Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Anna Karenina Will Not Let You Get Away With Anything

The movie I saw this afternoon is based off of Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina, a story about a wife of a  stern religious man named Karenin who has an ellicit affair with a young cavalry officer named Vronsky.  The story becomes a national scandal and its consequences are disastrous for Anna, her husband, their son, and everyone else involved.  I was interested in seeing it for several reasons:

First, the screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard.  Great playwright, and I recently read The Coast of Utopia which gives some serious thought to Russian literature.  And now, here he is adapting one of the great Russian works to film.  And what a job he does of it.

Second, Joe Wright's vision of Anna Karenina was centered on a theater.  Instead of literally taking us all over Russia, the many party scenes occur on a stage or in a cleared out orchestra seating area, decorated to seem like a party.  Many of the more dramatic moments happen with Levin, a young Russian landowner (and a bearded redhead--will wonders never cease?) who is absolutely in love with the blonde and angelic Kitty.  There's a hilarious moment when he walks through some moving walls and comes out into the orchestra, when a curtain rises, revealing an enormous array of flats of clouds and chairs on which Kitty sits, perched like a cherubim.  When he has to leave the party, he heads up into the wings and overhead to the catwalks, where people are arranged as if he is in a poorer part of town.  His brother is hidden off in some back corner, coughing with disease.  One might wonder if he isn't the light designer.

With this perspective, glances are shared from above to below, opera glasses are used to spy each other in the audience, and a huge horse race takes place on stage, with a horse falling out into the screaming audience.  With these claustrophobic scenes (bringing to mind the horrible evils of private lives made public) comes a contrast when the curtains split like huge wooden doors and open on the wide tundra, and suddenly we are in the real world.  I wish I'd had time to look at all the moments when falsehood opened on reality.  Rewatching will certainly allow for that, and the film is certainly worth many revisitations.

Every aspect is filled with detail.  Music is a part of it.  Listen for time signatures, listen for major and minor.  The costumes are a part of it.  Look at colors.  Is white pure?  I could keep going.

Readers of the book might be perplexed by the film's casting: the iron-willed Karenin is played by the handsome and charming Jude Law, the social and open-hearted Anna is played by a skeletal, often dark Keira Knightley.  The handsome Vronsky is played moustachedly by the seemingly-unremarkable Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  But these casting choices all work.  Jude Law bites like cold metal, Anna charms, delights, and draws our eyes like a train wreck.  Vronsky has puppy-dog charm, buff-guy sex appeal and a perfect mix of confidence and naivete.

Of course, for me, the real stars are Levin and Kitty, played by Donham Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, whose story almost escapes from being a part of Anna Karenina, except that their tale is somewhat opposite.   These two are not driven by blinding passion, but by something else--a different kind of love, though the English language so far only uses the one word for both things.  What they discover I'll leave to you, because it's wonderful.

                                                                      this scene....agh.  so good.

Caveat: for those worried about the R-rating, (I went with three LDS women, two over the age of 50) don't be.  When a man with black soot on his face appears on screen, shut your eyes.  Then don't open them.  Wait about one minute, you will hear some screams and some cranking as he is killed by a train that runs him over.  The movie will then magically become PG-13.

All of the sexuality is extremely appropriate, though the subject matter of course requires some maturity.  This is the great cautionary tale against adultery.  It will take us to scary places, but it does so with utmost respect.  I was shocked to find a film so strongly positioned where it stood morally.  In the world that Anna Karenina reveals us to be in, every glance means something, every word spoken aloud is heard, and love is a dangerous and powerful thing.

During one dinner scene--preceded by the fabulous line "Divorce is one thing; dinner is another entirely"--Karenin (the spurned husband) scoffs at a story about a husband fighting a lover over his wife's honour.  He asks if the wife's honour would have been preserved if the lover had won.  Someone then asks Levin if he would die for love, and Levin's reply is "For love, yes, but not for another man's wife." His consequent speech on the purity of marriage and the meaning of sexuality is a beautiful expression of my own perspective.  Even if he is a redhead, he's a man after my own heart.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Family History Journey

It was while thirteen dwarves and Gandalf were barreling through piles of computer-generated goblins in a rickety underground slum with a population as big as Rio de Janeiro that I asked myself a question: "What is this movie trying to say?" I let it stew for a bit, and now I'm gonna tell you.

