Thursday, March 29, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hunger Games" by David Pretty

Greetings, Tributes! 

The Most Dangerous Game, Battle Royale, The Running Man, The Long Walk, Wipeout: pop culture is littered with sadistic contests where people are the prey.  The Hunger Games, based on the first book in Suzanne Collins best-selling trilogy, is just the latest in a long line of dystopian sci-fi tales where the bored and rich elite use the lower class for sport.

Sadly, we're coming to the point where I can probably omit the "sci-fi" descriptor.

Since the premise of The Hunger Games isn't exactly what I'd call wildly original, the film's ultimate value depends on how intelligent, creative and well-executed it is.  As such, the movie is a mixed bag but not without a heart, a soul and a brain.

Roll da trailah!!!  


Presumably set in a time after a particularly nasty Mayan prediction has had its way with us, The Hunger Games posits a future ravaged by societal breakdown.  North America, now called Panem, has fractured into twelve districts based on available resources and enforced production.  The story begins in the poor coal-mining region of District Twelve, where a young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hones her bow-wielding skills in order to provide for her young sister Primrose (Willow Shields) and their nearly-catatonic mother (Paula Malcomson).

As a constant reminder of the dangers of past rebellion, the wealthy elite have decreed that one boy and one girl between the age of twelve to eighteen will be randomly chosen from each District to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games.  After her younger sister is selected for the competition, Katniss is forced to volunteer in her place.  The local baker's son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) ends up being her male counterpart. 

The two are immediately whisked away to the Capitol by their bloodless escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).  En route they're introduced to Haymitch Abernathy, an alcoholic Hunger Games survivor who's intended to be their coach.  While living the high life as "Tributes", the kids are given a crash course in the lethal arts and encouraged to curry sponsorship with rich citizens.  All of this is designed to maximize the televised spectacle to follow.

Even after days of intense training, nothing can prepare Katniss for the brutality exhibited by her rivals when the competition starts.  During the first day of the Games, nearly half their numbers are slaughtered.  Employing her wilderness survival skills, she manages to avoid confrontation and keep a semblance of her innocence intact.  The balance of the film follows Kat as she forms tentative alliances, re-unites with Peeta and creatively battles back against overwhelming odds.

The first thing that struck while watching the film are the retro sensibilities of the costume, hair and make-up.  For the longest time, producers have avoided such extreme designs, presumably because they feared comparisons to dated fare like Logan's Run or Barbarella.  Here, the producers of The Hunger Games throw caution to the wind and give us some of the wildest conceptions seen on film in decades.   

Normally I despise such things.  The sci-fi films of the Sixties and Seventies tried to convince viewers that they were watching something SET IN THE FUTURE by giving us the equivalent of a Bob Mackie dance routine.  Frankly, I never really bought into that; especially when you consider how little business suits have changed over the years.  But there's something about these stylistic choice that makes subliminal sense in The Hunger Games.

The lower class, relegated to menial labor, look like Victorian factory workers.  The mindless guards resemble a cross between the cops from Fahrenheit 451 and Dark Helmet's minions in Spaceballs.  While on parade, the Tributes are dressed up like super-heroes.  And I've always suspected that the 1% think of themselves as transcendent, otherworldly and regal, so it makes thematic sense to gussy them up like Karl Lagerfeld meets Willy Wonka.

I respect screenwriters Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for taking the time to develop the characters.  By the time Katniss finds herself half-way up a tree and surrounded by homicidal rivals intent on killing her, the suspense is palpable.  On the flip side, I'm really surprised that the writers don't give Kat more of a character arc.  She's stalwart, idealistic and determined at the start of the film and, well...stalwart, idealistic and determined at the end.  I'm also baffled that the film fails to explore the mindset of the upper class ghouls who revel in the Games, but I think it's safe to assume that this will be explored in future entries.

The performances really make the film.  Having never read the original novels, I really can't address the "controversial" casting decisions.  I will say that, as an outsider to the publishing phenomenon, most of the actors seem well-suited to the the spirit of the characters.  Jennifer Lawrence in particular is youthful enough to seem vulnerable as Katniss but her presence is pure conviction.  I couldn't detect a single misfire in her showing and the scene in which she stuns the sponsors with her William Tell impersonation is applause-worthy.

The character of Peeta doesn't inspire nearly as much sympathy and, as such, his flaws are fascinating to me.  After entering the contest as an underdog, Peeta goes all emo after Kat scores better in the preliminaries but then awkwardly confesses his love for her on live television.  Then, in the early goings of the competition his loyalties seem fleeting and, worst of all, flashbacks call into question his bravery and compassion.  Taken together, all of these elements make for a pretty divisive character but at least there's some complexity at work.

Actor Josh Hutcherson has sort of a bland, "Disney Channel" quality about him that I find kind of innocuous.  Maybe I have a bad taste in my mouth because he also played Robin William's obnoxious, hip-hop brat of a son in the spectacularly unfunny R.V.   Despite my own prejudices, I really can't slight the kid's performance; Peeta is meant to be a bit of a milksop and Hutcherson delivers on this.  I just don't think it was the intention of the producers that audience members such as myself were silently hoping that Kat would just snap and make his head look like a pincushion.

