A director of box-office smashes like The Avengers, and sci-fi TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns out to be a closet Shakespeare fan. Not only is he a fan, but he decided to “take a vacation” and shoot Much Ado About Nothing. While the film doesn’t seem to be showing in a lot of cinemas, I caught it this weekend in London. (According to IMDB, it seems to be a failure financially, opening on only 5 screens in the US.) It’s a charming film, but flawed.
In many ways, this movie feels like a student film. Shot in twelve days in Whedon’s (capacious) home, edited on a laptop, it’s nevertheless far more adventurous than the average film-school student’s work. While these constraints do give the film a certain sincerity, I found them to prevent it from being as good as it could.
Whedon shot this in his home, with actors from his TV series, allowing him to whip together a cast he was familiar with. But the problem, for me, is that, while some of the actors slip comfortable into Shakespeare’s language, others seem just a bit daunted by the text. Amy Acker, as Beatrice, is brilliant. She has presence and spontaneity, and her lines come out nearly perfectly. But Alexis Denisof, as Benedick, comes across flat and clunky. His nasal voice sounds like a parody of a TV anchor (he sounds a lot like Brian Williams), and he seems less comfortable with the language. However, he gets a couple of physical scenes – such as when he’s in the “bower” listening to Don Pedro and Claudio discuss Beatrice’s apparent love for him. He rolls about, peeks in windows, and shows good comedic sense and timing.
But other actors don’t cut it for me. Fran Kranz as Claudio is stiff, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro has an annoying smirk on his face, and many of the minor characters – notably Spencer Treat Clark, as Borachio – just don’t have the right tone to pull off the Elizabethan language. Nathan Fillion as Dogberry doesn’t work well either, and the whole bit with the police officers comes off poorly.
In spite of these defects, this Much Ado is enjoyable. The sets are simple and effective, the use of black and white is interesting, and there’s a good feel to the production. But it seems that the lack of time – being limited to only twelve days – prevented Whedon from doing just a couple more takes of some scenes, and some of the actors needed more time to get it right. I’d like to see him do more Shakespeare, but I’d like him to take a bit more time.
Posted: 6/17/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: movies | 1 Comment »
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A string quartet, considered by some to be the optimal ensemble in classical music, is a delicate balancing act. Four people work together, closely, for years, rehearsing, traveling and performing. Some of the best string quartets last for decades, but undoubtedly at the price of many compromises. Unlike an orchestra, where there are a large number of musicians and a leader – the conductor – the string quartet’s size makes the interpersonal relations much more intense.
In this poignant film, we see the Fugue Quartet after 25 years of performing together reach a moment of crisis. The cellist, played by Christopher Walken, has a health problem and decides to retire. This brings up a number of conflicts among the four musicians, who are closely knit in many ways. Second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is married to viola (Catherine Keener), there is conflict between first violin (Mark Ivanir) and second violin, and there are a number of subtle links among the musicians, and the daughter of second violin and viola.
The title of this movie is a play on words. It’s about a “late” – deceased – quartet, or more precisely one on the brink of death, but it’s also about one of Beethoven’s late quartets, the op. 131 quartet, which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film. The choice of the name of the quartet, the Fugue Quartet, is also apt: the story itself proceeds like a fugue, with the various threads of love and conflict among the group are subtly woven together until a finale which ties together many threads in a brilliant resolution. This is a very moving film, though it requires a bit of patience as the different “voices” of the fugue are exposed then developed, before the story harmonizes. But it’s well worth sticking with if as the relationships among these characters become more clear.
The acting is excellent, and the direction subtle and understated. Christopher Walken shows extreme restraint throughout, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are excellent as the married couple living and working together. Mark Ivanir, an actor I was not familiar with, plays an inflexible musician, who learns, in the end, that he, too, needs to give a bit to allow the ensemble to continue.
A beautiful film, with a subtle story, that is memorable and moving.
For an excellent recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, this set by the Takacs Quartet is an excellent choice. And Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music also looks at the relations in a string quartet.
Posted: 2/23/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs | 7 Comments »
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This 4-part, 6-hour TV adaptation of Les Misérables has a lot going for it. First of all, the length; it’s the longest adaptation of the novel (arguably the greatest French novel of the 19th century, and one of the longest). It has a large cast, with some excellent actors. Unfortunately, it’s filmed in the typically bland style of French TV, and the direction is nothing more than workmanlike. When I first started watching this, I was almost tempted to give up after 15 minutes. But it got better over time. (I had similar thoughts when watching a recent mini-series based on Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu by the same director, also made for TV.)
Gérard Depardieu plays Jean Valjean, and, for me, he doesn’t quite fit the part. He’s too big, too brash to have the subtlety the character needs. On the other hand, John Malkovich is an excellent Javert, though his dispassionate portrayal of the character can be seen as a bit too distant. Christian Clavier is Thénardier, and seems a bit out of place. A comic actor, generally in simple comedies, his persona doesn’t quite fit. However, Virginie Ledoyen is nearly perfect as Cosette, with her innocence and fetching smiles.
