive. Many actors make the mistake of assuming that television celebrities behaved in exactly the same manner going about their daily lives as they did in public view. Straithairn offers us a complex man, passionate, but not unreasonable. A man willing to take enormous personal risk, but lacking an air of self-importance that might lead us to question his motives. A man capable of compassion and humor, as well as being an intellectual.

Why is this important? I believe it’s important because, for whatever reason, many Americans seem to have a strange defensive reaction to those who might be able to show them a better way. Perhaps some of us are all still living a post-911 haze, disoriented and unwilling to commit to anything but the simplest, most obvious mode of existence – immediate gratification. Tell me my country is infallible. Give me my tax refund now. Put away those I can’t trust. I believe this Murrow created by Clooney and Straithairn works so well because he comes from an era that has been characterized by myth-makers and romantics as simple, although, of course, it was anything but. Clooney knowingly evokes this mythology in order to twist it, letting Murrow’s humble, understated common sense win the day. Good Night and Good Luck is not just a film to challenge the actions of one administration or party. It challenges both sides to set aside condescension, sarcasm and bullying in order to tackle the day’s most serious issues with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, it challenges the conventional wisdom that both sides to an argument necessarily have equal value. For me, this is key, because, it is the justification that present-day journalists have used to shirk their responsibility. Captivating, visually pleasing and well-timed, Good Night and Good Luck is a thoroughly satisfying film.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Whisper of the Heart (Kondo, 1995)

There is a moment early on in Whisper of the Heart where a young schoolgirl gets on the public transit system and is joined by a haughty cat that is riding without an owner, but certainly seems to know where it is going. Because the film’s script is written by Hayao Mayazaki, we half expect the cat to turn to the girl and talk or otherwise morph into some mystical creature. Though it stays mostly within the realm of realism and ordinary human interaction, Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart ultimately reveals itself to be a film every bit as magical as the fantastical films helmed by his mentor. Shizuku, the film’s heroine, is likable, but apart from her fondness for reading library books and composing alternate lyrics to popular songs, she is mostly unexceptional. And she knows it. Her parents are consumed with the humdrum routine of modern living. She attends school and offers advice to her good friend who has a crush on one of their male classmates, but her life does not exactly have a strong sense of forward propulsion. And so she looks for adventure in the ordinary. When she notices the same person has checked out all of her library books ahead of her, she fantasizes about who this mysterious person could be. Could they be destined for one another? When the aforementioned cat leaps off the train and leads her to an antique shop, she wonders what treasures could be contained within? When she first sees the Baron -- an unusual statuette of a feline man with glowing eyes -- she supposes that perhaps there is some mystical link to the ordinary housecat she has followed.

However, unlike most Miyazaki protagonists, Shizuku gets a bit less than she expected. At least, at first. There are no mythical woodland creatures or complex conspiracies or floating castles, but eventually Shizuku finds herself involved in a very special kind of love. It is here where the film delights us by venturing off in an unexpected direction. Rather than falling into the trap of constructing a drama solely around whether or not Shizuku will get her guy, Miyazaki and Kondo offer a heart-wrenching examination of finding confidence and self-worth. The central metaphor, involving a geode, is simple, but also striking and potent. Like that geode, many characters in Whisper of the Heart ultimately reveal themselves to be far more than they appear on the outside. And yet, the intense emotional attachment we feel is in large part due to the fact they are a lot like us – dreaming of the perfect versions of themselves and overwhelmed by the amount of focus and energy that are required to escape the pull of the mundane. Whisper of the Heart is a film of deep tenderness and admirable specificity. It offers new insights on a subject that has been tackled countless times before. It is dramatically engaging, aesthetically beautiful and, most importantly, thematically inspiring.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #19: THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR directed by The Coen Brothers

The Plot:

Sir John Falstaff is a fat, slovenly undesirable scoundrel. Nonetheless, he has concocted a scheme in which he will attempt to seduce two married women simultaneously in order to get at their husbands cash. With an airtight plan like that, what could possibly go wrong? Little does Falstaff know that the two wives are comparing notes and decide to turn the tables on their would-be wooer. Zany hijinks follow.

Why the Coens?