Kat's nominal stay-at-home love interest Gale Hawthorne is a bit of a non-entity, but I suspect that his character will also emerge in the sequel.  At face value, Liam Hemsworth represents yet another uninspired choice but this seems to be a recurring theme amongst the younger cast.  Youth in The Hunger Games is depicted as natural, corn-fed, square-jawed and well-groomed.  This is stark contrast to the older rich folks who hide their decadence under layers of thick pancake makeup, bizarro hairdos and oddball outfits.  Hawthone's performance is certainly more then adequate for what little is asked of him.

If someone went back to 1985 and told me that the wide-eyed rube behind the bar at Cheers would still have a relevant career in 2012 I would have laughed in their face.  But Woody Harrelson did what I'd recommend to any actor to do after coming off of an iconic role: don't be afraid to take a pay cut, accept  a lower billing or pick quirky, non-commercial character roles that go against type.  It might be lean for a few years, but I guarantee that it'll pay off in the long run.

Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernarthy, winner of the 50'th Hunger Games and coach to the Tributes.  He's introduced as a besotted, egotistical asshole who's behaviour is clearly symptomatic of tremendous damage.  Not only is he likely suffering from PTSD, he's also been forced to spend the last fourteen years of his borrowed life ushering children into a meat grinder.  Harrelson does a masterful job tempering the character's boorish and cynical qualities with an involuntary fondness for Kat.

Elizabeth Banks does a stupendous job as the truly reprehensible Effie Trinket.  Although the unbridled glee she exhibits while selecting the Tributes seems disturbingly authentic, Banks makes sure that there's more to Effie then meets the incredulous eye.  Whenever the kids neglect their "manners", her mini-meltdowns appear to reveal a deep inner fear.  Beneath the Kool-Aid guzzling surface, Banks gives us the impression that Effie would be prone to a complete and total mental breakdown if someone were to point out just how rotten the entire system is.

The supporting cast is just as colorful.  Sporting a shock of electric blue Amadeus hair, Stanley Tucci is great as the fraudulently flamboyant reality show host.  Lenny Kravitz seems comfortably entrenched in the role of Kat's personal stylist Cinna.  Donald Sutherland makes for an ice-cold Big Brother as President Coriolanus Snow.  Finally, Wes Bentley is great as the Luciferian gamesmaster Seneca Crane.  At the very least, the character's beard has surely trumped Mr. Spock's goatee as the EVILEST FACIAL HAIR IN POP CULTURE HISTORY.

The producers make some needless stylistic choices that really pissed me off.  Director Gary Ross (who brought us Seabiscuit and Pleasantville fer Chrissakes) goes w-a-a-a-a-a-y over the top with the shaky-cam.  Even before the first action beat, Ross had me reaching for the Dramamine with his hyper-zoom palsy-afflicted establishing shots.  And then, just as soon as the first fight breaks out, Ross shoots the entire thing in hyper-close up and then chops the shit out of it.

I know we're not meant to revel in the visceral thrills of the violence and I can appreciate the film-makers trying to emphasize the unexpected chaos of the Games.  I'm down with using these techniques to kick off the action, but I hate being deprived of the narrative told in every good fight sequence.  Eventually I gave up trying to determine who was getting the upper hand and just waited for the dust to settle.

I'm getting really tired of directors taking the lazy way out by substituting a series of hyper-kinetic close-ups for a well-staged action scene.  Look, I'm not asking for Drunken Master II levels of choreography here, I just want them to back the friggin' camera up so we can see what the fuck is going on! 

It's a tender mercy that there's very little CGI used in the movie, since what we do get isn't particularly convincing.  Computer generated city-scapes and the Tribute's chariot entrance look totally fraudulent when juxtaposed with the Orwellian glory of the lottery stage.  Mercifully, the Games sequence is shot in all-natural surroundings, providing few excuses for digital fudgery.  Also, I don't care how far into the future we are, someone has to explain to me how the game runners can summon packs of deadly creatures out of thin air just to screw with the combatants.

Trust me when I say this: The Hunger Games is pretty derivative.  In fact, it's a virtual rip-off of Koushun Takami's novel Battle Royale, which was published back in 1999 and then committed to film in 2000.  But there is one critical difference between the two: Takami's story was inspired by the older generation's inability to deal rationally with youth rebellion whereas The Hunger Games attacks the wealthy elite for regarding plebes as grist for their mill.  The same vehicle is used to drive similar messages, but I think there's room on the road for both.

The Hunger Games may not win any awards for originality, be it's slickly made, competently filmed and well-acted.  As such, I'm not opposed to watching future entries to see if the producers can expand their dystopian vision, deepen the thematic scope and justify my initial interest.

    Tilt: up

Monday, March 19, 2012

T.V. Review "Game of Thrones: Season One" by David Pretty

Well Met, Starks and Lannisters!

Okay, confession time.  A few years back I picked up the first book in George R.R. Martin's epic Song of Ice and Fire saga and then promptly abandoned it three-quarters of the way through.

"Zounds!" you say.  "What would have necessitated such boundless folly?"

Well, a coupla things, actually...

(1) Some of Martin's prose irked me.  I hate reading stuff like:  "All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not” or "His cloak was his crowning glory; sable, thick and black and soft as sin."   "Soft as sin?" Really, George?

