Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Great Expectations, We Had the Greatest Expectations"

For a week now, I've not been feeling particularly well so I've been spending my spare time resting as much as possible. Mostly, this has meant laying down and watching something or other that I've already seen so that I'll fall asleep sooner rather than later. But last night I was getting a little bored of just re-watching TV episodes I'd had seen once or twice already. So I scrolled through my Netflix queue looking for something to lift my spirits a little and ended up choosing the most recent TV adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic novel Great Expectations from the BBC and PBS's Masterpiece Theatre - I know, super cheery, right?

Going into viewing the 2011 version of Great Expectations, I didn't have much by way of expectations actually. Somehow, despite my love of costume dramas based on great literature (and in this case, based on a beloved book by one of my favorite authors), I hadn't really heard any buzz about this adaptation. Basically, the only reason it was on my radar at all was because I had heard that Gillian Anderson played the character of the eccentric Miss Havisham. Based on the strength of Ms. Anderson's previous acting chops alone (okay, and my love of Dickens), I decided to check this version out. Almost immediately, I was blown away on how well done this adaptation was and enjoyed this fresh look at the work. Stunning cinematography, haunting music that enhanced the ambiance, authentic settings, and excellent costuming and make-up were just the beginning of great elements brought together for this adaptation.

I'd be the first to admit that Dickens can be melodramatic at times (hey, it was the Victorian era he was writing in), and it seems that previous adaptations of Great Expectations liked to yuk this up. Instantly, the viewer sees that's not going to be the case in this version. Instead, we have a realistic view of Victorian England, the gritty underside to all those beautiful costume dramas to which we've become accustomed. The miniseries opens - as the book does - with Magwitch escaping a prison ship and coming across the young Pip on the marshes on his way back home after visiting his parents' graves in the little churchyard nearby. Dickens describes Magwitch as "A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin." In past versions, Magwitch seems only frightful to a young boy like Pip and perhaps has a smudge of dirt on his face and some unkempt hair. But this Magwitch is terrifying on first sight and shocks the viewer as much as he does Pip. He is covered in mud and blood and is more than menacing (nearly savage) when he happens upon Pip along the dreary and isolated marshes, and that's when the viewer immediately knows this is going to be a different kind of adaptation. Everywhere you look, there is something realistic about the characters and settings, down to the minutest details like the peeling paint on the Gargerys' house and the constant mud holes in the lane leading up to their home. It doesn't matter if some of those attempts for realism involve grit and grime: this is the England that Dickens knew and wrote about and not all of it is pretty.

And it's not just in appearances alone that we have a different take on the classic novel - it's also in the characters. Two of the most iconic characters from Great Expectations are that of Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter Estella. Miss Havisham is perhaps best described as the melodramatic extreme of the scorned spinster. After having been jilted on her wedding day, time just stops for Miss Havisham and she never picks up her life again. When introducing this character for the first time, Dickens describes her as thus:

In an arm-chair, with an elbow resting on the table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall ever see. She was dressed in rich materials,—satins, and lace, and silks,—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on,—the other was on the table near her hand,—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-Book all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass. It was not in the first few moments that I saw all these things, though I saw more of them in the first moments than might be supposed. But I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly waxwork at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now, waxwork and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.
...
It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago. I noticed that Miss Havisham put down the jewel exactly on the spot from which she had taken it up. As Estella dealt the cards, I glanced at the dressing-table again, and saw that the shoe upon it, once white, now yellow, had never been worn. I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.
So she sat, corpse-like, as we played at cards; the frillings and trimmings on her bridal dress, looking like earthy paper. I knew nothing then of the discoveries that are occasionally made of bodies buried in ancient times, which fall to powder in the moment of being distinctly seen; but, I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust. 
In previous adaptations, Miss Havisham is presented almost as a quaintly eccentric woman who doesn't leave her house much and occasionally dons her would-be wedding dress but otherwise seems to hold it together. In this adaptation, Gillian Anderson plumbs much deeper psychological depths to bring to the screen a truly pathetic - and in turn, frightening - Miss Havisham. This Miss Havisham is fragile both psychologically and physically. She has a deep fear of abandonment - a self-fulfilling complex of abandonment, actually - and hungers desperately for the little companionship she has in Estella. She stands with her head tilted toward her listeners and eagerly awaits to see how her words will impact the listener: 'Am I getting the desired result or not?' she seems to worry.
Anderson as Miss Havisham
Her hair is not brushed and coming more undone and wild over time, her feet are bare and dirty, her lips are severely chapped, and her skin is unearthly in its paleness. Miss Havisham still carries herself as a lady in her posture and gait, but her mental illness manifests itself clearly - and outside of her control when she is nervous - in a self-mutilating tic of picking at her hand in the same spot until it festers. To play Miss Havisham, Anderson adjusted her voice to a breathy falsetto, which serves to reinforce the idea of her being fragile while also giving her an otherworldly eeriness. She is truly an object of pity mixed with a frightful glimpse at what mental illness can do to a person. This Miss Havisham makes you wonder what she was like before being jilted and how stable she would have been even if she had married Compeyson as she wished.

Again, the setting for Miss Havisham doesn't shy away from the grime and it's through this disturbing lens that we gain further insight into Miss Havisham's clouded state of mind. Other adaptations have shown a house that looks more or less pristine with some items related to Miss Havisham's planned wedding remaining untouched like a monument of woe. Not so here. Satis House is crumbling beneath Miss Havisham's feet, and she is doing nothing to fix it. If anything, she is actively working against its upkeep. Everything is covered in a layer of dust, nay, layers of dust. A banquet hall with a set table - complete with a three-tiered wedding cake - falls further into decay as time passes. The house, not terribly far from the damp marshes, suffers other decomposition as well, including moldy, rotten walls and moth-eaten curtains. As the years pass and Miss Havisham increasingly unravels, her mansion follows suit. In this respect, Satis House becomes a character of its own and like its mistress, it is a fascinating train wreck: you can't tear your eyes away from it, but it is terrible to behold.

With her addled mind, Miss Havisham has extrapolated from her experience with Compeyson that all men are evil and must be punished for their eventual betrayal of the women who love them. She plans to enact her revenge through Estella, the little girl she adopted for the purpose of raising up to be a heartbreaker, although her exact means of achieving this are unclear (i.e., she intends for Estella to marry well, which seems an odd means of breaking hearts and manipulating men. This is the Victorian era after all and married women have basically no rights over their husbands; far better for Estella to enter and break engagements if Miss Havisham's goal is to punish men). As such, Miss Havisham sends for Pip to become Estella's occasional playmate when they are both children for Estella to practice on and perfect her skill of making men love her. Poor Pip, an innocent young boy unused to such mind games, is completely unaware of this and his money-grubbing sister and uncle see nothing but dollar signs in the arrangement so they do not stop to consider the motives behind such a request.

With this unhealthy arrangement and upbringing by a such a sad character as Miss Havisham, Estella is generally portrayed as a cold and cruel; in fact, she says as much in the source material: "do you reproach me for being cold? ...  You should know," said Estella. "I am what you have made me." But here both actresses who play Estella (Izzy Meikle-Small as a child and Vanessa Kirby as an adult) add another dimension. This Estella is clearly damaged by her life experiences, emotionally as well as psychologically. When she says the line above, it is not merely a statement of fact as some actors deliver the line, it is also a haughty payback meant to wound Miss Havisham as well as an expression of regret. This is an Estella you can empathize with and one that allows you to see why Pip has loved her for so many years. She is someone who has no concept of how to interact naturally with other human beings, whose manipulations are perhaps just as much a product of not understanding the workings of a sane person as they are an enactment of Miss Havisham's wishes for vengeance.

This new interpretation of Estella made me start really thinking about the female characters of Great Expectations. Perhaps because this was the first full Dickens novel I ever read (after first being exposed to his arguably most famous work, the novella A Christmas Carol), it hadn't occurred to me before how unlike a typical Dickensian heroine Estella is. As much as I love Dickens, he was a product of his era and as such, his female characters - when they aren't throwaway characters of little consequence or evil villains like Madame DeFarge of A Tale of Two Cities - are mostly the Victorian stereotype of "the light of the home." Think of sweet little angel characters with no personality of their own who make a welcoming home that shelters the men in their lives from the cruel outside world, and you've got the main idea. You've got your Lucie Manettes (A Tale of Two Cities), your Agnes Wickfields (David Copperfield), even your Mrs. Micawbers (also David Copperfield), etc. Estella, however, does not fit this mold - she's a far more complex heroine and perhaps that's why she's one of the few female characters in Dickens's novels to have such appeal that even contemporary songwriters are sitting "by my bedside with papers and poetry about Estella" ("Great Expectations" by The Gaslight Anthem; the title for this blog post also comes from this song's lyrics). And, even though she clearly inflicts emotional and psychological damage on both Estella and Pip, Miss Havisham is by no means an unredeemable villain like Madame DeFarge or even Miss Murdstone from David Copperfield. As I explained above, she is at times a pitiable character and when it starts to dawn on her what monsters she has created out of her own unquenchable grief, there is nothing left to do but forgive her for her role in creating turmoil in the young people's lives.

