Archive for January, 2010

This Is It & Hamlet (live)

Thursday, January 21st, 2010—Film

This Is It (USA 2009, Documentary/Music), Director: Kenny Ortega

Hamlet (Broadhurst Theater, 2009), Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: Michael Grandage

I wrote a draft of this post when I got back from New York last November, but never got around to finishing it. A friend recently asked about This Is It, which is apparently coming out soon on DVD, so I figured it was time because the documentary is definitely worth picking up for a night in.

ST and I caught a cheap-Tuesday showing of This Is It the week before I left for New York. Directed by the legendary-to-me Kenny Ortega (he choreographed my beloved Dirty Dancing), This Is It features behind-the-scenes footage of Michael Jackson and his crew of dancers, musicians and other artists as they prepared for what was to be his final tour. Things I was thinking after seeing the movie: it does an amazing job of suggesting what Jackson’s final show would have been like; and it pays homage not only to his talent, but to his incredible star power.

This Is It opens with interviews of the tour’s dancers, many in tears over the opportunity to perform with MJ. We roll from there into a medley of rehearsal footage at all stages of undress—from a basic walkthrough of the steps, to what looks close to the awesome final product that almost was. There are incredible feats of talent in This Is It, not only from Jackson, who is uncannily in tune with every key and beat of his music, but also his backup performers. The tour would have featured some of the world’s best dancers and musicians; look for some standout guitar solos in the film.

Ortega smartly stays away from the controversy around Jackson’s personal life and death. There are only minor hints of the star’s complicated inner dialogue, and bare glimpses that he might be somewhat out of synch with the world around him. Instead, the film focuses on paying a final tribute to what Michael Jackson brought to the world as a very gifted performer.

This isn’t an outstanding documentary in and of itself. But when you consider that the footage wasn’t intended for a feature film, and the incredible job the filmmakers do of capturing what the King of Pop’s swan song would have been like, This Is It becomes an opportunity not to be missed. I wouldn’t have been in the audience had Jackson’s tour made it to the stage. Now, having seen the making-of documentary, I’m genuinely disappointed that no one will ever see the real thing.

Speaking of star power and magnetic talent, I had the privilege of watching Jude Law perform Hamlet on Broadway while I was in New York. With This Is It fresh in my mind, I was all the more impressed by the effect Law had on the audience, and on the show as a whole. First off, he gave a wonderful performance. I’ve seen excellent film actors fall flat onstage. Maybe they’re accustomed to the short film takes and can’t maintain a consistent energy through the entire play, or maybe they simply lack presence. Other times, great stage actors can be a bit too theatrical for the unwavering intimacy of film. Jude Law doesn’t have a problem here; he’s excellent in both mediums. He had great presence, and projected and postured well to the audience. But he was always so convincing, I could imagine the close-up of his performance working very well on film.

This was a streamlined production of Hamlet. The sets and costumes were spare and dark, and the script was punctuated by a precise, minimalist score. Within that, director Michael Grandage made plenty of room to play on his lead actor’s star power. Taking artistic licence with Shakespeare’s script, the show opens with Hamlet crouched alone onstage, lit dramatically by a spotlight. He rises, leaves, and the play begins as it was written. It was a wise move on Grandage’s part to open with Law; had he not, the audience would have been too distracted to listen during the play’s opening dialogue, sitting on pins and needles in anticipation of the star’s entrance.

The director continues to make smart choices with his leading man throughout the production. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks for the first time, Grandage points attention to the ghost by having Law’s back to the audience. Not only does it create dramatic tension by leaving the audience to imagine the impact of the ghost’s words on Hamlet, but it creates space to forget about the star for a few moments and really absorb the other actor’s performance.

If I seem to be overplaying the impact Law had on the theatre, I’m not. Every time he had a soliloquy, almost the entire audience was transfixed. I broke away from that enough to catch a glimpse of the people around me. They were mesmerized. When the curtain descended after the actors took their bows, most audience members bounded out of their seats, eager to return to the hectic New York City tempo. But then the curtains rose again to reveal Law standing alone, centre stage, and everyone froze on the spot, forgetting all else and managing only to stare and cheer. He was utterly magnetic. Even for someone who views that kind of thing with skepticism, it’s still quite something to behold.

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This post is dedicated to the fabulous FS, whose star is on the rise and who has always been a star in my world. Congrats on the off-Broadway debut!!

The Lovely Bones

Saturday, January 16th, 2010—Film

The Lovely Bones (USA/UK/New Zealand 2010, Drama/Fantasy/Thriller), Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson; Director: Peter Jackson

The Lovely Bones has been getting some pretty damning reviews. But to be fair, it’s based on a book (Alice Sebold’s beautiful work of the same name) that is very difficult to adapt to film.