The Merry Wives of Windsor is an unusual entry in the Shakespearean canon in that it is essentially a spin-off. The story goes that Queen Elizabeth liked the character of Falstaff so much in Henry IV that she requested another play centered specifically on him. Though it certainly does not rank amongst Shakespeare’s more philosophically deep works, it is a fairly effective farce. I knew that I wanted to include the Coens at some point on this list and this seems like the right place to do so. Much of the success of Merry Wives depends upon rich comedic characterizations. Like many Coen Brothers films, Merry Wives is loaded with eccentrics, including a Welsh clergyman and a French doctor who both have accents so thick that they can barely be understood be anyone else. As for Falstaff himself, he may very well be the original Duderino, completely unaware of what effect his appearance and demeanor have on those who encounter him. It may be a slight play in comparison to some of Shakespeare’s other works, but I imagine that if anybody could get maximum effect from the colorful characters and silly plot, it would be the Coens.

Coen Brothers films I have seen:

1. Raising Arizona ****
2. Fargo ****
3. The Man Who Wasn't There ****
4. Miller's Crossing ***1/2
5. The Big Lebowski ***1/2
6. Blood Simple ***1/2
7. The Hudsucker Proxy ***1/2
8. O Brother, Where Art Thou? ***1/2
9. Barton Fink ***1/2
10. Intolerable Cruelty ***
11. The Ladykillers **1/2

Monday, January 09, 2006

Memories of Underdevelopment (Alea, 1968)

In an early scene in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevopment, a man removes a dead bird from a cage and then allows it to ‘take flight’ over the side of his balcony, several stories off the ground. This moment -- involving a creature that has no doubt longed its entire life to soar, but cannot do so because it is dead inside -- serves as a witty symbol of Cuba in the early 1960’s, just after Castro has risen to power. Alea’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that the state of underdevelopment and economic struggle leads to a populace that is largely incapable of sophisticated thought. Therefore, it looks to a person with dictatorial tendencies to provide guidance and direction. However, Alea does not stop there. He also suggests that Cuba is allowing itself to have its fate decided by the United States and Russia, a circumstance that could have disastrous consequences for the population, as evidenced by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The complexity of Alea’s film comes from the fact that he undermines his narrator by placing in a plot involving a seduction of an underage girl and the legal charges brought on by her outraged family. Although we have been listening to the narrator speak for Cuba’s interest, he seems to take on the role of the symbolic imperialist in this scenario. He, no doubt, sees their tryst as some kind of spiritual connection, despite the fact that his urge to conquer was the primary driving force. She and her family see the situation more simply. She has been penetrated, spoiled and, in their minds, raped. Alea’s perspective of his native country clearly involves both love and frustration. There is deep political outrage, but the answers to Alea’s concerns do not come easily. At times, the film seemed to me to possess too much narration offered in the same defeated tone, but ultimately it is an accomplished piece of cinematic poetry.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #18 -- THE MERCHANT OF VENICE directed by Spike Lee

The Plot:

Bassanio needs cash quick. Portia’s looking for suitors and he thinks he’s got what it takes, but he needs bus fare (gondola fare?) to get within courtin’ range. But like most young romantics, Bassanio’s got bad credit. So he gets assistance from Antonio in order to secure a loan from Shylock. Although Antonio is glad to help out a friend, he despises the practice of usury (charging interest for loans), so instead Shylock offers to give an interest-free loan with a fairly substantial catch – if the money is not returned, Antonio must provide a pound of flesh. When Antonio runs into a little cash-flow problem, Shylock is determined to collect, but Portia saves the day by dressing up like a man and clever outwitting him at trial. Indeed, Portia is such a skilled lawyer that Shylock is not only required to pay a fine, but also convert to Christianity!

Why Lee?

