headcheese goes to the movies, or, How to Criticize with a Hammer

One of the happiest times of the year for headcheese is when the summer movie doldrums end and stuff I want to see starts coming out again.  I love going to the movies.  Something about schlepping a burrito, some carbonated high-fructose corn syrup, and a blankie into a dark room, sitting square in the middle seat, sitting in MAD (Mutually Acknowledged Disinterest) with the dozen or so others who share my taste (or maybe think they’re getting something different), putting my boots on the seat in front of me, and zoning out into a dreamlike surround-soundy mummy-bag-like two to three hours of oblivion.  Either that, or, equally satisfying, going with Person of Interest and snuggling with him while making too-loud snarky comments about the movie.  Luckily he actually doesn’t find this obnoxious.  Either way, this is what makes headcheese happy, and with my busy and, let’s face it, shit-broke lifestyle, I don’t get to do it nearly often enough.

So I consider myself immensely fortunate that there are just so many good movies out this season that I am inexorably drawn to see them.  Not just things I want to see, but things I want to see specifically on the big screen rather than being a miser and waiting to download them when they pop up on torrent sites uh, buy them rightfully in complete accord with intellectual property laws.  A battalion of monkey butlers couldn’t keep me away from the cinema this month, despite the harried climax of a maddening semester.  (My wallet might disagree on the luckiness of this, but it doesn’t really get a say.) Therefore, I shall proceed to geek out and expound upon what I’ve already seen, as well as one that I haven’t seen yet because it isn’t released but on which I already have a lot to say.  And if I say a lot, you know I mean a lot.  [And if I say “allot,” you know I mean “allot” and not “a lot.”] Be warned, though, that if you see the red Mark of the Spoiler Beast, only read on if you already know the plot and just want to agree or disagree with my verdict, or if you don’t really give  a shit about it in the first place.  Or if you’re a masochist and like spoilers, ya weirdo.

Life of Pi– spoiler alert

I read this book not that long ago and still have vivid memories of many parts.  After all, some scenes were so haunting I don’t know if they will ever leave my head.  This is one case where I have to acknowledge that public consensus was right: this book (unlike Harry Potter and Dan Brown) is actually very much worth reading.  And I will say, with qualified approval, that the movie, too, is worth viewing– worth viewing, too, on the big screen if you can, where some of the visual experience is absolutely more enjoyable.  (I never see things in 3D so I can’t vouch for whether that’s worth it.)

The first fifteen minutes or so– setting the stage in India– were the least satisfying for me.  I expected the book’s (over)long exposition on the Pondicherry zoo and the relationship between humans and animals to be curtailed, but instead, it was completely cut; I felt this detracted from the significance of many of the later plot developments.  The depiction of Pi’s attraction to the three religions was better handled, doing a decent job at concision but faithfulness, although the appeal of Islam received an unfairly reduced amount of attention compared to the treatment of Hinduism and Islam.  I also found the narration of this portion through flashbacks, repeatedly cutting to scenes of adult Pi telling his story and often layered somewhat cheaply over the backstory, distracting; the narrator’s voice was essential, but immersion would have been better served by more continuous storytelling, allowing the voiceover to fade into the viewing experience.

My other beefs with the movie also largely involve sins of omission.  I am not so much of a purist that I think novels, even good ones, should not be altered to work well on screen (although I would argue that some books simply will never be suited to dramatization.)  The writers’ choices of what to cut, though, seemed very odd and dissatisfying to me.  The introduction of the French cook in the buildup to the Tsimtsum’s sinking suggests a larger role later in the film.  This means that the eventual leaving out of Pi’s delirious reencounter with the cook is doubly disappointing.  This was undoubtedly the most surreal interlude in the book– and in some ways, for me, the thematic and narrative climax.  I had been anticipating the handling of it above any other aspect of the movie, and without it, the story felt unfulfilled and somehow imbalanced, never having reached that final level of disconnect from rational, social reality.  Without the introduction of the surreal, the appearance of the carnivorous island felt sudden and out-of-place; more absurd and jarring than bewildering.