And then there's Mrs. Joe - another complicated character. Mostly she's a character you like to hate, or at least dislike, and that's the quality most picked up in this TV adaptation. Despite being Pip's first guardian and his sister, she's always referred to in reference to her husband, as it is the lovable Joe who cares the most for Pip emotionally. But despite Mrs. Joe's "rampages" against both her husband and Pip and her frequent desire to see herself "raised up" above her station by any means possible (even if it means selling out her younger brother), she is the one who raises young Pips and cares for his physical needs. In this way, she is still a variation of the light of the home stereotype. When she is later bludgeoned and turned into a vegetable, there is nothing left but pity for her unenviable life. Meanwhile, because there apparently needs to be the obligatory light of the home stereotype from Mr. Dickens, we also have here some perfect examples of that character. We occasional hear of and see the perfectly amiable, lovely, and complete forgettable character of Clara, the fiancĂ© of Pip's friend Herbert Pocket. Not seen in this TV adaptation (because even with a three-hour miniseries, Dickens needs to be condensed) is the character of Miss Skiffins who also exemplifies this stereotype.
 
Having thoroughly examined the female characters, now it's time to explore the men of Great Expectations. Of course, we have to start with the hero - and narrator, in the book - of our story, young Philip Pirrip, known to all simply as Pip. I absolutely loved Oscar Kennedy, the actor who played Pip as a child. He so perfectly captured Pip's many emotions from fear of the escaped convicts to enraptures with Estella. His tour de force is most likely in the scene in which he and Joe travel on special request to Miss Havisham's estate to discuss his future. Pip is all smiles as he listens to Miss Havisham's praise of his exceptionalism, expecting to be given something to make him a gentleman worthy of Estella. Instead she offers to pay for his apprenticeship to become a blacksmith like Joe. Instantly, the light goes out of Pip's eyes and the smile fades as he realizes that Miss Havisham means for him to be shamed with this proposal, that she is reminding him of his place as a tradesman. Still, Pip realizes that this is gift should be recognized as generous and one that will please Joe especially. So he holds his tongue and tries to show appreciation for Miss Havisham's deed. But it is indeed a struggle to do so, and we see this in a look he gives Miss Havisham that seems to convey that he could murder her in that moment. It is a magnificent, albeit heartbreaking, scene.

Booth as Pip
Compare this to the rather emotionless expression we see on the older Pip's face when he reacts to the news that he has a benefactor and will receive a fortune. As you might gather then, I was less endeared to Douglas Booth as the older Pip, who seemed miscast to me. Something about him - perhaps his "pretty boy" looks - did not seem fitting with the "boy from the forge," even if most of adult years on screen are part of his life after he receives a gift from an anonymous donor (who he presumes to be Miss Havisham come around on the idea that he and Estella are meant for one another) to make a gentleman of him and send him off to London. Nonetheless, there is nothing I can say that was technically wrong with Booth's performance in the final two episodes of the series in which he stars. He did a fine job of conveying all of Pip's emotions during his roller-coaster London years, which include such scenes as: embarrassment at Joe's arrival to Pip's fancy club in London; jealousy of Mr. Drummle's attention to Estella; betrayal and anger on so many occasions; and many others bundled up together over the course of a dramatic denouement.

Rounding out the male cast is Shaun Dooley as Joe, who does an excellent job portraying the long-suffering blacksmith married to a woman who is first argumentative and then severely disabled while being guardian to her rather ungrateful brother. Dooley's portrayal makes your heart say "aww, poor Joe" or "yeah, good old Joe" every time he is on screen, depending on the situation. Joe is the linchpin in Pip's life and he is undoubtedly one of the most endearing characters in Great Expectations. Another very likable character is Herbert Pocket, who becomes Pip's mentor in gentlemanly ways and closest friend in London. Herbert is ever cheerful and optimistic, with a smile on his face whether he's talking about how his family cut him off financially or an escaped convict is literally holding a knife to his throat. Herbert is played expertly by Harry Lloyd, who is apparently a direct descendent of Dickens (an interesting turn of events given that the character was most likely originally based at least in part on Dickens's son Charley).

Pip's other notable London acquaintances include his solicitor Mr. Jaggers (a slippery character of questionable morals who holds nearly all the secrets of Great Expectations close to his vest); Jaggers's chief clerk Wemmick (outwardly rough but with a kind heart); and Mr. Drummle (a cretinous son of a baronet who is attracted to Estella). And, of course, we have the two escaped convicts - Magwitch and Compeyson. Magwitch is well played by Ray Winstone, who does excellent work convincingly changing Magwitch from savagely aggressive to fatherly compassionate at a moment's notice. Compeyson's bit role is played by Paul Rhys, who perfectly embodies the stereotypical Victorian gentleman villain. I leave it up to the viewer to decide whether that it is a good thing or something irksome. Back home, we have Uncle Pumblechook who is always looking for an angle to increase his stature or wallet and Orlick, Joe's assistant at the forge who stops at nothing to bring down those who he feels threaten him - namely, Mrs. Joe and Pip. For the most part, these characters are all well cast in this adaptation, although I felt that Orlick was perhaps over the top in looking the role of a villainous character. (That being said though, I think that if he were cleaned up a little bit, he would make a really great Uriah Heep if someone were to adapt that classic Dickens novel.) Wemmick also seemed perhaps a bit older than I expected for that role and sadly, his part was so condensed in this version that we saw little of the great friendship that ended up existing between him and Pip.

Indeed, as I've mentioned already, this adaptation did take some liberties with the original text. Because in the book we are told the story through Pip's narration, we never see anything outside of his perspective. The TV adaptation is not tied to this literary device, however, and occasionally makes use of seeing things outside of Pip's limited view. More than once, we see shared moments between Miss Havisham and Estella, which further reinforces how twisted Estella's upbringing is. (However, these seemed to come at the expense of seeing more scenes between young Pip and young Estella, which was regrettable. I felt their childhood spent together was rushed over and thus the roots of Pip's unshakable obsession with Estella were not given a great foundation, to mix metaphors a bit.) A later scene shows Miss Havisham writing yet another letter to a now distant Estella asking why she is so silent only to receive at that moment a stack of returned, unopened letters. In her grief Miss Havisham screams Estella's name and in the process ruins that scene for me. As the camera panned to the outside of Satis House with us hearing Miss Havisham belting "Estella!" from inside, my mind immediately went to A Streetcar Named Desire and I was pulled out of the moment into an entirely different literary work.

Although having to condense the lengthy novel into a three-hour miniseries probably plays a part, other changes are not merely a question of eliminating some "extraneous" scenes or reducing some characters' time on screen. The fire at Satis House becomes a far more dramatic - one might even say, melodramatic - moment in this version, although it seems to be fitting with the entirety of Miss Havisham's self-absorbed and ever-grieving persona. Likewise, Magwitch and Compeyson's fights are far more extreme and gritty on screen than in the book. I think changes like these ones work well actually, but the purists will not be pleased with them. There are other times when this modern production seems to think that sexing things up a little bit will make this series more of a hit with today's audience. (I will never understand why producers and/or writers think that fans of Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, etc. will want their classic literature to become more like the sex-filled stories that already everywhere else on TV and in movies.) So here we end up with a very awkward scene in which Drummle takes Pip to a brothel and offers him a pick amongst several women of various ethnic backgrounds. (Sidebar: Drummle is far more antagonistic toward Pip in this version than I recall him being in the book. One can only presume this was to make him an even more an unlikeable character - and I do believe Dickens did not want us to like him - but perhaps this was a bit over the top at times in this production.) There's also a more touching but still out of place scene in which Estella and Pip engage in a Victorian version of skinny-dipping. The ending is rushed along much faster than the decades that drag on in the novel, but I find it difficult to think of any screen adaptation that would not try to speed along that conclusion.

Besides characters and/or events being rushed over or bypassed altogether, there is one other key thing missing from this adaptation: humor. Dickens was a master wordsmith who could write a witty remark into just about any scene (except, of course, for apparently the entirety of the novel A Tale of Two Cities) and he himself noted of Great Expectations, "You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in the Tale of Two Cities." But as most of that comedy comes from narration (although sometimes it's present in dialogue), there's little room left for it on the screen. And this adaptation seemed to like to highlight the more macabre and dark moments of the novel, creating suspense and drama to pull viewers in to the story. But this is not a problem with this adaptation only; indeed, I find it sad that anyone who only watches adaptations of Dickens's work will never know how funny he was, for it seems that none of that ever translates to the screen. Hopefully this adaptation will be intriguing enough to draw in new readers to the original novel and perhaps other works by Dickens; I know that I for one am now eager to re-read Great Expectations yet again after watching this production.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

She's Baaack!

