Saturday, July 19. 2008
The final episode of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" airs today. My young kids are TV-free, so I won't be able to watch it until late this evening. So . . . how will Act III conclude?
Friday, July 18. 2008
It's always easier to write about pop culture than philosophy . . . so I guess I'll indulge in random analysis of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (as of Acts I and II â€“ caution, spoilers follow.)
Wednesday, July 16. 2008
We interrupt our regularly scheduled tedious rant about philosophy to bring you this special announcement:
Joss Whedon is up to something. Something evil and nefarious and, and, well, Jossy.
Namely: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's a mini-musical about a second-rate super-villain. Evidently Joss has been thoroughly bitten by the musical bug after composing "Once More with Feeling," the musical Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode for which he should have won an Emmy, had the Academy not "accidently" left his name off the ballot. So, during their downtime in the writer's strike, Joss and his friends did a little internet project on the cheap.
This is one-time streaming event that is only happening this week, so check it out soon. Act I one was released yesterday, and Acts II comes out tomorrow. Also don't miss Joss' letter explaining the Master Plan.
Look for some familiar friends-of-Joss, including Nathan Filian (as swashbuckling and self-absorbed as always) and Felicia Day (a.k.a. "Vi", one of the potential slayers from the seventh season of Buffy). And Neil Patrick Harris, whose musical stage experience and goofy sense of humor make him a great fit for the title role . . . not to mention a vague resemblance to Joss Whedon himself.
Sunday, June 8. 2008
If you merely told me the plot of Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I would never go see it. It took my collective admiration for Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Burton, and Steven Sondheim to push me over the edge. Johnny Depp has a perverse pride in taking bizarre roles (e.g. Willy Wonka, Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands) so it seemed like an inevitable casting for him to play Sweeney Todd. Likewise, with roles like The Corpse Bride and Bellatrix LaStrange under her belt, Helena Bonham Carter was a perfect fit for Mrs. Lovett. Together they are Mr. and Mrs. Fey, fascinatingly dark, the new standard every Goth teen will measure themselves against. Once you see them together, you can't imagine anyone else in the roles.
As far as I can tell, Sweeney Todd is the only work of its kind: a musical horror. After all that blood (oh my God how much blood) my wife wondered aloud, "Who would ever think of making a musical about that?" We are not fans of horror, unless is it thoroughly diluted with humor or action or fantasy (e.g. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", Sandman comics) so we had to watch the bonus features on the DVD just to give us time to process the whole experience and let the shock and, er, horror settle down.
On further reflection, though, I decided that Sweeney Todd is really in complete alignment with classical tragedy. A vengeful barber killing his customers and baking them into pies is sort of thing you'd find in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, or Greek mythology. Is Mr. T. any more horrific than the witch in Hansel and Gretel, who captured and ate children, or Procrustes, the innkeeper who stretched or hacked his customers to make them fit their beds? From that perspective, you can see that Stephen Sondheim is drinking from the same well as Shakespeare, with similar results: love, betrayal, vengeance, plots, and a whoooooole lot of blood.
Thematically, Sweeney Todd reminds me of MacBeth more than anything else: in both plays the audience gets suckered into identifying with a once-virtuous hero, and we follow him down on his descent into evil. We share in Benjamin Barker's desire to avenge himself and his wife against the foul Judge Turpin, so we're all-too-happy to join him in his plotting. When it results in the untimely demise of Pirelli, we're a little shocked but not quite horrified yet; he had it coming, didn't he? By the time Mr. T. embarks on wholesale slaughter, we're horrified, but it's too late â€“ we've already identified with his vengeful mission, already prepared ourselves to have a little blood on our hands. It's telling how the audience can conditionally accept the premise of his amorality: "What man doesn't deserve death?" Everybody, to some extent, shares his loathing for the ubiquity of human darkness, even in ourselves; and we wouldn't watch Rated-R films unless we all enjoy, to some degree, the thrill of violent rampage. So we can even follow Todd into his grisly business partnership with Mrs. Lovett, especially with it wrapped in the veneer of black humor. And women and children, the traditional vessels of innocence, are still spared. It's only when little Toby discovers the secret, and Todd and Lovett plot the murder of a child, all the while singing a lilting lullaby of "No one's going to harm you," that we see them for the monsters they have become.
