Friday, October 6, 2017

Easy Virtue - Surprisingly Bad

I was hanging out on facebook the other night when a friend posted: "need a good period drama? Go watch Easy Virtue! It's on Netflix."

Well, that was certainly enough for me ... I headed over. And I did watch, and I suppose I'm not too disappointed that I did, if for no other reason, then it gives me something to write about, but unfortunately what I have to say is that Easy Virtue is surprisingly bad.

Here is a film that by rights should be perfect for me. It has it all: British actors, great houses and landscapes; period costumes, cars, and furnishings! A great time period at the cusp of the 1930s! Hell, it even has Colin Firth.

How the heck did it still manage to be such a misfire?

What this experience (coupled with the recently painful viewing of Parade's End) has taught me is that good acting -- and other sundry visual delights -- cannot save bad writing. And that story matters above all.

Having just accused this work of bad writing, I was stunned to look it up and learn that the film was based on a Noel Coward play. Obviously enough I have not read that play. I learned also, thank you Wikipedia, that the play was adapted to film before -- in 1928 -- and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This is getting crazy. I consider myself a silent film aficionado, yet I not only had not heard of the silent film version, but hadn't even realized that Hitchcock had been a director during the silent film era.

Feeling like a bone-head right now.

Maybe you should walk away slowly from this blog :)

OK, I might be uninformed about a lot of things. But I'll tell you what I'm not wrong about: Easy Virtue (2008) is not great. In defense of my opinion I'll also share that the Wikipedia article goes on to state that "hardly any feature of the original play remains [in the 2008 adaptation] besides the main characters, and even they do not greatly resemble Coward's cast." lol.

So maybe the Coward play was itself good. No idea. But this adaption is seriously flawed.

The plot goes something like this: Larita, a beautiful and vivacious American race car driving star meets and falls in love with a classy young British dude while in France at a car racing event. They marry and then return to England to meet his family. The basic plot from this point on is "fish out of water" stuff, with the young sexy American clashing predictably with the boy's mother and sisters, but winning over the male folk such as the butler and the dad, the ever-gorgeous Colin Firth.

The actors are top notch all around. In addition to Firth as dad, we have and Kristin Scott Thomas as mom; we have Kimberley Nixon and Katherine Parkinson (who I love so much in IT Crowd, but who is wasted here) as the sisters. I even recognized Kris Marshall as Furber the butler (who'd made such an amazing addition to Love Actually as Colin Frissel the guy who goes to Wisconsin to meet hot Americans). Was there a requirement that a certain portion of cast members have names beginning with K, I wonder?

The tone of the film is supposed to be light hearted and witty I think. But it just isn't. Music tells us that we are to find some scenes funny... like the burying of a dog who is accidentally squished. We seem to be expected to find the accidental squishing funny too. But these moments aren't funny and the cast can't make them so. Everything is written in a pallid and flat manner and with ambiguous direction.

There is no great chemistry between any of the characters; the closest is the connection that develops between Larita and her new father in law. The relationships between the other characters feel mostly strained and uninteresting - such as between Larita and her husband, the young husband and his sisters, the mom and dad, Larita and the butler; the list goes on. Although the engine driving the plot is the tension between Larita and her mother-in-law, their relationship feel so time-worn I just couldn't get in to it.

In fact, this is what plagues much of the film - a feeling of having seen this all before. Husband coming home to a world he no longer knows after the war...  Average looking girls overlooked in favor of flashy blonde... Girl next door with a heart of gold...  Yappy foo foo overindulged dog.... cliche, cliche and cliche! And that's when you realize that the English countryside can only take you so far. There has to be a point. Some reason to care about these folks and their predicaments.

Jessica Biel as Larita is gorgeous and I actually want to like her. Oddly even, I probably do like her character more than almost anyone else in the film, which is really saying something. Biel manages a  performance that fits this awkward film. But she got the memo that this isn't real English drama, just a knock off to turn some quick cash -- and her flat, charming, American gumption seems to fit that ethos really well.

Kristin Scott Thompson, on the other hand, is striving for something real and meaningful. But has little to work with and, despite her best attempts, the character of the mom (mother-in-law to Larita) ends up melodramatic, or just somehow too disproportionally deep for how stupid this film is. Though she is still such a treat to gaze at - what timeless beauty and class that woman has!