But the main problem here is that everything is too clean, too heroic and idealized. Hugo did not write a novel where everyone is washed and shaved; he wrote about “les misérables,” the downtrodded, the poor. These are people who suffer, not people with clean shirts all the time. In this adaptation, everything is just a bit too perfect. (It’s totally different from the recent adaptation of the musical, which, for all its faults, does show the characters in squalor.)
The good points here are the length: at 6 hours, you do get much more of the story – and it is a complex story – than other versions. But the mediocre direction, so-so acting, and overall approach make it lose points. It’s worth watching if you’re a fan of the novel.
Posted: 2/7/2013 by kirk | Filed under: books, Films & TV Tags: books, DVDs | 5 Comments »
My son just bought the Blu-Ray of Prometheus, which claims to include a digital copy. He really likes the movie, and he wanted to be able to watch it on his laptop or iPad when he next travels. So he went to the web site he was instructed to visit, which bears this logo:
When he entered his code, it was accepted, and he saw this:
We’re in France, and what the above says is: “Choose a format.” As you can see, the only format it offers is “Android (beta).”
Seriously? Plays everywhere means just on Android, and it’s just a beta? It’s a lot easier to get a digital copy from The Pirate Bay, and that’s certainly one reason why people go there. And the movie studios still don’t get it?
Posted: 10/5/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DRM | 2 Comments »
Let me begin by showing my age. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my friends and I would often watch late-night TV. Two shows in particular, from what is sometimes called the golden age of television, were our favorites: The Honeymooners and The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone for its quirky science fiction, which, even though it was two decades old, still resonated. And The Honeymooners for its intelligent comedy, excellent acting, and the many lines and gestures that became part of our daily life.
In that time, The Honeymooners was on nearly every night on one New York television station; 30 years later, I do not know if that is the case. (A quick glance at some TV listings suggests that it is shown on one channel only at 5 am.) With only 39 episodes, it was easy to become familiar with all of them, and remember the situations and the classic rejoinders.
Beginning in 1955, The Honeymooners had just one season as a sitcom. (Remember when “seasons” were 39 episodes instead of only 13 or 22?) It had begun as a sketch on the Cavalcade of Stars, then later on The Jackie Gleason Show, before getting that single year on its own. Yet that show was so good, the writing and acting so excellent in those 39 shows, that it became a staple of syndication. For decades, at least in New York – and probably much of the US – you could spot Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton, and their wives Alice and Trixie is glorious black-and-white on the tube.
According to this Wikipedia article, one of the reasons that The Honeymooners was able to enjoy such syndication was the quality of the filming. The shows were filmed before a live audience, in two or three acts, with very simple sets, using the Electronicam system, which allowed them to be shot on film. There was little rehearsal for the episodes, and you can tell at times that there are some occasional glitches or improvisations, but the quality of the actors was so high that they could work without a net. This gives a spontaneous feeling to the show, and watching it you can tell that they are not just reciting lines. In many ways, the acting in The Honeymooners seems much more realistic than many of today’s sitcoms, and this in spite of the fact that they were shooting very long takes – 8-10 minutes – instead of lots of short scenes.
In 1984, a major event occurred. The Museum of Television and Radio announced that they had discovered a handful of “lost episodes,” or sketches from The Jackie Gleason show. I recall at the time the wonder that there might be more Honeymooners sketches that I hadn’t seen. It turned out that there were; a total of 107 episodes of varying length were found. The quality of these is not the same as the “classic 39″ episodes, and some of the voices were overdubbed with soundalike actors, because of unusable soundtracks.
The Honeymooners has had a strong impact on American culture. Several generations grew up with the characters of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, and some of the great lines from the series remain in the collective memory:
“Har har, hardee har har!”
“A mere bag of shells…”
“You’re goin’ to the moon Alice!”
“Pins and needles, needles and pins. It’s a happy man that grins.”
“I brive a dus. I dus a brive.”
In addition, The Honeymooners was the inspiration for the animated series The Flintstones. While the writing is nowhere near as slick, the two couples in the show are copies of the Kramdens and the Nortons, with the main difference being the addition of children and pets.
Some time ago, I bought all of The Honeymooners on VHS. Since I live in France, they never get televised, and that was the only way to see them. I only recently got around to getting the DVDs, which are now available at bargain prices. Currently, the Classic 39 Episodes is only $25, and the Lost Episodes $62 (the former is on 8 DVDs, the latter on 15). The quality is variable, which is normal for a series that is more than 50 years old, but the witty humor and great acting remain. If you want to watch an intelligent, unforgettable sitcom, The Honeymooners is better than just about everything that is currently on TV.
Posted: 6/10/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs | 1 Comment »
It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.
A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.
Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.
At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.
In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.
Posted: 5/7/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs, existentialism, movies, science fiction, Tarkovsky | 2 Comments »
According to an interview with the production designer, the film took two years to shoot. The first year’s footage was lost, apparently because it was an experimental film stock that couldn’t be developed. (Though that suggests that it was only sent for development after the entire film was shot, which seems at odds with the way movies were created at the time.) Tarkovsky then started over, reshooting the entire movie, over another year.