I am not a person who enjoys or copes well with vivid violent imagery.  As a lifelong strict vegetarian, I include violence against non-human animals in this statement.  However, unpleasant as it may be, I strongly believe that part of the disconcerting and moving quality of Life of Pi as a book was its graphic, frank descriptions of animal killing.  The increasing grimness of the violence, and Pi’s increasing role in its perpetration, is the main way in which the reader comes to understand his harrowing and testing, being forced to act against his own beliefs, coming to terms with his instinctual nature, and yet maintain his conscience and humanity.  Yet the movie glosses over these scenes in ways that seem pathetically artificial.  From Richard Parker’s slaughter of a goat, to the dismemberment of the zebra, to Pi’s fishing, the camera simply cuts away as soon as the carnage sets in.  Two of the most memorable but disturbing details of the book, also, are completely eliminated:  First, Pi’s guilt-laden killing of the sea turtle; second and worst, the brutal decapitation of Orange Juice the orangutan (or Pi’s mother, in the alternate story.)  These omissions are deeply reductive, making Pi’s story neater, friendlier and less troubling.

I get the impression that the filmmakers’ reasoning for the plot changes centered around a desire to make Pi a “family” movie, short enough and with a low enough rating to appeal at least to older children.  This idea was severely misdirected.  The themes of the movie are too adult, in interest level and complexity, for most youngsters.  The main effect of this pandering, therefore, is to make the story more bland and less powerful for the intended adult audience.  Ideally, a director’s cut would be released with this material included, but I doubt this will be the case, even though I suspect most of the omissions were filmed but landed on the cutting-room floor [where they were probably swept up and shipped to China for the manufacturing of lunch meats.]  In lieu of genuinely interesting, thought-provoking imagery, the writers settled for beating the allegorical religious connotations of the story into the, uh, ocean.  Had even five to ten minutes of Pi’s exposition about faith during the middle section of the movie been replaced with subtle visual symbolism, the movie could quite plausibly gone from mediocre to memorable.

One thematic treatment that I did deeply appreciate about this film was its depiction of the ocean.  From the awesome waves that assault the lifeboat to the imagined descent into the midnight zone to the calm, flat sea at night indistinguishable from the starry sky, the visuals were breathtaking, and truly allowed the viewer to experience the terrible beauty, immensity, and inexorability of the Pacific.  I still can’t imagine how much of this cinematography was “real” versus computer-generated, but it was so striking that I don’t much care.  For once, Hollywood truly impressed me, and that fact in itself is doubly impressive.

Overall, despite my serious criticisms, I enjoyed this movie and would recommend seeing it.  It’s definitely a case of read-the-book-first, though, or if it’s been a while, re-read it.  If you find out what happens by watching the film (or through my review… crap!) you’ll never be able to fully appreciate the experience of the book, and that would be a damn shame.

Skyfall

I’d fallen behind on Bond movies for far too long, having not seen any since Daniel Craig took over the role, when Person of Interest reminded me that I needed to catch up on them in time to see Skyfall on the big screen.  So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reboot– which is essentially what it is, changing fairly basic aspects of the franchise.  The latest installment was no exception.

I’ve not read much of Ian Fleming’s novels, but what I’ve heard from those who have indicates that the last three Bond movies are much more true to the original series’ tone and characterization than previously.  Either way, I approve of the difference.  Not to say I wasn’t a fan of Bond to begin with:  I grew up watching the movies on TV with my dad, and even when there was a certain amount of eye-rolling involved, they were always entertaining and, admit it, cool in their own special way.  The Daniel Craig movies keep that feel, superb chase scenes and all, but add refreshing new dimensions.  They are grittier, more self-consciously ironic, more realistic, and less predictably formulaic– particularly compared to the sometimes gratingly smug, flippant Pierce Brosnan era.  Craig’s Bond as a protagonist is incredibly fucked up but acknowledged as such, and identifiably human.

