Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Unapologetically Adult

Probably the hardest thing to accomplish when depicting a famous superhero before they became one is sacrificing the tropes we've come to identify with them. Mark Clamen in Critics at Large suggests that Gotham more than compensates with a compelling backstory.

Dark City: FOX's Gotham

Donal Logue and Benjamin McKenzie star in Gotham, on FOX
"…with a very few examples of cruelty he will be more compassionate than those who, out of excessive mercy, permit disorders to continue, from which arise murders and plundering; for these usually harm the community at large, while the executions that come from the prince harm particular individuals." Machiavelli, The Prince 

"You can't have organized crime without law and order." Don Falcone, Gotham 
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the premiere episode of Gotham. I had pre-set expectations for FOX's much publicized Batman-without-Batman prequel series, and they were mainly skeptical. Ten years of Smallville(especially the more tortured plot and character elements of its final season) loomed large in my mind as September approached. As fun as the notion of a story set in Gotham years before the arrival of its caped and cowled crusader might be in theory, Gotham seemed a project destined to be over-burdened by a famously established future continuity and a wealth of film and television adaptations of the Batman universe. Developed for television by Bruno Heller (The Mentalist, HBO's Rome), the show promises to tell the largely unwritten story of a young James Gordon, destined of course to become Police Commissioner Gordon and Batman's best official defender, but who for now is still a rookie detective finding his way in a thoroughly corrupt police department. However, if the pilot is any indication of its ambitions, Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie, Southland) is merely the face of the show's real main character, the city of Gotham itself.

Robin Lord Taylor and Benjamin McKenzie in Gotham
Gotham comes to the small screen with all the advantages and disadvantages of stepping in to a well-established, deeply beloved and (to some) exhausted franchise. It has a built-in audience of viewers but an equally large audience of waiting naysayers whose expectations can never be satisfied. But it also has advantages over other "young" series (e.g. "young Merlin", "young Superman" or even now, amazingly, "young Mary, Queen of Scots"), which come with a primarily teenage cast and inevitable teen storylines. Gotham is in contrast an unapologetically adult show – even if its youngest characters, young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz, Touch), and Selina "Cat" Kyle (Camren Bicondova) with her preternatural agility, pixie haircut and unexplained goggles, are already shaping up to be the show's most intriguing. Batman and Batman stories come in all flavours and styles – from the colourfully camp to the morbidly existential – but its universe is no stranger to moral ambiguity, something that this show thoroughly embraces.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Counterfeit Sex

Gillian Flynn's novel of a highly dysfunctional couple, a marriage of ciphers, was a sensation when it came out. When David Fincher directed the adaptation, many admirers cited the satire. Nick Coccoma in Critics at Large couldn't find it.

S&M: David Fincher’s Gone Girl

Ben Affleck stars in David Fincher's Gone Girl

This review contains major spoilers for Gone Girl

“It was long. It was awkward. It had a terrible ending.” So one fellow patron declared at the conclusion of Gone Girl, the latest offering from David Fincher. I might nuance the first statement a bit. Fincher’s movie clocks in at two and a half hours, and though you don’t feel every second ticking by, you certainly sense the lugubrious pace by the second half. As to the ending, it’s insane for sure. The truth is, though, that the wheels fall off this bus well before the finale—about the same time the minutes start to hit you like a bag of rocks. And finally, some might dub the film’s feeling as awkward, the go-to adjective of we Millennials. But I would reach for a stronger descriptive. Sadomasochistic, for instance. Despite these quibbles, the tenor of the moviegoer’s opinion I’d agree with. Fincher’s taken Gillian Flynn’s novel and rendered it into a narrative that not only lacks almost any dint of crime genre thrills, mystery, and tension, but also exposes the shoddy character of the author’s writing. Not having read the book, I don’t know if these problems derive from the source material or Fincher’s direction. What I do know is that Ben Affleck’s performance as Nick Dunne saves this movie, even as it turns the filmmaker's intent on its ear.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Tonal Trouble

When a director of Jonathan Demme's caliber sets out to tackle Ibsen, it can raise your expectations until you discover that Demme would perhaps find a more companionable relationship with Chekhov. Steve Vineberg in Critics at Large discusses the the dismantling of A Master Builder, to be released soon on DVD by the Criterion Collection.