I love The Lord of the Rings.  I played the card game with my high school buddies and will never admit it to your face, ever.  I saw The Fellowship of the Ring nine times in theaters, The Two Towers three times, and The Return of the King at midnight with my father.  One of my former passwords was based off of an obscure Lord of the Rings lore reference that is still personally meaningful to me.  I believe that the story, while riddled with sexism and moral oversimplification, is one of the most powerful arguments against despair ever written, and has enriched my life.  So, with that out of the way, what do I think of The Hobbit?

Everyone has been asking the question of how it will compare to The Lord of the Rings.  Unlike the other books, the Hobbit is silly, funny, and childlike.  In the trailer we saw dwarves throwing around plates, singing, and wearing very goofy hairdos.  I thought to myself "Cool, Peter Jackson and crew know that this is a children's book at its heart, and they're going to take it that direction." This isn't really true.  Peter Jackson's idea of children's film style appears to involve a wizard with bird poop all over his face driving a Santa Claus sleigh driven by rabbits.  Ah.  Thus the December release.

That said, the film lives up to its predecessors' (antecessors'?) action sequences and imagination-filled world building.  Rivendell and the Shire are more beautiful than ever.  The fight sequence in the belly of the mountain is breathtaking, exciting, and funny.  Ian McKellen couldn't be a better Gandalf.  Richard Armitage is strongest in the fight scenes, carrying the weight and haunted nobility that drew us to Aragorn.  But the best performances come from Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis in the riddle sequence.  Gollum's expressions as he tries to figure out the riddles take up probably a half-minute of screen time and are as entrancing as anything in the movie.  Martin Freeman's Bilbo plumbs depths that change him fundamentally, and with a subtlety that marks the whole series as not being for wimpy actors.

So why this film, and, more specifically, why this way?  This The Hobbit appears to be a prelude to The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf and company hear warnings of an evil on the move, much subtler and scarier than the dragon.  Gandalf finds his sword.  Bilbo finds Sting, his awesome elven letter-opener equipped with Orc-radar.  There are hints of Sauron returning.  Perhaps most importantly, little Bilbo finds a gold ring.

Thematically, this conflict is nowhere near as important as what happens later on.  Frodo's journey is so much more important than Bilbo's on the world's stage, the dwarves' revenge story is nothing compared to Sauron's world-destroying menace.  But the story in and of itself is about parents and children, about heritage and protecting it.  Thorin is striving to avenge his father and grandfather and everyone back to Durin, protecting his family line.  Bilbo is living up to his Took heritage, throwing off his cloistered plate-cherishing OCD and gallivanting off (without his handkerchief, too!) on an adventure.

We know what these people don't--that their journeys now and their development now will be so important in the future.  Gandalf carries that sword to his last fight at the Black Gate, Bilbo hands off the sword to Frodo and Sam saves his life with it later.  Saruman betrays everybody with his overterror of Sauron, etc.  Most movingly, it is because of Bilbo's mercy that the pathetic psychopath Gollum plays the larger role he does in this world-changing, world-saving story.

There's a message for us all here.  Mormon children are brought up believing that they are living in The Latter Days.  They are told that everyone on Earth has been saved for this time in Earth's history, and that they have special tasks to perform here and now.  They will fight against evil and triumph.  There will be losses and trials and horrible grief, but they will serve the purposes that Providence foresees.

To us, our parents and grandparents adventures may seem silly.  Our own adventures might seem silly.  But the fall down into the dark cave, the riddle game with the scary creature, the moment of courage, the moment of mercy, may shape our future.  And the little things we pick up on our unexpected journeys may serve to be our downfalls, our addictions, our saving graces--they may be the reason we existed in the first place.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Post 9-11 Crime Adventure for 10% of The Whole Family

A reasonable approach to analyzing an anticipated, expensive, star-studded creation like director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises might be “What works?  What doesn’t work?” Hype will be hype, high-school-age moviegoers will be high-school-age moviegoers (until they’re not), and the magic of the movies will always be there, as long as those who go believe in it.  