Skyfall sees these developments and raises them.  More than ever before, we get to see a Bond with a past, engaging in human relationships (however, as stated above, fucked up), and struggling with the consequences of his actions.  The increased complexity of his relationships is demonstrated irrefutably by the change in the nature of the “Bond girls.”  No longer is there a pre-determined love (read: sex) interest who will inevitably succumb to Bond’s charm and then disappear without a trace by the start of the next film.  Now we get women who have as much genuine character as time and plot allow, who are sometimes fucked up themselves, and whose purpose to Bond is more than sexual or leading-up-to-sexual.  Don’t get me wrong; Bond is still an incredible misogynist with an apparently insatiable libido, but that’s not the sum total of his interactions with the opposite sex.  Additionally, a brief nod to homosexual attraction in Skyfall helps to disrupt the blatantly heteronormative tenor of the franchise.

For the first time, the franchise seriously attempts to develop a meaningful metaphor.  We see a scarred Bond capable of aging and death, or at least near death, and part of a profession whose continued existence is vulnerable to both bureaucratic and vigilante threats.  The film uses this as context for a theme of age, youth and transition.  In order to secure a future for himself and his colleagues, Bond is forced to return, physically and psychologically, to elements of his past, while at the same time coming to terms with changes that threaten obsolescence.  The metaphor the film chooses is not terribly original: that of delving and surfacing.  Underground (and underwater) environments play a crucial role in the plot, with a significance that evolves throughout the film as Bond’s mindset progresses.  Despite the fact that this metaphor is far from innovative, and that in typical Hollywood fashion it is occasionally bludgeoned into a stupor by lack of subtlety, it is still by and large successful, and a worthy attempt to initiate a more artistic bent.  This is echoed by increasingly sophisticated and striking visuals, including openings that make a not-terrible pass at pop surrealism.

All in all, much like the Dark Knight trilogy does for Batman, Skyfall represents a smarter, darker take on Bond more relevant to a twenty-first century audience.  I know there will be those out there who dismiss the Bond films as violent, frivolous and amoral.  To them I say: sometimes, this is true.  But those qualities do not a bad movie make; nor does a character whose actions are at times repellant.  I see no lack of value in entertainment that does not offer moral solutions, as long as it does not claim to do so.  If you didn’t like the older movies, at least give the new ones a chance.  That’s an order.

Star Trek: The Next Generation season 2 special event

Okay, so this isn’t really a movie, and it’s something where if you didn’t see it when I did, you’re out of luck; your only option is to wait for the Blu-Ray to come out, so I won’t wax on too long about it.  However, I’m under the impression that there will follow more such events for each season upon its release, so you still have a shot at those.  To clarify, these events are theatrical showings of two episodes from the latest season of TNG to be remastered in HD, along with extras like outtakes and cast reunions.

This was the second event I’d attended and each time, I’ve been pleased by the simple fact that at the end of the showing, everyone begins clapping enthusiastically.  It’s hard to find activities that foster a sense of community while still allowing you to mind your own beeswax.  Maybe it’s because I started watching TNG before I was even old enough to get a lot of it, but just the first few moments that opening sequence– “Space: the final frontier…” — instantly makes me feel like a kid again.  It connects me to the past, in the experience of watching television as a child; to imagined futures where humanity makes just a little more sense than it does now; and to the present moment, because once that theme starts playing I’m lost to the world.  And I get the feeling that everyone else who attends these things has that same sort of attachment to the series.

Because of that coexistence of nostalgia and immersion, I’ve been ecstatic over the impeccable remastering of the series.  The editing team had to rescue the original film canisters and redo every single visual effect from scratch.  It is to their unspeakable credit that rather than attempt to modernize the effects with CGI, they chose to recreate as accurately as possible the effects as they were first produced, only in HD.  Perhaps to someone who’s not a Trek fan, this seems ludicrous:  why would you want stuff done with models and strings when you could have the latest and greatest instead?  Maybe you just can’t understand the appeal unless you love the episodes to death as they stood.  Imagine they’re a cherished teddy bear who’s now missing eyes and stuffing– you might sew the eye back on, but would you buy a new teddy bear to replace it?  Treason!  That thing’s been your bestie for 25 years!  You’d have to be Ted Bundy to replace it!  (Also, remember I’m a medievalist.  I like old shit.)

