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Film Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007; Directed by Shekhar Kapur)

Elizabeth was a frothily energetic portrait of a beguiling, likable young woman grappling with the harsh and complicated realities of becoming a ruling monarch, but its overwrought and grandiose sequel works busily to put the hard-won humanity of Cate Blanchett’s iconic heroine on an impossible mythical pedestal. It’s a statement to Blanchett’s unique gifts that her Virgin Queen remains complex and deeply human, but the film around her rarely does her any overt favours.

We are not at all perturbed by the likelihood that Guersney can see up Our skirts.

Director Shekhar Kapur, who also helmed the widely-loved 1998 film that launched Blanchett to international stardom, lays on the visual language of the historical epic as thick as lacquer, and the unreal sheen that results often impresses. It’s an unconscionably lavish film, with its Oscar-winning costumes and massive cathedral spaces, to say nothing of the CGI recreation of the Spanish Armada. With his locations, Kapur often attempts to dwarf his characters’ history-making destinies with the stony sublimity of centuries-old architecture, shooting them from high cloisters largely obscured by flying buttresses. But he contradicts himself, flattening multi-faceted human beings into mythic archetypes at the same time as he tries to diminish their heroic qualities.

Cate’s got Elizabeth down by now, for sure. But Kapur steals away much of the sympathy the Queen earned in his first film about her by the climax of The Golden Age, where he constructs her as some Holy Angel of Albion, a mystical earth-mother single-handedly willing the sea to swallow her enemies. Clive Owen, an actor of unbending talent who needs only a hint of interest on which to build compelling romantic heroes, is reduced to a one-dimensional poetic dreamer-adventurer. His Sir Walter Raleigh is a seabound Rhett Butler with poofier pants. Geoffrey Rush’s Sir Francis Walsingham, a ruthless backroom force in Elizabeth, is here mired in a sappy subplot and bequeathed a tacked-on deathbed scene. Elizabeth’s Spanish foe, King Philip II (Jordi Mollà), is turned into a nastily Othered zealot, a stalking, Inquisitorial creep muttering about God’s will in dark palaces where everyone (inexplicably) wears black. Perhaps most successful amongst the supporting cast is Samantha Morton as Mary Queen of Scots, who never really says anything of consequence but vibrates with a mix of self-righteousness, wounded pride, and prim privilege at all times.

Of course, she also wears black, as do all around her, a stark contrast to Elizabeth’s shining court of white. However historical the opulence might be, there’s a lurking Manicheism to the colour palette that is markedly disappointing. One final comparison can thus be made between this film and its predecessor. If Elizabeth was a film of its time, a late-’90s historical-fiction fable of political intrigue and hopeful ascendancy, then The Golden Age is also a film of its time, a War on Terror allegory of stark moral absolutes set in WASPy homeland besieged by swarthy religious extremists hell-bent on destruction. And one can’t help but be disappointed by that.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews

TV Quickshots #9

May 28, 2012 1 comment

TV Quickshots

You Gotta Eat Here (Food Network Canada; 2012-Present)

An initial synopsis: You Gotta Eat Here is the Canadian Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. If you’ve never seen or even heard of the Food Network staple “Triple D”, forgive a brief explication. Basically, obnoxious, fat-fingered, and astoundingly tacky American chef Guy Fieri visits two or three bodacious comfort-food establishments in the U.S. of A per 30-minute episode. He chats with customers, picks the brains and the recipes of the cooks, samples the delicious grub, and invariably spits out some stupidly-phrased nugget of praise for its excellent flavour explosion before moving onto the next joint. As I wrote some time ago about the show, it’s instant, guilty gratification at its purest and most Yankee-fied (or is that Yankee-fried? Often, it is). “Triple D” is the television programming equivalent of the high-carb, fat-packed food it profiles. I’m a fan despite this (or rather because of it) and hit up no less than three diners featured on the show on a trip to Boston last year.

I’ve hit the flavour sweet spot! Mercy!

