Friday, November 23, 2012

The Sweeping Symphonies of Till the Clouds Roll By

The first time I watched Till the Clouds Roll By, I was sitting in my grandparents’ kitchen with them, just enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon/evening. I can vividly recall the smells, sights, and sounds of that day, so this movie is a bit sentimental to me as a result. When I saw that it was available on Hulu, I knew I’d have to watch again. And what better time to sit down with a feel-good, nostalgic movie than when everyone else is out there going crazy for a good deal on Black Friday? I can’t think of any.

Till the Clouds Roll By is a 1946 biopic tribute to composer Jerome Kern, who had passed away the year before this movie was released in theaters. While the movie is purportedly telling the story of Kern’s life, it also serves as a vehicle for large musical numbers, showcasing the hit songs from throughout Kern’s career. The end result is a film light on details of Kern’s life and strong on staging, costumes, swelling orchestral numbers, and so forth. I knew basically nothing about Kern before viewing this movie the first time, so I certainly did learn something from the movie about him – but then also had to verify a lot afterwards and saw how much was left out. For instance, Kern was apparently well-known for his horn-rimmed glasses yet Robert Walker as Jerome Kern is never once seen wearing a pair of any kind of spectacles; presumably the Hollywood of the 1940s would never think a leading man in glasses would be dashing enough for the audience. Some details are simply out of chronological order or slightly altered to fit the story being told in this movie, such as Hammerstein contacting Kerns about making a musical based on the book Showboat rather than the other way around as it actually happened. In real life, Kern had a daughter, but in the movie, he and his wife Eva dote only on his “niece” Sally, the child of his friend and musical arranger, Jim Hessler. The Hesslers play a huge role in this movie -- despite the fact that they never existed, although the character of Jim Hessler is supposedly based on a real-life associate of Kern’s.

The facts that Hollywood eschewed are replaced with a compelling story though and one that pulls on the viewer's heartstrings. I loved the story of how Kern becomes like family to the Hesslers and the easy repartee between him and Jim, especially in their early days as bachelor workaholics. The love story between Kern and Eva was also sweet, albeit rushed. Furthermore, the actors play the story of Kern's life well and do a convincing job of growing old and subtly changing as a result. Walker is always compelling to watch, whether he’s being charming, funny, torn, heartbroken, or feeling old and resigned, as the situation calls. The other actors in the domestic drama – Van Heflin as Jim, Dorothy Patrick as Eva, Lucille Bremer as the adult Sally, and Joan Wells as the young Sally – all play their parts perfectly as well.

But the real star power of this movie was in the music and dance, with acts that could almost be described as over the top unless you’ve happened to watch a lot of musicals from this era. The cast of Till the Clouds Roll By reads like a who’s who of Golden Age Hollywood elite, including Judy Garland, Van Johnson, June Allyson, Lena Horne, and Frank Sinatra, just to name a few. With so many heavy hitters, the producers didn’t even bother with first billing and just listed all the stars’ names alphabetically in the opening credits. While a few of the numbers in this movie were forgettable in my opinion, most of them were lavish spectacles worth viewing more than once.

For starters, Judy Garland as Marilyn Miller was one of the highlights in my book. Special guest director Vincent Minnelli (then married to Garland) was brought in to direct her musical scenes. The story goes that Garland was pregnant with her daughter Liza Minnelli at the time so when it came to staging her rendition of “Look for the Silver Lining,” Minnelli chose to put Garland behind a stage kitchen sink the whole time. Garland’s stunning voice carries the scene, even if it isn’t as action-filled as the other numbers. But despite her pregnancy, Garland is seen more active in her later musical numbers – dancing about to “Who?” and jumping onto a bareback horse in “Sunny,” with a sequence that I really, really hope is done by a stunt double. The choreography throughout the movie is excellent, but a particular favorite scene of mine is when Lucille Bremer and Van Johnson dance to “I Won’t Dance” in the Club Elite. Another one worth noting is the titular “Till the Clouds Roll By,” performed by June Allyson and Ray McDonald.

The movie both opens and ends with extended sequences acting as a review of some of Kern’s more famous songs, particularly with an emphasis on Showboat. The final song – and scene - of the movie is a young Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Old Man River.” This choice rankles some contemporary viewers who feel that the song should be sung by an African-American man, embodying the working black man the song is meant to portray, rather than by a Caucasian-American man in spotless white tuxedo on a white pedestal. While I understand their frustration, I’d like to point out that:

1) This movie was made in 1946.


2) This movie was made in 1946!

The 1940s were hardly a time of racial equality in any sense of the word. Nor was Hollywood at the time a bastion of cultural sensitivity – this was the same entertainment machine that just 10 years earlier gave us Fred Astaire in black face as a “tribute” to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And that’s hardly an anomaly during that era. Furthermore, this movie was already filmed in such a way that Lena Horne’s solo performance could be removed when the movie was shipped out to Southern states who would refuse to air a sympathetic portrayal of an African-American woman singing on screen. It’s not pretty, but you can see why the film’s director and producers wouldn’t risk having their big finale stripped from the movie in a large number of states.

A few other points to make on this topic: 1) In the opening of the movie, “Old Man River” is also featured with African-American singer/actor Caleb Peterson singing the song, so the movie did give a small nod to the song’s origins there; 2) Italian-Americans like Sinatra were not exactly beloved at the time (another not pretty but true fact); and 3) Sinatra was a big enough name already to be a selling point, and at the end of the day, Hollywood is about making money. And, on the note about the ridiculousness of the dazzling white tuxedo and setting for this number, it's worth pointing out that this song comes at the end of a review of songs all featuring singers dressed in pure white settings. I don’t know why this is, perhaps to make some kind of point about the pure/innocent/ethereal/eternal/transcendent/pick-your-adjective quality of Kern’s works, but I do know that it would be odd if after all those numbers increasingly ascending in an “into-the-clouds” feel, the final song was done in a realistic style. One commentator makes the analysis that this whole grand finale was meant to be an ironic look at how Kern’s songs were going to be overblown and taken out of context by Hollywood and while this is an interesting theory, I just don’t think 1940s Hollywood was that was self-aware and tongue-in-cheek about itself. That’s my two cents.

All in all, my point is that you have to take a movie – or any other artistic work for that matter – as part and parcel of its time period and cultural milieu. If this movie came out today, I could understand that outrage more and would be right there with these commentators. Not just on the whitewashing of “Old Man River,” but also on the highly offensive “Cleopatterer” and some of the portrayals of women, such as Eva’s rules for what a lady can and cannot do or the fact that not a single woman in this movie ever wears pants (only skirts and dresses). These things are all a product of the times, and it is what it is. If you can take it with a grain of salt, this is a great movie from the Hollywood golden era of musicals. Fabulous performances in music, choreography, and acting will steal the show.

Monday, November 5, 2012

An Action-Packed Angelina Day

A while back, a friend and I decided to do a comic book themed movie night, and among the movies on the table that night were Wanted and Salt. (Yes, I know this latter one isn’t actually based on a comic book, but it felt in line enough with the other movies we’d selected to seem appropriate, plus it helped even out the balance of male protagonists versus female protagonists just a little bit.) We didn’t have time for these two movies (and I suspect my friend, being not much of a fan of Angelina Jolie, did not have them high on her list) but with my cable and Internet out for a couple of days due to Hurricane Sandy, I decided to finally watch these two DVDs. The basic plot of each, along with my thoughts on the movie, is below.