Can anything so blood-drenched have a moral theme? "Evil begets evil" is the probably the best synopsis. Benjamin Barker might have been good once, but he was a ruined man by the time he gets back to London. In the very first scene he fails to shake the innocent sailor Anthony's hand. That sets the tone for ever after: he's a haunted man too preoccupied with evil thoughts to notice life reaching out to him. He can show affection and friendship for no one but his razor-blades, whom he addresses in song as "My Friends." Mrs. Lovett, in her twisted fashion, tries to lure him back to the world of living men, a world with careers and families and futures, but he's past recall. Even when he knows that he could be reunited with his daughter, the last living vestige of his lost life, he chooses revenge over love, death over life. Is it any wonder, then, that the momentum of his evil carries him past his objective, so that his final victim is the very wife he thought he lost? And that in realizing that tragedy, the wickedness of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett finally and abruptly comes to an end?
The formula for classic horror, then, is the flip-side of grace. Plays about redemption show how even the blackest of hearts can turn back to the light. Horror, on the other hand, demonstrates the fate awaiting those who choose the darkness. It can be morally enlightening, to take a long hard look into the darkness.
Monday, May 26. 2008
I almost always go to see the Cohen Brothers' films. Raising Arizona was a high school cult favorite, and then after writing about Blood Simple for my first film class in college, I decided that the Cohen Brothers were cool and deserved my full attention.
Sometimes the attention paid off. Miller's Crossing is still, to my mind, the most entertaining gangster film ever made. (The Godfather, of course, will remain as the best gangster film, but sometimes less than the best is more entertaining.) O Brother, Where Art Thou was a truly original creation that brought American folk music into the spotlight; I found myself saying, defensively, "Hey, I was into Ralph Stanley before Ralph Stanley was cool."
But, then there are the disappointments. The slightly surreal visual style that was so engaging in Miller's Crossing became oddly disturbing and pointless in Barton Fink. The Big Labowski was a Big Waste; I felt like I had discovered a once-formidable but now washed-up movie in a shabby hotel room, strung out after mainlining Cheech and Chong scripts. Fargo, I admit I enjoyed, though the foot sticking out of the wood chipper was a sad signal: grotesque humor, rather than magnificent plotting, may be the calling card of the Brothers from now on.
Which brings me to No Country for Old Men, their latest genre-bending installment. My wife and I have been so busy we can't even watch a whole movie in one sitting. After watching the first half of No Country for Old Men we were excited about watching the rest of it. It had been a long time since I had seen such memorable characters: the Hunter, every inch the cool, competent-yet-sympathetic action hero; the homespun, folk-wise old Sheriff; and perhaps the creepiest assassin-villain ever to pump tension into a thriller. (Javier Bardem's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in the role of Anton Chigurh is thoroughly deserved.) With break-neck action, building suspense, plot twists at once unexpected and consistent . . . we couldn't wait to see how it ended.
Which it . . . didn't. At least, not in the conventional movie sense. You don't completely become aware of Hollywood movie conventions until you see one violated, and boy, do I feel violated. I can handle movies with tragic endings â€“ that is, movies ending with the death(s) of the hero(s). But convention normally demands that something transcends their deaths: their mission survives them, or their heroic example, or their moral purity, or their love for each other. Even in death, something has to rise up and say, "Death can't touch this," in order for the audience to feel closure.
But after all that action, the relentless hunt, the suspense, the action . . . No Country for Old Men just ends with death, period. Everyone remotely likeable in the film winds up abruptly snuffed out, or anxiously, helplessly awaiting death. Only the most villainous of villains walks away, cheating death just when you think he might get his just desserts. So what is this movie about, anyway? A rule of thumb of literary analysis is that the last person to speak is the main character, and the last thing he says points to the meaning of the story. In this case, it's the Sheriff, newly retired, anxious, reflecting on his own end prefigured in a dream. The message of No Country for Old Men is: "You're end is coming. Ain't nuthin' you can do about it. Sucks, huh?" Thanks a lot, Cohen Brothers. I suppose Cormac McCarthy, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, will have to take the blame for the plot. It sounds like a great novel . . . but then again, great doesn't always equal entertaining.
Saturday, April 26. 2008
Of course we had to see Eastern Promises, and not just because it offered the chance for my wife to see Viggo Mortensen naked.