To be perfectly frank, though, its inferior Canuck franchise makes the mouth water for the real thing. It’s not that the establishments and culinary creations featured on You Gotta Eat Here are necessarily a step down from those on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, although the Canadian restaurants are almost invariably funkier and more health-food-conscious than their southern counterparts. If Canada’s populist culinary scene is not in fact more progressively-minded and diverse than America’s, You Gotta Eat Here finds little ancedotal evidence to support it. Furthermore, the production is of similar quality and technique (quick cuts, lots of salival-flow-inducing plate close-ups, soundtrack of retro-sounding ’50s rock n’ roll) and in both cases the cooks and proprieters are on their best and most photogenic behaviour, visibly anticipating the surefire attendance bump that the show will provide to their establishments.

No, the biggest issue with You Gotta Eat Here is host John Catucci. In each episode’s introduction, he is upfront about being a comedian and not a chef, but seems not to have much more of a grasp of comedy than of cuisine. Catucci drops non-funny jokes with a wet, sucking plop, like so many unpeeled onions into a promising soup. Gastronomically-speaking, he lacks to expertise to speak about gastronomy. Reduced to observing as the food is prepared and kicking out neutral superlatives upon tasting it (everything is “awesome” or “amazing”, and sometimes both), Catucci manages the titanic accomplishment of making the viewer pine for Fieri.

As remarkably odious as the host of the American original is on the level of personality, he’s at least a trained chef who knows his food, and thus can both discuss the preparation process freely with his show’s subjects and knowledgably describe the way that flavours and ingredients function together to make an item taste good. He may drench his insights with off-putting dollops of twat sauce, but at least he has insights. Catucci merely eats the food and tells us that it’s good. All the more reason to obey the titular exhortation and try for ourselves, I suppose.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Son of Rambow

Son of Rambow (2007; Directed by Garth Jennings)

Garth Jennings’ smart and silly tribute to childhood imagination does for backyard filmmaking what The Sandlot did for neighbourhood baseball. Namely, Son of Rambow unmoors the creative id of youth from mere indulgent nostalgia and allows it to float free on a sea of dreams. But it’s also a sneaky allegorizing of the ups and downs of the collaborative creative process.

Oddly enough, this is pretty much how Stallone got his start, too.

The friendship and cinematic partnership of Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and Lee Carter (Will Poulter) overcomes social and familial obstacles, is run through the gauntlet of peer recognition and cliquish poseurhood, and nearly runs aground on the ever-popular rocks of “creative differences”. That it emerges intact should tell us more about the generic demands of even an indie comedy than of its particular tensile strength. Furthmore, it would seem to me that Will’s fertile visual imagination would be likely to have more of a future in animation than in the nuts-and-bolts live-action filmmaking that the practical Lee is most suited to.

The closing note, however, is one of fledgling artistic union, of melding disparate abilities and playing to each other’s strengths. This surely must be a textualizing of the director’s own creative partnership with producer Nick Goldsmith under the Hammer & Tongs imprint. Interesting that for this fictionalization of their collaboration, however, Jennings has sole credit.

What Jennings’ film does better than merely reflecting his own amateur filmmaking apprenticeship is to craft a perfectly air-tight space for the delirious creative energies of childhood to run rampant. It then cleverly uses that space to comment on how those same energies are accessed, activated, and navigated to completion in a more dissipated form by adults (or should we call them older children?). And it’s worth a mention that Son of Rambow is pretty funny and surprisingly tender without being maudlin. Not an easy balance to strike, either.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Short-Winded Elations of Men: Anticipating Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

May 24, 2012 2 comments

The first preview trailer for director Baz Luhrmann’s new film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel The Great Gatsby arrived online a couple of days ago to a divided set of reactions, united only occasionally by their knife’s edge of dismissive snark. Any adaptation of a great and beloved book is bound to attract skeptics and doubters and textual purists of various stripes, and this effect is certainly not lessened by the profile of the filmmaker in question.

Do you think the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are watching us right now? How about in the shower?

