Tag Archives: Unique

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Song to Song

Calling this a movie is a bit of a stretch. It is more of a tone poem than a traditional story, which is somewhat appropriate given the title and Rooney Mara’s (The Discovery) comments in her voice over. There is a tale to be gleaned from the visuals, dialogue, and brief scenes, but it isn’t straight forward. The result feels like an extrapolation of Eyes Wide Shut, but with a more complete result.  At 2+ hours, that is both an impressive achievement by writer/director Terrance Malick (Knight of Cups) and a lot of effort for the audience. I’m not sure it is effort that is well reimbursed.

Whether or not you like Terrance Malick’s style, he can surely put a cast together: Michael Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Cate Blanchett (Carol), Holly Hunter (Top of the Lake), Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall), Val Kilmer (Twixt), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), Linda Emond (3 Generations), Tom Sturridge (Far From the Madding Crowd). Then there are music icons like Iggy Pop (Gimme Danger), Florence Welch, Patti Smith, and others.

In other words, a whole heck of a lot of talent went into the creation of this piece. It is also down to Malick’s editing of the moments that the story becomes at all apparent. But as a movie it is middling and as an entertainment it is lacking. Basically, you have to love these actors or Malick to want to spend over two hours to get to the point and resolution. So this one is up to you…I had to respect the film making, but I can’t say I really enjoyed the experience enough to recommend it unreservedly or even with enthusiasm for anyone who isn’t more interested in craft than they are experience.

Song to Song

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]

Sense8

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

Vanya on 42nd Street

If you’re even the least bit interested in this film, it helps if you love live performance, Anton Chekov plays, and/or Louis Malle. This final film of Malle’s captures André Gregory’s (My Dinner with André) run at directing Uncle Vanya with the definitive idea of it being about the human condition. Not about plot, or characters, but solely about the “meaning of life” for lack of a better phrase; basically a discourse with character.

Certainly, I’d agree that Chekov reflects on life. However, where I think this Vanya misses is that Chekov is also funny. Dark funny, but funny. The performance is based on David Mamet’s (Redbelt) adaptation of Chekov’s play. Gregory further adapted it for this screen version. The resulting script is beautifully written and full of wonderful moments and monologues. But even the script seems to have missed some of the poking of fun at the characters and the audience. How much of that is Mamet and how much Gregory’s surgery, I can’t say as I don’t have the source material to compare.

The challenge of filming a play is that the heightened aspect of the script almost always feels forced. In addition, this film captures only one version of the play. It had been work-shopped for 5 years and performed privately only 12 times prior to capturing it on film. Each of these performances was done with the audience very much as the onlookers are in the film itself. And each performance was reportedly markedly different, by design.

Louis Malle chose to tackle this tale and capture it for posterity after seeing several of the very limited live performances that Gregory’s group put together. His direction is practically invisible, allowing us to live in the play/rehearsal the way it was conceived to be performed live, inches from the actors. By the end of the production, it feels real, nearly natural.

The cast are all equally powerful, starting with Wallace Shawn (A Master Builder) in the title role. Along with him, Julianne Moore (Freeheld), Brooke Smith (Bates Motel), and Larry Pine (House of Cards) really drive the bulk of the story.

This isn’t really a play, nor is it a film. It is a hybrid of sorts. The “making of” documentary on the disc can explain that better than I in this short space. It certainly provided some confirmations for me about the interpretations as well. You don’t get to see performances like this often, which makes this a great experience. Whether the play and message will resonate I imagine will depend on many things for each individual watching.

Vanya on 42nd Street

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kôfuku)

After being pleasantly surprised by The Bird People in China, I was curious to see this other Takashi Miike directed tale. Described as “Sound of Music meets Dawn of the Dead,” how could I resist? The result, however, did not leave me intrigued me enough to continuing digging much more into his more offbeat opus. To be clear, it has nothing in common with either of those seminal films on any level, it was just empty marketing hype.

So to the movie itself. Bizarre is a kind word for this odd musical. It starts off amusingly enough, strangely, but amusingly with a claymation sequence that attempts to set the theme of what is to come. And then… well, imagine an amateur musical production of a black comedy with a cast that can neither sing nor dance. Add to this that the entire plot is really about this family coming together, except there is no sense of connectedness between them at all. It is a broad black comedy, which probably isn’t helping on that count, but neither does it succeed. On an individual level, it is supposed to be about finding happiness by, for lack of a better way to put it, playing through the pain and not getting lost in the past.