(2)  I found that many of the characters were one-dimensionally repugnant and I had a hard time relating to any of them, even the Starks.

But, being a sucker for all things fantasy, I couldn't resist peeping the first season of HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones.  Mercifully in doing so I didn't have to slog through acres of tiresome world-building descriptive passages and the actors really helped to give added dimension to these occasionally one-note characters.

Utilitarian sword-wielder Sean Bean plays Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell in the realm of Westeros. Against his wishes he's summoned to the court of King Baratheon (Mark Addy) to replace the monarch's majordomo who perished recently under mysterious circumstances.  As soon as Stark sets foot in the capitol of King's Landing he's immediately embroiled in all sorts of Machiavellian court shenanigans, not the least of which involve the unconventional relationship between Queen Cersei (Lena Headley) and her brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).

Interwoven amongst this are a good baker's-dozen sub-plots that I won't even presume to recap.  Suffice to say that the "family tree" insert included with the Blu-Ray really helps to keep all of the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, Targaryens and their myriad of associates apart from one another.  Indeed, Martin weaves a tangled web here, but the producers of the series and the proficient actors do a bang-up job keeping all of these characters and plot lines separate.

The first thing that struck me is the overall look of the series.  Game of Thrones may not be a theatrical release, but the production values are just as good if not superior.  Hats off to the producers for shooting on location in Ireland, Malta and Iceland.  Trust me: you can't get this level of authenticity with the actors running around in front of green-screen digital fabrications.  Just ask George Lucas.

The sets are jaw-droppingly realistic and often breathtaking.  For example, the King's Landing throne room, with its filigree columns, stained glass windows and less-then-cozy seat of office, is a real triumph of production design.  Winterfell is also a convincing habitat: worn, grim and workaday.  The nomadic tribe of Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is like a mobile ecosystem complete with pitch-able yurts and an entire army of specialized workers.

It's not enough that the sets looks spectacular, but the set dressing also deserves a special nod.  Witness the host of elaborate and realistic tchotchkes decorating the chambers of Grand Maester Pycelle (former Imperial AT-AT commander Julian Glover).  The plush environs of the brothel owned by Lord Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen) is rife with all sorts of eye-candy (*Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink*).  The barracks, kitchen and mess-hall of the Wall fortress is virtually chock-a-block with throwaway details in the hinterland of every frame.

Great care was also taken to make the military dress of each house distinct from one another.  The armor worn by Brotherhood of the Night's Watch seems cobbled together from any available source.  This is in stark (heh, heh) contrast to the dark leather and fur look sported by Winterfell's guards.  In turn, the gilded full-plate armor worn by the Lannisters is completely different.  Just having these visual demarcations in place, we can throw away the slide rule and just enjoy the proceedings.

Also major tip of the visor goes out to the weapon-makers.  Arya's Needle is distinctively lethal-looking.  Ned Stark's sword Ice certainly looks more then capable of meting out some capitol punishment.  The crowning glory, however, has to be Jon Snow's Longclaw, with its distinctive dire wolf pommel.  As this show continues to creep into the zeitgeist of public awareness, you know that the secondary collectible replica weapon-smithing market's gonna go into hyperdrive.

A host of talented directors help to bring a cinematic eye to the series.  The emergence of the White Walkers in the first ten minutes of the premiere episode is handled with cool malevolence by Tim Van Patten.  Tyrion's brief military career is given some Saving Provost Ryan panache courtesy of Alan Taylor, who helmed episode nine.  I'm also a big fan of the growing unease produced by Bran's recurring three-eyed crow dreams, a shtick which makes its debut in the third episode directed by Brian Kirk.

But it's the flawlessly-cast, industrious actors who really give Game of Thrones its immeasurable appeal. Considering how many times Sean Bean has played this sort of role, he probably could have portrayed Ned Stark with one sword-arm tied behind his back.  Instead his goes to great lengths to get to the core of the character: a world-weariness born from his constant struggle to reconcile duty and honor with the safety and welfare of his family.  So invested, it's nearly agonizing to watch as Stark becomes more and more entangled in the court chicanery of King's Landing.

Mark Addy is tremendous as regal frat boy Robert Baratheon.  Robert's kinda like the George W. Bush of the medieval set; a besotted brawler and party animal who just so happened to fall into the job of King.  Every time Addy is onscreen, he's the perfect study of an accidental monarch: crude, boorish, paranoid, bereft of patience and acutely allergic to responsibility.  It's really a testament to Addy's charisma as an actor since I really didn't care for this character in the book yet sympathized with him a tad in the series.

Ned's stalwart wife Catelyn is played by Michelle Fairley.  Interesting enough, the role originally belonged to Pride and Prejudice sweetheart Jennifer Ehle, but she was forced to drop out due to family commitments.  Although I'm confident that Jennifer would have been stupendous, Michelle brings a certain edginess to the part, especially where it concerns Jon, the physical embodiment of her husband's infidelity.  As the Stark family begins to fracture, Michelle perfectly balances Catelyn's emotional requirements with an iron-clad resolve.

Danish-born Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is another prime example of the show's intuitive casting.  Jamie Lannister represents one of many ripe bastards in Martin's saga: a pompous dandy who talks a good game but would likely fold quicker then Superman on laundry day if faced with capable opposition.  Nikolaj matches his physical perfection for the role with some immeasurably smug line deliveries.  He really shines in later scenes in which Jamie reveals a hint of honor and contrition.