Luhrmann is known as a bold, demonstrative visualist who goes for the showstopping theatrical flourish before the subtle aesthetic touch, and much of the anxiety about his take on the material boils down to the apparent incongruity of his style  to the sophisticated, cuttingly philosophic prose favoured by Fitzgerald. Last seen shepherding a widescreen nationalist myth of his native land in the mostly-ignored Australia, Luhrmann will always be best-known for his Red Curtain Trilogy, in particular the fictional components of it which each have as many detractors as devotees: Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!  These lavish, operatic films each earned every measure of their respective eye-catching titular punctuations. Moulin Rouge! was all giddily anachronistic musical excess, joyous eagerness to entertain and enrapture oozing from its every pore until our eyes beheld naught but a surging waterfall of cinematic love. Romeo + Juliet cleverly rendered the hysteric adolescent grandeur of Shakespeare’s stealth satire of romantic cliches into a sweaty, neon-spangled California beach noir.

This film is of particular interest to this discussion of Gatsby, since it represents the previous instance of collaboration between Luhrmann and a young actor with the soft features of a classic matinee idol and the intensity of young Brando or Pacino: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio plays the inscrutable Gatsby in Luhrmann’s adaptation, and has taken winding paths back to the comfort of the gaze of Luhrmann’s lens. After James Cameron’s Titanic made him arguably the biggest star in the world for a fleeting moment, DiCaprio used his new prominence to gradually bulk up physically and exclusively choose roles demanding serious thespianic perspiration from him (an occasional breezy sojourn such as Catch Me If You Can aside). Thus, he portrayed legendary, complex American figures like Howard Hughes (The Aviator) and J. Edgar Hoover (J. Edgar) and tortured protagonists haunted by the past (The Departed, Inception, Shutter Island), the latter type of role memorably dubbed his “boiled owl” mode by Salon’s film critic Andrew O’Hehir.

Given Leo’s propensity for these types of roles, Jay Gatsby seems like an obvious next step for him, being both an enigmatic American icon and a man haunted (and hunted) by his past in one convenient literary package. The other major casting is also plausible; Carey Mulligan shouldn’t be too challenged by the role of Daisy Buchanan, and Tobey Maguire’s boyish cipherhood is a strong match for the observant wide eyes of narrator Nick Carraway. Nor is Luhrmann necessarily a poor directorial choice to helm the defining narrative of the Roaring Twenties; his trademark sumptuousness is on full display in the trailer embedded below, and the clownish tone that his films have a tendency to take on might even be a decent match for Fitzgerald’s critique of the irresponsibility of the Jazz Age’s nouveau riche.

But Luhrmann’s coming adaptation seems, from a scant few minutes of rapid-cut imagery pre-selected for our judgemental pleasure at least, much more invested in encapsulating a received popular understanding of what The Great Gatsby signifies than reflecting the implications of Fitzgerald’s text. From the mechanistic Art Deco style of the titles and teaser poster to the elaborate re-creations of Gatsby’s indulgent garden parties at his West Egg mansion, the setting seems more vital than what’s actually going on there. The burning lack of story, character, and symbolism hinted at in the trailer makes the proceedings seem to promise plentiful style but scant substance, and this is precisely the formulation that Fitzgerald intended his most famous work to criticise. That the film will be shot and released in the increasingly faddish 3D that Hollywood continues to believe will salvage their diminished brand does not help alleviate this impression.

Ultimately, only a well-made, strongly-acted, metaphorically robust Gatsby film can alleviate it. It’s a ripe time indeed for a new screen version of Gatsby, a cultural touchstone that Americans often find themselves turning to in times of economic hardship and uncertainty. The last Hollywood take, after all, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, came out in the midst of the milieu of nationwide angst and doubt that was mid-1970s America. But is Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby going to hold up a black mirror to contemporary conditions in the USA? Or will it reduce Fitzgerald’s keen cautionary social chronicle to an glittering exercise in production design and visual bravado? Christmas will tell.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun with Search Engine Terms #3