Well, it's been a very long time since I posted anything here so my apologies to anyone who is still here reading my ramblings and may have been waiting with bated breath for the next update. (I knew it had been a while but when I finally looked back today and saw the last post was in February, I realized how badly a new post is overdue!) But if you thought the titular "she" in today's blog post was me, you'd be mistaken (or at least, missing one of the two meanings to the title). No, today's blog post is going to be about the indomitable Carrie Wells.

Poppy Montgomery as Carrie
Poppy Montgomery as Carrie Wells, courtesy of CBS

As some of you may recall, I wrote about new fall shows two years ago and noted than I was keeping an interested eye on CBS's procedural drama Unforgettable, although I was only cautiously optimistic about its enduring appeal. Sure enough, after just one season, Unforgettable was canceled, and I was bummed - but not overly so. However, in a strange move, the show was uncanceled and came back on air this July. After having watched a the first seven episodes of the new season and letting it settle in, I'm finally here to write some comments about it and my thoughts so far.

To recap, Unforgettable centers around police detective Carrie Wells, a woman with hyperthymesia (the ability to remember everything) but can't recall the details of her sister's murder when they were children, a mystery which still haunts her and begs to be solved. In season one, Carrie and her ex-boyfriend/current supervisor Al were working out of a police precinct in Queens. In the pilot episode to season two, they are called on to help out a case worked through the Major Crimes unit in Manhattan. Predictably, by the end of the episode, they are offered new jobs at this unit and make the move into the city proper and out of the boroughs.

As such, the old cast is nearly all gone, making way for new characters. For the most part, this isn't a huge deal given that the old cast was peopled with characters who were mostly forgettable, as I wrote about in my initial thoughts about the show. Unfortunately, Mike, Nina, and Roe were never really fleshed out, even with the occasional episode thrown to shed a little more light on each one's life -- a bone thrown to people like me who love character-driven stories -- but never something substantive enough to actually make you feel like you've learned something deeper about this character and his/her personality, motivations, etc. The addition of Tanya as a tech expert brought a little bit more a CSI vibe to the show but also introduced some minor sexual tension between her and Roe that was a welcome - if ever so brief - effort at adding some personality into the otherwise purely procedural show. Bringing Jane Curtin into the cast as Dr. Webster during season one was viewed by many critics as an attempt to bump up ratings although her character never did all that much for me. Perhaps predictably then (given my luck), she is the only character besides Carrie and Al to remain in the rebooted second season. Her character seems to have gotten more bizarre and even hostile at times since then, and I find I am disliking her more each week. Even Carrie's mother, an Alzheimer's patient and thus a nice foil to Carrie and her inability to forget, hasn't reappeared in the new season, which I find to be a very disappointing development.

Meanwhile, I feel like the show is falling into the same old pitfalls as before. Yes, we have a new cast but once again, there is very little information given about them and few opportunities to see anything of their personality or life outside of work. Carrie and Al's new boss Eliot is a pushover who wants to be in good with the mayor's office and other top officials but who always ends up bending to allow Carrie and Al to get their way in an investigation. He's a bit of annoying character actually (although I can't quite figure out exactly which part of his smarmy conveyance that I dislike the most) but there have been hints about a rocky past regarding him and Dr. Webster, which could be the only potentially interesting thing about the new cast. Carrie and Al's new daily colleagues in arms are Murray and Jay. Murray, whose name I actually had to look up because that's how forgettable she is, has very little background or notable qualities as of now. Jay is a tech whiz and can be funny, as seen in the banter between him and Al in a recent episode ("Line Up or Shut Up"). Because of this, I like him better than some of the previous (and current) cast, but we still have basically no background on him and he seems as replaceable as anyone else in the show besides Carrie and Al.

Another thing I found increasingly annoying in the first season of Unforgettable was the more frequent use of beginning each episode with a murdered corpse being found by a random bystander, which I noted felt like a rip-off of shows like Bones and NCIS -- and so completely unnecessary! I'm not a huge fan of those shows opening like that either and it's even more frustrating to see this in a show that has a uniquely interesting main character, a great dynamism between the two leads, and side characters that need more fleshing out. If the writers really feel that they need to fill some time, giving us some more insight into the characters or allowing us to simply see them interacting in a non-work setting would be ideal. The few times that they have given us that, they've done it in a completely non-interesting way. One episode opened in what was meant to be an amazing feat of Carrie's memory where she helps a flustered barista by reciting the orders of roughly a dozen patrons on line at the coffee hut -- a very silly construct because no single barista would take that many orders at once when her pen wasn't working and she also had to make all those coffees! A much better highlighting of Carrie's amazing abilities came in the episode "Memory Kings," in which we learn about Carrie's past as part of a group being studied because of their amazing memories. When it appears that everyone from the group is being targeted and an essential recording of a group meet is found missing, Carrie sits down and recites what every single person said during the session. Wow. Now that's what I'm talking about, Unforgettable!

We see little of Carrie's life outside of work in the opening scenes - or elsewhere throughout each episode - and it's unclear whether she's reformed from some of her "bad girl" tendencies like visiting underground poker games. Meanwhile, the sexual tension between Carrie and Al is consistently underplayed, with the two of them occasionally making reference to their shared past and others making jabs about why they aren't together (a good question since season one ended with them looking cozier than usual), but nothing much every really happening. For some unexplained reason that changed between season one and season two, the entirety of New York City seems to be aware of Carrie's abilities now, with awareness about her super-memory pre-dating her entry to the Major Crimes unit. Unlike in the past where her co-workers (besides Al) and superiors were unaware of her astounding recall, everyone is now aware of her hyperthymesia and Jay has even tried to test her memory on at least occasion just for the fun of it. For the most part, I like this more transparent version of Carrie at work, but the previous version of Carrie where she kept this ability under wraps also made for some interesting tense moments, especially when supervisors were curious about how certain cases were solved.

The very first long-term mystery introduced on Unforgettable was the murder of Carrie's sister Rachel when they were children. Since the reboot, Rachel's murder has been alluded to in passing here and there, but we've seen nothing of Carrie's former obsession with tracking down new leads and clues on this cold case. This is disappointing, given that this mystery has always been one of the things most in Unforgettable's favor in my opinion. It also seems out of character with the Carrie we introduced to in season one (although perhaps that was an intentional decision in terms of reframing the show). In addition, the new season - although short so far, to be fair - has not introduced much by the way of ongoing mysteries. We did see one "bad guy" who got away in "The Day of the Jackie" so it's arguable that we will see more of this elusive character in the future. Still, the seven episodes that have been aired so far have mostly been fairly mundane in the world of detective shows. Even in the final episode before the fall break seemed rather anti-climatic and didn't leave any hooks to draw viewers back in three months time. In fact, I had to double-check that I heard correctly that it was summer season finale because the last episode was so blasĂ©.

The character of Carrie Wells, her relationship with Al, and her ability to walk through her memories to help close a case remain highlights of this show. I will mostly likely continue watching it when it returns in December for those reasons, but I really feel like it needs to shape up before this show changes from something I turn on for some light escapism to one that I can rave about and recommend to others as un-miss-able.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Holding Court with Marie-Antoniette

I'm not even sure of the context anymore, but I recently learned of a movie called Farewell, My Queen, which is set during the French revolution. The basic synopsis sounded interesting (though in retrospective, somewhat misleading), and I'm sucker for anything set at Versailles so I decided to give it a try.

Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux a la Reine originally) is a French film based on a popular novel of the same name. Starring Lea Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virginie Ledoyen, the film picked up several prestigious awards when it was released last year. The movie tells the story of Sidonie Laborde, who is the official reader to the queen. Essentially, she is only a servant, but one of a slightly higher caste than, say, a chamber maid. Because of this, she holds some more privileges than her peers (notably a lavish gold clock that sits in her otherwise bare room) and shares a bit of intimacy with the queen, in that she gets to sit near her in the queen's private quarters while reading aloud to her.

The movie starts out on July 14, 1789, a day of infamy in French history for the Bastille was stormed that day, officially starting the revolution in France and years of bloodshed. Because news traveled slowly at that time, everything on this day is as normal. But by the following day, rumors are spreading about what has happened in Paris and fears are being stoked. The movie covers only a few days' time, so we don't see the Reign of Terror or anything more extreme than the dawning realizations of those at Versailles that their lives are about to be irrevocably changed. But the movie is not so much about history or its often attendant misery; indeed, The Independent's review of the movie notes that the director "doesn’t have any grand political statements to make. He is not trying to make a sweeping melodrama either. His approach is more like that of an anthropologist, studying a tribe in its death throes. The result is quietly fascinating." But perhaps most glaringly, the movie is rather the story of a love triangle. For Sidonie is in love with Marie-Antoinette, Marie-Antoinette is in love with the courtier Gabrielle (the Duchess of Polignac), and Gabrielle ... well, nobody really knows her feelings but let's just say she intends to curry favor with the queen for as long as possible.

