Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

The BBC has long been expert in adapting Shakespeare's stage plays to the screen. Every great Shakespearean actor since the advent of television has made an appearance in these adaptations: Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins, Patrick Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and countless other esteemed performers. The latest entry in this venerable tradition is The Hollow Crown, an adaptation of the Bard's second tetralogy: Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. These closely connected history plays cover the--sometimes attenuated--reigns of these eponymous English kings: "how some have been deposed; some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd; all murder'd".

The first in the series, Richard II, can be summarized as the downfall of a young, wastrel monarch, Richard, and the rise of Henry Bolingbroke, beloved of the people. Given the author of this play, you are right to assume that there are endless layers of complexity to this history tale. In The Hollow Crown, Richard is played by Ben Wishaw, an actor that 007 fans will likely recognize from his role as Q in Skyfall (2012). Wishaw's performance as the doomed king is extraordinarily nuanced, as he alternates between imperious condescension and near-lunatic self-pity.

One of the earliest standout scenes in the adaptation is Richard's combative conversation with John of Gaunt, played by the illustrious Patrick Stewart. Gaunt is ill to the point of death in this scene, and is essentially using his poor health as an excuse to clear his conscience and tell the young king what he really thinks of him. Patrick Stewart is more than twice Ben Wishaw's age and is playing the part of a dying man, yet his repudiation of the young monarch is so forceful, so powerfully conveyed, that I actually felt concern for the wilting king. (Stewart has such gravitas that I'm convinced he could have done justice to any of the roles in this film. Yes, the queen included.)

Bolingbroke, the man that will inevitably take Richard's place on the throne, is a very different type of adversary. He isn't quite the ambitious lord that Richard believes him to be, but rather a man just ambitious enough to allow the forces of history to make him king. Remember, this is Shakespeare we're talking about, so the question of a character's motivation is never a simple thing. Bolingbroke is played by Rory Kinnear, also an alumnus of the 007 series. His performance is far less demanding than that of Richard, the hysteric, but he does a fine job of conveying his character's conflicted loyalties, as well as hinting at his dawning realization: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."

Richard II is, admittedly, a fairly grim affair. Apart from the king's absurdist self-pity, there is little in the way of humor. But, the following Henry IV plays feature one of Shakespeare's most beloved creations: the corpulent, riotous, corrupter of youth, Sir John Falstaff.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Pick Me Up Pictures: Moonstruck

Moonstruck (1987)
Find in the Catalog!

In spite of having a big soft spot for 80s romantic comedies (i.e. Tootsie, Broadcast News, anything with John Cusack), I had never gotten around to watching Moonstruck.  I blame it partly on not really seeing Nicholas Cage as a convincing romantic hero and partly on some skepticism about Cher's acting abilities (I should have known not to doubt Cher!).  However, recently I was in the mood to watch something light and fun after watching lots of depressing romance movies from the Guardian's 25 best romance films of all time list (I'm looking at you, Brief Encounter).  So I checked out Moonstruck and was immediately cast under its spell. 

Loretta (Cher) is a widowed bookkeeper in her late 30s.   Her first husband was hit by a bus.  Loretta believes this is because of curse put on her marriage due to getting hitched in City Hall.  When her boyfriend, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) proposes, she accepts but decides to do everything right this time.  Johnny is a nice, middle-aged mamma's boy who Loretta likes but doesn't love.  When he flies off to Sicily to look after his dying mom, Loretta tries to honor his wish to have his estranged brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage) attend their wedding.   However, things become a wee-bit complicated when Loretta and Ronny wind up in bed together.

Moonstruck gives off the vibe of a modern fairy tale.  From Loretta's strange Italian grandfather walking around with a million dogs to the giant, over-sized full (Cosmo's) moon, the movie definitely has a quirky, magical quality to it.   Probably my favorite aspect of the movie is Loretta's tight knit family.  Olympia Dukakis gives an inspired performance as Loretta's practical but heartbroken mom.  She has some great lines, including advising Loretta that it's good that she doesn't love Johnny because "When you love them, they drive you crazy because they know that they can."  I also really liked that Loretta is a really strong character.  Whether she's making Johnny propose to her on his knees or telly Ronny to "snap out of it" when he confesses his love for her, Loretta certainly doesn't kowtow to the men in her life. 

Overall, this is a super cute movie! Definitely check it out if you want a movie that's light, funny, romantic but also smart and well acted.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Low Wants You To "Stay"

One of the more surprising highlights of this past summer's Pitchfok Music Festival, according to those fortunate enough to attend, was Minneapolis band Low covering Rihanna's hit song "Stay". It's just the kind of unexpected move that can make live performances so exciting. Last week the band uploaded a studio version of their cover, which seems to evidence that the band-members are still quite taken with the song. It is a spare, minimalist recording--just voices and piano--that is entirely in keeping with the band's aesthetic and does a fine job of capturing what makes the original great. Which is pretty much everything that a good cover should be.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Title sequence greatness

Title sequences are easy to overlook; they're often taken for granted because it's the time when you go to the bathroom or go get the popcorn. However, I propose that title sequences are one of the best indicators of whether a film or TV show is worth watching, at least when you have no other motivations (starring your favorite actor, based on a book you read, etc.).

Obviously imagery is important, but instead of taking advantage of this moment, most sequences seem to be an afterthought - let's just film some scenery from a helicopter and throw the performers' names over the shots of countryside. Sure, sometimes this b-reel imagery sets up the place, maybe the time, but it's not especially imaginative. When you sit down, you want to be immediately taken somewhere, otherwise it's too easy to become distracted.

There is a reason that movies are scored and music videos exist; music and movies accentuate each other. Good, deliberate music can convey tone and emotion, and is also a place were imagination is welcome. One loophole: silence can also be effective for setting tone.

The last piece of the puzzle is the font and style used for the titles. Type can actually demonstrate emotion and relevance just as much as imagery, since it too is a visual medium. For instance, use a font such as courier, and you might be reminded of a typewriter, thus the 1940s, and therefore a WWII-era spy thriller (or something like that, you get my drift). Well chosen typeface is key to a memorable sequence. Also, how do the titles flow into one another? This can convey the tone of the movie, such as frantic, lackadaisical, quirky, etc.

Originality in all three aspects makes for great sequences. Of course, sometimes there isn't a title sequence-- which can be cool too as long as it's intentional. Check out a list of some personal favorites after the jump ...