Archive | July 2012

An Opening Ceremony, the Danny Boyle Way

I knew that an Olympic Opening Ceremony where the artistic director was striving for a “personal and cinematic” experience would contain many great pop culture moments. And come on, it’s Danny Boyle, who is responsible for some of the most daring and innovative films of recent memory: Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later…, Slumdog Millionaire, and even Frankenstein at the National Theater. In the end we got a very British presentation, especially with the segment that chronicled history up to the Industrial Revolution. But the overwhelming celebration was that of UK culture: film, music, children’s literature, and social media.

The ceremony began with Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt narrating a panorama of all things UK, making me wonder if someone organizing this just happened to catch Ewan and Emily on a Salmon Fishing in the Yemen press tour. I’m not complaining; Ewan got me pumped for the rest of the show.

If you, like me, thought you spied Kenneth Branagh among the masses, you were pleasantly correct. Although to my eyes he seemed to belong in a Dickensian London, he of course recited Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you cannot go wrong with Branagh and Shakespeare.

The next bit of clashing of classic Britishness and pop culture came in the short film with Daniel Craig as James Bond coming to pick up the Queen from Buckingham Palace, culminating in a helicopter ride that made a joke of the two of them parachuting into the stadium.

Flash forward to JK Rowling reciting from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, introducing a segment that celebrated the NHS and the contributions of British children’s literature. A hospital setting turns into the children going to sleep where we encounter the stuff of their nightmares: the Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, Voldemort, and Cruella de Vil. And who saves the children from these beasties? The best nanny in the world (or in this case 100’s of duplicates of) Mary Poppins! At the end of the segment, the hospital beds turn into one giant baby (Trainspotting, anyone?) and Matt Lauer hit upon my thoughts: “I’m not sure whether that baby is cute, or creepy.” It was creepy.

Our next pop culture reference comes with a London Symphony Orchestra rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme. And who do we get playing the most boring background note? Rowan Atkinson, a very inspired choice, to play up the boringness of that note.

And finally we move into the most cinematic of all the segments, a dual love letter to both the internet and UK popular music through the decades. We have two central actors who depict meeting and falling in love amongst the chaos of dancers and the main “house” that uses screens to show clips from TV shows, films and concerts. At one point during Bohemian Rhapsody, I swear I heard a TARDIS sound, which was random but welcome. And as soon as the beginning of Underworld’s Born Slippy was played we got a Trainspotting scene. Throughout the rest of this segment, as well as during the Parade of Nations, we got a lot of great music and luckily a playlist has already been provided! (I was planning on compiling a playlist of my own, but this is much easier. I’ve included it below.) Finishing off, we got a great cover of Come Together by the Arctic Monkeys and Hey Jude performed by Paul McCartney, a perfect sing along song for the multitudes at the stadium. Powerful stuff.

To conclude, I just want to give a special shout out to Gabby Douglas, the “flying squirrel” gymnast for the US. She is from my hometown community and I will be keeping a close eye on her. I also *actually* know a girl swimming for the Czech Republic so I can’t wait to see some video of her competing.

Standouts for me: New Order, Underworld, and Franz Ferdinand.

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Blogging The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part Two

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

(Act 5.5.49)

The most important thing about Part Two? I finally realized what this project is trying (very deftly) to accomplish: a very smooth, cohesive narrative from these history plays (excepting perhaps Richard II, which suffers from being the most cutoff from the rest of the action). There is an age-old argument over whether Henry IV Parts One and Two are meant to be accepted as two separate, divorced narratives or an over-arching 10-act play. This adaptation is attempting the latter, with my guess being that the cohesiveness will continue into Henry V.

Play vs. Adaptation

For my money, I am a huge fan of Part One and sort lukewarm towards Part Two. Both plays mirror each other (Hal messes around, the threat of rebellion looms, confrontation, King Henry and Hal reconcile) but Part One is much more successful while Part Two ends up being a weaker re-hash. All of the action in Part Two feels like filler, keeping time until the king dies. It is as if Shakespeare was looking for any excuse to utilize Falstaff again (and in this case, 50% more) as well as recapture some of the main antagonism from Part One. If you don’t like Falstaff, this play is a problem. Like a case of “too much of a good thing” gone literary. While the formula for Falstaff was perfect in Part One, the sequel fails to harness the same appropriate level. What this leaves us with is a Part Two where less than half is significant in the long run.