In the novel, the story of raped and murdered 14-year-old Susie Salmon, and the impact of her death on those she leaves behind, is told from Susie’s point of view as she watches from “the in between”—a place somewhere between heaven and Earth. Sebold’s writing moves the reader gracefully from one place to another, watching over Susie’s family, her friends and even her murderer, and spending time in her imagined paradise.

I loved the book and have been waiting a long time for this movie. I was pretty excited when I read that Peter Jackson was on board to direct; he seemed like the perfect person for the job. His Heavenly Creatures showed that he could delve into the imagined lives of teenage girls, and handle dark family matters. The Lord of the Rings trilogy proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was adept at working with CGI and creating rich fantasy worlds on an epic scale.

But somehow Jackson’s background wasn’t enough to do justice to The Lovely Bones. So much of what Susie experiences, both in her heaven and when she interacts with people still on Earth, works perfectly in the novel but is over the top when interpreted literally for the screen. It comes across as hokey. Jackson also tries to cover too much ground, and ends up giving a shallow treatment to many of the characters and subplots that truly made the novel come alive for me (e.g. Susie’s strange and otherworldly classmate Ruth; her sister Lindsey’s journey; her mother’s struggle and desperation).

It’s been too long since I read the novel for me to say what specifically I’d have cut out. Maybe the answer to a better adaptation lies more in the treatment than in the content; a more experimental, non-narrative approach might have led to greater success. The film could have moved more fluidly between the two worlds, fading from one to the other without following logic and structure, the way dreams happen. I think it would have worked to allow for some ambiguity and confusion in the format for the sake of more clearly developed characters and glimpses into their lives (or afterlives).

In spite of some obvious and significant flaws in the film, I can’t completely write it off. The Lovely Bones has a couple moments that took me right back to the book, almost as though Jackson had crept inside my mind and brought my vision to life. There are also brilliant moments, like the beautiful scene when Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg), in a fit of rage and despair, destroys the model ships-in-a-bottle he used to build with his daughter, and the boats in Susie’s “in between” simultaneously come apart in the ocean before her.

Although some of the actors aren’t really given enough material to dig their teeth into, the film features some incredible performances. As murderer George Harvey, Stanley Tucci is fantastic and nothing like I’ve seen him before. And as Susie, young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan blows me away. Her portrayal is wonderful, and diametrically opposed to the brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance she gave in Atonement (see the Atonement review from January 2008).

Watching The Lovely Bones, I was more fascinated than disappointed. It’s too hard for me to separate the movie from the novel, which I loved; from Sebold’s memoir, Lucky, which I’m reading now, and that accounts for her own experience with rape and trying to merge the seemingly contradictory notions of the world she used to know with the post-assault world she is left to inhabit; and my own fascination with criminology, and interest in understanding social deviants—how they got there, and whether they can ever return from there (my undergrad thesis explored the possible benefits of a reconciliation between sex offenders and their survivors).

Still, I can imagine that for someone who hasn’t read the book and doesn’t share my connections to the movie and its themes, the film would only be uneven, unsatisfying and maybe even a little cloying. People can’t be expected to read the novel as a complement to the film, and research the filmmakers’ histories to get a deeper appreciation for it.

This is a movie that will probably only be of value to people who read the book and are interested in seeing Jackson’s take on it. The real genius of The Lovely Bones is in Sebold’s writing and how she adapted her own experiences to create a transcendent novel, floating—like Susie—somewhere between fantasy and reality.

A Single Man & Avatar

Saturday, January 9th, 2010—Film

A Single Man (USA 2009, Drama), Writer/Director: Tom Ford

Avatar (USA/UK 2009, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writer/Director: James Cameron

“Her dreams are more real than her waking, and they fly through her mind like white birds.”

I saw Avatar a few weeks ago for the first time, and I loved it but didn’t think I had enough to say about it to warrant a post. In short, I thought the visuals were amazing, the storyline touching albeit predictable. But I saw it again and, amazingly, the second viewing seemed to go by even faster than the first. Then last night I saw A Single Man, and although it’s profoundly different from Avatar, its opening draws an immediate parallel to the animated epic and compelled me to write about both films.

Each movie explores the idea of creating, or discovering, an altered state of consciousness, a heightened sense of enlightenment. They begin with the protagonists waking up. But in both films, the characters have suffered great loses and are cut off from the world, sleepwalking through life even in their waking. What is interesting is that the films go in opposite directions to resolve their characters’ disconnect and unhappiness.