Basic plot: Wesley Gibbons (James McAvoy) hates his life: his low-level job with a terrible supervisor, his dwindling bank account, his cheating girlfriend, and his best friend who is party to this affair all leave him feeling used and useless. But this all changes when a routine trip to the pharmacy ends up becoming a gun fight between a Cross (Thomas Kretschmann), a man trying to kill him and Fox (Angelina Jolie), a woman trying to save him. After a narrow escape, Fox takes Wesley to meet Sloan (Morgan Freeman) who explains the situation: Wesley is the son of an assassin for an organization known as the Fraternity. Wesley’s father has in turn been assassinated when Cross left the Fraternity and went rogue. Now it is up to Wesley to train to become a world-class assassin as well and revenge his father’s death by going after Cross.

There was just way too much violence, obscenity, and sexuality in this movie for me. As I’ve probably mentioned before, I’m not a prude but I want a story and/or fleshed-out characterizations, not just gratuitous examples of the above. There’s a twist near the end of Wanted that makes the plot a bit more interesting but it’s kind of a case of too little too late. Like many action movies, there’s a lot of ridiculousness in terms of completely unbelievable scenarios – i.e., the hero of the film can single-handedly take out a room fill of armed enemies without getting a scratch, or the hero is shot multiple times but miraculously heals within hours to fight back again. This movie ups the ante but defying gravity with bullets that shoot out of guns on a curved angle instead of straight and cars that flip over gracefully without missing a beat or harming a single passenger. It also features Jolie’s character in heels and a dress in the first fight scene, which is such a you-got-to-be-kidding-me moment (but sadly not that unusual for many action flicks). Later, she’s more appropriately dressed for the most part although she’s still sometimes seen roaming around in cutoff tees.

There’s very little in terms of characterizations to make any character feel realistic in any sense. Fox is given a bit of a back story that helps explains her and her motivations, but nearly everyone else has no history. Indeed, many members of the Fraternity remain completely nameless while others are simply known by code names such as “The Repairman” and “The Gunsmith.” Even though he is the main character, Wesley does not have much in terms of a full range of characterization either. His motivations to join the Fraternity are pretty slim: He’s unhappy with his current life of being metaphorically kicked around and punched in the face so he goes into a new life of literally being kicked around and punched in the face??? Clearly, that’s a very logical step in the right direction. Wesley’s motivation largely comes from this fixation of becoming like his father and a belief that living in his father’s footsteps is his destiny. This is despite the fact that his father abandoned Wesley when he was just an infant, which wouldn’t seem endear a lot of familial pride for many.

The mystery here is how such talented actors as Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, and Morgan Freeman were all convinced to make such a shoddy movie. I give props to the film’s creators for being able to snag such a great cast, finding a suitable soundtrack, and using some impressive visual effects. But sadly those ingredients alone aren’t enough to make a good movie. Still, I suppose the movie’s creators must have been doing something right for they obviously made enough profit that they are considering making a Wanted 2.


Basic plot: Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA operative having just another day at work when she goes in to interview a man who claims to be a Russian defector. He tells her a story about a plot for a Russian double agent to assassinate the Russian president while he is on U.S. soil, thus creating conflict between the United States and Russia. He then names the Russian double agent: Evelyn Salt. Salt finds herself being held for questioning, worried about her own future as well as the safety as her husband. She escapes custody and while on the lam engages in a series of events that leaves the audience questioning whether she really is a double agent and where her allegiances lie.

Compared to Wanted, this was a much better movie. There’s still a lot of violence and more action (versus plot) than I generally care for, but there was enough of a story and a mystery (along with characterization, motivation, etc.) to keep it interesting. While it’s not as stylized and heavy on effects as Wanted, the cinematography and visuals are still well done and even at times quite lovely. Like Wanted, it has a good soundtrack that appropriately fits the movie. And, it’s less of a mystery why Jolie took this part, as it allows her to really show off her acting chops. The other actors – particularly Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Salt’s CIA co-workers – all do excellent work as well.

One thing I had found interesting about this movie from the outset is that the role of Salt was originally written for Tom Cruise, who was unavailable for filming, thus opening up the role for Jolie instead. So, long before I watched this movie I had been interested to see how a role created for a man became one for a woman and whether this would get us any closer to gender equality in Hollywood representations. For starters, I can say that this movie features a lot less of the running around in tight dresses and heels like other action films with female leads tend to do. Unlike other action films starring Jolie (i.e., Wanted, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), the obligatory scene of her character coming out the shower was also not present in this movie, providing a breath of fresh air. All in all, there’s nothing about Salt’s character that makes her feel like a stereotypically overly feminine character - or like a character everyone has to point out is atypically tough “for a woman.” Instead, she is just a character that poses a threat for various concerned groups while they are doing their best to try and stay one step ahead of her. This is a movie I would recommend if you are interested in strong female leads, action movies with actual plots and characterizations, and/or a good mystery to try and crack.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Brave Enough to Say No

I’ve been a huge fan of Disney and Pixar movies in the past, even the princess movies that rankle many. Yes, as a feminist I understand the many problems inherent in these movies with their troubling portrayals of women, but I grew up on them and they hold nostalgic memories for me. I am not pining away, waiting for my prince to come and make my happily ever after come true, but I still enjoy the music, animation, and cinematography of these movies.

So when Disney/Pixar started advertising its latest princess offering, Brave, there was a good chance I was going to check it out. And then when I read this article detailing the co-director’s inspiration for the movie and describing how this film with a strong female lead came into being, I was hooked. Last month I finally got the chance to sit down and watch this movie – while I was on a plane and this was luckily one of the choices. (It might be worth noting that I wasn’t the only childless adult watching this movie; I even noticed a couple of adult men picking this movie out of the many options available. So much for Disney’s concerns that only young girls will view princess movies.)

Brave tells the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who loves archery and horseback riding but is often forced indoors by her mother to practice the etiquette of being royalty. Merida dislikes this but does as she told – until one day her parents tell her it is time to be wed and three princes arrive to contest each other for her hand. Merida rebels and runs off into the woods, where she stumbles upon a witch who concocts a potion that will help Merida change her mother. Well, change her it does – right from a human being into a giant grizzly bear. Now Merida has even bigger problems on her hands than just convincing her mother not to marry her off – will she be able to hide her mother from her bear-hunting father long enough to reverse the spell?

There were a lot of things to like about Brave. Of course, as we’ve come to expect from Disney and Pixar, the animation is top-notch. As in many other Disney/Pixar movies, the movie includes a few sweet songs as sung by Merida, which are quite nice and I’d probably listen to just as regular songs without the context of a movie. Personally, hearing the Scottish accent of all the characters was a fun change of pace from the non-accent of most Hollywood casts, even when the movie is supposedly set outside of the California hills. The movie is also good at putting forth some moral lessons without being overly didactic.

Furthermore, this is a very female-centric movie, which sadly cannot actually be said about all princess movies. There is the strong mother-daughter relationship, unlike in many fairy tale-based movies where the mother is absent and/or the mother figure is evil. In fact, what we have here is rare in many Disney/Pixar movies – an entire intact family of mother, father, daughter, and two sons. (This may be a bit ironic – or something – that Disney finally releases a movie with a traditional family of two parents and 2.5 children when the traditional family is morphing into something else altogether.) One thing I really enjoyed about the movie focusing not just on Merida but also on her mother was that it gave the opportunity to show two kinds of female strength. Merida is portrayed as strong and brave in part because she is something of a tomboy, who prefers archery and traditional male hobbies. But – and this is more subtle – her mother is also portrayed as strong in a more traditional female role. She is able to subdue a room full of rowdy men with her stately and elegant appearance combined with a calming speech.