The film adaptation attempts to fix some of the errors of the play while also shining the edges to make it fit better as a continuation. And talk about continuity from Part One to Part Two: Hal still has visible injuries from the Battle of Shrewsbury; where he is stabbed in the shoulder is still clearly nasty and unhealed, his lip scabbed over. It benefits not only from the emphasis on making it flow as an actual sequel to Part One, but it also juggles around a few scenes to make it more balanced. For instance, in the fourth act of the play, King Henry IV inquires after the whereabouts of Prince Hal (who is supposed to be hunting) and discovers from Hal’s brother Clarence that he is actually at the tavern; Hal shows up soon after this exchange. In the film, this exchange shows up about 15 minutes in, thus making the scene follow more logically while also balancing out the representation of various main characters: the next scene involving Hal places him in a position that will directly lead to him to the tavern, confirming his brother’s information and making the story flow significantly better.

It also makes more sense in the film because the story and actors strive to make the audience see Hal’s changing perception and feelings toward Falstaff. Warwick (Iain Glen, who inevitably pops up in everything I watch) defends Hal after the King learns he is at the tavern and his analysis of Hal’s behavior (that he is studying his tavern friends) is proven more or less to be true by the final act. At the end of Part One, you can help but imagine that Hal must feel palpable resentment toward Falstaff for taking the credit of killing Hotspur. So in Part Two, Tom Hiddleston’s Prince Hal is much more guarded and curt with Falstaff. His jabs seem meaner and cold, setting us up for Hal’s rejection.

I spake unto this crown as having sense,

And thus upbraided it: “The care on thee depend-

ing

Hath fed upon the body of my father.

Therefore, thou best of gold art worst of gold.

Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,

Preserving life in medicine potable,

But thou, most fine, most honored, most renowned,

Hast eat thy bearer up.”

(Act 4.5.157-164)

The fundamental piece to making these two plays work as one is eliminating a portion of Part One where Hal saves the King’s life and they reconcile. I was upset at the removal (especially due to its status as a pivotal moment in the play) but because this process is basically repeated in Part Two, this is more evidence for the plays being two separate entities. To correct this, the adaptation removed this crucial bit in order to make their eventual reconciliation in Part Two flow better and remove the redundancy that would have occurred otherwise. Although I much prefer Hal saves the King’s life in battle vs. Hal is accused by the King of stealing the crown. Oh well.

To conclude, the BBC did  Henry IV Part Two all kinds of favors by treating it as a true sequel and ironing out many of the kinks that make the play less successful at the same story. It made the experience more enjoyable, and the actors were definitely up to the task of presenting the ever-changing moods and emotions of Shakespeare’s characters.

Trying to Make Sense of Senselessness

When I woke up today, I honestly could not believe the news. Actually, it still feels surreal; like such an absolute invasion of everyday life could never happen. Of course, it happens all the time. The whole terror of violence is that it can literally strike anywhere, anytime. I didn’t spend my four years at college terrified of lecture halls that could be invaded by gunmen, but I lived in a post-Virginia Tech world. And I didn’t wake up petrified to go to high school, even though I lived in a post-Columbine world. And frankly, I went to school in an area where guns were probably present at my school, on students, more often than I would ever want to know. It is part of the human condition that we have to push the senselessness of violence out of our minds to get out of bed and go out into the world everyday. But, what happened last night in Aurora, Colorado was a new violation, one that hits home for me in new ways. Violence has found new ground and it is one that I frequent all too often: the movie theater.

And it is honestly something I have thought about. I think it must be the similarity between lecture halls and movie theaters. The vulnerable position you unwittingly put yourself in should something happen. But you wouldn’t think that would happen somewhere you go for just a few hours to lose yourself and escape the outside world. This is the grossest violation of it all: yes, we may go to see a film like The Dark Knight Rises, where villains use guns and bombs to terrorize cities, but it is still escapism and it is usually fiction. We want to set aside our own lives for a brief period and get lost in the life of someone else. To be so savagely ripped out of that world of escapism and back into our own broken, flawed world is unfathomable. And yet, some guy decided to do just that.

For big tent pole films like this, I am usually at the midnight show. I saw The Dark Knight at midnight. There is something electric about being able to share such an anticipated moment with hundreds of other people (even if it includes being squished into queues that condense those hundreds of people into a few feet of real estate). But I didn’t see TDKR last night. So I can’t imagine which is worse: to not have seen it (and blissfully ignorant of what was happening in Colorado, seen the film) or to live in this world now, where I won’t be able to shake this feeling of dread and hopelessness when I do finally see it.