There’s also an argument to be made, though, based on an understanding of the sheer ingenuity that went into making those original effects, which has been greatly enhanced for me by the explanations in the extras at these events.  That goosebump-inducing wide shot of the Borg cube’s interior in “Q Who?”  A narrow shot of a soundstage edited into, get this, a painting!  With scaffolding made of Construx-ish toys in the foreground!  See, back before you could just sit down and model what you wanted on a computer (cf. Life of Pi’s CGI Richard Parker, or Gollum) people had to actually be freakishly creative.  To minimize that force of will and imagination by patting it on the head and telling it to run along and play with the rest of the 1980’s while the grown-ups mess with their computers would be disgraceful.  These are our icons.  They made television, and sci-fi, what it is today.  Show a little respect, whippersnappers.

Therefore, I adore the remastering job because its faithfulness to the series’ initial vision allows the maintenance of nostalgia, while the switch to HD brings that same vision to life with more color and immersion than ever.  That, alone, would be worth my money in going to these events when they come along.  The extras, though, are, well, extra enjoyment for the price.  The outtakes have me cracking up until I can’t breathe, and it’s touching to see how much of a family the cast appear, both then and now.  I imagine you’d be hard pressed to find a group of wittier, more likable actors on any TV set, and it’s kind of heartening to imagine that the characters who’ve felt like such good friends for years might also be played by people you’d actually like to know.

Two moments in the cast reunion for this season were particularly striking to me.  The first was Brent Spiner’s description of a young woman who approached him and thanked him for playing a role that became the “poster child” for Asperger’s before the diagnosis was well known.  If I was a cry-ey person this might have done it.  I don’t know if the significance of the android Data and his relationship to society, particularly in an episode like “The Measure of a Man” [Go on.  Click it.  You know you wanna]  can be fully grasped by someone who doesn’t feel inherently detached from the bulk of humanity, and as if fitting into its constraints requires constant awareness and adjustment.  Even if they’re not related to you in name, characters like Data give your experience a referent when you’re a weird kid.  They give you the hope that there might, at least in someone’s imagination, exist comparable life in the universe– that you aren’t a complete anomaly.

The second moment was Gates McFadden’s discussion of the reasons why she was fired after Season 1.  I have to admit this made me feel kind of guilty, because I’ve always been fairly critical of both McFadden and her character (Dr. Beverly Crusher) in large part due to the impression that she represented a kind of gendered stereotype that’s worked too hard to convince itself it’s not one.  It turns out, apparently McFadden agreed, and was fired for being too vocal in her objections to some of the first season’s sexist (and admittedly, in overall quality, hit-and-miss) writing.  I came away happy to know that much of the rest of the cast was also behind this line of criticism, and with a good deal of respect for McFadden– and, as always, for the rest of the cast and all those who went into the making of the series.  Guys, there’s never been anything like it since.

Provided they continue to hold these events with the release of each season, I’ll jump at the chance to continue attending them.  It’s well worth the (relatively hefty) admission price, and highly recommended.  Until then, I’ll have to settle for splurging on the Blu-Ray boxed sets.  I don’t have a B-R player right now, but I may soon have unlimited access to Person of Interest’s PS3… ah, the possibilities…

The Hobbit– spoiler alert

This is a movie I’ve been anticipating, with extremely mixed feelings, for 4 years now, and it’s finally here, just in time for my birthday, preciouss.  It’s been a (lame) running joke for all 4 years that if Peter Jackson & Co. screw it up as badly as they did the trilogy, I have an army of orcs ready to storm the studio.  As you might tell, I’m not exactly a fangirl.  I thought the screenwriting for LOTR was abysmal.  I understand the need to make cuts and changes when dramatizing literature, particularly literature as long and intricate as Tolkien’s work.  But the changes PJ’s partner and crew made were just nonsensical, and seem to be based around turning the trilogy into a cliched, hokey Hollywood sellout.   I wouldn’t have even recognized most of the characters if they hadn’t kept the same names.