            The Dark Knight Rises gives us elements we have learned to look for.  It is disastrously long, and it is orchestrated so well and with so much momentum that one never has a moment to say “how many hours have I been here?” It gives us new experiences with old characters and makes sure to baffle and delight us with new ones.  The smaller characters with forgettable names are so well-cast and well-used that they feel like Oscar winners.

            So what works about The Dark Knight Rises?  We start off again in Gotham eight years after the last installment  Speeches and parties show us a time of peace, where the false idolization of Harvey Dent has allowed the police to put the lid on crime--supposedly.  Bruce Wayne is now a shadowy figure who limps about his castle and gets robbed of something important by a smart-talking girl dressed as a maid.  Meanwhile, a terrorist called Bane wreaks mysterious, deliberate sorts of havoc with a posse of devoted followers who willingly die at his command.  Nolan clocks through plot points with precision and mystery enough to thrill and excite us, but as always the characters' journeys are what draw us in.     

Better than in the past two movies, Bruce Wayne works.  We have always been a little unsure about this unstable billionaire, and you will be for a while yet.  But Christian Bale shows a limping, prematurely old Bruce Wayne who has been beaten by Batman.  A doctor humorously tells us that Bruce has lost all cartilage in his knees and should definitely not go heliskiing, following which Bruce plummets out of the window on a wire.  We shake our heads at him as if we were his mother.  His stubborn resistance to Alfred and Fox, who both think that nothing would be better for Bruce than to find a girlfriend, wins us over because we see determination at the end of it.  As messed up as Bruce is, he has a selfless heart.

As a villain, Bane works surprisingly well.  With the limitations of his costume Bane can do about three things: walk around, punch people, and move his eyebrows.  Nolan once again shows us a subtle sort of wizardry here—we expect a villain like Bane to speak in a low, gravelly voice that never changes inflection or dynamics, (a little like another guy in these movies I could name, and will later) but Hardy’s Bane is nothing short of musical, with fantastic inflection and variety.  Even when his eloquent mumblings become difficult to understand through his beatbox machine, his delivery was compelling enough that I forgave him wholeheartedly. 

            Even with a compelling plotline revolving around the Gotham City Police Department, the world of Rises lacks realism, returning to the fantasy style of Batman Begins.  There we found an Asian society of Assassin-Weirdos and an Island of Crazies.  The Dark Knight, however, felt like it was happening downtown.  The Joker made his suit himself.  The magic of that world was at the psychological interior of everyone in the story—the psychopathically creative heart of the Joker as well as the Atlas-syndromed steel-plated heart of Batman.  Arkham Island practically disappeared.  The horror of watching humans go to extremes was riveting. 

            The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t give us the opportunity to go there.  Ledger’s death made that impossible.  (And honestly, who knows if we would have been able to bear another three hours of that?)  So instead we are shunted back to a world where instead of blowing up hospitals we run a bizarre virus through Wall Street, Batman is thrown into a Grecian prison and a robe, Catwoman makes sexy moves and sexy jokes, and Gotham reels with the blows of Bane’s anarchist philosophy more than his impressive biceps.  Opinions on whether this is good or not will mark the discussions on the film, so figure out where you stand.  Luckily for Nolan and for me, however, this world allows us to explore Allegorical Heroism. 

            Someone just cringed somewhere, but believe it or not this is actually where The Dark Knight Rises shines.  It is in Bruce Wayne's moment of complete despair and failure that humanity comes out more than anywhere else in the trilogy.  Batman takes the hardest beating of his career, in a way that disturbs and disheartens.  It is not far short of merciless.  But watching Bruce follow the injunction to "Rise!" is awe-inspiring and emotional.  I found myself rooting wholeheartedly for a man who, just a movie ago, I thought was just a little too screwed-up to get redeemed.

            On a final note, the female characters in The Dark Knight Rises feel out of place.  It might just be a man’s world for these obsessive, moralizing superdudes.  The fact that they even have time to think about sex amid all of their idealistic world-destroying/saving is beyond me.  Honestly, women balance principle and practice better than men.  Shouldn’t a reasonable companion be helpful for these two philosophical rivals?  Here, the women seem just as confused and they don’t help at all.  Clearly that’s one of the morals for us superhero wannabees: Go get a nice girlfriend.  Look what happens when you don’t.