May 22, 2012 3 comments

Returning for the third time, it’s the slightly-widely-loved Random Dangling Mystery feature that throws bizarre, jocular, and otherwise notable search hits back at site viewers in a run-on meta-posting of mind-boggling proportions. Spelling and grammatical errors, of course, very much preserved. Previous installments are from July and December 2011, making this the first such post of the last year ever, if the Mayans’ obscure astrological calculii can be believed. Which surely they can. My own calculii comes to thirteen (or fourteen, technically) terms. Down we go.

teen girls taking there close off

Simultaneously illustrating both the pedophilic undercurrents of the internet (the wider culture, really) and the importance of proper spelling and grammar, this was by far the tamest and least skin-crawling search that yielded my review of Girl Model.

russian beefcake

I hear that goes nicely with some borscht and a shot of vodka. Prijatnovo appetita!

corpulence unchecked

I cannot find any post on this site where I might have used a phrase so rhetorically wonderful as this, although the one I chose to link to does employ “blithe suburban corpulence”. So, you know, close, but no cigar.

fuck off wall e

A bit harsh, no? What did that sympathetically-eyed clunker robot ever do to you, besides feature in a cutesy dystopian animated film that analogized your comfortable North American existence as a moral, ecological, and technological disease that would render Earth an uninhabitable wasteland? The mass consequences of corpulence unchecked? Man, that phrase is my new drug. I’m hooked.

does the r in royal family have to be capatalized?

Only by un-bumpkinesque non-peasants. Now drop and grovel, maggot! A day’s not complete without some prostrate subjects.

ross langager girlfriend

It will never be revealed who exactly she is.

ross langager gay / ross langager fucking with your site stats

This is exactly who she is.

beavers and bitches in town

This sounds like the title of a very sexy Prince song.

chris nolan fascist

One mustn’t confuse implication with intention in such matters. But we can have that discussion, if you like. I have my suspicions, if you would know.

cartoon caricature of a raptor descending on a defiant mouse

It’s times like this that I wish I was a surer hand at MS Paint.

good old fashioned wholesome porn

Is there any other kind? Hold on. Don’t answer that. Rhetorical.

boston red sox b stands for bitch

I can’t fathom what post this would have lead anyone to. My Boston travel post? The Town review again? All I know for sure is that Yankees fans are a tremendously witty bunch.

romney is a weird mormon plutocrat

You said it, not me. And if he keeps leading Obama in the polls, “you” could refer to a lot of people indeed.

Film Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon (2008; Directed by Ron Howard)

A couple of strong central performances save this film from both Hollywood contrivance and from Ron Howard’s reliable mediocrity. Even if David Frost and Richard Nixon are largely reduced to cartoon versions of themselves here, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella overcome the unsubtlety of both the writing (heavy-handed Serious Theatre stuff) and the direction (stultifyingly literal Ron Howard stuff), jamming whatever complexity and doubt they can into every available cinematic crevice.

Did you do any fornicating this weekend?

Langella, especially, is fantastic. While his Nixon is a sad, defeated man, nursing his myriad wounds and cursing his countless enemies, he’s still desperate for connections, for public rehabilitation. Most of all, he desires to be seen, at long last, as something more human and true than the sum of his political misdeeds. Surely, he is convinced, his suffering has ennobled him. Otherwise, what the heck was it all for?

For Sheen’s part, meanwhile, his alert eyes are doing reps constantly. His Frost never really lets the slick television presenter facade drop entirely (and this inaccurate depiction of Frost as an unserious, jetsetting moppet who suddenly learns to be a penetrating interviewer for the sake of the narrative climax is one of the film’s major weaknesses), but his pupils tell dozens of different stories at any given time. There’s more self-doubt, loathing, and principle to Frost than the breezy exterior suggests, and Sheen keenly lets us see it.