One thing we have going for us now is the prevalence of social media. We are connected like never before, so we have allies in our grief and allies in our sense of injustice and outrage. We can login to Twitter or Facebook and add our sentiments to the masses, being comforted by the notion that this is being felt everywhere. The first thing I saw today was an article by Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress, which beautifully captured all my sentiments and more. This quote is particularly stirring: “We are vulnerable when we go to the movies, open to fear, and love, and disgust, and rapture, surrendering our brains and hearts to someone else’s vision of the world.” And that is what is great about going to the movies. For someone to exploit this is unimaginable, but it happened. The other thing that struck me was how social media brings us so much closer to the victims. Obviously the entire event was recorded in real time on cell phone video, via text messages and Twitter (and other means I’m sure). And for some people who are very active on social media, we get to see their final tweets and their final blog posts before, unpredictably, their lives changed forever or were ended.

I love midnight showings. I love being that excited to see a film. And movie theaters are one of the last places left where we can congregate with total strangers and equally experience the same emotions: laugh together, be scared, be stimulated. Sure, some people save money and wait or save money and watch it illegally. But unlike other experiences that new technology has replaced in our lives, the movie theater remains as one of the last vestiges of the free time of yesteryear. A constant in an otherwise changing world. Our world may now include jacked up prices and unnecessary 3D, but for the most part we don’t care. I don’t want to be scared to go do one of the few things I enjoy without reserve in this world. And I hope we don’t lose that social contract with fellow moviegoers that we struck so long ago.

Random Thoughts on 2012 Emmy Noms

I stopped hoping/predicting Emmy nominations a long time ago because going down that road inevitably leads to disappointment. But foregoing your hopes and dreams allows for another thing: pleasant surprise. Yes, most of the nominations were easily predicable but more so than usual, this year is shaping up to showcase some very deserving ensembles and individuals. One thing I won’t discuss: the snubs. I fear making that list will result in insanity and depression. Forewarning: since my thoughts range from actual having an observation to just “yay!” this is a mishmash of ideas more so than an actual post. For a better breakdown of exactly how this year is surprisingly positive, check out Tim Goodman’s analysis at The Hollywood Reporter.

Downton Abbey: Having returned for a second season to PBS, it was necessary for DA to move from the miniseries category to the drama series category. It took America a year to catch Downton fever, and I am just a little bummed that it happened on a less than stellar season. Nevertheless, I am happy for it to be included. The show even garnered far more acting noms than expected: Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, and Jim Carter were all nominated. The Brits are already laughing at our outdated obsession.

Mad Men: What do I love about the Mad Men noms this year? Well, Jared Harris for one (who replaced John Slattery in this category). I was a huge fan of Lane this season and while I could sit here and work myself into a fit over how much I think Weiner blundered his storyline, Jared Harris was awesome throughout. He devastated me for well over a week. I was happily surprised by the nomination for Ben Feldman as Michael Ginsberg in the Guest Actor category. His scene where he describes himself as a martian to Peggy is one of the standout moments of the season. And semi-related: Jon Hamm was nominated for Don Draper but he was also nominated for Guest Actor in 30 Rock. I know he doesn’t consider himself a comedian but he never ceases to be hilarious in comedies and on SNL. He may not be able to win for Mad Men, but he was definitely a standout on the 30 Rock live episode.

Curious Strategies

American Horror Story: Due to what can be deemed downright mischievous, FX submitted AHS as a miniseries, arguing that each season is a self-contained anthology (never mind the fact this was decided after it aired). Due to a sparse field of competition, this has allowed AHS to CLEAN UP. I am very excited to see Denis O’Hare recognized in the Supporting Actor category because he’s awesome.

Sherlock: And speaking of strategies, PBS entered “A Scandal in Belgravia” into contention as an TV movie. Huh? It is a single episode in a continuous series that involves the same principal characters but okay. I can’t really complain too much because I may in fact be rooting for Benedict Cumberbatch in the Lead Actor category far more than anyone else at the ceremony. Martin Freeman also got some love in the Supporting Actor category so I can’t argue with the results of this subterfuge.

The Year of the Creator/Actor?

Girls: Not only was it nominated for  Outstanding Comedy Series, but Lena Dunham got nominations for writing, directing, producing and Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.

Louie: Louis CK may have missed out on getting his actual show nominated but he successfully got nods for writing, directing and as Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Even more impressive? He now holds the record for most nominations for an individual in a single year (7).

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Max Greenfield: I know that Zooey Deschanel also got the nomination, but I have to give it up to Max Greenfield for making New Girl one of the funniest new shows on television this year. The evolution of Schmidt was a great thing to watch throughout the season and I am very glad that it was noticed.