Mortensen has earned his stripes as a serious actor, mostly because his consummate skill has outrun the long, long shadow thrown by The Lord of the Rings. It was refreshing to get through all the DVD extras and an avalanche of positive reviews for Eastern Promises with absolutely no one feeling the need to mention Aragorn. Mortensen has this eerie capacity to be utterly transformed by his role; you could watch his portrayal of the Russian mobster Nikolai and never even guess that the same man played a Numinorian king. (Elijah Wood, for all that his good work, will have to wait another decade before he transcends the role of Frodo.)
Eastern Promises manages to break a lot of the rules of organized-crime films, and Hollywood films in general. The film restores genuine evil to our view of organized crime. Rather than having a seemingly ruthless don who's really a family-oriented softie at heart (a la Vito Corleone in The Godfather), we get the exact opposite in Semyon: a seemingly sweet old man who is progressively revealed to be despicably heartless and cruel. Most notable is the exquisite restraint with which the story is told. For all its sinister tension, there is exactly one fight scene in the entire movie. For all the romantic tension, there is exactly one kiss. David Cronenberg, the "Baron of Blood" who practically defined gratuitous violence with the exploding heads of Scanners and such, deserves a lot of credit for directing a movie where the violence and sex is sufficiently realistic to be properly horrifying.
Mortensen, too, is as restrained as you'll ever see him. He speaks in short sentences with awkward English, yet he's always as cool as a cucumber. You are reminded a little bit of Robert De Niro's Vito Corleone as he smooth-talks his way through an interview with the Black Hand. You admire someone who can be so controlled. But unlike Vito, Nikolai is more scary than charming. With the tattoos on his fingers and the chill of his pale blue eyes, you are thoroughly convinced of his deadliness. Nikolai turns out to be more than he seems, but it's that unnerving mix of good and evil that makes him, and the whole film, so interesting.
Saturday, April 19. 2008
The most notable thing about Pixar's Ratatouille is how tackles the very notion of art critics and reviewers. The fact that they are talking about food critics is irrelevant; every film reviewer who sits down to write about Ratatouille is going to affected by food critic Anton Ego's epiphany. Anton Ego is right: negative reviews are fun to read, and fun to write. Writing an interesting positive review is much harder than writing a negative one.
So it is with Pixar. Against all odds, the critics raved about Ratatouille, even as Anton Ego raved about Gusteau's unlikely rodent chef. After all, we were anticipating failure. On first blush, everyone thought that a movie about a rat learning to cook in Parisian restaurant was the first long-awaited sign of Pixar's wane. Unblemished perfection is hard for critics to withstand, and Pixar had been winning critical awards for twenty years with nary a flop. As much as critics loves to watch good movies, that unbroken line of greatness gnaws at the jealous hearts of those who appreciate art yet lack the capacity to create it. Pixar had managed to take a number of not-too-cuddly protagonists (bugs, fish, monsters under the bed) and make them lovable, but rats felt like a big stretch. Surely, we thought, this will be the time that Pixar produces something less than earth-shaking. And damn it all, Brad Bird keeps disappointing us by failing to disappoint us.
Brad Bird continues the same themes that he developed in The Incredibles: the struggles of those who must hide their greatness. Chef Gusteau's maxim, "Anyone can cook," may sound like a populist and democratic sentiment, but Bird's real intent is naked meritocracy. Some people (and rats) have great talents, and their struggle is to be true to themselves in order to realize their greatness in the world. Remy has to be his own rat, and cook in spite of consequences . . . even as Mr. Incredible must be a superhero to a thankless world. In Bird's vision, even those who lack great talent can display great virtue, like Linguini telling the world the true source of his culinary skill, or Remy's father rallying the rat clan to his son's aid. It's a very American sort of ethic, celebrating individualism and achievement in the service of the greater good.
Of course, we could nit-pick. Remy's puppeteering of Linguini is so preposterous that it still baffles me that I could suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the conceit. And Anton Ego's conversion from cold hauteur to life-affirming rave will rival Ebeneezer Scrooge for most-belief-defying epiphany. And yet . . . We still enjoy it. Why? Because we have a faith in human transformation that transcends all bounds of reason. The story may be set in France, but it's really unfolding in the American mind, where all sins can be forgiven, all differences recognized, and any rat can grow up to be the greatest chef in the world.