We see all of this through the eyes of Sidonie, who gives us quite an insider's view of the palace of Versailles. Holding the position in the hierarchy that she does, she allows us to see the servants' quarters, with their rather drab existence and petty squabbles often based on things they've overheard from their masters and mistresses, as well as the inner chambers of the queen and her court, with their opulence, frippery, vanity, and still more rumors (although usually more substantiated at this point). Sidonie's place in the latter is certainly more uneasy though, and we frequently see her view of things from a position of eavesdropping while hiding in an opportune place. This dual perspective gives off a Upstairs, Downstairs sort of vibe, although the movie also reminded me a bit of The Girl with the Pearl Earring in terms of ambiance. Of course, the movie this one is more frequently compared to is Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and it should be noted this is a very different film. I don't want to pit one against the other as they both have their highlights, but they vary much in terms of style and substance.

Despite being a rather slim movie in terms of plot points, I found that I was totally engrossed in this film from beginning to end. Others have referred to it as a character study, but I think that explanation is a bit misleading also. As one of Sidonie's fellow servants notes at one point, Sidonie's life is mystery as she's held back all kinds of information about herself, including where she's from, who her parents are, etc. - and the viewer suddenly comes to realize the same thing. We know nothing about Sidonie beyond her love of books and her loyalty to Marie-Antoinette. The duchess is given comparatively so little screen time that we learn few details about her also and must surmise all of her motivations. Marie-Antoinette gives us a bit more, divulging some of her secret feelings to Sidonie at one point, and sharing knowing looks here and there that seem to indicate her frame of mind. But how much the queen really feels for Sidonie seems variable at a moment's notice and how much she's aware of Sidonie's love for her is something we're left guessing about, wondering if she's milked Sidonie's feelings for her own gain or if she is just completely unaware of them. If the former, this adds to the feeling that the movie left (for me at least) that the queen was a rather nasty person. History has been unkind to Marie-Antoinette, a woman who - no matter what her faults - was given an unfair amount of the blame for an entire country's myriad problems. Modern historians and others have been more sympathetic to the queen, and she did have her supporters even back in the 18th century, such as the artist Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Vigee-Lebrun tells one of the most touching stories about Marie-Antoinette, in which the queen insisted on picking up Vigee-Lebrun's dropped paintbrushes for her, something quite unexpected for the lavish monarchy of 18th century France and not what you'd imagine for the Marie-Antoinette depicted here. This movie instead portrayed her as quite incapable of doing anything for herself and as rather self-absorbed, although admittedly she does have some slightly sympathetic moments.

Beyond the three main leads, there are numerous other characters who come in and out of the film from both the occupants of the royal court and the people who serve them. It was a bit tough at times to remember who all everyone was and how they related to one another, but it was manageable. One of the more notable side characters was Madame Campan, the head lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, who probably sees the most (both literally and metaphorically) of what is happening between the queen and those around her. She's a complicated woman who can seem both harsh and sympathetic to Sidonie at turns, but ultimately appears to be one of the most honest and moral people at Versailles. The mob of angry French people, although hardly seen, is a character in itself, causing all the other characters to worry and despair from a distance. Of course, the benefit of hindsight makes everything all the more ironic for the viewer who knows the fate of the royalty depicted here and all their court.

With such a female-heavy cast and focus, this movie is a rather interesting one to dissect in terms of its portrayal of women. We see three very different women here - one who appears to be obsessed with power and privilege (Gabrielle); another with love and loyalty (Sidonie); and another who is perhaps a mix of both (Marie-Antoinette). None of them seem to be sad stereotypes of frail and fragile women, but then again none of them seems to stand out as a particularly tough and independent woman. In a way, I rather like that for there is already no end of historical fiction out there in which someone tries to re-write history with a 21st-century ideal of a strong woman at the helm. These women seemed more realistic with a mix of good and bad about them. It's suggested that all of these women have at least some element of same-sex attraction within them, and it's worth noting that even in the 18th century Marie-Antoinette and the Duchess de Polignac were rumored to be lovers, despite no evidence supporting that beyond the queen's obvious fondness for the duchess, which very well may have been entirely platonic. For the most part in this movie, the erotic undercurrent of homosexuality isn't played too heavily or for the benefit of the male view, even if the (male) director told the press that he chose Lea Seydoux to play Sidonie because she "has incontrovertible sex appeal" and "brought this carnal dimension" to the film or if one reviewer thought the director took "a completely gratuitous interlude to let the camera ogle Ledoyen, lying in bed as God made her." I personally didn't find this scene gratuitous as it told us something about Sidonie's character and her envy, but there were other scenes where the director seemed to linger unnaturally long on a woman's body part - it wasn't just Sidonie's heaving bosom in a scene when she sits dangerously close to the queen as they take turns reading lines from a romantic play, but other odd choices like Marie-Antoinette's bare feet in a very serious scene that seals Sidonie's fate.

Otherwise, the cinematography of the film is excellently done without being overstated. Set in Versailles and filmed mainly on location, the palace feels like a character in itself -- or perhaps it just felt that way because I could recognize some of the areas, such as the Hall of Mirrors, from my visit there several years ago. Either way, the palace of Versailles leaves for stunning visuals with all its gold gilding, marble floors and columns, sparkling chandeliers and mirrors, and well-manicured extensive grounds. Of course, we also see the seedier side of Versailles (if you can call it that) with the tiny and sparsely decorated servants' quarters. The musical score was perfectly fitting to the tone of the movie, the period costumes were gorgeously lavish, and the acting was all top-notch, even in the minor characters. The ending of the movie was perhaps a bit "huh" rather than conclusive but as another blogger points out, "Because the film is a character study and not one of the climactic biopics to which some of us are accustomed, the story feels unfinished in the end, if only because the action ends where the action of most of these types of films begins." This was not necessarily the best movie I've seen regarding unrequited love or the French revolution or whatever element you want to pull out as the most relevant in this film, but I quite enjoyed it overall and would recommend it for those who are Francophiles, enjoy historical costume dramas, or who just like an understated movie that's more about characters interacting with one another than about non-stop action.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Exploring Mental Illness and the Dark Side of Humor with United States of Tara

Recently the show United States of Tara came up in conversation. I had heard the name before but knew literally nothing about it. When the conversation revealed both that it was a show about a woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and it starred Toni Collette, I thought it could be interesting. However, the conversation trailed off to other topics and I promptly forgot about it. But then when I was looking for something to watch on Netflix and United States of Tara popped up as recommended, I decided to give it a try. Despite being a little iffy after watching the first two episodes, I was soon hooked. So hooked that I got through the entire series in just about a week. Yeah, I know. To my credit, I watched a lot of those episodes late at night when I couldn't sleep so it wasn't like I was neglecting my work just to watch TV. (Note: There are spoiler alerts scattered throughout this post so reader beware.)

As the series opens up, we are presented with the titular character, Tara Gregson, a Kansan artist who is a wife and mother of two. On the outside, it might seem like she has the stereotypically perfect life. But Tara has DID and shares her body with three alters - Buck, a Vietnam vet who likes to drink beer, ride his motorcycle, shoot guns, and pick up women; T, a teenager who likes to party, drink and do drugs, and have sex with just about any male; and Alice, a prim and proper 1950s housewife who likes to bake, wants to have a baby, and can think of nothing better to do with her life than please her husband and children. Purportedly these alters have been under control for years but they have resurfaced after Tara has recently decided to go off her medication because it made her feel like a zombie. Besides dealing with the reappearance of all these personalities and the havoc they wreak, Tara and her husband Max are trying to track down the traumatic source behind Tara's psychological problems, which they think originate in a sexual assault that occurred when Tara was a teenager in boarding school. Meanwhile, their two teenaged children have problems of their own. Fed up with the literal insanity in her house, Kate applies for a mind-numbing, minimum wage job only to find out that her boss is a real creeper who becomes obsessed with her. Her brother Marshall has a crush on a boy who may or may not also be gay. Tara's sister Charmaine, who is frequently stopping in on the family, is trying to make good for herself but can't seem to hold a job and is having an on-again-off-again fling with Max's friend Neil.