And, I really appreciate that the movie is actually an anti-romance – given the movie’s target audience of young children, I think that is quite appropriate for a change. Merida does not give up on the idea of marriage entirely or denigrate it at all, but she simply refuses to get married at a time in which she is not ready to a person who is not of her own choosing. Spoiler alert!: The film does not end with her falling for one of the three princes or meeting a fourth prince who sweeps her off her feet, but it is open-ended enough that the viewer can believe Merida will eventually fall in love and marry or that she will remain single and happy that way. I had been concerned that the movie would go the route of Aladdin where Princess Jasmine refuses all her potential suitors but then changes her mind eventually when Aladdin arrives on the scene. That’s a fine storyline also as it introduces the idea of choosing one’s own path rather than having it chosen by others, but I’m glad that this movie took it one step further to suggest that Merida might still live happily ever after even without a husband on the horizon.

Like with many other Disney/Pixar films, there is a lot of humor is the movie. I’m sure kids in particular will find the many slapstick moments hysterical, especially the antics of Merida’s two younger brothers who can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble. But a lot of the humor comes at the expense of the male characters, and this is the only real fault I find with the movie. For the most part, the male characters are seen as little more than barbarians – they are none of them particularly intelligent, and it takes little to have them all begin fighting with one another. If they are not fighting one another, then they are all mindlessly chasing down a bear that only one character has sensed or trying to show off their physical prowess is some other way. Albeit, the king does have some better moments, and it is clear that he is loving husband and doting father. But for the most part, this movie doesn’t give the best impression of men as a whole, especially when a lot of them are put together in the same room. As a feminist, I rankle at this portrayal also – it’s a misconception that feminism believes or seeks to make women superior to men; most feminists simply wish us women to be on the same playing field as men and to stand there being treated equally and fairly, not judged to be either inferior or superior based solely on the existence of a second X chromosome. It’s harmful to everyone – but probably most especially children – to portray one sex as somehow inferior to another in any aspect.

Still, all and all, I enjoyed this movie and appreciated this twist on the traditional princess movie. For that reason, I highly recommend it for all of us who grew up on princess movies because I think we would most appreciate its subversion of the genre. Of course, I’d also recommend it for its target audience of young children but with the caveat that parents co-view with their kids and point out some of the harmful representations of male characters in addition to pointing out the helpful representations of female characters.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Holmes Set Loose Upon NYC

Earlier this year, I wrote that there were no new compelling TV shows in the fall lineup. Well, I am here now to declare myself a liar. Recently, a friend was telling me about the new CBS show Elementary, which features a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and how she was enjoying it. Previously I had heard only a little bit about the show and didn’t think I would be interested. After her recommendation though, I decided to give it a try.

Once I watched the pilot of Elementary, I dove right into the rest of the episodes that have aired so far (albeit there’s only been four all together). The show is on Thursday evenings, but since I watch all my TV on the web now, that means I have to wait until Fridays to watch the latest episode. I know many people love to go out on the town on Fridays, declaring it the beginning of the weekend and all kinds of fun, but I’m generally exhausted by then. I like to stay home, do some laundry, catch up other things, and watch something on Hulu or Netflix. So I’m pretty pleased that Elementary will be available to me on Fridays; I’m already sensing it will be become part of my Friday routine.

But less about my dull life and more about the show! Elementary, as I’ve already mentioned, is a modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes. Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering drug addict, having picked up a nasty heroin addiction while in London. In order to stay in his father’s good graces (and thus retain residence in his New York City apartment), Holmes has been assigned a sobriety partner in the person of Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), a former surgeon. Having met police captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) in the past and wowed him with his powers of deductions, Holmes has managed to secure himself a position as a NYC police consultant, helping with tough-to-crack kidnappings and murders. Rounding out the cast of characters is police detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill).

First off, let’s start by looking at the characters that make up Elementary. One of the most compelling things – if not the compelling thing – about the show is the character of Holmes. Expertly played by Jonny Lee Miller, who I have loved in the past (excepting the terrible disappointment of Dark Shadows), Elementary’s Holmes is a great new take on a classic character. Sure, A.C. Doyle’s Holmes didn’t require a sobriety partner per se, but he was indeed a habitual drug user. For just one instance of this, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, it is noted that Sherlock spends his time “buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”

We are first introduced to Holmes in Elementary with a woman departing from his residence; Holmes quickly explains to Watson that he has no interest in relationships but is occasionally driven by his animal nature to seek out sex. While Elementary’s Watson later insists this is because Holmes is afraid of commitment, A.C. Doyle’s Dr. Watson explains of Holmes: “All emotions, and that one [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.” Doyle’s frequent references to Sherlock’s cold and reasoning mind have lead some to suspect that he might have Asperser’s syndrome; Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes in this way also – he is often brusque and unfeeling in his speech to others, particularly potential suspects, witnesses, and even friends and family of victims. At times, he is downright dismissive of Watson, saying things like, “Situations like these cases require my total concentration. I talk to you, never the other way around.” or “For future reference. When I say I agree with you, it means I'm not listening.” But while he’s sometimes irritatingly arrogant, he’s also lovably quirky and endearing.

And, of course, the Sherlock Holmes of Elementary is a stickler for details, observant to a fault, highly knowledgeable, and able to draw large inferences from the slightest thing seemingly off at a crime scene. In this respect, he is very much like his 19th century counterpart, who has famously said such things as, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” But, in line with bringing things into the 21st century, this Holmes also uses Google to make some of his pronouncements and loves the brevity of texting. And while this Holmes does have a superiority complex that allows him to view himself as above the police, he seems to value them more than the original Sherlock and certainly relies upon them more as he does not (as of yet) take in any private consulting cases. This is very unlike Doyle’s Holmes who primarily worked on private cases, which only occasionally called for the assistance of the police.

Elementary’s Watson, however, does not strike me as very similar to her 19th century counterpart. For starters, I think the show’s creators missed a golden opportunity by not making her a veteran like Doyle’s Dr. Watson – it just seems too absurd not to when history has conspired to make it possible to plausibly have a modern-day Watson also be an army surgeon who served in Afghanistan. And wouldn’t it have been delicious for Holmes’s first line when meeting Watson to be, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” as he pronounced upon their initial acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet? But, I have to admit that Watson’s past, hinted at only briefly so far, as a surgeon who lost a patient under suspicious circumstances could potentially become more interesting and add some depth to her character. (Of course, I could also argue that making her an army vet, perhaps suffering from what she’s seen of war, could provide depth and an interesting back story that continues to surface occasionally.) I do love that the creators decided to make Watson female in this version, showing that these characters can indeed transcend time, place, and even sex.

But, unfortunately, so far I have found Watson to be a fairly dull character. True, I doubt many people would have devoured – and continue to do so – the original Sherlock Holmes canon for Watson alone, but I felt that telling the stories through his eyes always gave the reader a tenderness toward Watson and a feeling that he had a more active role in the cases. Making Watson a sobriety partner rather than a retired army surgeon with times on his hands changes that dynamic very much. Instead of Watson coming along to help unravel a mystery out of his own interest or Holmes’s request for assistance of some sort or another, Watson is merely tagging along out of necessity and frequently standing on the sidelines without engaging at all.