Lena Headly is something of a genre superstar, having previously portrayed Queen Gorgo in 300.  She's equally regal here in the role of Robert Baratheon's nominal wife Cersei Lannister, but also helluva lot darker.  On the page, Cersei is already a perverse, twisted harpy who unconscionably exploits her family like pawns on a chessboard, but after watching Headley's performance in Game of Thrones, I'm convinced that does scheming bitch even better then regal queen.  In every scene she was in I kept silently praying that one of the other characters will come to their senses and liberate her head from her body.

Emelia Clarke may not have a lot of acting experience under her belt, but she has no problem rising to the occasion as Daenerys Targaryan.  Another fortuitous eleventh hour replacement, Emilia really has quite the challenge going from abused bargaining chip to ascendant Khaleesi and finally to a creature reborn.  She's phenomenal: sympathetic and wilting at first, triumphant and self assured in transition and an otherworldly phoenix by the end of the season.  The scene where she consumes a horse's heart in order to be inducted into the Dothraki tribe certainly required considerable presence in addition to a cast-iron stomach.

(Sorry, even if the horse heart was forged in the medium of gummi it still looked repulsive.)

Speaking of presence, Iain Glen is a tremendous asset as Ser Jorah Mormont, a disgraced knight who's charged with protecting the exiled Targaryens.  His task is not an enviable one since he's constantly guarding Daenerys from the auspices of an entire tribe of xenophobic mongols and assuaging the more extreme behavior of her psychotic brother Viserys.  The boundless reserve of seasoned calm and sturdy resolve that Glen effortlessly exhibits in every single scene makes him one of the unsung heroes of an already-distinguished cast.    

Viserys himself is played to loopy perfection by Harry Lloyd.  I swear, if they ever get around to making the film version of Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer series they needn't look any further for Elric.  Again, here's another example of a character that I'd completely written off in the book as a one-dimensional creep who gains some modicum of nuance thanks to the efforts of a talented actor.  Lloyd is so gleefully crude and reckless that he almost makes you feel as if what he's doing maybe isn't all that evil after all.  Wisely, Lloyd's performance is tinged with the intimation of inherited madness, which serves to excuse some of the character's more inexplicably loathsome behavior.

Irish actor Aiden Gillen is another solid fit, playing King's Landing's duplicitous treasurer Petyr Baelish.  Although a bit statuesque for the role of the diminutive "Littlefinger", Gillen is certainly equipped with the acting chops to handle the character's many facets.  Fawning one moment and scheming the next, it's high testimony that his "brothel soliloquy" in episode seven isn't eclipsed by the immeasurable distractions inherent in the scene.  You know what I mean if you've seen it.          

Jon Snow is obviously the character that most people will sympathize with and Kit Harrington gives us suitable incentive to root for him.  Jon's decision to exile himself to the Wall is made more impactful by Harrington's implied disbelief that no-one seems to care.  Being the black sheep of House Stark gives Harrington plenty of opportunity to be medievally emo (mediemo?) but this is nicely balanced by a palpable concern for his family and a strong moral compass.  Which, let's face it folks, is in very short supply in Westeros.

And then there's l'il Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, arguably my favorite character and performance of the series.  At first this unkempt ragamuffin seems like just another unctuous, one-dimensional brat but as her screen time ticks by she quickly becomes the show's most consistent touchstone.  Every time Ms. Williams delivers one of Arya's acerbic observations about the blatant cruelty of Joffrey or her sister Sansa's mindless devotion to the Prince, we can't help but cheer.  With a flash of her saucer-shaped eyes and crooked smile, audiences will instantly fall in love with this endearing moppet.  There's even an uncanny resemblance between her and Michelle Fairley, which helps to sell the mother/daughter connection. 

Sansa Stark may not be as appealing a character as Arya but she's no less honest or intriguiging.  For me it's almost impossible to believe that Game of Thrones represents Sophie Turner's first on-camera role.   I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Ms. Turner has a tremendous future ahead of her.  She can deliver on the petulant, vapid qualities inherent to the role but also tap into a vast reserve of vulnerability.  In Turner's care, the character's superficial pursuit of Joffrey becomes a symptom of her own crippling insecurities.  Once again, I found myself caring for screen Sansa more then her prose counterpart.

Over the course of ten episodes, Richard Madden confidently guides Robb, the eldest of the Stark brothers, from callow youth to war commander.  The scene where he manages to overcome his inexperience and unite his father's lieutenants under one banner is unexpectedly convincing.  By adopting a few of Sean Bean's vocal tells and tapping into his own unique reserve of authority, Madden makes for a rousing emerging character.

Theon Greyjoy is a very unique and interesting character to me.  The child of a rival family, Theon was taken hostage by Eddard and never returned to his own clan.  Although raised as one of the Stark children, Theon is aware of his origins and feels as if he's caught between two worlds.  Actor Alfie Allen really runs with the subtext provided by this interesting genesis, giving Theon a sense of coiled unrest.  Since his character has no grand destiny, he spends much of his time bored, idle and despirately trying to puzzle out his own place in the world.  It's interesting to watch Allen struggle to reconcile Theon's own perceptions of being high-born in a place that really doesn't recognize it.