The first two thirds of the film is essentially episodic, but with little more plot than an escalating sense of the absurd. There is one truly effective sequence, also on theme, in a toxic dump that sends up echos of WWII in a funny but scathing way. I’m not entirely sure it belonged in this tale, but I think I understand why it was there.

Claymation plays into the action a few more times, usually to keep costs for f/x down (this according to Miike), and they are strangely effective. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t all come together. The film and tale just spin off into a final statement that is, again, on point, but baffling from a story point of view. None of the frames, from beginning to end, come back together; neither the opening sequence, nor the voice-over purpose of the youngest Katakuri who narrates.

I will say that the disc appears to have an excellent dubbed translation of the commentary by director Miike… though there isn’t nearly enough substance to it to make it the sole reason you watch. I turned it on to see if, maybe, perhaps, I could get some insights that would help me understand what I’d just seen. There were definitely a few clarifications, but the rest was meandering and, frankly, stuff I’d already sussed.

Miike is prolific, with over 100 films to his name. At this point, I’ll wait for explicit recommendations before I pick up others. When he delivers, he really delivers, but with that kind of output, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that at least some of them are duds. Personally, I’d skip this unless you area  Miike freak or know and like the source Korean film that it is loosely based on.

The Happiness of the Katakuris

Pina

This is a rare film that is two (or even three) in one.

The presentation, as intended, is a farewell and commemoration of Pina Bausch and her work by her company. She was an icon in dance, though not well known outside the boundaries of her audience and discipline. This film captures some of the most famous and influential of her works, as well as notes from the troop. It is done almost entirely without words, by Pina’s design. Her language is movement.

In addition to the purely artistic viewing, there is a brilliant commentary track by director Wim Wenders (Salt of the Earth) who had spent years working with Pina on how to film her efforts. This film is the result. This version wasn’t either of their intentions, but Wenders covers the ‘whys’ of that in his commentary. The conversation spans much more than just the creation of the movie, it discusses Pina’s work, the dancers themselves, and the impact of their efforts. Unless you know Pina’s work, this is the experience to have first. It isn’t a dry lecture by any means and it will whet your appetite for the other two opportunities.

Thirdly, there is a 3D version of the documentary, if you have the equipment and are fortunate enough to own the full Criterion set. Wenders spent years working toward this version and I am actually anxious to see it now. Sadly, that wasn’t part of my evening, but it certainly primed me for it.

There are few artistic divides more contentious than classic ballet v modern dance. Those that love the precision and sonnet-like constraints of classical ballet often eschew the free-form feeling blank verse of modern dance. I have always leaned toward the modern, myself. But until this documentary/commemoration, I didn’t truly appreciate the precision of the effort. There are sequences of editing that jump between performances separated by decades that unequivocally show that the apparent chaos and random nature of the movements is nothing of the sort; from cut to cut performers are in the exact same positions regardless of the performance. It is an extraordinary awakening as an audience member and not one I’ve seen in film before. Certainly it isn’t an experience you can see on live stage easily.

Much like Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which looked at performance art, this documentary is a great introduction to its form of dance and an opportunity for context. In the end you many still not like the approach, but you will understand both it and your assessment of it better. In between you will be amazed, if nothing else, by the visual language, production values, and physicality of the dancers.

Pina

My “Best of” 2016

I don’t usually do this, but too many folks have asked. So, I’ve gone back through my last year of films and tv (and it was a LOT). Here’s what I came up with out of about 280 posts which covered more than 300 films and TV shows over the last calendar year.

Film:
Not all of these are brilliant, but they are all good movies and often unique enough to make them worth the time. Most were released in 2016, but a few may have bridged across from 2015 (or earlier)… and a few have released that I’ve yet to see, but there is only so much time!

The best (in no particular order, but should be seen):

Kubo and the Two Strings
Arrival
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Moonlight
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Deadpool
Anomalisa
A Monster Calls
Marguerite

The rest (again, no order, but unique or well done and deserve a watch):

Sing Street
Remember
Hologram for the King
The Wave
Finding Vivian Maier
Eddie the Eagle
Fundamentals of Caring
Miss You Already
April and the Extraordinary World
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Sticky
Demolition
Therapy for a Vampire
Dressmaker
Swiss Army Man
The Nice Guys
Doctor Strange
Spectral
The BFG

TV:
There is a heck of a lot of good TV out there now, but these were the new ones that caught me off-guard.