Ibsen Gone Wrong: A Master Builder

Wallace Shawn and Lisa Joyce in A Master Builder

André Gregory’s staging of Uncle Vanya (in the David Mamet translation), rehearsed over nearly five years and brought to the screen in 1994 by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, is one of the great achievements in modern American cinema. (I’d say it’s the best movie of the nineties, as well the best rendering of Chekhov I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see.) But Gregory and Jonathan Demme come a cropper with their film of A Master Builder, from Wallace Shawn’s version of Ibsen’s 1892 play, even though Gregory rehearsed it with his cast for even longer than he and his actors worked on Vanya. Ibsen is notoriously difficult to pull off, and Master Builder poses even more daunting challenges than the plays he wrote between 1879 (A Doll House) and 1890 (Hedda Gabler). Some of those texts – The Lady from the Sea and The Wild Duck – have symbolist leanings, but essentially he’s working within a realist framework and with the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama, which he alters in daring ways that made Victorian audiences uneasy. Master Builder, though, moved Ibsen more firmly toward the symbolism of works like Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken. Yet Gregory and his cast – with a single concession – treat it as if it were Chekhov, with disastrous results.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Family Romance

Although we live in an age of sexual explicitness, perhaps than in any other period of human history, it doesn't mean we have solved the mysteries of sex and repression. Writer Amanda Shubert found that out when she reviewed Adore (an adaptation of Doris Lessings The Grandmothers) for Critics at Large.   

Serenity and Perversion: On Doris Lessing and Adore

Robin Wright and Naomi Watts in Adore

The death last month of the Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing at the age of 94 drew a shower of obituaries and appreciations from across the English-speaking world. But few of those pieces talked about Adore, the movie French director Anne Fontaine and English screenwriter Christopher Hampton adapted this year from a story published in Lessing’s penultimate book, a collection of novellas entitled The Grandmothers. (It was published in 2003; Lessing’s final book, the novel/memoir Alfred & Emily, came out in 2008). As literary critics praised Lessing to the skies for her unabashed candor about female sexuality in novels like The Golden Notebook, credited as an influence to the second-wave feminist movement in the sixties, and for her revolutionary spirit, movie critics far and wide condemned Adore for its sexually transgressive subject: women who sleep with one another’s teenage sons. The movie people – largely male – who objected to Anne Fontaine’s lyrical and sensual depiction of what is, in essence, an incest story, didn’t acknowledge that the plot, tone, perspective and most of the dialogue came directly from Doris Lessing. And the literary people – often female – who eulogized Lessing didn’t rush to defend the movie. Why?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Power of the Performance

God knows there have been many great productions of Hamlet (and some bad ones, too), but Steve Vineberg writing in Critics at Large hasn't seen a Hamlet performance of quite the calibre of Rory Kinnear.