My Stark family round-up concludes with gifted child actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran.  Again, we all know how tricky it is to cast child actors properly, but getting this kid was fortuitous.   He has incredible emotional range and powers of conviction way beyond his age.  Most young actors interpret injured and despondent as whiny and sour-faced but not this kid.  He's genuine in one scene after another, particularly in the dream sequences.  I suspect fans will have a blast watching Isaac's acting abilities (and stature, no doubt!) grow over the coming years.  

To me, young Jack Gleeson has the biggest challenge since the novelized Price Joffrey pissed me off the most.  Regardless of my visceral reaction to the character, I can't demerit Gleeson's effort.  He's quite versitile, switching gears from boastful to craven and from tender to loathesome at the drop of a helmet.  I challenge any viewer not to boo him like a vadueville baddie after he blatantly lies about the altercation with Arya and then does a bait-and-switch with Sansa's affections.  Say what you will about the heavy-handed nature of the writing, Gleeson virtually assures that Joffrey is the whelp you love to hate.

I also have to give a major shout-out to Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo.  I'm sure the casting directors did a cartwheel as soon as this dude strolled in since he's inhumanly intense, built like a brick shithouse and can rock an imaginary language like no-one's bidness.  I love the scene where he performs a frontal throat-ectomy on a rival warrior as casually as playing a game of soduku.  Then there's his "declaration of war" monologue which is the acting equivalent of a tornado destroying a trailer park.  It's a shame that Conan the Barbarian was cursed with a crap script and hack director, since Momoa makes for a convincing Cimmerian whenever he's on screen.

And last but certainly not least, what can I say about Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister that hasn't already been said?  Short folks often get marginalized in the roles they're offered, so naturally the resulting performances often follow suit.  But when a complicated, multi-faceted role and a supremely gifted actor are combined he result is sometimes triumphant.  When it comes to Dinklage, there are just too many examples to cite, but Tyrion's fast-talk with Mord in the Sky Cell really shows just how expressive, insightful, animated and intelligent a performance can be.  Frankly it's an Emmy well-deserved and I look forward to more scenes of Tyrion flaunting his 18 Charisma.        

My only real issue with HBO's Game of Thrones is the same issue I had with the book: namely that characters like Joffrey and Viserys seem to say and do things merely for the express purpose of getting the audience to loathe them.  When Viserys threatens to run his sister and unborn child through with a sword right in front of Drogo there's no way you can regard such behavior as anything but moronic.  And when Joffrey does a thumbs down on a V.I.P. (Very Important Prisoner) even a child would know that such a rash decision would immediately threaten his precious and very short reign.

This sort of transparent characterization also results in gobs of wince-inducing dialogue that virtually trumpets the alignment of the speaker.  When Viserys tells his sister that he'd willingly let her be raped by forty-thousand khalsar and their freakin' horses in order to secure Drogo's army, he has to know that Daenerys is filing shit like this away for when the power balance is more in her favor.

Also, as if the actions of the Lannisters wasn't dreadful enough, their predisposition for inner-family humpery is particularly repugnant.  Even in the short duration of human history on our planet, pretty much every culture has come to regard incest as contrary to genetic stability, not to mention downright nauseating.   Indeed, if Houses Lannister and Targaryan have been around for so long, why aren't these people walking around with superfluous limbs and extra eyes by now?

But Game of Thrones does a helluva lot more right then it does wrong.  I love the fact that no character is safe, a philosophy I personally embraced while crafting my own novel.  From The Dragonlance Saga to Serenity I've since come to respect any property that's willing to whack a major character if it's integral to the story.  Sorry, folks, but sometimes the good guys don't always come through unscathed and sometimes the bad guys win the day.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Game of Thrones is that, just as soon as I finished the tenth episode, I wanted to rewatch it immediately.

And I also wanted to go back and finish reading the novel.     

   Tilt: up.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Movie Review: "Excalibur" by David Pretty

All Hail, Knights and Squires!

To me, Excalibur is the cinematic equivalent of a comfy pair of slippers.  I've watched it more times then you've likely had hot meals.

Back in the early Eighties, there weren't really a lot of competent and respectful adult-themed fantasy films.  Excalibur came twenty years before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and a full thirty years (yikes!) before HBO's Game of Thrones.  A part of me suspects that this isn't just co-incidence.  

In many ways the film now looks a tad threadbare but it's also still gloriously alive with a weird, quirky vibe that's never been replicated, duplicated or imitated.  Both are self-evident in the movie's low-fi trailer:

The film kicks off with a couple of title cards bearing a groovy 70's-style font explaining that we're about to enter the Dark Ages, a time when "The Land Was Divided And Without a King".  We're told that "Out Of Those Lost Centuries Rose a Legend", namely the wizard Merlin, a noble monarch and the fabled Sword of Power.  Each new line is punctuated by the haunting strains of Siegfried's Funereal March courtesy of Wagner's Götterdämmerung.  Translation: a mere thirty seconds into the film and we've already got enough fodder to inspire a thousand heavy metal bands.

If that doesn't give fantasy fans a raging semi, the next segment certainly does.  We get an amazing shot of fog-cloaked, back-lit knights in grotesque armor astride barded warhorses presiding over the arrival of a tatter-cloaked, staff-wielding wizard.  This presages a pitched battle which can only be described as documentary footage lifted from Ronnie James Dio's wet dreams.