Saturday, February 9. 2008
My wife and I have been slooowly working our way through all five seasons of Six Feet Under for the last . . . well, six years. Now that we're just three episodes away from the end, I believe I have finally cracked the code and have the formula for writing a "Six Feet Under" story arc:
See how the pattern matches (warning: massive spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Six Feet goes Under"
Friday, December 21. 2007
I don't like stories about adultery. It's not that I'm so morally high-minded that I find the notion repugnant (though I do). It's rather the opposite: I can project myself all too easily into the shoes of the adulterer, and the lurking dread of being exposed for one's shameful deeds is so emotionally disturbing to me that it leaves me visibly distraught. It is, literally, an Enneagram Three's worst nightmare. When Rico Diaz's marriage hit the rocks on Six Feet Under I could barely sleep at night; the notion of good people destroying their lives with a few bad judgements terrifies me.
So you'd think I'd have no use for Notes on a Scancal, an adultery tale in which Judi Dench plays the aging, diary-writing observer of her young colleague's affair with a student. Â Ah, but this is Judi Dench, whose acting ability only grows with her ever-advancing age, and the sheer spectacle of her portrayals makes it worth the emotional upheaval. Â I don't think anyone else could play the role of Barbara Covett, whose character drifts from tartly sympathetic to utter pathetic to nastily evil to (at last) sympathetically pathetic. This is one of those movies where everyone is superficially likable and deeply flawed, and you are reminded again of just how much sin is the result of weakness.
Some other thoughts (warning: spoilers follow):
Saturday, October 20. 2007
Pan's Labyrinth was a critical darling when it came out last year, and I had enjoyed Guillermo del Toro's production of Hellboy so much that I thought it would be slam-dunk for a Netflix pick. Psychological treatment of fairy tales,Â surreal interweaving of alternate realitiesÂ . . . sounds like my kind of movie. When young Ofelia's mother marries a ruthless army officer in the Franco regime, Ofelia finds herself out in the country, on the front-lines of a guerilla war. As the plots and counterplots of heroic revolutionaries and sadistic oppressors play out in the rural village, Ofelia finds herself lost in a fantastic struggle of her own, as fairies and a faun guide her through a quest to regain her lost heritage as the princess of the underworld.
EvenÂ the R-rating at the beginning did not really prepare me for the starkly terrifying violence that ensues. Notice I didn't say gratuitous violence -- every gruesome scene is measured out carefully, applied with maximum shock value, and furthers the story. Capitan Vidal's cold-blooded executions and torturings are so brutal that you will have to cuddle with your Bill of Rights at night to get to sleep. Ofelia's fairy world is no less horrific -- in one scene, when she enters the lair of a monster, she sees a sign of its previous victims, a pile of children's shoes that evokes Auschwitz as much as the Brothers Grimm. There is something about juxtaposing the real-world struggles with the fantastic ones that gives both of them more primal horror and fascination.
Still, the conceit that gives the story its strength is also its Achilles heel. The narrative never makes it clear whether Ofelia is really interacting with a magical realm, or whether it is all unfolding in her imagination. That carefully maintained ambiguity is a tribute to how tightly the story is plotted, but it has a distancing effect as well. I can never completely surrender, as Ofelia does, to the fantastic realm; it's a kind of anti-suspension-of-disbelief, in which nothing in the story can be taken for granted. So I find myself sitting back, analysing, sizing up the Faun, weighing Jungean archtypes, instead of just accepting the wonder and horror as it is presented.
There are spiritual themes lurking in the film, to the extent that they lurk in all fairy tales. Self-sacrifice abounds, but of a bloodier, more passionately stoic sort than American audiences may be ready to appreciate. I couldn't help but notice that for all the horror, nobody ever screams in this movie. Every time a character is shot or stabbed, there are blood-soaked clothes and stunned expression, but never so much as a moan. It feels like a Latin convention, that everyone must die with a look of transcendant, silent grief, as if they were being crucified.
But even the film is conscious of how much it makes of death scenes; when Capitan Vidal is facing his immanent end, he hands over his infant son to his captors and begins a some last-words speechifying: "Tell my son the time that his father died. Tell him... " But the rebel spy Mercedes just cuts him off: "No. He won't even know your name." BANG! All that vanity and machismo, the cover for a heartless man, is blown away in a moment, and the conceits of evil masquarading as courage are shownÂ to be more illusory than even the world of fairy tales.
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