The hobbits become boorish adolescent mockeries.  Aragorn becomes an angst-ridden pussy.  Faramir goes from one of the most touching, sympathetic characters to a complete jerk.  Boromir and Denethor are reduced from fatally flawed but complicated and relatable, to repulsive power-hungry gluttons.  Gimli is a buffoon there for comic relief when the hobbits aren’t present.  Furthermore, what was the point in deleting original developments like Tom Bombadil just too add lame diversions like the vacation to Osgiliath, and Aragorn tumbling melodramatically off a cliff to reappear later?  Why did wargs need to become strange giant hyenas instead of wolves, and Uruk-Hai need to be dug out of the ground in slimy membranes?  These changes don’t serve to adapt the book, just to torture and bastardize it into more mass-marketed tripe.  And, as someone who’s a total nerd for the history of textiles and garments manufacturing, I also have to say– Legolas played by Orlando Bloom wearing a velour poncho, and then apparently making a video diary as they run across Rohan?  Doubleyoo Tee Eff, man.  That’s just wrong in so many ways.

Therefore, as jumping up and downish with excitement as I am to see one of my favoritest books brought to the big screen, you can understand why I’m also feeling pretty nervous and protective.  Based on the two trailers that have appeared so far, I see evidence that this adaptation will be better than LOTR, but I also see signs that trouble me and tell me the Black Screenwriters (and casting directors and costumers) might be abroad again.  (Well, I know for a fact they’re abroad, in New Zealand to be specific.  Which is lucky for them.  They’re farther from my wrath.)

First let’s accentuate the positive.  Much of the cast is made up of actors whose work I deeply enjoy and respect.  I always did like Ian McKellan as Gandalf (seriously, who didn’t?) and for all Andy Serkis’ enthusiasm for PJ’s indecency, I admit to being taken with his Gollum.  I’m a fan of Martin Freeman, who seems like an appropriately aged and, based on the trailers, not overacted Bilbo.  Richard Armitage is a risky choice for Thorin Oakenshield, being decades younger than I and most viewers probably expect, but I’m not opposed to that, and I think he might just pull the role off.  I’m a bit sad to see that, contrary to earlier rumors, Billy Connelly will evidently not be among the company of dwarves.

However, reluctant as I am to say it, I’m far less enthused about Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown.  As much as I admire Mr. Fry and have enjoyed his previous dramatic roles, for example, in V for Vendetta and, especially, Wilde, I just don’t see this going well.  Stephen has seemed to become somewhat of a one-trick typecast pony in Hollywood during recent years, perhaps because of his age and weight, or his famous willingness to laugh at himself.  His role in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows illustrates this: he’s cast as exaggeratedly prattish and ridiculous, essentially the comic relief.  Based on his interviews on the subject, I get the impression that we may be about to see the Master suffer another Denethorism.  Eating testicles?  Seriously?  The Master, like Saruman in the trilogy, is the most modern character in The Hobbit, and therefore one of the most thought-provoking.  It is his very twentieth-century reliance on rhetoric to manipulate the population– his insistence on and confidence in his own authority– that sets him in conflict with the archaic values and methodology of the dwarves and the hobbit, making him a fitting antagonist.  Something tells me that Fry’s (or more accurately, PJ’s) Master is not going to embody this significance.  Why does it seem that the writers can’t think of any way to show someone is a baddy-baddy other than to make them grotesquely hedonistic?  I’m having traumatic flashbacks to seeing Denethor snarging down his Xmas repast while Minas Tirith looks about to fall to the Enemy and Pippin sings hobbit-pop.  I’m past the point of being surprised or disappointed if this is the case; instead, I’ll just be delighted if it’s not.  [Random note:  We need a blending of PJ and Fran Walsh’s names– if you don’t know, she’s his life partner as well as dutiful wordwhore.  I suggest “Freter Jalsh.”]