Amidst the din of battle, Uther (Gabriel Byrne) demands that the wizard Merlin (Nicol Williamson) follow through on a promise to deliver the fabled Sword of Power to him.  The following day this is accomplished via a gloriously genuine practical effect which probably resulted in the drowning deaths of at least three stuntwomen.  Now armed with Excalibur, Uther manages to pacify his rival Gorlois  (Corin Redgrave) and the two retire to the Duke's keep for a celebratory feast and grunting contest.

Immediately upon first glance, Uther comes down with a case of the throbbing thigh sweats for Igrayne (Katrine Boorman), the wife of Gorlois and (apparently) the Dark Age's hottest Flashdancer.  The next thing you know, Uther is besieging his rival's castle (with only about twenty men, curiously) and urging Merlin to mystically enable his requested booty-call.  The sorcerer reneges but warns Uther that he will claim any product resulting from this deceit.

So, in the guise of the now-deceased Gorlois, Uther easily accomplishes his stealth-fuck and knocks up Igrayne.  True to his word, Merlin re-appears after young Arthur is born and performs a repo job.  While attempting to reclaim the boy, Uther is ambushed and buries Excalibur in a rock just before expiring.  Regardless of strength, determination and willpower, no-one can liberate the sword from its stony scabbard.

Merlin puts Arthur in the care of Sir Ector (Clive Swift) and the boy ends up becoming squire to his son Kay (Niall O'Brien).  By now, the right to draw Excalibur from the stone is logically being determined by having a bunch of knights riding around on horseback and bashing each other over the head with sticks.  Silently, one wishes that the same method could be used to determine the leadership of the Republican Party.

After Captain, Sir Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart) win the first "tournament" but fails to free the blade, Kay gets a chance to prove himself.  Unfortunately, Arthur (Nigel Terry) misplaces Kay's sword and 'Yoinks!' Excalibur as a replacement.  The next thing you know, a boy has been declared king, battle lines have been drawn and from the resulting chaos the utopia of Camelot is born.

What follows is basically a "Greatest Hits" package from Le Morte D'Arthur and similar tales.  Arthur meets and marries his beloved Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi).  Sir Lancelot (Nicholas Clay) is subdued by Arthur and joins the cause.  The Knights of the Round Table are assembled.  Arthur's half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) begins dabbling in the dark arts.  A betrayal occurs, fracturing the fellowship and causing a blight to fall upon the land.  The Quest for the Grail challenges the endurance of the knights.  A final conflict occurs with the forces of darkness.

Since director John Boorman is trying to encapsulate a slew of disparate Arthurian tales in just over two hours, I can forgive Excalibur for being somewhat episodic and mechanical.  Legend has it that Boorman originally wanted to film Lord of the Rings but the studio shot the idea down because it was too expensive.  Excalibur was his consolation prize of sorts, but he still felt curtailed by the studio to deliver a two-hour long movie.  This is sad to hear since many subsequent fantasy films have proved that people will sit through a three hour long epic so long as it's good.

People criticize the performances and dialogue in Excalibur as being kinda flaky, but I think this is what gives the movie it's own weird, unique charm.  For example, as the wizard leaves Uther's castle with Arthur in his arms, little Barbara Byrne as Young Morgana says to him "Are you the mother and father of the baby now, Merlin?"  It's one of the strangest lines and oddest deliveries I've ever seen in a film and it really serves no function other then to unbalance the viewer.

Entire characters are built on this edifice.  Nicol Williamson doesn't look like the traditional Merlin, but in light of his gloriously cock-eyed performance, such concerns are trivial.  It's tremendous fun to watch him relish such ripe dialogue as "When a man lies, he murders some part of the world", "For it is the doom of men that they forget" or "Good and evil, there never is one without the other."  He's also given plenty of eye-rolling one-liners which are designed to show Merlin as a creature baffled by the folly of mankind.

Inexplicably, John Boorman chose to have Nigel Terry play Arthur as a teenager.  Despite obviously being well north of thirty at the time, Terry does a good job bringing a pop-eyed, "gee-whiz" quality to Young(ish) Arthur.  He's even better as the seasoned King, turning in his own glorious moments of scenery chewing and bombast.  I love the sequence where Sir Gawain (played by a sweaty and youthful-looking Liam Neeson in a fake beard) accuses Guenevere of an affair with Lancelot.  Terry's reaction to this charge is so twitchy, unhinged and over-the top it makes me smile every time I see it.

The always-awesome Helen Mirren also really shines as Morgana.  Although she doesn't get a ton of scenes, every time she appears on screen she seems more corrupt and degenerate then when we last saw her.  She does a fantastic job taking the character from wizard groupie, to devious trickster, to full-on evil bitch mode.  Her kid-in-a-candy-store glee when Merlin catches her knee-deep in witchy trappings is quickly trumped by the devious betrayal of her master.  By the time she magically seduces her brother and spawns a creepy bastard child, she really deserves to be included in the pantheon of repellant chicks along with Nurse Ratched, Cruella DeVille and Annie Wilkes.