This choice is going to require quite a bit of explanation. Merchant of Venice is such a difficult play because of its matter-of-fact anti-Semitism. Initially, I thought about making a joke selection here (Mel Gibson? Woody Allen?), but instead tried to seriously think of a filmmaker who could actually pull this off. The character of Shylock as written by Shakespeare is both fascinating and troubling. The 'villainous Jew' was a stock character at the time, so for us, it would be like seeing a film with a Latino drug smuggler or an African-American gang member. There is no doubt that the character reinforces harmful stereotypes that are much more apparent to viewers today, but at the same time, it is hard to say that Shakespeare’s play is intended to be malicious. Shakespeare certainly gives his villain much more humanity than another author of the era might deem necessary – remember that it is Shylock who utters the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech. Indeed, if we try really, really hard, we can imagine how someone living hundreds of years before the Holocaust may have found Shylock’s forced religious conversion funny and not necessarily appalling. Still, no matter what Shakespeare’s intent, modern viewers cannot change how they react to seeing such stereotypes enacted any more than Shakespeare could foresee the future. Particularly in the medium of film, which can more easily lapse into literalism than the theatre, such stereotypes placed in the wrong hands can have a powerful and lasting effect no matter what Shakespeare’s intent may have been. At the same time, I don’t think that it is right to whitewash Shakespeare’s play and pretend that Shylock was really supposed to be some kind of heroic martyr. We can simultaneously concede that Shakespeare’s sensitivity was well ahead of its time and yet, still not quite suited for ours. The fact remains that The Merchant of Venice is an extraordinary work that deserves to be produced today.

So what to do?

It seems to me that there’s no way to avoid the fact that the play is about race. You could have an adaptation about somebody who really doesn’t like moneylenders, but there’s no drama in that, no fire. Instead, what I think the play needs is somebody who is able to tackle racial stereotypes head-on, who is concerned with issues of injustice and yet also has a sense of humor. After running the play through several directors, Spike Lee seemed like the right fit. Would Lee want to adapt the play so that it was, for example, Italian-Americans borrowing money from a wealthy African-American? Perhaps. I don’t think that harms the essence of what the play is about. In fact, it may help significantly to provide some distance from our conventional view of Shylock. I think The Merchant of Venice is unavoidably about race and racial conflict; however, I don’t think it necessarily has to be about Judaism. Whatever controversial things Lee has said in interviews, I find that when it comes to his films, he generally tends to play fair. It’s an inflammatory play, but it’s also a very good play. It needs a director like Lee who isn’t afraid to play with fire.

Spike Lee Joints I have seen:

1. Do the Right Thing ****
2. Malcolm X ***1/2
3. Summer of Sam ***
4. Jungle Fever ***

The Constant Gardener (Meirelles, 2005)

I am glad to have seen The Constant Gardener. I think it is a film with noble intentions, namely to draw attention to the conditions being endured by millions on the African continent. I am glad to see another film by Fernando Meirelles who proves that the skill and confidence with which he guided City of God was no fluke. Yes, he reins himself in a bit and does not employ nearly as many aggressive stylistic flourishes. But it is clear that he understands his film’s setting with a sensitivity and passion that few filmmakers can match. It also helps that he has two charismatic leads in Ralph Fiennes, who plays a highly intellectual but timid diplomat, and Rachel Weisz, who plays the outspoken political activist that gets herself into big trouble when she finds out too much about the wrong sleazy corporation. The supporting cast, led by Pete Postlethwaithe, is also consistently good and I liked the immediacy of the cinematography, as well as the invigorating beats of the film’s soundtrack. But I don’t know … something is missing. Maybe it is the fact that the fictionalized scandal that lies at the heart of the film’s plot seems trivial when compared to the very distressing conditions that exist in the slums that serve as the background for much of Meirelles’ film. From the Internet Movie Database, I learn that a trust fund was set up to help the inhabitants of the village near where the film was shot. Well, good. But as I was watching, I couldn’t help but feel that we were wasting our time hunting down the shady villains of the author’s imagination when a filmmaker with Meirelles’ courage was perfectly capable of sinking his teeth into some of these real life bastards. If the film has a shortcoming, it is that there is little opportunity to truly become invested in the quest of Fiennes character. We know that he will spend much of the film’s running time asking more and more questions until he finds out what he needs to know. We feel like we should be angry along with him, but it is too difficult to find a tangible target for our outrage, as we watch him battle against the omnipresent ‘they’. Ultimately, I felt like The Constant Gardener bore more resemblance to a film like The Bourne Supremacy than it did to something like The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. By this, I mean, it seems to work better as a thriller with political trappings than it does as a film with real political bite. It’s a good film, but not really the film I was hoping for.