Some of the supporting actors are all right, too (Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell can usually do no wrong, and don’t here), but others are completely adrift (Rebecca Hall is total window-dressing, she serves no other purpose). Kevin Bacon is also good, but then he always is; the guy’s underrated status as a fine and prolific actor became a meta-joke so long ago that it’s easy to forget how true it is. Director Howard, though, just cannot help himself when it comes to telegraphing his meanings, his emotional subtexts, and his images. His visual sense can most generously be described as workmanlike, and a little more is needed to enliven what is, essentially, yet another filmed stage play. There is just too much ponderous, disingenuous fluff in play in Frost/Nixon to make it anything remotely special. But it’s only a disappointment if you ever expected more of Opie, and I can’t really do that at this point.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Anonymous

May 17, 2012 1 comment

Anonymous (2011; Directed by Roland Emmerich)

In the short history of this blog, my consideration of the Shakespearean authorship question in light of the release of Roland Emmerich’s big screen fictionalization of the Oxfordian theory has been the single most viewed post by a ratio of 2-to-1 to the next nearest contender. It’s entirely possible that online surfers coasted this way in search of a decent review of Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like The Sun, but the search terms suggest otherwise. It’s some perspective on Emmerich’s movie they were after, and since I had not actually seen it at the time, I can’t help but feel that they came away disappointed.

anonymous-movie-poster-01Although I had next to no expectations of Anonymous resembling a worthwhile film experience in any way, as the page hits climbed, I felt ever more compelled – nay, obliged – to grant it a viewing, if only to complete the critical circle. Could it really be as execrably bad and as flagrantly historically nonsensical as those sniffing academics authorities judged it? Could it actually live up to the tremendous Badfilm potential of an Elizabethan period literary drama from the co-director of Independence Day and the Godzilla rehash? Mustn’t I ultimately formulate my own considered readings of it, having derived so much web traffic with an invocation without an interpretation?

Having at last scratched the proverbial itch, I can say that as cinema, Anonymous is hardly worth the analysis I came to imagine it my solemn blogging duty to provide. This movie is almost incontrovertibly awful, not merely fundamentally ill-conceived but consistently poorly-executed as well. Emmerich and his team have no earthly idea what exactly they want this mock-historical mess to be, and horribly disfigure not only Elizabethan and Jacobean history but the Shakespearean canon as well in the search of an animating purpose. Simon Schama dubbed Anonymous “inadvertently comic”, but that feels far too generous; to say that this film achieves anything inadvertently implies that it might also have a chance to do something advertently. It had not a hope in hell of that; its only laudable qualities are arrived at accidentally.

If you’ve ever wanted to see William Shakespeare portrayed as an illiterate, uneloquent, avaricious fraud, Robert Cecil as a malevolent hunchback, and Queen Elizabeth I giving a BJ to her own bastard son, then Anonymous is certainly the period drama for you. Stripping the Oxfordian theory of its leaps of scholarly imagination and the Shakespearean canon of its percolating wit and revolutionary invention, Emmerich’s film (from the script of John Orloff, who has also done a Frontline episode on the authorship question) is a murky and depressing picture both in visual and metaphoric terms.

Anonymous imagines that the true author of Shakespeare’s work was an English lord, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans with far more soulfulness than this pulpy material deserves). Oxford feeds his secretly-composed plays to the public at first through the conduit of the young Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), who sees to it that they are performed in the Rose Theatre (and later the freshly-built Globe), first anonymously and then under the name of a publicity-starved actor (Rafe Spall) who finagles his way into his immortal role. The obvious political valences of the plays, combined with the apparent class bias against the theatre among the aristocracy, provide what measure of explanation is required for Oxford’s desire for anonymity. Nonetheless, the performances eventually run afoul of the Cecils, father Sir William (David Thewlis) and son Sir Robert (Edward Hogg), the Queen’s closest advisors and Machiavellian power dealers who have a complicated and mostly antagonistic relation to Oxford. When a production of Richard III coincides a bit too closely with the coup/revolt of the 2nd Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), matters come to a particular climax and precipitate what amounts to literary history’s greatest secret.

My, what a long… manuscript you have there.