As a side note, Excalibur is often referred to as the Boorman Family Project, since the director's rampant nepotism is on display from stem to stern.  John's daughter Katrine plays Igrayne, which is sorta disturbing since she's basically portrayed as an exotic dancer/piece of crumpet that Gabriel Byrne end up humping furiously.  Man, I can only imagine the awkward conversations on set that day.  

John's son Charley also appears as the young Mordred.  Since Mordred is supposed to be a loathsome little cunt, I'd have to consider Charley's performance to be the most successful in the entire film.  During his short screen time, he immediately manages to get underneath the audience's skin with a gratingly annoying giggle and a shit-eating grin that you can't help but picture caved in.  As an adult, Mordred is portrayed in a cranky and pompous fashion by the gangly-looking Robert Addie, ensuring the character's immediate nomination for VILLAIN YOU MOST WANT TO SEE IMPALED ON SOMETHING SHARP.

Actually, I might as well come clean about this right now: pretty much every performance in this picture ranges from over-the-top to completely unhinged.  Witness Patrick Stewart's gregarious turn as Leondegrance, Keith Buckley's yeller-iffic portrayal of Sir Uryens and Gabriel Byrne hamming it up mercilessly as passionate brawler / walking testicle Uther Pendragon.  Although critics might poke holes in this stylistic choice, I think it makes the film feel as if it's set in a more passionate time when men were intent of bending the world to their will, whether this be for good or evil.

Only a small handful of actors in the film seem to be taking their meds.  Cherie Lunghi is appropriately warm and graceful as Guenevere and Nicholas Clay is pained and understated as her lover Lancelot.  Coincidently, these are also the two actors who have their efforts hampered the most by the truncated script.  Lancelot is only given a scene or two before he immediately turns duplicitous.  As a result, Clay's performance sometimes comes across as pie-eyed and kinda smug.

Also, the script doesn't give Guenevere much motivation to transform from devoted wife into  adulteress.  Except for the scene where a wounded Lancelot defends Guenevere against Gawain's accusations, a compelling case really isn't built for her infidelity.  Since her attraction to Lancelot seems to stems from Arthur's slavish devotion to the *GASP!* law, their subsequent relationship seems more sordid then tragic.  I really chalk this up as a symptom of the film's limited run time.  If Lunghi and Clay had shared more scenes together I'm convinced that this would have played out infinitely better.  

When it comes to Excalibur's production design I have nothing but praise.  Although full plate armor didn't technically exist in the Dark Ages, I love how the film-makers use it to bring a sense of evolution to the story.  At first, the armor is corrupted, black and twisted, but as Camelot's influence brings a sense of civility to the land, the plate-mail becomes gleaming burnished silver.

This comes full-circle later as the knights grow rusted and tarnished during their Grail Quest.  I'm also convinced that Peter Jackson must have seen Excalibur as a kid since his twisted design for Sauron's forces seems evident in the ranks of Mordred's army.  This is in stark contrast to the gold, neo-classical armor of Mordred himself, which I assume is kinda like the medieval equivalent of a douchebag wearing white sunglasses.

The rest of the costumes and sets are also stunning.  The wedding of Arthur and Guenevere is suitably lavish.  The jousting set, which serves as the battlefield between Gawain and Lancelot, is also pretty amazing.  There's also a great scene which features a completely agog Perceval (Paul Geoffrey) stumbling through Camelot's courtyard and marveling at all the spectacle around him.  In this one clever continuous shot, Boorman does a great job immersing us in the colorful and resplendent fantasy world he's concocted.  

Having shot most of the film on location in Ireland, Boorman can't help but deliver a stunningly beautiful film.  Lancelot and Arthur's battle by the waterfall, lensed at Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow, is a truly magical sequence.  Also of note is Cahir Castle standing in for the keep of Leondegrance.  The gorgeously preserved Norman battlement really gives this medieval siege a genuine feel of authenticity.

Trevor Jones's original score is nicely augmented by the aforementioned Wagner and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.  Although this tune has since been exploited by a million movie trailers, it was Excalibur that did it first and did it best.  I challenge any fantasy film fan to not get goosebumps while watching the segment where a revitalized Arthur rides out to confront Mordred's forces to the tune of "O Fortuna".  The only other piece of music that's had a similar effect on me is the "Anvil of Crom" main theme from Conan the Barbarian.  I'm really at a loss to think of a comparable example from modern cinema where a piece of music was so well-married to a scene.

Having said that, there are a few small things rotten in the state of Camelot.  Despite the film's then-respectable $11 mil budget, some pretty weak visuals still managed to slip past quality control.  A composite shot of a plant springing back to life as Arthur rides by is laughably inept.  The oft-seen hand-animated lightning strikes look like they were lifted from a Sam Fleischer Superman cartoon.  Every on-screen appearance of the highly-vaunted Grail reveals the Almighty's clear ineptitude with visual effects.  And last but certainly not least,  Morgana's "evil" keep looks suspiciously like a Castle Grayskull playset re-dressed with X-Mas lights and concealed by a stage smoke.

Regardless of it's technical limitations, Excalibur still holds a special place in my heart as one of the first  fantasy films that didn't completely pander to kids.  In fact, it's unapologetic sexual awareness and penchant for bloody combat made for a pretty memorable experience for me as a kid.

Despite cruising on a wave on nostalgia, Excalibur is still a classic that modern fantasy films owe a tremendous debt to.        