However, there have been a few times already when Watson has provided medical knowledge or has somehow figured into Holmes’s scheming to get information or signal the police for assistance. I hope to see more of this in the future, with Elementary’s Watson taking on an increasing role just as Doyle’s Watson did over time, reaching the point where Holmes could say of his assistant in The Hound of the Baskervilles: “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.” Perhaps not the praise most of would want to hear, but coming from Sherlock Holmes, that is a very high compliment indeed. Still, the writers of this show aren’t far off from reaching this kind of level between their Holmes and Watson, and the language they use to express it is similar, with Holmes telling Watson, “You know Watson, I take it all back. I'm beginning to find the chat that accompanying your companionship extremely useful. It's like white noise. It puts me in a state where I think and obverse better.”

At this time, I can’t really recall anything else I’ve seen with Lucy Liu in it, but her name is a big enough draw for many viewers I suppose. However, I’ve been a bit disappointed in her performance as Watson. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of nuance in her acting, and it hasn’t served to counteract the flatness I currently see in the character, as outlined above.

My bigger concern with Elementary’s Watson though is that she is only contracted to remain Holmes’s sobriety partner for six weeks. With four episodes already passing (generally considered in TV time to be four weeks then), there are only two more weeks where she is required to be Holmes’s constant companion. After that time, what will happen? Will we see Watson no longer? Or will the show’s writers need to come up with some other contrived premise to keep her around to continue to help Holmes in his work?

Similar to Watson but to a greater degree, Captain Gregson and Detective Bell are pretty dull and flat characters. Right now, Gregson’s main purpose seems to be to provide the details of a given case and support Holmes’s seemingly wild deductions based on their past history. Meanwhile, Bell mostly serves as a sounding board for Holmes, always questioning the validity of Holmes’s assertions, only to find out later that Holmes was indeed correct. It would be nice at some point if we got a bit more out of these characters, although I don’t think it’s strictly necessary that they become more fleshed out characters in order for this show to work. Between the show’s four main characters, there’s a fair amount of diversity in terms of age, ethnicity/race, and sex, which I'm always pleased to see on a TV show.

Next off, no discussion of this show would be complete without looking at the cases delved into each week. So far, they have been you standard, run-of-the-mill crime show cases: kidnappings and murders. To that end, there’s a bit of sensationalism in some of the show’s scenes, particularly the opening sequence of the pilot episode. But compared to the many rather gory crime shows on TV now (think Bones, Criminal Minds, NCIS, etc.), the show is focused more on revealing the thought process behind solving a crime than on autopsies and gun fights with suspects. Although the crimes are typical of what you see on other detective shows, the solutions are rather convoluted in order that the writers might show off Sherlock’s prowess in deducting from rather insignificant clues that the obvious solution is in fact not the right one.

While it seems unlikely at this point, I’d like a break from all the violence and murder we see on so many other TV shows. It would be nice to get some cases that involve more mundane – but certainly no less interesting – events. I’m thinking of the many odd cases that A. C. Doyle created for the original Sherlock Holmes, which varied from retrieving a scandalous photograph for a member of royalty to tracking down the mysterious “red-headed league” and reclaiming a member’s dues to determining whether or not a young woman should take an offered role to be a governess for a family out in the countryside. While these may seem insignificant, these cases are always absorbing to read about and usually develop into something larger than they first appear. And, as A.C. Doyle’s Holmes points out, “Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the most difficult it is to bring it home.” Right now, Elementary’s cases are pretty commonplace for TV crime shows and not particularly singular. But because the show’s writers have decided to go the course of having Holmes be a consultant for the police only and taking on no private cases, it’s unlikely we’ll see any mysteries in the vein of the ones seen in the original stories.

On a final note, as this has gone on rather longer than I expected, there’s a few things from the original series that haven’t transferred over to this new show that I really think should have. The first is another golden missed opportunity – wouldn’t it just be fun if Holmes and Watson lived at 221B Baker Street in New York, just like their 19th century counterparts did in London? It seems wrong to have Holmess and not have Baker Street. Maybe that’s just me. The second is that Holmes as written by A.C. Doyle was a master of disguise as suited the purposes of his cases. It would entertaining to see Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes do so also, but again I think the character may be limited by the choice of having Watson as a sobriety companion rather than army vet roommate – Holmes and Watson are not allowed to be apart more than two hours, so unless Watson also joins in the fun and games of dressing up for a case, it would be difficult for Holmes to do an extended undercover ruse requiring a disguise. And, finally, there is Holmes’s archenemy, Moriarty. There are rumors that the show will introduce such a character eventually, and I don’t think it’s necessary for him – or her – to have arrived so quickly into the series so on this particular front, I’m happy with how things stand at the moment.

And, since the power went out while I was beginning this post and didn’t come back on for days, it’s now almost Friday again and I can look forward to the next episode of this show!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What’s Hiding in the Dark Shadows?

I have to start this post out by admitting that I’ve never watched the TV show Dark Shadows and really the only thing I knew about it was that reference on Gilmore Girls. So when I heard that the newest Tim Burton movie in works was going to be based on the show, I thought to myself that I would pass on it even though I love Burton (and that he would be once again collaborating with actor Johnny Depp). I figured the movie would be chock full of characters, plot lines, and references I wouldn’t understand, not to mention that my limited understanding of the TV show was that it was somewhat campy. And I am not really a fan of campy, except in limited cases.

However, that all changed once I started seeing trailers for the Dark Shadows movie. It looked very funny, albeit a bit cheesy, and I really liked the idea of a character re-awakening nearly two centuries later and having to figure out the new cultural milieu. And I learned that in addition to Depp, the movie featured a cast of excellent actors including Jonny Lee Miller, Jackie Earle Harley, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michelle Pfeiffer. While it still wasn’t super high on my list of movies to see, I became interesting in viewing the movie at some point. That point came when I was flying recently and Dark Shadows was one of the choices for the in-flight movie.

The basic plot of the movie is that the wealthy Collins family settles into a small fishing town in Maine that they name Collinsport, back in the 18th century. Their son Barnabas trifles with a servant, Angelique, but then falls in love with another woman. In retribution, Angelique – who of course is a witch – wreaks havoc on Barnabas’s life and ultimately turns him into a vampire and has the town bury him in chains. When a group of construction workers accidentally release Barnabas from his coffin, he returns to the family home and learns the year – 1972. He meets the new members of the Collins family and their household – Elizabeth, Roger, Carolyn, and David Collins in addition to Dr. Hoffman (a psychiatrist), Willie Loomis (the groundskeeper) and Victoria (a governess). The Collins family fortune has been much reduced and Barnabas promises to help restore it. He learns that the family’s arch nemesis is still Angelique, although she has changed her name/identity over the years to avoid suspicion about how she never ages. Angelique – still in love with Barnabas and angry at his betrayal – vows to make life hell for Barnabas all over again if he refuses to love her in return.

As you can probably start to tell by how long my “basic plot” summary is, this movie tried to pack way too much into a relatively short time. It just wasn’t working, as there wasn’t enough time to develop all the plot lines, let alone all the characters. There was so little known about many of the characters and unfortunately, oftentimes the little that you did know made you dislike them as there wasn’t enough time built in to include redeemable characteristics. (I’m thinking in particular of Jonny Lee Miller’s character, Roger, with this last remark.)