By season two, Tara and Max have unearthed that her trauma dates back further in her childhood and so they dig deeper to find out what happened to her. In addition to the appearance of a fourth alter in season one (Gimme, an id-like personality), Tara now displays two more alters - Chicken, a 5-year-old version of herself, and Shoshanna Schoenbaum, a New York City therapist that her neighbor once frequented. Kate has moved on to a job as a debt collector, which throws her into the path Lynda P. Frazier, an artist and free thinker who inspires Kate and takes her down unexpected paths. After having his first relationship fail miserably, Marshall tries out the idea of dating a girl, only to discover that he is indeed gay. And Charmaine's plan to marry the dashing Nick are complicated when she finds out she is pregnant with Neil's baby.

In season three, Tara seems to have recovered a great deal since learning about her childhood trauma. She's now ready to finish up the college degree she didn't quite obtain, although Max worries that the stress will cause a breakdown. On campus she meets and begins working with Dr. Hatteras, her abnormal psychology professor, and thinks she is getting better. But yet another alter appears; this time it is Bryce, an alter who takes on the personality of her original abuser. Meanwhile, Kate has a brilliant plan to teach English in Japan but chickens out at the last moment, deciding to become a flight attendant instead. While on the job, she meets Evan, a divorcee with a young son, whom she starts to like a great deal. Marshall is becoming more focused on film-making and finds himself in the middle of a love triangle. Charmaine and Neil move in together and prepare for their baby's arrival. And Max is forced to sell his business to a competitor and begin working for the man.

A lot happens in these 36 episodes, but for the most part, the pacing always feels right. Nothing feels rushed or skipped around, with the exception of the Kate character. Her story lines frequently felt jumpy, although overall it was interesting to watch her grow as a character. For instance, in the pilot episode the Gregson family goes to see Kate's ballet recital but after this episode, we never see or hear of this hobby again. Later, her obsessive former boss magically disappears never to be seen again after season one despite her repeated earlier attempts to rid herself of him. (This includes a sexual harassment suit in which the corporation in question refused to side with her, saying she was a willing partner. This frustrated me to no end because she was underage at the time, which by law means she could not be a willing partner regardless of the circumstances.) In the beginning of season two, Kate is seen receiving her general equivalency diploma (GED) in the mail, even though there was never any mention in season one that she didn't intend to finish high school traditionally. Later in that season as she becomes closer to Lynda P. Frazier and starts to embody Princess Valhalla Hawkwind, her job at the debt management company just disappears, even though she never mentions quitting work there. She also takes up with Zach towards the end of season two and is seen making all sorts of long-term plans with him, such as buying a condo. But then they get into a fight before Charmaine's wedding and she asks him to leave -- after which we never see him or hear of him ever again. At the beginning of season three, she suddenly lives with Charmaine instead of her parents, again with no indication beforehand this was a plan or even an inkling in her mind. Putting these small(?) details aside, her character arc showed her progressing from a self-absorbed teenager who takes advantage of her mother's illness for her own gain at times, makes bad and unsafe choices, is materialistic, and wants nothing more than to get away from her family to a young woman with a steady job, a seemingly stable and healthy relationship that is growing deeper, and a desire to be near her family and provide them with the support they need.

Kate is not alone in being a character who deepens emotionally; Charmaine starts off the series somewhat self-absorbed herself and not in the least bit supportive of her sister. Indeed, she keeps insisting that Tara is just "acting" like these other personalities for attention and refers to her sister's sexual assault in boarding school as "she had sex with some guy she didn't want to have sex with." One of the most poignant scenes in the first season is when Buck takes care of Charmaine after her surgery and you see that Charmaine "gets it" for the first time. Despite a sometimes bumpy road between the sisters in future episodes, Charmaine becomes increasingly closer to Tara, moving in with the Gregsons for a while and then moving next door. It's heartbreaking when at the end of the final season, she is planning to move away because of Neil's work and other circumstances, and she is torn between protecting her newborn daughter from Tara's evil Bryce alter and being there to support her sister.

In an interview with TV Guide, the show's creator said she originally wanted Charmaine's character to be there as "an antagonist. Actually, I wanted someone to be a voice for the skeptics. There are a lot of people who believe that DID isn't real. And, there are a lot of people who would look at Tara's behavior and say, 'Oh, that's just silly; that's just selfish.' I wanted Charmaine to be representative of that opinion. I also liked the idea of Charmaine being kinda insecure and attention-starved — like Tara's issues were kind of stealing the spotlight from her, which is a pretty twisted way of thinking. I have to admit I did originally envision them as being enemies and then as I continued to write episodes I found myself having a lot of affection for Charmaine. I think there's a lot more to her." As Charmaine became more supportive of Tara as the show progressed, it seems that another voice for the skeptics was needed. Enter Dr. Hatteras in season three. Despite being a psychologist, he does not believe in the existence of DID and poo-poos Tara's problems with her alters away as her simply being unable to deal with the consequences of her own actions. But again, no character is static and eventually we watched Dr. Hatteras become more convinced of the actuality of Tara's disorder, first in a stunning scene where he watches Tara's alters scribble all over her exam paper and her body and later with deadly realization when Bryce tries to kill him by adding an allergen to his food.

The other male characters grow also, though perhaps less markedly than Kate, Charmaine, and Dr. Hatteras. Marshall's story is largely that of a typical teenager, exploring his sexuality, trying to find and fit in with a group that accepts him, and discovering and refining his talents. Still, he has some very heavy issues to deal with, including obviously his mother's mental health and how it affects his own social and academic life. He has some deep moments where he momentarily breaks down, like when he gets almost insanely enraged after he finds T seducing the boy he has a crush on or when Lionel dies and he refuses to accept emotional support at first. He also flirts with risky behavior (drugs, cruising with older gay man, threesomes) at times, usually as a result of peer pressure from Lionel. Max in the first season seems to be there almost as the straight man to everything going on around him. He's often described as a saint by the others around him who don't understand how he puts up with everything. But even he has his own moments of betrayal, including a one-night stand with a bartender and shouting matches with Tara. By the second season, we learn more about his past, including how his own mother isn't in the best mental health either (she's a hoarder who is largely afraid to leave her home) and that his father skipped out on him as a child. We also learn more about his past hobbies (a garage band) and a little bit about when he and Tara first got together. I was glad to see his character becoming more fleshed out and well rounded like this, for I'd hate for such a good series to be hampered by having a one-dimensional character who just sighed and picked up the pieces after Tara's alters rampaged through town.

And, of course, there's Tara herself, but I think the brief summations I gave above of the plot lines of each season provide enough insight into her transformations. We see these transformations a lot through the use of a framing device; Tara (and some of her alters) keeps a video journal, which serves to let her unpack without judgment but also for others to go back and watch her progress over time. She notes somewhat early on in the series about her DID that "it's going to get worse before it gets better" and that seems to be reflected throughout the show. Unfortunately, I feel like the show in some way gave itself a Catch-22 by making her alters so ridiculous and at times, quite funny. One part of you is very vested in Tara, feeling sympathy for her and wanting her to get better. At the same time though, you've been introduced to these wild characters who are so interesting to watch. So while you want Tara to heal and get better, you start to miss some of the alters when you see them less often. It's a very complicated line to walk, but for the most part I think the show does a decent job with it.

The show also does a pretty decent job with portraying DID, at least in the beginning. The first season does great work introducing the disorder to those who might not know about it without being overly didactic. In later seasons, things get a bit dicier. I'm not an expert on DID by any means; indeed, I only know a little bit about it. But even so, some of the things that happen in the third season seemed a bit off. By this season, Tara is seen outside of her body as her alters take over it, aware of what is going on and in some cases, even speaking to her alters. She makes a contract with her alters and arrangements for who can use her body when. Later, Bryce appears and begins "killing" off the other alters, with Tara stating that she can no longer feel them inside her. Ultimately, Tara kills the Bryce alter, which seems like a major breakthrough but when she packs up and heads for professional help in Boston, the original three alters are seen on the truck's bed. (It's really a rather odd bit at the ending and unfortunately makes the conclusion slightly less optimistic than I would have liked.) Also, earlier in season two when Shoshanna was first introduced as an alter, Tara doesn't seem to realize she has a new personality yet but thinks she has actually spoken to the real Dr. Schoenbaum in New York City. This kind of delusion seems more in line with a mental illness like schizophrenia than DID.

Throughout the show, it also does a great job of bridging the gap between drama and comedy. Too much comedy and the show could come across as flippant about a serious mental illness. But the show might be less palatable if it were all drama all the time with no levity thrown in to lighten the mood occasionally. While some of it is physical comedy, most of the humor comes from sarcastic remarks made by the characters; this very much reminds me of real life where we realize we have to make jokes in order to make terrible situations manageable. (Speaking of realism, it might be worth pointing out that the show can be rather crass at times, particularly in its language. I've complained in the past that if Showtime's idea of pushing boundaries is by dropping curses into every line, that's rather puerile. But in this series I found it didn't bother me as much. There were times all the foul language was a bit much, but given the difficult situations these characters find themselves in frequently, it's not at all unreasonable to think they'd be letting a lot of f-bombs and other choice words fly.) To use a rather silly saying, the Gregson family puts the "fun" in "dysfunctional." The timing of the comic lines are just right to break up the dramatic moments, and the actors are fabulous at delivery. One of my favorite moments of dark humor comes at the conclusion of the pilot episode when the Gregson family goes out bowling but it is Buck there instead of Tara. Kate notes to her father, "It's weird that Buck is the only one that's left-handed." Max dryly replies, "Yeah, that's the weird part." End scene. Cue the credits.