Colin Firth does his best to act the slightly curmudgeonly, wasted, but still debonair, older man. But we never get much sense of his motivations though, or any real backstory that could help flesh him out and let the viewer feel as if we know him. He just flits around the edges of the story seeming equal parts bitter, detached and classy. A too-strange mix. We can't really decide whether to like a guy who has so abdicated any role in his family -- when his family clearly needs some direction (...even though he is smoldering in a washed-up way, which, truly could be -- and often is -- enough.)

The young British actors, such as Ben Barnes as the husband, his sisters, and the butler, all seem to be working in the a middle ground of earnest, uptight, but still fun young brits and at times they almost manage to make the viewer care about them. The problem is we are given little to care about because their motivations are unclear or at least uneven. I don't really know what they want.

All in all, I would say that the film isn't horrid. It does have some amazing eye-candy in the form of gowns and period details that have been lovingly recreated. The cinematography is rich and evocative. If these things are enough for you, watch. I would not recommend it directly, but there are worse ways to spend an evening.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Tale of Two Sherlocks

No, I'm not comparing the CBS Program Elementary with BBC's Sherlock -- though I probably will someday, as I do like both (though I know you're not supposed to).

I am talking about two Sherlocks that have probably NEVER been spoken of in the same breath by any human being before, but for each of which I've fallen.

It dawned on me recently that it was due to their roles as Sherlock Holmes that I initially became interested in two wildly different actors that I now consider among my all time favorites: Benedict Cumberbatch (as Sherlock) and Buster Keaton (as Sherlock Jr.) There are some odd similarities between these two stars and these two productions that caught my attention when I started reflecting. The oddest by far is that I've never considered myself a particular fan of the Sherlock Holmes character.

Don't worry, I'm not going to claim that these two are look-a-likes. I've taken some grief here on the blog for outlandish claims of look-a-likes in the past, so you know I'm not afraid to go out on a limb if warranted... but really I don't think even I would go there with Cumberbatch and Keaton.  It's not so much that they look "alike", but I will argue for some shared characteristics.

First, and I guess quite obviously, these two actors have extraordinary eyes. Not alike, no. Benedict's are very pale, almond shaped, and almost Asian-lidded. Whereas Buster's are dark, round and very deep set. (And as I wrote that, I realized they have another interesting commonality -- a vagueness as to color. Benedict's eyes apparently change color, so I don't know what color to call them; and Buster was filmed in B&W, so "we" don't really know what color eyes he had.) But for both of them, it was those eyes that got me. Incredible, wide-set, in a pale smooth-skinned face.  After watching Sherlock Jr. (with no intent of thinking about Keaton as any sort of a sex symbol, in fact with no intent of caring about him in the slightest), I found myself the next day continually visualizing that wide space on his forehead - that large, open, wide-eyed look. It stuck with me, and I couldn't wait to rewatch the film just to look at him again.  Benedict's Sherlock grabbed me in much the same way, though it took a bit longer. I realized after watching a couple episodes that whenever I thought about him, my thoughts focused on 'space' -- that wide countenance. Both of them have this quality. And its obviously a quality I like. That openness, I think, lends an air of intelligence and inscrutability with a touch of wonder that mixes well with Sherlock's dispassion.

Another similarity for these two men is a thing that both Keaton and Cumberbatch are renowned for: their cheekbones. And that's a pretty odd parallel to be talking about considering I can't really think of another star I associate with cheekbones.

Their faces are quite different -- Buster's is more square-shaped, Benedict has a long face, but each has a deep chiseled profile that photographs stunningly. The profiles are manly and add greatly to the charm of these actors who are otherwise so smooth, open and white that there might almost be a hint of femininity about the features. Delicate in some ways, deeply rugged in another, these men share an appealing mix of qualities.

Cheekbones and eyes, pale open faces. Check. I guess I could talk about the manes of rich brown shaggy hair these two seem to enjoy, but why even go there, as it is a feature shared by a great many actors. (Though it is certainly pretty to look at). What strikes me in my musings though, goes way beyond these actors' interesting physicality, and deep into the productions themselves.