I didn’t mind so much the Angelique turns Barnabas into a vampire storyline in the beginning, mainly because the plot has to start somewhere and I’m guessing this is where knowledge of the original series comes into play. But seriously centuries have gone by and Angelique is just pining away for Barnabas still??? It’s this tired scorned woman trope which relies on the idea that a woman cannot possibly move on from one failed relationship to another more successful one. Seriously, let me reiterated – nearly 200 years have passed and this beautiful, never-aging, spell-casting, wealthy, business-savvy woman is incapable of finding someone better than the guy who used her and then dumped her like a bad habit.

Meanwhile, Barnabas – while temporary distracted by Angelique – is taken in by Victoria, who resembles his lost love. This relationship blooms super quickly, I suppose a necessity in the crunched time available for the movie to unfold, without the two interacting much. Because of the whole past love resemblance thing, it’s not entirely unreasonable for Barnabas to be smitten easily but the reciprocity of feelings is a bit of a stretch. Seriously, has Victoria looked at this man in a clear light ever? Or even in a murky light? There is clearly something off about him, on many different levels. Yet, for some reason, when it becomes beyond apparent later that he’s a vampire, she is surprised as though it wasn’t obvious that something was unusual about him.

Victoria is one of those characters that suffers from the compressed time allotted for the movie, as I mentioned earlier about characterizations in general. When she’s introduced early on in the film, we know that she is lying about herself and her background is unclear but by the time that she is able to explain some of this, we’ve already lost interest in her as she’s seen so little screen time since her introduction. The big reveal about her is definitely one of those “too little, too late” situations. Not dissimilar to Angelique’s lack of real characterization, the rest of the time Victoria is mostly a mash-up of two common tropes: the mysterious waif and the ingénue.

Together, these two female characters do a pretty decent job of fulfilling yet another trope: the virgin-whore complex. Angelique, the scullery maid who owns her sexuality and freely gives her body to Barnabas, is an evil witch while Victoria, the sweet governess who never shares more than a kiss with Barnabas, is the perfect angel everyone adores. Don't believe me? Just take a look again at the promotional movie poster (picture above). That's Angelique, looking curvaceous and seductive in a revealing vibrant red dress. Victoria is the one in the background on the left, looking like a 12-year-old school girl in a staid, all-concealing dress with a large collar to doubly ensure that she's all covered up. Honestly, the black dress with a white collar practically screams nun in a sheltered convent, as though the girl has made vows of chastity. If this were the actual TV series from the 1960s-70s, I probably wouldn’t object so much to such a black/white dichotomy but a remake should not simply repeat the sins of the past and continue to evoke such damaging portrayals of women.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

To make matters worse, the ending of the movie becomes beyond absurd. Out of the blue, teenager Carolyn Collins is revealed to be a werewolf, and young David Collins’s belief that his mother is a ghost is confirmed, complete with visuals. Whereas earlier Barnabas and Angelique could throw each other around the room and destroy the place during their passionate love-making, when they fight at the end Angelique can suddenly be broken into tiny glass pieces by the slightest touch of Barnabas’s hand. This kind of lack of continuity makes me crazy. Please stick to the rules of the world you have created.

My feelings about a lot of the extended and clearly-meant-to-be climactic fight scene between the Collinses and Angelique were, “oh, come on! You’ve got to be kidding me.” Later still, when Victoria – in a Bella Swan moment – suddenly insists that Barnabas turn her into a vampire so they can be together forever, there isn’t any sense that this is a logical next step for a character who hardly knows Barnabas at all. It’s just an attempt to tack a happy ending onto an otherwise fairly dark movie.

All and all, I found this movie incredibly disappointing. As I mentioned already, the characterizations were mostly weak and I felt like a hugely talented cast was largely wasted. Furthermore, the movie was not as funny as I’d hoped for, with the scenes of Barnabas re-acquainting himself with the world after centuries in a coffin largely covered in the trailer with no further expanding upon in the movie itself. I had expected a lot more of these funny sequences rather than what I got instead. There was a lot more violence and gruesomeness than I had anticipated, and the movie felt more dark with only an occasional hint of humor rather than the darkly funny that I’ve come to expect from Tim Burton’s movie.

In case you can’t tell, I’m not recommending this one. If you are a huge Dark Shadows fan, perhaps you’ll want to check it out to any similarities/dissimilarities with the original series. But if like me, you are just looking for an entertaining movie, look elsewhere.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Canceled Shows: Revisiting Pan Am and Unforgettable

Long-time readers of this blog know that I'm not a fan of winter and one way I try to combat the anxiety about the coming cold and dark months is by appreciating the unique charms of fall. One of these is the traditional fall line-up of new TV shows. So far this year, however, I haven't seen any new shows advertised that sound compelling so I'll mostly be sticking with the tried and true. But that still means that fall will be an exciting time of seeing those shows come back with new story lines. 

However, you loyal readers may recall that last fall I did find some new shows to invest time in for a season. Those shows were Pan Am and Unforgettable. Unfortunately, both ended up being canceled, although apparently Unforgettable ended up becoming uncanceled. For some time now, I've been meaning to write up my closing thoughts on these shows after they had a full season to flesh out characters and story lines, so here at long last are those comments.

Pan Am 

The basic premise of this show revolved around the lives of four stewardesses and two pilots working at Pan Am during the 1960s. One reason the show interested me was for the historical context and the potential to open up discussion about women's rights and roles in society, then and now. In my opinion, the show succeeded to some degree with both.

However, the show became by and large an evening soap opera, which is not particularly my favorite genre of TV. While big issues were addressed (politics, civil rights, women's liberation, smuggling, etc.), these were frequently done in that over-the-top, dramatic kind of way rather than just focusing on the moral dilemmas and character development that resulted from these. There was also a huge focus on the romantic lives of each character, which is not a bad thing in and of itself if it is done well. However, it was not always done so well on this show, with characters falling in and out of relationships in what sometimes seemed like a willy-nilly fashion. For instance, in some cases, there was no build up showing how characters came to be interested in one another, such as Ted and Amanda's whirlwind romance. But in other cases, we do get to see a long and simmering tension heating up, such as Colette and Dean's on-and-off again relationship. 

Speaking of relationships, when I first wrote about Pan Am, I objected to the writers' attempt to push a relationship between Ted and Laura. By the end of the series, I was actually invested in this plot line and found the derailing of this by the Ted-Amanda relationship frustrating. So, hey, sometimes I'm wrong. ;) But, like I said then, one of the most appealing things about Ted's character was that he was basically an impulsive, immature person who needed to grow up and learn a bit more about the world, which gave him the most room to grow as a character. He did that in spades, even if sometimes falling a step backwards here and there, so he was a character I always enjoyed watching. Laura also grew as a character, even if somewhat unevenly, and perhaps she was still too naive and trusting by the end of the first season, but the idea of her in a new, committed relationship was no longer so absurd.

The show's flashbacks had been a major selling point for me in the earlier episodes of the season, as they provided the characters with rich back stories and motivations for their actions. As the show continued, however, these became less frequent and we were left with characters doing things that seemed uncharacteristic (i.e., much of Maggie's actions) without any explanation for the rationale behind these things. 

However, it is important to note that the ABC network also did end up airing one of the episodes out of order so some things, such as the relationships that seemed to drop off without explanation or other plot events that seemed to come out of nowhere, suddenly became much clearer with the new information that came from actually seeing an episode that should have been aired earlier. The network did the show a great disservice here -- in a series that has a definite arc where episodes can not be just stumbled upon at random, it is imperative that the story be told in order.