The DVD is decently produced, though the English subtitles are a bit clunky. It contains the original mono soundtrack, and also a recent 5.1 mix, which, in my opinion, ruins the movie. It is merely the mono soundtrack with added environmental sounds, trying to create “atmosphere,” yet Tarkovsky used a lot of silence in this film, and the surround mix is never quiet.
I first saw Stalker in the early 1980s at a retrospective of movies by Wim Wenders in New York. Wenders had made a selection of films to be shown with his movies, and, preceding his Kings of the Road (In the Course of Time), was Stalker and John Ford’s The Searchers. All three of these movies are quests, searches for people or ideas, and the very long program that day (more than 7 hours) was an extraordinary example of three different approaches to the quest movie. Since then, it has been one of my favorite films. It’s an odd movie, more like a Beckett play than science fiction, yet it is unforgettable.
If you’ve never seen Stalker, and this review makes it sound interesting, you should be all means watch it. It is a truly unforgettable movie by one of the great directors of the 20th century. His life and career were too short, but his films are all masterpieces.
Update: Author Geoff Dyer has written an entire book about Stalker called Zona. I haven’t read this book yet, but I plan to.
I’ve never been especially interested in “period dramas,” but I heard about Downton Abbey, and thought I’d check it out. The first two seasons have already been broadcast in the UK, and are available on DVD. In the US, the second season is starting today on PBS.
This is a series about a quintessential British country manor. The house looks huge, even though you only see a handful of rooms in the show. There is an aristocratic family, headed by the Earl of Grantham, a surprisingly liberal aristocrat. He has an American wife, and three daughters. Downstairs are the servants, an interesting crew of footman, maids and cooks. Much of the story involves the relations between the two groups, as well as the romantic doings of the sisters.
Yes, this is an upscale soap opera, not my usual type of TV. But from the very first episode, I was drawn into the wonderful writing (coming close to Aaron Sorkin’s work) and the excellent acting of the entire cast. I didn’t know many of the actors, but one who stands out is the venerable Maggie Smith who gets a large number of bon mots, as the Dowager Countess and the Earl’s mother. There is quite a large cast for a series, allowing for a number of story lines to take place concurrently, yet you never get a feeling that there’s too much going on.
The series manages to be extremely interesting throughout, without slipping into overt soap opera situations, and factors in the events of the time. Beginning in 1912, the day after the sinking of the Titanic, it goes on through World War I, which has a major role in the series.
It’s important to not watch the US versions of the first season. The seven one-hour episodes were, for some reason, cut down to four 90-minute episodes for the US. You can see a number of different versions here on Amazon.com, with both the US versions and UK versions available. Or you can get them for much less from Amazon UK.
It’s worth noting that after the end of season 2 there is a 90-minute episode called Christmas at Downton Abbey. The title suggests that it’s just some kind of Christmas story, but it’s actually the season finale, and you simply must see it after watching all of season 2.
I was surprised to be so attracted to this series, but the quality of the writing and acting is well above average. Even if you don’t usually care for this sort of thing, I’d recommend checking it out. You may, like me, become an immediate convert.
Posted: 1/8/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs | No Comments »
If you need a Christmas present for a fan of great TV series, allow me to make three suggestions: the three series created (and, for many episodes, written) by Aaron Sorkin.
First came Sports Night, a comedy-drama which was set behind the scenes at a daily sports TV show. With actors such as Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause, Josh Charles, Joshua Malina, and Robert Guillaume, this show was hard to describe. It started as a sitcom – with 22-minute episodes, as the genre requires – then morphed into a drama. The laugh track used in the beginning disappeared, and while the humor remained, it became much more serious, reaching a very moving ending. The show lasted 3 seasons, and showed Aaron Sorkin as one of the finest writers working in television.
Then came the now classic political series, set in the White House, The West Wing. It’s hard to express just how good this series was, over seven seasons and 145 episodes. Led by Martin Sheen, as president Jed Bartlett, the White House staff, including Alison Janney, John Spencer, Bradley Whitford, Rob Lowe and Richard Schiff, present an astounding level of ensemble acting. Sorkin wrote most of the first four years of the series, before leaving and handing it over to others, but even the final three years are excellent, with the last year being memorable.
Finally, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in its brief, one-season life, again showed Sorkin’s qualities as a writer, and his ability to choose the right actors for his roles. Matthew Perry and Bradley are excellent together, and Amanda Peet is wonderful as the president of the TV network. With an excellent start, the season weakens as it turns into a bit of a soap opera, then finishes with a five-episode story arc that closes the season in typical Sorkin fashion.
I’ve watched all three of these series several times, and will continue watching them again and again. If you want top-quality dramatic television, with excellent writing and fine acting, any of these series is a must. The West Wing may be the best series on American TV in recent decades, and at the current price for the full box set, is certainly worth owning.
Posted: 12/15/2011 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs, TV series | No Comments »