A Single Man is fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut. Set in 1960s Los Angeles, it tells the story of George (Colin Firth), a man grieving the loss of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), who died in a car accident some eight months prior. Waking up, George tells us, actually hurts. “My heart has been broken, and it is as if I’m sinking, drowning, and I can’t breathe.”

In the film’s opening moments, you really believe him. His pain is palpable, and as he stands frustrated at his kitchen counter, slamming a loaf of frozen bread down to break up the slices, you see how much he carries it with him. Getting used to being “George,” he says, takes time. It’s something he must prepare for each morning as he dresses to face the world. He feels as though he’s playing a part, going through the motions the world expects him to make. But he isn’t really there anymore; part of him died with Jim.

Ford’s direction is heavily stylized. George’s world is mostly shown in muted colours. When he observes others, or tries to interact, we see extreme close-ups of objects or body parts, lips that suddenly glow in full technicolour. But these forced moments of liveliness only serve to further highlight how disconnected George is from those around him. They feel just as empty as the bleak, frozen landscape George trudges through every day. They don’t feel real. It’s only when he gets to know a few strangers who start to bring him out of his grief that the shot and colour treatment takes on a lifelike, natural hue and carries an energy that feels like something alive, something you can connect to.

The problem is, A Single Man works so hard to convey George’s disconnect that I felt too detached to really be moved by it. With all of Ford’s extreme close-ups, hugging bodies, accentuating lips and torsos, he betrays his background in fashion and does himself a disservice as a filmmaker. A movie is more than just the series of shots that hold it together, and many of Ford’s choices felt too self-conscious to really engage me.

Avatar, on the other hand, does a fantastic job of drawing the viewer in. It engulfs you from the very beginning. The movie is James Cameron’s glorious return to feature filmmaking after 1997’s epic Titanic. Set in the 2100s, it follows paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to the moon Pandora where he has been assigned to take over the job his deceased twin brother began. Pandora is home to a valuable but elusive mineral called unobtanium (cute), which a wealthy corporation plans to mine for. The moon is also home to the Na’vi, a blue-skinned humanoid species that lives directly atop a massive unobtanium deposit and presents a problem to the greedy people who want to get their hands on the mineral—at any cost.

In an effort to improve relations with the Na’vi, scientists create Avatars, creatures that resemble the Na’vi but are made from both human and Na’vi DNA and can be controlled remotely by humans whose consciousness inhabit the Avatar bodies. Jake’s brother was one such Avatar operator, and because Jake shares his twin’s DNA, he alone is able to inhabit his brother’s Avatar. Jake accepts the mission and attempts to learn the Na’vi way on behalf of the corporation. But in the process, he falls in love with their lifestyle—and with the powerful Na’vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)—and, in the process of waking up to who he is destined to become, discovers what is really worth fighting for.

Avatar is 10 years in the making, and you could spend hours reading up on the technology behind it. A 3D marvel, Avatar was shot using an innovative motion-capture stage and dual-camera system that recorded the actors’ performances down to the minutest facial expressions, allowing their digital counterparts to appear to move in real-time. True to form, Cameron developed the technology he needed to bring his imagination to the screen.

Although the technology is mind-blowing (and admittedly out of my realm of expertise after conducting only very rudimentary research), what I love most about Avatar is the Na’vi world and the concept it explores about energy—a concept that has fascinated me for years. Every action, every birth and death, every thought, involves an energy that binds us all together. The Na’vi have such a profound understanding of and respect for nature, and their exquisite world is brought to life so vividly by the animation, you can’t help but long to know that a place like that really does exist somewhere in the universe.

I’m sometimes critical of Cameron’s stereotyped characters, flat dialogue and unoriginal plotlines (even if the worlds he creates are full of imagination), but the visual magic he captures in Avatar makes me shut that voice off. And I have to admire his multitude of talents. Not only does he create the plots and worlds he brings to screen, but he’s clearly something of a technological mastermind.

A Single Man and Avatar explore the danger of drifting through life without fully engaging with what’s going on around us, and introduce the empowerment and fulfillment that comes from truly waking up. Both feature men who are trapped in their current forms, by grief and—in Jake’s case—by physical barriers. It’s only when they enter a new form of consciousness that they are able to realize what they can truly become. Where A Single Man fails is by keeping the viewer at a distance and never letting you fully join George on his journey of awakening. Avatar, on the other, brings you right into Jake’s world, and hopefully opens people’s eyes to much more than just one person’s plight.

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“She is waking to noises… And each of them beats in her ear like a drum as the dragons, the witches, the eagles, the mice, as the flowers and tigers and leopards and swans, as they all swim away through the rooms of her mind into darkness and seafoam and peace.”