Speaking of acting, everyone does a fantastic job in this show, fully fleshing out their characters and progressing them forward as I described earlier. Specifically, Toni Collette deserves all the praise in the world for successfully embodying not only Tara but every single one of her alters. (Kudos also to the hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments who helped to physically transform her for each personality.) John Corbett, who I confess I didn't care two straws for either way in the past, is terrific as Max and I'll think you'll find it difficult not to love him. Brie Larson as Kate, Keir Gilchrist as Marshall, and Rosemary DeWitt as Charmaine round out the main cast. And I enjoyed having the special guest star of Eddie Izzard, whose comedy I adore, in the role of Dr. Hatteras. Other notable recurring actors include Viola Davis as Lynda B. Frazier, Fred Ward and Pamela Reed as Tara's parents, Joey Lauren Adams as the bartender Pammy, Michael Hitchcock as the Gregson's neighbor Ted, Keir O'Donnell as Evan, and Frances Conroy as Max's mother.

Besides the characters, another thing I enjoyed about the show was the air of mystery in the first two seasons regarding the trauma Tara is trying to protect herself from by use of the alters. In season two, there's occasionally flashbacks as Tara's memories of times she's blacked out are starting to coming back to her. In particular, spending time in the Hubbard house, her former neighbor's home now owned by the Gregsons, seems to be pushing some of these memories to the forefront. There's a scene when they first acquire the Hubbard house and she walks about the house, finally ending up in a room set up as an office (later used by Shoshanna to "see" clients). In it, she opens a closet door and seems to have some sort of revelation. One of the few things I didn't like about the show is that we never saw what was in that closet. I thought perhaps the writers were waiting for some sort of big reveal eventually but it remains a mystery. In fact, we never really learn why the Hubbard house brought back so many memories for Tara.

Back to things the show did well; it may be a small thing, but the Gregson family's refrigerator had large magnets with words on them (prominently including the word "mother" among others) and how these magnets were arranged often spoke to the atmosphere of the household at the time. It was such a tiny thing in the background that it may go unnoticed by many, but I think it really helped to add yet another layer to this already complex story. Another small but really stellar part of the show in the first two seasons was the opening credits. I absolutely loved the pop-up illustrations of Tara's alters and the theme song was quite appropriate. (Honestly, the music throughout the show was always done well, with the most perfectly fitting song attached to the end of each episode.) In the third season, there was no longer an introduction at all, which was disappointing although I suppose understandable given that more alters had made their presence known than the original three highlighted in the opening. Still, I found that I missed it. In fact, now that I've blown through the whole series so quickly, I find that I miss these characters. The final few episodes did feel a bit rushed as I think the writers no doubt originally meant to unveil and explore the Bryce character at a slower pace before they found out the show was canceled. Nonetheless, the series ended in a way in which certain things felt wrapped up enough - or at least like you could envision how they could turn out eventually. After investing so much in these characters, that's a good thing.

Following the Red Balloon

Unintentionally color-themed, I'm following up my post on The Yellow Handkerchief with this post on the classic French film The Red Balloon. Arguably a children's movie, The Red Balloon is a 1956 film featuring the director's son Pascal Lamorisse in the lead as a young boy (around age 6) who encounters a red balloon on his way to school one day. He happily scurries off to the school with the balloon in tow, finding out soon afterwards that this is no ordinary balloon. The mischievous balloon has a mind of its own, so to speak, and definitely moves of its own accord. It becomes a constant companion to the young boy, following him about the streets of Paris on everyday adventures. Later, the two try to escape from the boy's mean classmates/peers who are clearly overwrought with envy about the balloon.

Besides that it is considered an iconic piece of work, I had absolutely no idea what this film was about before I watched it. Add that to the stereotype of French films being depressing, I was delightfully surprised to find this movie sweet and whimsical. There was a moment toward the end I was afraid this wouldn't be so, but everything righted itself onto a uplifting course (pun intended). However, I'm not sure how much children really delight in this short movie, especially given that modern audiences of youngsters are used to fast-paced, brightly colored movies that are usually animated and often peopled with outrageous characters.

The Red Balloon is almost entirely wordless, with only a few lines of dialogue given from the boy to the balloon, generally an admonishment to stay put. It is not, however, an entirely silent film. There is of course the requisite soundtrack but there are also numerous other sound effects heard like a doorbell ringing, cars whirring by, and quite frequently the sound of pounding feet hitting the pavement. These all serve to add to the film's ambiance and heighten the comedy or drama of any particular scene.

But mostly the film's story and atmosphere are captured with the cinematography. Of course, we see a lot of the boy in his gray outfits (and adorable school book bag that looks like a miniature briefcase in my mind, making him seem so grown up) and the balloon, which is vividly red and quite large. Throughout the film, there the cityscape of Paris, with its gray buildings, narrow alleyways, numerous stone steps, balconied apartment buildings, and blue street signs. It certainly carries one right into the city - not the tourist's city, with the Eiffel Tower glimpsed only once in the very far distance and no other major monuments featured, but the city of everyday life, with the boy stepping into a boulangerie and passing by outdoor fruit and vegetable stands. Most people on the streets are minding their own business, worried about their own concerns and hardly noticing the boy and his balloon. The cityscape scenery is a reminder that parts of Paris can be quite gray, which serves as a fitting backdrop for the brightly colored balloons that enter the scene in this film.

With hardly any words and a rather bizarre plot line, The Red Balloon allows for a myriad of interpretations of its appealing visuals. The original New York Times review said of it, "It is a thoroughly simple story of something incredible that could not occur except in the bright imagination of an artist such as Albert Lamorisse, the young Frenchman who made the memorable short 'White Mane' and who wrote, produced and directed this. Yet with the sensitive cooperation of his own beguiling son and with the gray-blue atmosphere of an old Paris quarter as the background for the shiny balloon, he has got here a tender, humorous drama of the ingenuousness of a child and, indeed, a poignant symbolization of dreams and the cruelty of those who puncture them." A more recent look by The New York Times of this movie and White Mane acknowledged, "The stories are simple, fablelike; the heroes are boys; the subject in each case is the purity and power of a child’s imagination; and the tone of both films is that of open-mouthed wonder. Yet these movies are also shot through with a very adult melancholy, an awareness that life tends not to measure up to the glorious pictures in our minds." Slant Magazine has a slightly different view, pointing out that, "The honeymoon is short-lived, but Lamorisse suggests that kids are always keenly attuned to the objects of the world around them: After the boy loses his red friend, a montage of balloons across the city shows them flying to his side and, in the final shot, launching him into the sky. For Lamorisse, then, the pleasures of childhood are as fleeting as they are ecstatic." Thus, a key debate to this film could be whether children are unaware of the bitter ironies of life or whether they are just more resilient than adults in getting back up after life delivers them a blow.

Meanwhile, Brian Gibson of Vue Weekly eschews the idea of capturing childhood innocence being the only goal of this movie or its counterpart White Mane, explaining, "These are post-war stories of innocence threatened—by arrogant, selfish gangs bent on proving their superiority. ... [T]his seems a post-Occupation France happy to forget the blood and death of Hitler’s war a decade earlier. But soon people’s occasional, playful efforts to grab the floating, carefree balloon become grasping and destructive. In a gorgeous sequence, light streaming down alleys as children’s shoes clack and clatter on the cobblestones, the red globe bouncing between the walls, Pascal is hunted down for his floating pet. The film’s ballooning sense of hope and freedom is deflated by a fierce, squabbling mass. Then, fortunately, Lamorisse’s film floats off, with the breeze of magic-realism, into a feeling of escape and peace, The Red Balloon taking hold of Pascal, lifting him out of this rigid, petty, earthbound life." Given the film's date, it is not absurd to read it as, at least in part, a reaction to the horrible war that the film's director undoubtedly lived through - though his son in the starring role obviously did not. Battered but cautiously optimistic and healing is probably a fitting description of Europe a decade after the horrors of World War II and Hitler's cruelties, and the film's young lead follows a similar path when his happiness is shattered by the balloon's bursting but is soon replaced with unimaginable joy when the other balloons of Paris come to his rescue. This final scene of vindication could be seen as symbolic of the dream of Europe ascending to even greater heights than before the war. (Decades later, this is arguably the goal of the European Union.)