Writing in a Comedy Series: Talk about a category that got it completely right. Girls, Parks and Recreation, Louie, and Community (The “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode!!!) all represented. I can’t wait to see what episode picks up the award but they are all so deserving.

The Hour: I just recently devoured the first season of The Hour and adored it so I am sad to see that the series was ignored (or “miniseries” I should say…er) as well as Dominic West and Ben Whishaw. However, Abi Morgan did get a nomination for Outstanding Writing.

Modern Family: I…don’t get it anymore. I watch it and it often makes me laugh but not everyone on the show needs to be nominated particularly since it wasn’t a very strong season. I would nominate Ty Burrell, that’s all folks. Instead of some of the other adults I would also nominate the kid that plays Luke, Nolan Gould, because he makes me laugh more than most of the cast combined.

Blogging The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part One

And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

(1.2.216-221)

Okay, this was pretty awesome. This adaptation was leaps and bounds better than Richard II. I felt like I was actually watching a film as opposed to a play that was staged on real sets. It gives more life to scenes of Prince Hal at the tavern than a play version ever could and lets the action breathe a little with these glimpses into everyday people’s lives. More so than in Richard II (where they utilized this trick a little), this adaptation endeavored to represent some of the most important monologues as INNER monologues. In many plays, you do get the sense that you have been awarded temporary telepathy to access these private character observations. A voice over takes this to the next logical level, showing the viewer that we are privy to something no one else is hearing. To be fair, Henry IV Part One is much more fun than Richard II could ever be; the plays really shouldn’t be compared tonally. Henry IV is gifted with many entertaining scenes and is downright hilarious but at the same time packs an emotional punch whenever those scenes turn to the serious matters at hand.

The cast: I love, love, love Jeremy Irons. In my eyes, he can do no wrong. Shakespeare from his lips seems as natural as breathing. Who else do I love? Our Lady Mary, Michelle Dockery. She certainly managed to breathe life into a character (Lady Percy) that I only gave cursory regard to while reading the play. Among a plethora of fantastic character actors, I have to single out Harry Lloyd as Mortimer. Mainly because this is literally the first time I have not felt an overwhelming urge to punch his character in the face. Re: as Viserys in Game of Thrones, annoying-weird side-grin posh kid from Doctor Who’s “The Family of Blood” and “Human Nature.”

But the spotlight must be put on Tom Hiddleston. Yes, I am a super fan of his and I am dangerously close to devouring his entire filmography but, Prince Hal is also a literary character close to my heart. And Tom somehow perfectly captured all of the emotions that resonate the most for me when it comes to the character. Best moment: when the king calls Hal to court and the news reaches him at the tavern where he had just been toying with Falstaff over their latest caper. Hal’s face falls at the weight of the news that war is brewing: on his face I read this is it, the time for games is over, I must now become the person I have been running from…but before he sinks into his despair we get a glimpse of Falstaff’s worth as well. He knows the way to cheer Hal, to put on an impromptu scene where they both get to play at being King Henry. This serves for a while but sooner than he’d like Hal’s thoughts return to the problem at hand: the end of passively playing his role as Prince. I think everyone (even those that are not the crown prince) can find some commonalities with Hal. He’s just a young dude trying to ignore the fact that he already knows what his destiny is by having a bit of fun. But when the time comes to step up to the plate, he realizes that there is no way to ignore destiny; what matters is how you handle yourself when that time comes.

For every honor sitting on his helm,

Would they were multitudes, and on my head

My shames redoubled! For the time will come

That I shall make this northern youth exchange

His glorious deeds for my indignities.

(3.3.142-146)

The juxtaposition of Hal with Hotspur is another excellent thing about Henry IV Part One. The way Shakespeare writes it (and not necessarily the way history would have it) Hal and Hotspur are just two young guys who don’t get the privilege of making youthful mistakes. Hotspur cannot undo this rebellion and Hal cannot undo the fact he is Prince of Wales. At the outset, King Henry bemoans the fact that Hal is his son and not Hotspur; Hotspur has numerous achievements in battle under his belt and a doting wife while Hal has Falstaff and the hunt for constant amusement. They are both the talk of the country: Hotspur for his prowess and Hal for his tavern-hopping. The difference between the two being that for Hotspur, his activities must end in his death and for Hal, he must sacrifice what he enjoys to live up to his title. And similarly to Richard II, I started out being largely annoyed by Hotspur but by the end I had heaps of sympathy for him; it is particularly heartbreaking that he never hears the king’s pledge to stand down. Yeah, obviously I am not naive enough to believe he would have been able to get out of his rebellion unscathed (or even alive really) but he deserved to know that he received the king’s love on the battlefield.