Consider the following:

I'll start with something that might seem mundane, but I find it really cool. Production length. I have never known a TV show that lasts an hour and a half. That's a weird length. Longer than a typical TV show, shorter than a typical movie for its genre, the creative forces behind Sherlock have chosen a unique timespan to tell their story in. I have often thought about what a brilliant length Sherlock is, and felt proud of the team for being willing to make a strong and unique choice in support of story.

But then it dawned on me -- and here's what most people reading this wouldn't know -- Keaton's Sherlock Jr. also has an unusual length (relative to 1920s era productions). Longer than a 'short', and short for a 'feature' film, Sherlock Jr runs 45 minutes.  I have often considered the length of that production to weigh heavily in its favor and have recommended it to people by expressly noting that the pace and length are perfect for the story. Again, it was a genius choice to support the story with a pacing that feels crisp and allows the plot to unfold perfectly.

I think it takes a special kind of creative vision to say, "hey, here's what our story requires. We don't care if its an odd length. Make it work."

But there are yet other features that the two productions share.  Each has taken a unusual twist on the Sherlock concept. In the TV series, the events have been set in modern times, while otherwise respecting the characters and plot and just translating them to the current world.

Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., made nearly 100 years ago, takes place in a "modern" world as well -- I mean, as opposed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's.  Sherlock Jr. is only very lightly based on Holmes at all, using the character as a fantasy contrast to the mundane and sometimes painful foibles of our hero's life.

In nether production is there any attempt to go back in time and engage in period drama. Both simply roll some modern day sleuthing into a story of everyday life.  In both these versions, the Sherlock character plays as someone very intellectual, in charge, and a bit distracted. Both have Sherlocks that feel very much a product of their times - rather than any past time. In Buster's version, his Sherlock plays pool, has explosives, engages in Vaudevillian tricks, rides around on a motorcycle and a boat, and cuts a stylish figure in dapper clothing.  Its a very 20's-era piece. And Benedict's Sherlock is very 2010s production - with blogging, and cell phones, modern spying and forensic abilities.

But that's still not all.

Another thing these productions share: humor (blended with tension). Obviously, humor is what Buster Keaton is all about, but still, its pretty cool to see him working the spy genre for laughs. It may be more unique that the TV drama Sherlock is so unexpectedly hilarious.  While Keaton's brand of humor is physical, the humor in the modern TV show is mostly verbal. That both productions are crazy-funny, is another similarity that marks these Sherlocks as unusual.

Finally, and maybe the coolest connecting thread may be that each of these two productions represent cutting-edge work for their use of clever photographic approaches to tell the story.

In Sherlock (the TV show), the production team uses very creative camerawork, special effects and editing, not just to impress us, but to directly move the story. A great Youtube video address this (How to Film Thought). The makers of this video are far more intelligent than I, but I am smart enough to know that what the Sherlock team manages all the time with extraordinary clever camerawork is part of what makes this series so very special. I highly recommend you clicking on the video here. Another trick that is used effectively throughout the TV series is thought-bubble-words to show what Sherlock is thinking when he is examining a crime scene or explaining his deductions. Rather than having to explain every last thing through dialog, the camera is used with great creative vision and a certain elegance that is integrated seamlessly into the artistic vision of the larger story.

But again, guess what? It's something that Buster Keaton did 90 years ago in Sherlock Jr.! A bit of background would probably help. In this film, Keaton plays a young man who works for a movie theater but dreams of being a detective. He wants to propose to his girlfriend, but his rival gets there first and mucks things up for Keaton, stealing her dad's watch and then planting evidence to make it look like Buster did it. Buster attempts to ply his detective skills and catch the guy, but fails, so he goes back to the movie theater, puts on a movie and falls asleep. What happen next is extraordinary: Keaton falls asleep and them dreams himself into the movie, where he materializes as the great detective brought in to solve a very similar crime of the stolen pearls. The scenes where his ghostlike sleepwalking self splinters off and walks into the picture are phenomenal. Even by modern standards, they are evocative and clever. Next, a montage of camera cuts where the background keeps changing while Keaton tries to find a place, are integral to showing us he doesn't really belong in that movie; he's an outsider living a fantasy. This movie within a movie allows us to explore themes of fantasy and the role of cinema magic that was taking such an important hold of people at this time and which clearly persist to this day. The fantastic camerawork is not just a showcase of technology, it is seamlessly integrated into story in an elegant way.