After its musings on childhood purity versus adult melancholy, the 2007 New York Times article goes on to note, "When the film is over, you realize that although you’ve been entirely enveloped in little Pascal’s fantasy world, you’ve learned next to nothing about the boy himself. His parents are not in evidence. He lives with a stout, black-clad, rather fearsome-looking old woman who may or may not be his grandmother. We’re given no idea whether he’s a good, bad or indifferent student, or who his friends are. The intensity of his attachment to the balloon suggests that he’s a lonely, dreamy child, living in his own head, but we can’t be sure; the movie gives us nothing solid to go on." It is true that this movie is not a character-driven one like I usually enjoy, or at least it is not so in the traditional understanding of that terminology. Still, the young boy has a somewhat universal characterization about him - he is in some ways the epitome of the underdog that we can all sympathize with and root for through his (albeit brief) journey.

At any rate, this is not your standard classic Hollywood fare! Being so very different than all those rather formulaic 1950s movie gives this film the feeling of being a more modern movie that just happens to be set in the past. The special effects are particularly surprising given the film's date. If you haven't seen this short film yet, I suggest you do. It will delight you and cause you to think about its deeper meanings and themes for some time.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree

In my last post, I mentioned working through some movies on my Netflix queue while staying home sick and wrote about Last Night. But as you may have surmised, that wasn't the only movie I watched while recuperating; I also viewed The Yellow Handkerchief, a movie that had been waiting patiently on my queue for some time.

In many ways based on the traditional folklore of the ex-convict hopeful to see a yellow ribbon tied round the ole' oak tree meaning that he's welcome home, The Yellow Handkerchief tells the story of Brett (William Hurt), a recently released convict who is uncertain if he can return to his lover May (Maria Bello), who is a complicated mix of tough-as-nails and incredibly fragile all rolled up into one. An odd series of circumstances leaves Brett traveling through Louisiana with a teenaged girl named Martine (Kristen Stewart) who oddly enough seems to look up to him as a father figure, and a young man named Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), a wanderer who takes a liking to Martine.

The movie's ending is fairly predictable, but it takes a meandering course to get there. Nearly all of Brett's story is told through a series of flashbacks interspersed with the current action. (And when I say "action," I mean evenly paced events. This is not an action flick. If you want that, go see the latest Die Hard film or whatever else Hollywood is churning out this month.) This is instead a rather quiet movie focused on just these four characters and not necessarily anything outside of them. That being said, the movie does provide for musings on larger themes like the nature of love and desire, loneliness, communication breakdowns, and so forth.

Because of the character-driven nature of this movie, the acting plays a huge role. Unimpressed by her dull and inspired acting in the Twilight saga and Speak, I was pleasantly surprised to find Kirsten Stewart palatable here. Her acting was not superb, but it was sufficient to do the Martine character justice. Maria Bello is fabulous as May, especially given that her character - while a driving motivation behind nearly all of Brett's actions - is not seen much in the movie except in the occasional flashbacks. Eddie Redmayne perfectly embodies the outcast "weirdo" Gordy, down to every last twitchy movement. And William Hurt carries the movie, conveying pathos in every scene despite his character's terseness. That's certainly not an easy feat. Apparently, Hurt actually spent time in a maximum-security prison to prepare himself for the role.

With little action and fairly limited dialogue from the main lead, the film trades in its best stock - cinematography. There's some great visuals throughout the movie as the trio traverse through the state on their road trip. As the movie is set in Louisiana in 2007, the visuals include many scenes of the storm-damaged state, which help provide some historic context even if Hurricane Katrina and its effects are not really something the movie overtly discusses much.

This next paragraph is going to contain some spoilers so skip ahead if you like to go into your movies without having the ending revealed to you in advance.

As I hinted at earlier, the movie's ending is Hollywood happy, but I found it left too many unanswered questions for my taste. Are May and Brett really going to be happy now? He needed the encouragement o the teens just to go see her, and he’s still very closed off and laconic, so will they be able to communicate properly in the future? What will ultimately happen to Martine? There’s the scene earlier, before she finds out Brett’s an ex-con, where she says she could leave with him and he could take care of her. It’s as though Martine could take the place of the child he and May lost, but realistically, on what planet could an ex-con (convicted of manslaughter no less, plus with a prior record) legally adopt her or obtain guardianship? Or will her father just never bother to check in on her again? This seems unlikely since he did already call once on their road trip and after that her phone died so he may well have been trying to contact her again without the viewer knowing. Despite Martine's claims that he is frequently absent, it seems a particularly harsh blow to think he will just let his 15-year-old daughter disappear without ever following up on her welfare. And, what will happen with her and Gordy? The relationship being established here is rocky at best - besides the baggage they both bring to it, they are young, he is a transient, etc.

Speaking of relationships, I find the relationships portrayed here very troubling. With both the adults and the teens, you have women who are uninterested and unwilling to become involved with these guys. Yet the men persist in hanging around and pushing unwanted sexual advances until eventually the women come around and agree to be with them. What kind of message is that sending? 'Men, it’s cool if you push too far because you know she’s just playing shy and wants it in the end.' Ugh, this is exactly the kind of messaging that contributes to our rape culture and should be done away with completely.

Overall, this is an interesting movie for being understated and not quite fitting the Hollywood norm with its slice of life look at four interesting characters who are clearly in need of help of some sort. But their very abnormality leads to some troubling depictions of love, sex, and relationships. It's certainly a good movie for chew over some food for thought, but I'm not sure that I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What Happened Last Night?

Several months back I was stuck at home sick for a few days and decided to start watching some of the movies languishing away in my Netflix queue. One of those movies was the 2010 film Last Night starring Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Guillaume Canet, and Eva Mendes. Prior to the movie's release, I had seen Keira Knightley on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting the movie and decided to look it up. It sounded interesting enough to watch, although not necessarily on the top of my list, hence the eventually getting around to it much later.

Last Night is the story of Michael and Joanna, a married couple living in New York. It starts off with the two attending a party and Joanna becoming jealous of Michael's co-worker Laura, who she is certain Michael has feelings for despite his protestations to the contrary. After arguing with Joanna all night about Laura, Michael leaves for a business trip with two of colleagues - and you guessed it, one of them is Laura. While they're away, it's clear that Laura and Michael are indeed attracted to one another. Meanwhile, back in New York, Joanna runs into her old boyfriend Alex, a man who Michael has never met or even heard about in the past. With Michael away for the evening, Joanna and Alex make plans for the evening and it's clear that there are unresolved feelings between the two.

My feelings on this movie are a bit of a mixed bag. I found it captivated my interest throughout and made me think, which are some great attributes. There's some fine acting involved, especially from Knightley, so that tips the scales in its favor. And it's one of those slice of lives type movies that I enjoy so much, so that's another plus. But generally speaking, I feel like even with slice of lives movies that have characters who feel very real, there's something almost universal about the characterizations or themes. Basically there's something that seems recognizable to the viewers as applicable to their lives. Somehow I just didn't get that feeling from Last Night for nothing seemed universal, with the exception maybe of Michael's comment that "You can be happy and still be tempted." This seems like apt commentary that could fit a variety of situations, not just the remark of a husband sitting face-to-face with a beautiful co-worker while away from his wife for the evening.

Instead of a feeling of universality, this movie is very much about the specific situations of this set of four characters, none of whom are particularly likeable in these scenarios. Joanna hiding her past relationship with Alex from Michael is ridiculous, especially considering that she still sees occasionally sees Alex. If she really wishes she could get over him, talking about that relationship with Michael would be a good first step. Still, their almost-tryst is far less frustrating to me than Laura’s persistence in pursuing Michael despite knowing that he is married and having only met him within the last few months (so there is no shared past together to call upon and perhaps somewhat justified the illicit relationship). Her cavalier attitude towards affairs was just a bit much for me – she admits to feeling both mad and sad when she found out she was cheated on, but she doesn’t stop to think for a moment what her current actions might mean for Joanna … and Michael as well.

By the end of the movie, you feel almost bad for the characters of Michael and Joanna, who both have these secret lives and loves hidden from one another, even if it is a problem they've willingly wrought upon each other. Of course, there is a slight indication at the end that Michael might realize something is up, although it's unclear how much he has or will uncover. And, Joanna had started out the movie thinking Michael was having an affair, although later she thinks that she “knows” Michael and that he would never do that to her. It’s really a rather damning portrait of marriage in particular but also the human predicament as a whole - one can never really know another person or be known by another in entirety. So perhaps I was wrong and there is an element of universality to this movie after all. You just have to think about this movie a lot and then let it settle for a few months before coming to that conclusion.

At any rate, Last Night is far from your typical Hollywood fare of predictable plots and neatly tied up in a bow endings. It is far more character-driven than many other films (albeit the characters might be a bit hard to stomach at times), and we learn a lot about these characters even if we see them for less than two whole days of their lives. If you enjoy slice of life type movies or those that focus more on characterization than anything else, Last Night might be the movie for you. It'll at least give you some food for thought to chew over for several months.