     Tilt: up.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Movie Review: "The Young Victoria" by David Pretty

Hello, Royal Subjects!

When people think of Queen Victoria they often visualize a dour, taciturn, implacable figure who seemed completely devoid of mirth.  Rarely have we seen depictions of the long-reigning monarch as a young, vibrant, gregarious woman full of life and driven by passion.  The Young Victoria attempts to remedy this deficit with mixed results.

Regardless of the film's overall merits, you certainly can't deny that it's lavishly detailed and beautifully photographed, as evidenced by the film's stunning trailer:

Emily Blunt plays the obstinate young regent-in-waiting.  Her ambitious mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) keeps her in a protective bubble and waits for the day when her daughter will yield to the auspices of Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong).  A military man, Conroy attempts to intimidate the young potentiate into naming him her personal secretary which would effectively allow him to become the true power behind the English throne.  But even when bedridden by illness, Victoria remains resolute.

Meanwhile, her uncle King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) is desperately trying to broker an alliance with England.  Knowing that her chaperones hold little sway over her, Leopold dispatches his nephew Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) to her estate in the hope that she'll become smitten with him.  Unfortunately Albert's been so heavily coached to parrot Victoria's likings that she's initially put off by this blatant patronage.  Eventually, she warms up to him after he begins speaking for himself and the following exchange occurs:

Prince Albert: Then you had better master the rules of the game until you play it better than they can.
Princess Victoria: You don't recommend I find a husband to play it for me?
Prince Albert: I should find one to play it with you, not for you.

Their relationship deepens, even after King William appoints the charismatic Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) as her chief advisor just prior to his death.  Initially she's charmed by Melbourne's wit and confidence, but her unquestioning loyalty to him eventually leads to charges of favoritism and political instability.  Minor hiccups persist even after Albert returns to her court and the two are married.

The Young Victoria is truly a sight to behold.  The costumes are incredibly authentic and the decision to film exclusively in England was certainly wise.  Canadian film-maker Jean-Marc Vallée and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski do a masterful job setting up field of depth in every shot and cramming every frame with sumptuous detail.  Vallée infuses the film with tremendous verve by giving us a host of creative angles, dynamic camera motion and excellent blocking with the actors.

Speaking of the actors, Emily Blunt has her hands full in the role of Victoria but she deftly navigates through a demanding character arc.  At first she's overwhelmed by her royal lineage and rails against the "porcelain doll" treatment.  She begins to exhibit a hidden reserve of strength when she stands in defense of her uncle the King.  After she assumes the mantle of Queen, Blunt is tasked to switch gears which she does convincingly.  It's fascinating to watch her tap into a hidden well of strength which she discovers through her relationship with Albert and Lord Melbourne.  Every step in this performance is self-assured, particularly in scenes when she's asked to be tentative.  

Rupert Friend is equally fantastic as Prince Albert.  He does a convincing job of going from an obliged,  mealy-mouthed suitor to someone genuinely captivated by Victoria's charms.  When his awkward conversational programming fails him and he's forced to abandon all pretense we can instantly see the effect this has on the Queen.  His task in the second half of the film is equally difficult: to act as a Victorian man who's traditional role in the relationship has been reversed.  In fact, Friend treats this challenge even more deftly then the script allows.

Other performances of note include a delightfully irascible Jim Broadbent as King William IV.  Broadbent insures that the aging monarch's dottiness is offset by the genuine rancor he feels after witnessing his niece being used as political bargaining chip.  The always-awesome Miranda Richardson is appropriately conflicted as the Duchess of Kent.  Like many women of her time, she's forced to be motivated by financial concerns but Richardson really sells the turmoil that results over being at loggerheads with her daughter.

Paul Bettany is also superb as Lord Melbourne.  Since he's resolute, independently-minded and conversationally agile, he makes for an excellent potential foil for Albert.  Mark Strong also deserves a nod for his portrayal of Sir John Conroy.  Whereas the Duchess is acutely aware of the effect her decisions have on her daughter, Conroy has no such sensitivities.  Translation: for the first half the film he gets to be the sort of ripe bastard that this story really needed to be successful.  Unfortunately, the script (and history, presumably) sees his role vastly diminished in the movie's later half.

Which leads me to the main problem with the film.  Unlike say, Elizabeth, where the stakes continue to ramp up, the drama really fizzles out here at the mid-way point.  The political conflict sparked off by Victoria's partisan reliance on Melbourne's judgement is hardly what I'd call riveting.  Three-quarters of the way through the film, the film's only real antagonist is given his walking papers.  The tension that develops between Victoria and Albert over their anachronistic gender roles comes off as over-inflated.  Even the assassination attempt on the Queen's life is a blatant fictional forgery.

Perhaps there's a reason why prior pictures have eschewed earlier depictions of Victoria's life.  There just isn't enough drama and conflict to make for an entirely successful feature-length film.  Frankly, I was much more interested in the questions posited by the final title card which insists that the Queen went on to champion education, welfare and industrial reforms.  Immediately I wanted to see how this jibed with the period's reputation for widespread sexual repression, workplace abuse, prostitution and abject poverty.

Sadly, The Young Victoria is a pretty and well-acted film, but there's just not a lot going on underneath that sparkly crown.

Tilt: down.