The season finale (and now series finale) certainly left many things open-ended with the potential for exploration in a later season (that was never to be). Still, the final scene of the episode has just enough happiness and togetherness amongst the main cast that it makes for a satisfying enough ending to the show.

Overall, I enjoyed the show enough that I might go back and re-watch this first season (with the episodes in order this time) sometime in the future, but not I wasn't so over the moon about it that I was crushed by news of its cancellation. After the show Ringer was canceled, my friend commented in a blog post, "I'll miss you. Sort of." That pretty much sums up my feelings on Pan Am.


My feelings about Unforgettable are more complicated. To me, it felt like this show had potential to be better than it was, but it kept dropping the ball. To recap, this show was about Carrie, a woman with hyperthymesia (the ability to remember everything) but can't recall the details of her sister's murder when they were children. At the show's start, Carrie picks up extra cash by basically counting cards at illegal gambling spots and spends her free time volunteering at the nursing home where her Alzheimer's-suffering mother lives. When a murder occurs in her apartment complex, Carrie is thrust into the police investigation, which is being run by Al, her former boss at the Syracuse police department and also her ex-boyfriend. By the next episode, Carrie is re-instated as a homicide detective, working with Al, Mike, Roe, and Nina on cases in which her ability to remember every little detail comes in handy and helps bring in criminals.

As a police procedural, Unforgettable picked up on every trope in the book - sexual/romantic tension between members of the crime-fighting team, a serial killer case where the killer becomes obsessed with a member of the police force, a mafia connection that leads to an ill-advised relationship, a growing expansion of the team to include the coroner and a tech-savvy lab worker, and the standard opening of each episode with a murdered corpse being found in an unlikely scenario. (This last one in particularly felt like a rip-off of Bones and NCIS and irked me to no end. Unforgettable, you're better than that. You have a fabulous main character who does interesting and exciting things. Let's see more of her personal life in the brief intro to each episode instead of the same old thing on every other crime procedural.) 

The problem with most of these was that Unforgettable try to cram all of that into one season. Rather than letting these be real hooks that keep the viewer coming back from week to week, they felt like simple ploys for attention. For instance, when Carrie becomes involved with Steve Cioffi, whose family has mafia ties, this felt like a subplot that could really develop and go somewhere. Instead, we hardly ever saw their relationship or heard about it except for their initial meeting and their ultimate break-up. Granted, these were both dramatic events, but it felt like there could have been much more build up and growth than there was in the end. Likewise, Carrie and Al's past as lovers should be something that's always in the back of the viewer's mind, but the execution of this is spotty as well. There are some really great moments where you are reminded of the sexual tension that did/does exist between the two, but these intense reminders are punctuated by lots of nothingness on their relationship. The introduction of Dr. Webster and Tanya at first felt forced and too much like the show was just trying to be like every other cop show on TV, but I eventually came to like these characters and wished to see more about them develop. Like I had said when the show originally came out, the supporting cast of characters needed to be better fleshed out for the show to succeed. Unforgettable certainly made some strides in that department, but I still felt like the personal lives and motivations of Mike, Roe, and Nina especially needed to be injected more into the show. Character-driven stories are always more compelling in my book than plot-driven ones, so I was constantly craving more about the characters' relationships with each other, their home lives, their back stories, how the cases were affecting them, and so on. We saw some of this, but never enough for my tastes.

The serial killer obsessed with matching wits with Carrie was one subplot that was done very well. This story line, along with the ongoing mystery of the murder of Carrie's sister Rachel when they were children, was one that kept me tuned into the show and wanting to see where it would go next. These were where Unforgettable shone and you saw how it could be compelling, even if not so very different from the myriad of other police procedurals on the air.

Otherwise, most weeks the show was just another cop show with a mystery to unravel by the end of the hour. I like a good mystery (although these ones weren't terribly hard to guess before the big reveal), so this isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just not necessarily a good thing either. For that reason, I wasn't particularly surprised when the show was canceled, although I was disappointed that it was going to end without us knowing who murdered Carrie's sister, despite her coming closer to finding this out throughout the season. I was, however, surprised to find out it was renewed after being canceled, as that seems like an unusual move for TV executives. With the mystery of Rachel's murder still out there, I'll probably tune back in to the show. But it still has some work to do before it can become truly unforgettable.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Quietly Watching Trains Go By with the Station Agent

Last night I sat down to the watch the movie, The Station Agent. I can't honestly recall now where it is I first heard about this movie, but I think it might have been in an article listing movies featuring librarians. At any rate, this seems like a movie that mostly flew under the radar, being a quiet, indie movie. That being said, that's a real disservice to many people, as this was a great movie.

The Station Agent follows the life of Fin (Peter Dinklage), a New Jerseyan dwarf whose quiet life is turned upside down when his employer, Henry, dies. The hobbyist train shop that Henry owned - and where Fin worked - is sold, but fortunately Henry has some property that he willed to Fin. It is thus that Fin ends up living in a train depot, the former place of employment for the town's station agent, in the sleepy town of Newfoundland, New Jersey. Here Fin tries to continue to have a quiet existence, bothering no one, but his attempts are confounded. First, there's Joe (Bobby Cannavale), the talkative hot dog vendor who sets up across the way from the train depot and desperately wants to make friends in this quiet town. Then there's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a free-spirited artist who has recently lost her son and separated from her husband. Rounding out the cast are Fin's young neighbor Cleo (Raven Goodwin), who is similarly obsessed with trains, and Emily (Michelle Williams), the flighty but sweet young woman who works at the library.

This film is one of those slice-of-life movies of which I am so fond. We catch only a small glimpse at the lives of these people, based on a brief period of time, but there is very much the feeling that these people existed before and after the credits rolled. That is to say, they don't feel like over-the-top fictional characters but instead resemble real people. In terms of plot, not a whole lot happens, but that does not mean the viewer walks away feeling nothing has changed. Indeed, the characters have grown throughout the film, most particularly Fin, who opens up and lets friendship into his life. One particularly poignant scene is when Olivia receives some bad news and shuts out Fin as a result, and you can see the hurt on his face and perhaps even the realization that her behavior mimics his when Joe, Olivia, and the others first tried to reach out to him and received no encouragement.

That all being said, a film like this really needs strong characters to carry it. After all, what is a movie about character development if the characters are dull and uninteresting or boorish and crass? Character-driven movies must have at least one likeable character, or I find that they fail miserably, at least for me. In this movie, that is not a problem. All of the characters are likeable in their own way. Joe was such a ridiculous character, trying so desperately to make friends, that I could not help laughing out loud several times when he could not contain his talkativeness or desire to build bridges. For instance, there is this gem of dialogue between him and Fin when he learns that Fin intends to stop by Olivia's house to drop off the cell phone she left behind:

Joe: Hey listen, if you guys do something later, can I join you?
Fin: We're not gonna do something.
Joe: No, I know, but if you do, can I join you?
Fin: We're not gonna do something later.
Joe [becoming more insistent]: Okay, but, if you do?
Fin [exasperated by this point]: Okay.
Joe [relieved]: Cool.