Crimes of the Heart Redux

Some time ago I wrote about going to see a production of the play Crimes of the Heart, which I ended by saying that I enjoyed it so much I was considering watching the movie version. Well, more recently, I did that and was severely disappointed.

The movie version of Crimes of the Heart has the same basic plot as the play, focusing on the lives of the three Magrath sisters who are all home at their grandfather's Mississippi house while facing different crises - Lenny has just turned 30 and doesn't feel like she's done anything with her life (I can relate), Meg is trying to make it big as a singer (I cannot relate), and Babe has just calmly shot her husband (I definitely can't relate!). Despite having the same broad plot as the play and largely similar dialogue, the movie just fell flat in my opinion.

For starters, somehow the movie managed to lack the dark humor of the play and felt far more melodramatic instead. I don't know how, given that some of the lines were exactly the same as those in the theater production, but they no longer came across as funny. It might have been the delivery or it could have been that I was watching this alone rather than in a crowded theater with a laughing audience. I'm inclined to think it was the former, as I didn't really care for any of the acting in this version, especially Diane Keaton who overacts (I almost want to say as per usual) in her role as Lenny. Indeed, nearly all of the actors seemed to be merely reading lines with a Southern accent more than truly embodying the characters. And, this is a bit more of a superficial complaint, but the main roles all appeared to be played by women older than the characters were meant to be.

Another reason I think there was less humor in the movie was that the role of Zackery Botrelle was greatly reduced as compared to the play. Mr. Botrelle, who is Babe's lawyer, had a huge vendetta against Babe's husband in the play but not at all in the movie. In the theater production, there was also a growing chemistry between Zackery Botrelle and Babe, which added tons of comedy to the play, but again this was hardly seen in the movie version.

As with most plays, there wasn't a ton of movement of the stage when I saw it, although the vivid characterizations and zany scenarios more than made up for that. In the movie, the director seemed to be trying to overcompensate for the relatively flat staging with fancy filming angles, showing flashbacks, and so forth. But this really did little in the end but be distracting and didn't help the fact that the characters were just not compelling enough in this production.

Unfortunately, while I loved the play, I just didn't like the movie; I can't even come up with any redeeming qualities to the film version. Uninspired acting and filming can leave even the best source material feeling dull and lifeless. However, the movie apparently received good buzz when it came out back in 1986 and was even nominated for several awards. So maybe the saying "everyone's a critic" isn't true after all. Maybe I'm the only critical one.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen the movie version of Crimes of the Heart and did you think it was phenomenal or horrendous?

Telling a Story Without Words in Under 10 Minutes

In my last post, I wrote about going to see Disney's animated film, Wreck-It Ralph. What I neglected to say was that before the movie started, we were all treated to a short film beforehand. Several Disney/Pixar movies have done this in the past and I just love it for a variety of reasons, such as the extra creativity it shows off. But one thing I really like about is how old-timey awesome it feels. If you're anything like me, you've hard your parents or grandparents talk about what an outing going to the movies used to be. Besides the main feature, there was a news reel and various shorts. Or other times the main features were short enough themselves to show two back to back. And all this for a nickel or a dime. What a deal!

The short featured before Wreck-It Ralph was entitled Paperman and featured a hapless office worker (a paper pusher, if you will) who is enamored with a woman he had a brief encounter with earlier in the day on the train platform. When he spies her again in an office building across the way, he desperately tries to get her attention with the clever use of some paper airplanes. But when that fails, he grows frustrated and gives up. That's when the wind and a little bit of magic kick in, and the paper airplanes work to bring the two back together again.

The concept of Paperman is very clever and sweet. It's absolutely amazing how the creators were able to executed a full film - with likeable characters, a coherent plot, and a bit of romance with a dash of humor - in only six minutes. (Being that succinct is clearly something I still need to work on as this blog post is rather long for something so short.) While the story will undoubtedly resonate more with adults than children, even the children in the audience didn't have trouble understanding the wordless plot. Without being over the top, the animators clearly captured the characters' emotions at any given moment. Based on the characters' clothing, the cars driving by, and other background details, this movie is obviously set in an earlier era, perhaps the 1940s or 1950s. Add this to the fact that it's a short, and it really did start to fill like I was in old-fashioned movie theater! Talking about how movies can transport you into a different time and place ...

Paperman is now up for an Oscar in the category of best animated short, so apparently I am not the only one who loved it. And if you don't believe me on how good it is, check it out for yourself - Disney has the whole thing up on their YouTube channel.

When Bad Guys are Good Guys

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Disney movies so when I started seeing previews for their latest offering, Wreck-It Ralph, I knew I'd want to see it. Originally I was fine with waiting until it was released on video, but then came along Superstorm Sandy. I had days without lights or heat and was feeling pretty down. Some of my other family members had power the whole time but were sick of being confided to their home. So we joined hordes of other people at the movie theater for the opening weekend of Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of the titular character, an arcade video game villain in the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. The thing is, Ralph doesn't like being a "bad guy" who does nothing but destroy things all day. When the arcade closes for the evening, all the other characters in his video game hang out together, congratulating Felix and making him pies, while Ralph goes to sleep in the city dump alone. Ralph becomes fixated on the idea of earning a medal, which he is convinced will make everyone like him. So one day he leaves the safety and security of Fix-It Felix, Jr. for the chaos of Hero's Duty in order to win himself a shiny gold medal. Unfortunately, a wild series of coincidences later means his medal ends up in the game Sugar Rush, where a go-kart racer hopeful named Vanellope has need of the medal also, and Ralph finds himself becoming involved in trying to sort out the problems found in this video game. Meanwhile, back in Fix-It Felix, Jr. everyone is worried because without Ralph, the game is meaningless. The arcade owner has placed an out-of-order sign on the game and the characters are worried that he'll soon unplug it - and them - if Ralph doesn't return soon. This leads to Felix venturing out after Ralph and embarking on adventures of his own, including falling in love with Sergeant Calhoun of Hero's Duty.

This movie has a little bit of everything for everyone - there's lots of action and adventures, tons of humor, a little bit of romance, and some great morals. At times, the action might be a little too much for the youngest members in the audience who might get a bit frightened, but the movie is otherwise up to family-friendly expectations. As is typical of Disney movies, the humor works on two levels to appeal to both the children and adults in the audience. For instance, when Ralph is in Hero’s Duty seeking that shiny medal to bring home to his life in Fix-It Felix, Jr., children will probably find his slapstick mistakes of falling and whatnot in the game humorous while adults will get a chuckle out his plaintive cry of “When did video games become so violent??” There are tons of references to games both classic and new so gamers of all ages will get a chuckle out of these. Like with the movie Brave (and some others), I'm glad that Disney movies seem to be moving away from romances (after all, what child is really all that interested in adult relationships?) with this movie. But there is still an element of the romantic in this film with Felix, Jr. smitten by Sergeant Calhoun, and I'm happy to see that the lovelorn one is Felix while Calhoun is all business and only concerned about romance when she has finished the task at hand. In fact, the thing that seems to appeal to Felix the most about Sergeant Calhoun is that she is a no-nonsense, tough character who has what it takes to be a leader. But the relationship we see more of in Wreck-It Ralph is the begrudging friendship that grows between Ralph and Vanellope. Despite differences of age, gender, and background, these two become close friends by the end of the movie who are willing to make sacrifices for each other's happiness. That they both ultimately end up happy is no small testament to the power of friendship (and the fairy tale like nature of Disney movies). The friendship plot is not the only moral that can be derived from the movie though. Much of the movie is also about Ralph's quest to become a "good guy" instead of his role as the villain of Fix-It Felix, Jr. He initially thinks that merely having the trappings of a good guy (i.e., the gold medal) will be enough to make him a hero, but as the movie progresses he learns that more is involved in becoming a hero and he steps up to the place. Not only is there the great lesson about what being a hero really means, it's also a good reflection on the idea not being confined to a script. Just because people grow up with certain expectations for them (not amounting to anything or following a traditional path or what-have-you), we are each responsible for our own path in life - and defying expectations and/or stereotypes may very well be a part of that. Ralph and his goal of becoming a good guy is a clarion call for anyone feeling stuck in an unfulfilling role. Take a chance at something new and you might find the right place for you after all.

Featuring the voice talents of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer and the artistic talents of doubtless numerous animators, Wreck-It Ralph is executed perfectly. There's tons of fun details everywhere, even the credits, that tie into the video game world. While the film arguably doesn't pass the Bechdel test, it does feature two very interesting and intrepid main female characters, which is a lot more than Disney has given in the past to the little girls in the audience. I'd definitely recommend this movie for young kids - or for those who are just young at heart!