Hamlet of Hamlets

Rory Kinnear as Hamlet

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Hamlet at the National Theatre, which was transmitted in HD in 2010 and recently had an encore screening, is set in a distinctly modern police state where the omnipresence of security is such a familiar sight in the court of Denmark that the characters have stopped noticing them. Polonius (David Calder) and Ophelia (Ruth Negga) talk freely in front of one guard, though the topic of their conversation is her romantic relationship with Hamlet (Rory Kinnear), and when Polonius confronts her about it, he produces a file containing photos of them together. Spying is a natural impulse to Polonius, who sends Reynaldo (Victor Power) off to France to check on his son Laertes (Alex Lanipekun) and later gives his daughter a walkie-talkie concealed in a Bible so that he and King Claudius (Patrick Malahide) can hear how Hamlet reacts when she returns his love gifts. The way Calder plays the old counselor, he has a passion for spying. He’s proud of himself for his ability to tender this service to his king – though when he tells his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true,” he pauses, unsettled, and you wonder if, just for a moment, he contemplates the possibility that he’s violated his own principles (at least since Claudius took over the throne). After Hamlet kills him by accident in his mother’s bedroom and Claudius can’t get him to stop clowning long enough to tell him where he stowed the body, one of the king’s men opens an attaché case full of torture instruments, and Hamlet, who has been handcuffed, acquiesces. Instead of being a fop (as he’s usually played), Osric (Nick Sampson) is the same military man who had a hand in Hamlet’s deportation to England – where he was supposed to be executed on the English king’s orders – and when he invites Hamlet to take part in the duel with Laertes, it’s obvious to us that he’s in on the conspiracy.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Happy Gazing

Racing car movies for some reason seldom work as drama, but Ron Howard's Rush certainly did. Phil Dyess-Nugent suggested how and why in his review from Critics at Large.

Face Value: Ron Howard's Rush

Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl in Ron Howard's Rush

Like many people who have spent their entire adult lives, and then some, working in Hollywood, Ron Howard has a frame of reference shaped far more by movies than real life experience or history. As a child actor, Howard made a career out of gazing, in awe and worshipful confusion, at those who had mastered adult life, and as a successful, middle-aged movie director, that’s still his specialty. This can be a problem when he insists on making movies about people who have one foot in common, everyday experience, set in a world that is meant to be our own. I don’t remember ever having had a worse time at the movies than Backdraft (1991), his battling-firefighter-brothers movie, with a story thread about political corruption and a rip-off of Hannibal Lecter thrown in for good measure; the movie had a lot of problems to choose from, but the one at its core was its embarrassing, confident assumption that everyone still feels about firemen the way they did when they were eight years old. (If it had been released ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, it might have been acclaimed for its Zola-like realism.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Poirot R.I.P.

As Agatha Christie's iconic detective Hercule Poirot came to a conclusion on television, Shlomo Schwartzberg revisited the series in Critics at Large with fond nostalgia.

The Virtues of Old Fashioned Pleasures: TV’s Poirot

Note: the following contains a spoiler

I’ve been checking out some recent mysteries on TV and more and more, I can’t help wondering why so many of them really fail to gel as good drama or become convincing stories. Alan Cubitt’s The Fall, yet another serial killer series – can that trope be dispensed with once and for all? – offered up an interesting depiction of fraught police work in Belfast, Ireland, and a fine performance by Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as an independent but socially oblivious police inspector who doesn’t care whose feathers she ruffles as she conducts her investigations. Yet it became progressively less compelling over its five-part run (it’s been renewed for a second go round) namely because its conceived serial killer became less and less believable. Despite a neat plot development in episode five, the series, which didn’t but should have wrapped up this particular storyline, was distinctly unsatisfying. Top of the Lake, co-created by Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee is a wonky drama about a 12-year-old pregnant girl who goes missing in rural New Zealand. That’s certainly a provocative premise but the seven-part drama – which I’m about halfway through – is hobbled by Campion’s usual tin ear for how people actually speak and a pallid lead performance by Elisabeth Moss as a cop who gets involved in the case. American Moss (Peggy from Mad Men), is a good actress but her part is poorly written and in Top of the Lake she seems to be trying so hard to get her New Zealand patois right – it sounds okay – that she mostly forgets to act. (The less said about Holly Hunter's monosyllabic and lazy performance as the leader of a feminist commune the better.) If not for a fascinating turn by Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as the missing’s girl’s rough hewn, criminally minded father, I don’t think I’d be sticking with it at all. Cubitt and Campion ought to take a gander at the long running TV incarnation of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to see how snappy mysteries should be done. Poirot may not be as edgy or topical as their two shows but it’s superior television nonetheless.