With Fin being the main focus of the movie, however, it's important that his character be likeable as well. As I mentioned above, he is at first cold to those who try to make friends with him. While this might make most characters seem less than likeable, in this case the viewer is sympathetic to Fin as the movie includes several scenes to indicate Fin's pathos and his desire to be alone. These largely revolve around Fin's dwarfism, which casts him in a light as "other" and evokes explicit and tacit mockery from new people. Fin later confides in Olivia about his feelings of being viewed in such a way, noting, "It's funny how people see me and treat me, since I'm really just a simple, boring person."

But even a simple, boring person could be interesting in the right light, which is exactly what The Station Agent shows. While the lives of these people are not exactly thrilling per se, the pacing, dialogue, music, and cinematography provide the perfect backdrop for drawing in the viewer.  It's a great understated movie that is well worth watching.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Grounds for Sculpture: The Garden State’s Garden of Art

Anyone reading this blog -- whether long-time followers or new readers -- knows that I am a big fan of art and can surmise that I also like gardens. But it’s rare that I get to combine these two interests. However, one place that can always be done is the magnificent Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. This place is a large sculpture park built on the former New Jersey Fairgrounds, which were bought and converted into this artistic space by Seward Johnson. Grounds for Sculpture was officially opened to the public as a sculpture park in 1992.

Although I’ve only been to Grounds for Sculpture only a handful of times in my life, it just so happens that three of those visits were between 2011 and 2012. It seems that every time I go, I end up gushing so much about it that I inspire another person to want to come visit it with me!

One of the things that I really like about Grounds for Sculpture is that it is not just an outdoor museum; there are others like that elsewhere, albeit Grounds for Sculpture is the nearest to me. But Grounds for Sculpture is more than that – it boasts a large collection of sculptures by Seward Johnson himself, who re-creates famous paintings in the landscape of the gardens. For instance, Monet’s Garden at Sainte-Adresse (a painting I know well for I have a copy hanging in my living room) is re-created on a grand scale here, placed before a lake. Visitors can stop by and physically plop themselves into a chair next to the seated lady and gentleman admiring the view. Elsewhere, there are re-creations of famous paintings by Manet, Rousseau, Matisse, and so on.

There’s also a fair amount of sculptures designed to appear like regular people about the park. Look out for a gardener trimming some bushes, a couple sleeping under the shade of some trees, a young girl reading on the grass, and so forth. These sculptures make you do a double-take to confirm that it’s really a piece of art and not a person.

Of course, there are also numerous other sculptures throughout the park that are not based either on other artists’ work or meant to be trompe l’oeil. These works vary from George Segal’s “Depression Bread Line” to more abstract and conceptual works. Whatever form the work takes, it is sure to be incorporated into the landscape in a most fitting way, whether that be within a bamboo forest, alongside a shady pathway, in a broad grassy area, or near the lakeside. All and all, this makes for a pleasant walking experience -- just remember to take a map with you and/or watch for some landmarks or you will find yourself lost on the property! But don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten path to find some hidden gems, like a quiet nook with a hammock for relaxing.

Some other features of Grounds for Sculpture worth mentioning are its Water Garden, peppered with still more sculptures but this time in the extra aura of mist and tinkling waterfalls; fine dining at its Rats restaurant (hearsay, as this blogger has never actually been); and its peacocks. Yes, its peacocks. Somehow these beautiful birds have taken up with art and live on the grounds. You will see them throughout the park, can buy stuffed animal versions of them in the museum shop, and can even dine at the Peacock Café on site (no peacocks served there, of course!). Be warned that at the Peacock Café, you might be hard pressed to find a seat on the outdoor patio as sculptures have their places here as well.

During my most recent visit to the grounds, we got some extra treats. The first was that the artists’ studios on the grounds were partially open to the public. One artist was unofficially giving visitors a tour of his work space. Another artist was working on a project and allowed viewers to stop in to see his progress and asks questions. This was a really exciting opportunity to see behind the scenes and get answers to any burning questions about technical details about sculpture and the artistic processes from concept to construction.

The second treat was that we found some exhibits on display in the grounds’ Domestic Arts Building, which had not been on our agenda per se. The bottom floor of the building featured the “E Pluribus Unum” exhibit of artist Willie Cole’s work, which largely focused on works made with recycled items. For instance, the thing that caught our collective eyes first was a chandelier made from plastic water bottles. There were also several sculptures that resembled cows, which took me a few moments to recognize as made up of parts of toilet bowls. When I found in the accompanying literature that this work was called “Two-Faced Bull Shitters,” I could not stifle a loud chuckle at the cleverness of this title. The top floor of the building was giving over to artist Marilyn Keating’s exhibit “Natural Curiosities.” As the name implies, many of her works focus on beauty in the natural world, including insects, animals, and plants. Several of her works were created with wood blocks, which is one of my favorite artistic mediums, if I have not mentioned that before somewhere in this blog.

Although we arrived too late in the day this last time to take advantage of this other great Grounds for Sculpture feature, on a previous visit we participated in the Tots on Tour event. This special tour is for 3- to 5-year-old children (and, of course, their accompanying adults!), who are treated to a story time, a craft time, and then a quick run of some of the park’s many art works, highlighting those that would be most exciting for children. These include a giant snake the kids could run on top of and an interactive musical sculpture. As soon as the tour began, the guide explained to the kids that if a sculpture had a green sign near it, they were allowed to touch it with care but if the sculpture had a red sign near it, they could admire it with their eyes only. The kids were thrilled to run around looking for green signs and have the opportunity of interacting with the sculptures tactically. I’ve now been to Grounds for Sculpture with young children of a variety of ages (younger than 1 year old; not quite 2 years old; age 3; age 4; and age 5) and they have all been delighted with visiting the sculpture park. All of the staff running the Tots on Tour feature were well-versed not only in art but in child development as well, making sure every part of the event was the appropriate amount of time and complexity for young ones’ attention spans.

If you are driving in or around Hamilton, no doubt you’ve noticed some of the giant sculptures scatted about the grassy areas near major roads. These are some of the greatest advertisements that could be given for Grounds of Sculpture -- pass near them, and you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to be in the sculpture park. But visit the park itself for the much grander scale of what that’s like. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rango, the Tiny Lizard with a Lot of Gumption

Rango is an animated film that tells the story of a little lizard who dreams up and acts out big adventures in his small glass tank. But when the moving van swerves unexpectedly on a highway through the big open country of the West, the tank flies out of the truck and shatters to pieces on the road. Our little lizard friend is abandoned and, after meeting with an armadillo on a spiritual journey to the other side of the road, he goes in quest of water to a town called Dirt. His first encounter, just outside of town, is with a girl lizard called Beans (so named because "My daddy plum loved baked beans."). Once in the town, he puts on his greatest act yet as Rango, a no-nonsense gun-slinger right out of an old Western movie. He quickly wins over the town with his tough-guy act and is appointed sheriff. But being sheriff isn't all about tough talk -- Rango has to figure out the mystery of the town's drought, stave off an impending rattlesnake attack, and track down some bank thieves. Of course, he has help along the way - including the feisty Beans and a host of humorous characters amongst the townsfolk, who are a hodgepodge of small animals.

This Nickelodeon movie came out last year and although I had wanted to see it at the time, I finally got around it to when some family from out of state was visiting. After having suggested the movie for our outdoor movie night (an annual favorite pastime), I was a little nervous at first as the movie was a bit slow going in the beginning. It picked up though and became very funny as well as action-packed and holding a mystery to be solved. Rango held the attention of both kids (of all ages) and adults alike, which probably isn't a huge surprise given that it won an Academy award for the best animated picture as well as numerous other awards. Like with many other animated features, Rango works on two levels - there's the basic storyline and slapstick jokes aimed at children while there are also a number of Easter eggs and quips that appeal only to adults. For instance, there are numerous references to classic Western movies, and I have to admit some of these probably went over my head as well as over the heads of the children and teens in our audience. However, a brief reference to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp also starred, had me cracking up.