So there it is! Two Sherlocks, separated by nearly a century, separated by genre, by format, by audience, by intent and yet united by two tremendously compelling leads, and some amazing creative visionaries, willing to make bold and non-traditional choices for their creations. Though maybe not typically thought of in the same breath, both deserve exalted positions in the rankings of entertainment history.

Happy Viewing.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Parade's End ... the Cumberbinge continues

Wow! I just did something I've never done before. I had this post all written and done, save for the final polishing. But somehow (well, I know how - a combination of a new computer and switching between Mac and PC  keyboard commands) managed to highlight the whole and hit the delete key. Gone. For some reason I couldn't undo and of course, due to auto saving and the fact that I'm typing it online (dummy!), it was too late; the save was in, and the post was gone.

One to always imagine that things happen for a reason, I'm going to approach this event as more of an opportunity than a loss.

You see, truth is, I wasn't really all that happy with my post. It was brilliant, of course, but probably a bit too scathing. I sometimes think about this after I skewer a production (which really isn't all that often).  I mean, people do work hard on these things, and it must be a bummer that everyone's a critic.

My *poof, gone* post found a lot to hate and just a few things to like about Parade's End.  To me it was a disappointment.  I will stand by that. The gods may have given me another chance to think about what I say publicly, but I'm not going to re-evaluate my thoughts entirely.  Maybe I'll just cut it a bit nicer.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I said, far more eloquently, before:

The best thing about the production, hands down, is the cinematography. Sumptuous. Second would be the period details, especially the clothing; everything, from cars and telephones, to furniture, manor houses and roads is just so transporting. The visuals give a rich distinct flavor of a highly engaging time.

The rest? milquetoast at best. The plot, continuity, character arcs and (sigh) even acting were non-starters.

My cruel hunch is that this work was probably only put into production in response to the smashing success of another (much better) Edwardian era drama - Downton Abbey. I think the latter's success must have had something to do with Parade's End finding an audience that cared enough to watch, and enthusiastic enough to reward it with an IMDB rating of a 7.7, when it probably deserves something more in the 6 to 7 range.

Parade's End isn't terrible. (There, I guess this is a concession born of second chances). It's just not good drama. Good drama should have something to teach us; something to say. I really don't know what that is here.  And I don't know wherein the fault lies. I never read the book. (Yes, there's a book. Oh I forgot the year and the author --- do I have to go look that up again?  I think 1924 and the author was someone with 3 names where the first and third were the same. Like Forest Sawyer Forest. Yes, lets just go with that.)

I understand that the man taxed with writing the screenplay for Parade's End is highly acclaimed, so we'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the novel was just mediocre. (I mean Mr. Forest probably died 60 some years ago, I don't think his feelings will be hurt if we assign blame there). And, honestly, that probably is where blame needs to go. There is just so much plot detail that doesn't make sense in this piece. There are so many characters that change direction (back and forth) too often and for too little reason. No real continuity.

Oh! in the post I deleted you would have been delighted with my musings on Sylvia and her bizarre choices. How she changes motivating purpose at the drop of a hat and acts in a way distinctly at odds with what she claims she wants. But its not just Sylvia. Christopher's brother, played by Rupert Everett is another character who floats groundlessly along with the whim of whatever scene his is in at the moment. Is he hateful? Oh, no, loving. Whoops, hateful again. Makes no sense. And its not just the characters; but some plot developments are just way too convenient and/or over the top. I'm thinking about cancer, and the chopping down of trees, and relationships with commanding officers. The whole thing feels like a soap opera sometimes.

To the extent there is a plot here, it seems to turn almost entirely on the idea of adultery. While I gladly admit that adultery can be quite interesting (think English Patient), here it seems most an excuse to seem daring or confrontational. Characters are always hissing words like "mistress" around like daggers. What is odd is that the effect of the dagger seems to change constantly.

And although the ending is rather artistically done (from the standpoint of cinematography) we are denied a real moment of passion and resolution that we'd been waiting for while slogging though 5 hours of this. Unacceptable. Near the end, I kept anxiously watching the bar at the bottom of the screen for the remaining time and thinking: "come on now, we're running out of time! Get to a love scene! They managed to squeeze in the tiniest bit of resolution. But NOT satisfying.

And, oh, it pains me to say this but I can't think of any other period drama with such a lack of attractive male characters. Even dramas that are clearly geared toward men, like idk, Fury, still manage to have male characters that are appealing/sexy.  Here -- and please know how much I love Benedict Cumberbatch -- all we really get is Christopher.  Cumberbatch plays him with a weak chin, marbly mouth and doughy persona. It makes him a great actor. It does not make him a very appealing leading man.

Christopher's older brother Mark played by Rupert Everett - another really sexy guy in real life - is covered in facial hair and exhibits no charm. There is really no one else even worth mentioning. Especially in a picture that seems ostensibly to be about lust, don't you think they could have sexed up the male roles a bit?

Ultimately, it comes down to me not caring about these characters. Or at least not enough to invest 5 hours of my time on them. I would not recommed the production. The only reason I watched was that the Cumberbatch-itch needed to be scratched. And even though he was not particularly appealing here, you can't hide that charisma entirely away! There was enough of it peeking out to wait and see what happened. Now that I know what happens, it really wasn't worth it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

I May Be Late to the Party, But I'm on a Raging Cumberbinge Now

A Benedict Cumberbatch binge just to be clear.  As another character cooed to him in the episode of Sherlock I recently watched, "smart is the new sexy."  This guy proves it.

I've been on a dry spell for awhile. Blame the abysmal state of the political climate. Blame my work schedule. Hell, blame the weather, but I haven't had anything that's really put me in a bloggy sort of mood for some time.

Enter Sherlock Holmes.

Obviously I've been aware of this program; it stares out at me as a 'suggested' title every time I go on Netflix; the algorithm that decides what's good for me seemed pretty sure about it. But I've always resisted.

Hard to say why, exactly. I think it's just that murder (and mystery) is not really my thing. I'm rather squeamish when it comes to death and intrigue. Maybe that sounds outrageous given my past obsession with Spooks. I mean, if I could watch 10 seasons of that, how wimpy could I be? Still, whatever the reason, I've walked on by.

So... hmmm, maybe we can blame this on Trump now too, but lately I've felt an extreme need to escape. After rewatching every Jane Austen adaptation available to me, I guess it was just a matter of time -- and a state of desperation -- before I finally crumbled and clicked on the first episode.

And that was all it took. Thanks Benedict for that icy stare and that cool detached intellect that won me over; now I'm wondering where you've been all my life.

Another masterpiece from across the pond that shows that you guys just really get how to do great TV. Here are two first-rate film actors acting in the lead roles -- not just Cumberbatch, but Martin Freeman alongside him. Here is a deeply talented and appealing supporting cast, including Rupert Graves, Una Stubbs, Jonathan Aris, and Louise Brealey to name just a few). Here is great writing full of subtle puns and tiny moments, as well as the over-the-top outlandishly clever deductions that must have taken some great minds to pack up and spill out. A moody Londony light permeates this whole production, making you feel as if -- though set in modern times -- the production is somehow tied to the turn of a prior century from whence the original book series issues.  Its an etherial, quirky mix of things. The dialog as sharp as Benedict's cheekbones and beautiful cinematography make this show irresistible. I mean, once one has finally stopped resisting.

Mostly, it is the way that the elements come together that makes the series work. I know that this is what makes for great drama, whether its about death, romance, or martians. Doesn't matter.  Because this "works", the viewer has no trouble suspending credibility to believe in the plausibility of this crime-solving duo and all their escapades.

As much as I appreciate the creative team, as always I am the biggest sucker for acting and actors. Hands down the element that sells this series is the incredible relationship between Cumberbatch and Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  There aren't enough adjectives to throw at their chemistry and charm. This casting was simply inspired. And everyone around them -- including themselves -- knows it. Thus the success of the running joke of their being lovers, despite all their protestations to the contrary. Because, lovers or not, they form the central love story that keeps us wanting more, and more.  This sexy and platonic bromance is on full display in the episode I just watched from season 3 ("The Sign of Three") where Watson is getting married and Holmes is the best man.  This is some of the best television I've ever seen and I've rarely been more entertained.  Deeply hilarious, poignant, tense and well-wrapped, this is television at its infinite finest. I'm as drunk on this show as Sherlock and Holmes were at their 'stag party'.

Now I have only to regret that they haven't made more episodes, and to look forward to watching the few remaining (including season 4 which I haven't seen at all) and to re-watching the lot many times over and again.