I’m also skeptical of the other humor employed in the two trailers.  I approve wholeheartedly of the somber tone of the company sitting in Bag End amidst clouds of smoke, their singing set to a tune that actually sounds remotely appropriate instead of Top 40-ish.  (I also really like what you can hear of the score, based on the same musical themes, which captures a proper sense of scope and drama.)  However, particularly in the second trailer, we see the dwarves taking on a more Freter-Jalsh’s-Gimli-esque role, being comically assaulted by a plummeting cave troll and omitting a series of “isn’t-this-comical” groans.  I don’t deny there is a strong element of humor in Tolkien’s portrayal of the dwarves, but it is of an ironic, not a slapstick, type.

The opening scenes paint Thorin & Co. (as even the name suggests) as almost absurdly post-industrial corporate, concerned with jargon and remuneration:  a weirdly out of place characteristic among the non-self-consciously populist, agrarian hobbits.  However, as Bilbo’s understanding and respect for the dwarves deepens, he and the reader gain an understanding of their paradoxically antiquarian heroic underpinnings.  Thorin, particularly, remains bombastic and conceited, but the obnoxiousness of this is gradually eclipsed by his integrity and history– a grandeur that outlives even his tragic falling out with Bilbo.  This complex dwarvish nature, I project, is extremely unlikely to be captured by the film’s portrayal, given the taste we find in the trailers.  Again, I’m saddened that the writers can’t attain a more sophisticated, interesting form of humor than throwing in court jesters upon whom the audience can look down.  This, more than anything, is against the spirit of Tolkien’s highly inclusive and empathetic writing, which manages to give respectful but pithy polyvocality to a diverse cast in a way rivaled perhaps only by Chaucer.

Finally, I am on the fence about the film’s stretching into two parts and inclusion of background material from the Appendices and Unfinished Tales, filling in the grander-scale events from the time of The Hobbit that foreshadow and set in motion the plot of the trilogy.  Although LOTR was originally intended as a single volume, for such a sprawling and multifaceted narrative, the three-way division is ultimately satisfying.  However, The Hobbit is a concise and tightly-crafted read, following a single journey propelled by a sequential and nearly undeviating plot.  I fear that the split will ruin the narrative flow and result in an anticlimactic jumble, as may the digressions into subplots that take us into the rest of Middle-Earth and its highly involved workings.  I kind of wish they would have divided it into a single movie telling Bilbo’s story, and another filling in the between-times.  In addition, as excited as I am to see a fleshed-out account of the machinations of the White Council, Gandalf in Moria, and the reemergence of the Dark Lord, I’m wincing at the prospect at most of this additional material being dramatized almost entirely out of Freter Jalsh’s imagination.  These stories are based largely on Tolkiens notes and essentially sidebars, not fully-narrated accounts.  At times, the “original” additions slipped into the trilogy films were cringworthily cheesy and out of place– take Sam’s didactic exposition at the made-up vacation in Osgiliath.  If the entire expansion on The Hobbit’s plot is written in these purple, juvenile terms, I might just have to reanimate Prof. Tolkien so that he can personally bitch-slap those responsible.

One final nitpick:  the dwarves’ costumes.  They appear to be, as you’d expect from Hollywood, attired in hack-and-slash-ish chain and scale mail and leather.  Anyone who knows the book remembers the (in the end, highly important and touching, with its acknowledgment in LOTR) garb of the company as cloaks and hoods in earthy sorts of tones.  Tolkien never mentions armor until Frodo’s mithril coat appears, which I believe to be a significant narrative development.  Thanks again, costumers, for fucking it up for the sake of pulp-fantasy stereotypes.  I guess I can still hope for no velour.

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