If I had one gripe, it would be the particular brand of fighting they used to stage the final battlefield scene: it was of the blurry, no idea what is going on variety. And when you really want to know what is going on, that is frustrating. I assume it was budgetary but yeah, frustrating. But everything else I loved. The humor, the heartbreaking moments, and especially all of the great character moments that make up the play. Hotspur challenging the crazy beliefs of Glendower, the rapport between Hotspur and Lady Percy, Hal and Poins tricking Falstaff, every quiet Hal moment encompassing his acknowledgement of the outrageous life he leads to the point where he sees just how his behavior has affected his father’s opinion of him. Great, great stuff. On to much heavier stuff (namely, betrayal!) in part two.

Blogging The Hollow Crown: Richard II

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings —

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered. For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court…

(3.2.160-167)

Unlike most of the schlock that America parades out for summer television, the BBC is debuting new adaptations of Shakespeare’s most prolific history plays: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. I have somewhat promised myself to get through as much of my complete works of Shakespeare as possible this summer and the incentive of these adaptations has certainly helped. And since Prince Hal and Falstaff represent my first experience with Shakespeare (picture a “gifted” class that I attended in fourth grade where my teacher was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt and Joan of Arc, from what I remember…) I am very excited to revisit these plays in particular.

I entered my viewing of Richard II with much anticipation: it was nearly 2 and a half hours (signifying to me that only a few bits would be excised) and Ben Whishaw, as the titular King Richard, was sure to impress. In fact, the credits were a roster of well-known talent: James Purefoy, David Morrissey, and Patrick Stewart, among other notable faces. And largely, I wasn’t disappointed. On performances alone it was great (save for Tom Hughes as Aumerle…I’m not sure what he was aiming for but it didn’t translate for me). Other than pretty much every monologue by King Richard, I also love John of Gaunt’s (Patrick Stewart) description of England, his glittering praise even making this American wonder at its magnificence:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall,

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this

England…

(2.1.45-56)

Now, on to Ben Whishaw and his portrayal of King Richard. I don’t have much experience with his career (although I watched the first episode of The Hour to get a clearer, non-Shakespearean view) and he is talented, fo sho. As one would hope with a title character, he is the most compelling presence in the adaptation. I am absolutely not an expert on British history so the pampered, almost fairy-like demeanor that Whishaw exudes was in stark contrast to what I pictured when I was reading the play. According to the greatest of all quick Internet sources, Wikipedia, I guess Whishaw was going for a more historically accurate portrayal of Richard II? He “lacked manliness” and most likely had a narcissistic personality disorder, something that must be hard to avoid when you spend your childhood being groomed as king.

I do have a few gripes. First off, the lack of a defined time span didn’t really work for me. In the play, the acts serve as a mental jump for your mind that allows you to insert however many months in between that seem appropriate for the action. Richard must go to Ireland and stay long enough for Bolingbroke to return and amass his army — and more popularity, etc. Without the benefit of these time gaps, and with no indication by what is going on onscreen, it almost looks like Bolingbroke is banished only to return on the same boat the next day. Also, the transitions and staging weren’t the smoothest; this is where adherence to the play was too strict. [Cut to: beach scene; the Welsh force has given up on waiting for Richard’s return.] I just watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, so I may be coming to this adaptation with too much in the way of  innovative expectation. I mean, there is a movie where all of the scenes were fully realized for cinema, versus simply moving the acting from the stage to a few standing sets and shooting locations. I almost signed audibly at the number of times action simply took place on what appeared to be the same  beach in Richard II.

And finally, I think the shades inherent in Bolingbroke’s character are lost in translation from page to screen. In the play, he is a bit more murky — he claims he only wants what is rightfully his, but the idea that he might go for the crown is always there, even if it is also only in the back of his own mind. In the film. he says he only wants his due but doesn’t look surprised that Richard so willingly agrees to step aside (once again, things that are a bit clearer when you allow for the movement of time).

BUT, what I value most about this play is the way that Richard II slowly transitions from apathetic and heartless despot into sympathetic and downtrodden former king. That is very much on display in the film. I actually don’t think the play works if you miss out on this, if you don’t get through the majority of it and begin to feel for Richard in his defeat. Ben Whishaw and company aptly demonstrated this reversal of fortune and I had a grand ol’ two and a half hours.