The film’s plot is mostly a quasi-historical peg upon which to hang a litany of trashy pulp elements (affairs! murder! betrayal! incest!) to keep the bored rubes engaged, like proletarian clowns in Shakespeare’s (de Vere’s?) histories. Although Emmerich and Orloff evidently conceive of Anonymous as an iconoclastic potboiler celebrating tragic creativity and challenging epistemological orthodoxy, it ends up making The Tudors seem like a sober-minded documentary program in comparison. The overspiced stew of frothy intrigue and empty referentiality leaves even the willing doubter of the Stratfordian status quo with an unpleasant aftertaste. Instead of rendering a stance of scholarly rebellion into a rousing historical drama, Anonymous discredits the already-tenuous Oxfordian theory with its very ineptitude. At least Oliver Stone’s fever-dream Kennedy assassination conspiracies made for a cracking film experience; Emmerich’s confounding mash-up of Elizabethan politics, literature, and culture is limp and poorly.

His cast, generally of second-rate British thespianic quality, is not of much help, but there’s little that even a superior ensemble could do with such material. Aside from Ifans and the usually-reliable Thewlis (who mostly vanishes behind old-age-makeup, croaking utterances, and a wizardly beard like a Puritan Dumbledore), Vanessa Redgrave is likely the biggest name here, and she is trapped in an ugly version of Elizabeth in her twilight years as a dilapidated, hysterical drag queen (Miss Havisham is a Playboy Bunny in comparison). Redgrave gives the nonsense the old college try, but even an actress of her talents cannot escape the cage of such retrograde character writing (to make the incest angle even more unsettling, the younger Elizabeth is played by Redgrave’s daughter, Joely Richardson). The bruised, suffering idealist Jonson, meanwhile, is a role that would seem to demand the particular talents of James McAvoy, but Armesto comes across as little more than his non-union Mexican equivalent.

I take it this was not after a performance of “Two Noble Kinsmen”.

Improbably (though perhaps not), it’s Spall who is the film’s most enjoyable presence despite being placed in its most thankless role. By necessity in a fictionalized treatise on the righteousness of the Oxfordian theory, the historical Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon must be characterized as a philistinic patsy incapable of aesthetic transcendence, if not an inebriated, murderous cheat. An undercurrent of snobbish elitism is not required to be convinced that de Vere wrote “Shakespeare”, but it certainly seems to wash the dish down more easily, and tends to be the accompanying aperitif of choice for its proponents. Such is the case in Anonymous, and the education-driven social mobility that the Stratford Shakespeare represents (and was entirely common at the time, as Schama discusses) is directly targeted for mockery. In the film, Shakespeare extorts enough money from the vulnerable Oxford to act the gentleman, and even to acquire a family coat of arms, complete with a Latin motto he cannot pronounce (“non sanz droict”) and whose bitter irony he is too dim-witted to appreciate (it translates as “not without right”).

But in the midst of so many scowling, power-playing aristos with dark designs and hidden traumas, the joie de vivre of Spall’s simple actor is a breath of fresh air. His Shakespeare may be a greedy, unlearned bumpkin, but at least he’s happy. Ifans’ de Vere suffers ever so nobly for his art, deriving little pleasure and much self-doubt from its success and characterizing his writing process as the only way for him to keep the demons of madness at bay. But Spall, in a limited comic-caricature way, summons the Bard of pure elation and populist engagement rather than the tragic, isolated genius in his tomb-like mansion that Ifans is burdened with.

For all of its copious, crippling flaws, Anonymous is at its best and purest when its pulp assumptions meet those of Shakespeare’s work in contemporary performance. If Anonymous has practically none of Shakespeare in Love‘s wit, it does manage to appreciate the Bard’s output as a mass cultural medium in its original incarnation on a more basic level than the self-aware 1999 Best Picture winner did. That this appreciation itself undermines the film’s historical-conspiracy thesis makes its iteration that much more interesting. When the fradulent playwright Shakespeare bows for his adoring audience after another theatrical triumph and then literally crowd-surfs on their supporting hands, it is therefore at once a laughable image and a profound one. That de Vere (and by extension, Emmerich and Orloff) sneers from above at this plebeian display encapsulates the disdain towards popular taste and mass culture felt by both Anonymous and the Oxfordian ideology. Among its many crimes against taste, cinema, art, and history, this film’s most egregious one is to lose track of the core humanity of the Shakespearean canon. That this quality shines through nonetheless testifies to its sublime endurance.

Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews