Monday, June 3, 2013

A Tempest Brings Stranger Shocks

     And the Rewind Series (2010 edition) kicks off with a lesser entry in a modern master's filmography, a drama about a girl's life after her mother decides to kill her & a highly original adaptation of THE classic playwright.  Time wanes, wherefore thou shouldst commence posthaste.

  The Tempest - I doubt any serious film maker sets out to create a body of work that could best be described as divisive and (for lack of a more apt description) artsy-fartsy, but these traits seem to be the benchmarks of writer/director Julie Taymor's productions.  Just four movies into her cinematic career and she's given us a biopic of a world class artist, a hippy dippy excuse to use the Lennon-McCarthy songbook as a soundtrack & two Shakespearean adaptations.  Even Kenneth Branagh throws a thriller into the mix occasionally.  The Tempest split the critics almost right down the middle.  I am happy to say that I fall securely on the happily impressed side of that fence.
     The film is a little rough hewn in places, particularly some of the editing, which doesn't allow the picture to flow from scene to scene as well as it might, but otherwise I found it to be an excellent adaptation of The Bard's final play.  Ms. Taymor did an excellent job of trimming the Five Act play into a two hour picture.  The script seemed neither piecemeal, nor overly stuffed,  which is impressive considering the sheer volume of source material.  The special effects are primitive, to be sure, but fantastically whimsical in a manner that seems conducive to Elizabethan stagecraft.  The scene where Ariel turns into a monstrous bird is particularly delightful, reminiscent of The Dark Crystal or Pan's Labyrinth.
     Ben Whishaw (who is impressing me more and more every time I see him) is fantastic in the role of the captive spirit, bringing both humanity and an inhuman alienating quality to a role made all the more haunting by the marriage of its disparate elements.  Chris Cooper, Felicity Huffman, Alfred Molina, David Straithairn... great performances across the board.  I found the inclusion of Russell Brand shockingly well conceived, but Djimon Honsou nearly stole the show as the subhuman Caliban.  For someone with such a thick Beninian...Bening...Benininese...damn...African (okay?!) accent, he produces some really crisp and carefully inflected Middle English.  He went just far enough over the top without cheapening the production.
     Of course, I say he ALMOST stole it because nothing could take your eyes off of the great Dame Helen Mirren.  It was a bold choice casting the stageplay's lead Prospero as a woman named Prospera, but I think it was also a wise one.  I cannot imagine any male actor crafting a sorcerer with quite the same blend of the scary and the sympathetic.  Of course, this is a vast oversimplification of a performance that takes a well rounded classic character and fleshes him/her out further than I've ever seen it done before.  As a final note, it is sort of wonderful that an actress who began her career as a blatant sex symbol pulls off this material with the ease and grace of a feminine Olivier.  You would think she'd been training for nothing but classical theater all her long and storied career...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Aftershock - On the surface, one would expect this tale of the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 to be a pretty cut and dried disaster flick, but that is only the beginning.  In the aftermath a mother finds her children trapped under the rubble in such a way that the rescue workers conclude she must choose which child to save.  Certainly a dramatic way to find out which of you is Mom's favorite.  The girl is left for dead but survives, spending her life burdened by bitterness and abandonment issues, refusing to seek out her surviving family.
     You really have to consider director Xiaogang Feng's film in two parts. It opens with the actual earthquake.  The movie does an excellent job of painting a picture of a relentlessly hot but peaceful evening in a small village, then ripping it to shreds as chaos ensues.  Aftershock assembles a fantastic ensemble of extras for this scene, and the sense of panic evoked is palpable.  Unfortunately, the effect is muted by the "virtual strings" that show a bit on the outdated CGI technology.  Still, if you can ignore the occasional impression that some peripheral villager just got crushed by a slab of pixels, there is a lot of hopelessness and danger to be experienced in the quake scene.
     The rest of the film tells the story of the separated family in the years that follow.  It DOES wax a little melodramatic, but it also presents the viewer with situations that contain enough inherent pathos to be moving.  The dramatic thrust of the story is firmly centered on the mother and daughter, with the son existing as something of a peripheral character.  The two central actresses give performances which form each other's inverse, in a way.  The mother is played by actress Fan Xu, who is mostly unknown to American audiences.  Her character is easily the best written in the entire script with a multitude of nuances and conflicts to explore and expand upon.  Unfortunately, the actress mostly yells and cries her way through the film, completely ignoring the delicious subtleties she was served up on a silver platter. 
     The daughter (Fang Deng) is played by Jingchu Zhang whom highly attentive viewers (and likely bitter if they payed for a ticket) may recall from English language feature Rush Hour 3.   Miss Zhang is given very little true dramatic meat to gnaw upon by comparison.  The script gives her little in the way of three dimensional emotional complexity.  For most of the film she is merely detached and bitter.  In the final scenes of the film she is given little to work with besides an instant transition from troubled to remorseful.  However, the actress digs deep and pulls far more emotional resonance out of her scenes than they inherently possess. She does much of this internally, while still remaining completely emotionally accessible to the audience, yet without ever devolving into the histrionics that the improbably emotional context of the film so readily invite.
     Each point of the film that I've focused on presents many great strengths, but they are also flawed in some way.  Aftershock is, in this sense, exactly equal to the sum of its parts.  It is deserving of praise but falls well short of greatness.  Still, it is a GOOD movie, just not much more...4 of 5 stars.

  You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - Of all the working directors who are often awarded/burdened by the weight of the title of Modern Master, Woody Allen's body of work is perhaps the MOST uneven.  Pictures like Manhattan, Annie Hall and Husbands and Wives (a personal favorite of mine, Juliette Lewis is particularly AMAZING) practically invented the dramedy genre and set the bar higher than most films of the type even approach. On the other hand, Celebrity was the only film I've ever walked out of during a theatrical showing.  Hell, To Rome With Love showed almost that much variation in quality within the bounds of a single flick, featuring vignettes that ranged from the nearly expired to the merely tired.  I love Woody at his best, but I'm always scared when he comes out with a new feature because it hurts a little to watch him fail.
     Fortunately, while certainly not a masterpiece, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is a good site better than merely watchable and actually delves into some of the Woodman's less well trodden thematic topics.  While the disintegration of relationships over time is certainly present (as always) in Allen's script, the film actually develops into a commentary on faith and spirituality in the modern world.  I don't exactly agree with the writer's tidy and flip answers, but his opinion is always one worth hearing and his trademark wit does its usual task of keeping uber-serious topics from ever turning the picture into a downer.
     Unfortunately, the acting is something of a mixed bag in ways that I never expected it would be.  Gemma Jones definitely steals the show as the recent divorcee seeking enlightenment and Pauline Collins make a very engaging psychic counselor.  Josh Brolin is at his hulking, awkward best and actually seems to pull more substance out of frequent scene partner Freida Pinto than I've seen her exhibit before when she wasn't standing silently framed in sunlight.  The greatest disappointments here are definitely the least expected.  Master thespians Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts actually pale in comparison to their less celebrated cast mates.  Watts in particular is quite surprisingly terrible and Hopkins merely seems lost to the flow of Allen's unique style of dialogue.  Antonio Banderas didn't do a bad job, but he's mostly acting opposite Watts so he faced an uphill battle.
     Stranger is not the picture that Woody Allen will be remembered for in a hundred years, but it is entertaining and a good sight better than the film maker's most glaring failures.  I enjoyed the film, but will not likely revisit it in the future...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Related articles:  To Rome, Sugarweenie (To Rome, With Love)

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