This is Us
Class
Night Manager
Magicians
Stranger Things
The OA
Westworld

A Monster Calls

This isn’t a film that everyone will naturally flock to, but they should. It is dark and sad, but also magical. It dares to be honest amidst its subterfuge of humor and entertainment. It takes its time, so much so you aren’t even sure it is working for a long while… and then it just does. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end, but somehow you were thankful for that. This is a complex one… and one most folks are probably going to miss. It should have been released at a different time of the year. By releasing now, it is getting buried by all the other films running and unlikely to receive the recognition it should through awards season.

So, why, you ask, should you put yourself through a dark movie when all you’re looking to do is escape? Because, for all its weight, it doesn’t cling to you in a bad way to bring you down. It brings you to the other side of the emotions leaving it all bitter-sweet but completely acceptable. Basically, it earns its moments, all of them, and it leaves you more whole at the end for that.

The tale is told entirely, and bravely, through the eyes of the young Lewis MacDougall (Pan). It is one of the best conceits of the film. We only know what he knows, though there are, by necessity, a few visual points of view that aren’t his.

His mother is embodied by Felicty Jones (Rogue One), who brings on a powerful performance with little screen time. Toby Kebbell (Warcraft) has a subtle job that implies much as his father, but we are left wondering about him and his actions as much as his son is; given MacDougall’s point of view, that is entirely fair. Even Sigourney Weaver’s (Chappie) grandmother does much with little screen time, and little explanation. Sadly, her accent wavers, but her presence and emotions are solid.

And then there is Liam Neeson (Taken 3) as the gravelly voiced monster. It may not be him on screen, but the voice carries a performance that rides a difficult line between terrifying and humorous.

The overall combination of story telling and Neeson’s monster has echos of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Bridge to Terebithia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, or a much more twisted The BFG, if the BFG himself was more of Freudian analyst than a sweet sidekick. Monster Calls is still its own unique film, but there aren’t many movies that allow children to be the true leads of their stories and also remain truthful. It is in rarefied and good company.

Director Bayona (The Impossible) brings an incredible control to the movie. He allows for humanity without giving in to any one side or emotion. By bringing the audience along the high-wire above and through the middle of the action, he allows us to experience it all without cheapening the moments.

A good part of the success of this film is also down to the script. Writer Ness adapted his own challenging book as his first film script, bringing to it the same sensibility he also brought to the new Doctor Who spin-off, Class; treating young adults as people rather than children.

There were two niggling issues for me with this film. They alone brought it from near perfection to just really good. First, the animation near the end was just a little off… and, unfortunately, it was at a critical moment so it really hit me in the face. And second, the music over the credits was disturbingly upbeat like the film was trying to wash the sense of the film away or apologize for the journey. I didn’t want either from the filmmakers. I wanted to hang onto the sense of the world the final scenes left me with a bit longer.

Those small aspects aside, make time for this film, if not now, later. It is rather extraordinary. I also imagine it will offer different connections when rewatching it depending on where you are in your life, making it even more intriguing to me, and, I hope, others.

A Monster Calls

Zebraman

There is something wonderfully sneaky about this film. It is odd and entertaining, purposefully evoking late 70s and early 80s Japanese television with love and with honesty. It is, in a word (or two), just silly. However, it has enough heart and humor to keep it all afloat and fun, even with the uneven pacing.

The overall result is even more surprising as it comes from the prolific and unpredictable director Takashi Miike; Miike who, among other movies, delivered one of the most truly disturbing tales of horror ever: Audition.  Admittedly, this movie isn’t quite family fare, but its dark humor is more along the lines of The Pink Panther than Deadpool

Much like its inspirational roots, the story only makes marginal sense and the effects and costumes are purposefully low-end to match the look and feel of the rubber-suit and drawn animation days. The story even riffs on those realities so we don’t have to pretend. The fact that there is a sequel to this tale… and I’m tempted to check it out… obviously suggests it caught my attention in some way. For an evening’s diversion when you have a good sense of humor on, this really is way more fun than you’d expect.

Zebraman