Rango boasts a considerable amount of Hollywood talent. For starters, it teams up director Gore Verbinski and actor Johnny Depp once again (as with the first three Pirates of the Caribbean), with Depp spot on as the voice of Rango. Amongst the other talented cast members are Alfred Molina, Abigail Breslin, Bill Nighy, and Ned Beatty. Several of the voice actors, including Depp, play more than one character, which can surely be no easy feat.

However, there are a few down sides to this movie. As I mentioned earlier, it started a bit slow but then picked up a great deal with additional comedy and also some adventurous moments. But to be honest, I actually got bored during some of these extended action-packed sequences. This is not a fault of Rango only; I find that as I age, I am much more interested in plot and characterization, resulting in me becoming bored with yet another long scene devoted to some sort of fight and/or chase, which will inevitably end with the good guys winning. A second problem, and one that I find more troubling, is that it's debatable whether Rango passes the Bechdel test - if it does, it's by the skin of its teeth, which isn't a great sign of a movie being female-empowering. Likewise, it has some troubling portrayals of non-white ethnicities as well. Both of these issues may be related to the fact that Rango is inspired by - and parodying - old Western movies. For instance, take a scene like the one in which Rango is leading a posse into the desert to search for the bank robbers. One member of the posse, named Wounded Bird, is very much meant to be playing the role of the mystical American Indian. I rifled at first at the idea of this character, but then these lines came out as Wounded Bird is releasing some feathers into the wind:

Rango: I see you're communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I'm molting. It means I'm ready to mate.

It's incredibly clever and turns a stereotype on its head. Still, I'm not sure how much - and what exactly - young children are absorbing when they see and hear from characters such as these. There's also a framing device used in the movie, once which breaks down the fourth wall a bit, in the use of a mariachi band of owls. Again, perhaps it's a bit stereotypical, but it's also very funny as the mariachi band frequently employs dramatic irony that is quite wrong. For instance, they keep predicting Rango's demise and death at various points only to later have to shrug and say they were wrong that time. There's also this great scene:

Rango: Now... we ride!
[whip cracks; Rango stops and looks to his right, puzzled]
Rango: [the band of mariachi owls stands a ways away with their instruments, waiting; Rango shouts to them] That means we're riding now! This moment.
[another whip is heard and the owls start playing the background music; everyone is riding roadrunners in the next cut

All in all, I like the addition of the mariachi band, but I again wondering about what take-away children derive from their presence. And, of course, the entire West (or at least what we get to see in this film) is one giant stereotype based on old movies, with a saloon being the most crowded place in town, a main dirt road for shooting duels, and so forth and so on. Even though the rest of the world seems to be in the 21st century, the town of Dirt is stuck sometime in the 1800s or early 1900s at best.

Still, I found this movie entertaining enough to enjoy it at the time and I would not object to watching it again, especially to see if I caught more of the in-jokes and Western references a second time around.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole: Phoebe in Wonderland

Some of you may know that I have a slight obsession with all things Alice in Wonderland, so when my cousin proposed that we watch the movie Phoebe in Wonderland, I was happy to comply. (I had been meaning to get around to it anyway, so this was as good a time as any.)

Phoebe in Wonderland is about a 9-year-old girl (the titular Phoebe) who is an outcast at her rigid, rule-bound school but feels things might change with the addition of Miss Dodger, a quirky new drama teacher who encourages everyone to sign up for the school play, Alice in Wonderland. After much debate, Phoebe signs up for auditions and wins the role of Alice. While all seems to be going well on the theater front, all is clearly not well with Phoebe at school and at home. She suffers from a severely debilitating case of OCD (her hands are raw from obsessive hand-washing and her knees are scrapped up from jumping up and down the stairs in a specific pattern instead of merely descending), she confesses she cannot help but say or do certain things, and she is having hallucinations (all of which are wrapped up in the Alice storyline in some way). Despite all this evidence, however, her mother Hillary is insistent that Phoebe is just a regular child and does not have any kind of disorder.

This film was very different from what I expected from the brief blurbs given about it. My thoughts were that the movie would be a quirky surrealistic film about a young girl's imagination. Instead, it was a dramatic look at a neurodevelopmental disorder and its effects not just on the sufferer but her family as well. Indeed, the movie belonged more to Hillary than Phoebe, even if Phoebe is the one on screen more. The movie's story arc is more about Hillary's coming to terms with the idea that her daughter is not just a typical child and finding the help she needs to cope with her disorder and still be herself. Some of the most poignant scenes in the film belong to her, such as when the psychiatrist Hillary hires first tells his diagnosis and she refuses to believe it outwardly, ranting about how doctors just want to prescribe medication instead of letting kids be kids while the tears on her distorted face indicate that on a deeper level, she knows he is right. Another powerful scene comes when her husband tries to apologize for an earlier insensitive remark and Hillary responds with a whole list of things that frustrate her, including her inability to understand what is wrong with her daughter or how to help her. Still another emotional scene occurs when Hillary goes to comfort a scared Phoebe waking up from a nightmare; Hillary notices Phoebe's battered knees and both mother and daughter cry for different reasons. There are plenty of other such scenes of Hillary's struggle with mothering a special needs child as well as her other daughter who sometimes wishes that she had another sibling that she didn't have to take care of and explain away her actions to others, despite being the younger one.

In addition to these deep scenes and themes, there are a number of other messages underlying in this movie. There's the power of art as a redemptive force, as seen in the play's ability to largely subsume Phoebe's symptoms. Likewise, theater - and especially Miss Dodger - encourages the school's children to be who they are and learn how to direct their own paths. Fitting in or rather, not fitting in, is a recurring element in the movie. It is not just Phoebe and her lack of friendships with most of her peers. There's her one and only true friend at school, Jamie, a young boy who happily plays with dolls and hopes for the role of the Queen of Hearts in the upcoming school musical. And, it's also her younger sister, who is wise beyond her years and dresses up as Karl Marx for Halloween, goes on a hunger strike when she learns their dinner was not made with cage-free poultry, and worries that at 7 years old she has not produced as much as the 6-year-old Mozart did.

There's some brilliant acting throughout the film, especially by young Elle Fanning as Phoebe and Felicity Huffman as Hillary. Miss Dodger, as played by Patricia Clarkson, was an interesting character as well, with some suspecting that she can relate so well to Phoebe because she, too, has a disorder - quite possibly she has Asperger's syndrome. In addition, the filmography is mostly well done, although there was an occasional scene that was too abrupt or seemed misplaced. Throughout, I found the dialogue to be very quiet while the music soared incredibly loudly, although this is not a problem unique to this movie alone. (It is a continual pet peeve of mine to have be continually changing the volume because filmmakers seem to think that the spoken word should be barely audible but the soundtrack should blast your eardrums off.)

All and all, this is a very interesting movie, but certainly a more serious one that I was expecting. Don't go into this one looking for some light-hearted, quirky fun -- but do go in to it to explore how difficult life could be for a child - and a family - going through the process of suffering from something unknown and finally learning - and making peace with - what this unknown factor is.