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January 15, 2014


Discussed here:
Bless Me, Ultima
Oz, the Great and Powerful
The Great Gatsby
What Masie Knew
Much Ado About Nothing
August: Osage County

Literary sources figured big this year...

Carl Franklin, who in 1995 brilliantly adapted Walter Mosley's noir novel Devil in a Blue Dress for film, brings Rudolfo Anaya's 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima (2011) to the screen, a coming of age story about a boy whose understanding of the world is profoundly altered when the local curandera comes to live with his family. Unfortunately, superb cinematography is done a disservice by clunky editing, and a beautiful narrative is damaged by clunky dialogue and uneven performances. Luke Ganalon as the seven-year-old Tony and Miriam Colon as Ultima are self-assured and confident. Ganalon's performance is amazingly nuanced, especially considering his age, and communicates emotion silently, while Colon infuses Ultima with nobility and grace. The other performances often seem forced, which is regrettable for such a visually stunning film accompanied by Mark Kilian's haunting score.

What were Disney Pictures and Sam Raimi thinking? The vintage opening credits for Oz the Great and Powerful are an absolute delight, and the initial sepia scenes set amidst Kansas carnies pay tribute to the 1939 film -- but it is all precipitously downhill from there. On top of terrible acting and a screen crammed with creepy make-believe creatures, I felt like I was going to scream if I was subjected to James Franco's gummy smile one more time. In her review for the New York Times Manohla Dargis make much of the feminism with which L. Frank Baum infused the Oz books and the sexist travesty with which this thing assaults us. The final insult is the dopey piece of contemporary pop music as the closing credits roll.

It has struck me as very interesting that FILM critics disliked/hated Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby and LITERARY critics liked/loved it. Few films of great works of literature live up to the books that have spawned them. Hal Ashby/Peter Sellers' Being There completely outdid Jerzy Kosinski's novel, but that is rare. Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita does admirable justice to Nabokov's brilliant novel, and that is equally rare. For years I refused to see the Adrian Lyne/Jeremy Irons' version, because I so love both the novel and Kubrick's movie. I finally watched Lyne's Lolita about five years after it came out, and was surprised to like it. Interestingly Kubrick and Lyne both understood that they could not film the whole novel, and each made quite different choices in the scenes they opted to include. Though I still prefer Kubrick's, in all fairness both directors created wonderful adaptations, and as different as they are, each is, in its own way, true to the novel. 

Everyone, and I mean everyone, I knew harbored fear of the new Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel has suffered at the hands of Hollywood. There was a lost 1926 silent version, and a 1949 version misses the mark. Francis Ford Coppola's is the disaster we all hold in recent memory, so trepidation was the reigning sentiment. But in a way, over-the-top director that he is, Luhrmann pulls it off. I, too, had my apprehensions, but Baz won me over. He captures the almost nihilistic frenzy of the jazz age through a driving score peppered with hip hop, and even Leonardo DiCaprio, of whom I am not especially fond, exudes sufficient charismatic bravado mixed with an underlying vulnerability to make an acceptable Gatsby. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan are excellent as Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Only Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway seems a bit miscast. Check your lit crit baggage at the door and enjoy the ride!

Scott McGehee and David Sigel bring Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew into contemporary Manhattan. Henry James was a master of psychological insight, and the events of his penetrating narrative are experienced entirely through the eyes of a six-year-old. James could have had no more sensitive an incarnation for the part than Onata Aprile who plays the child, Maisie, shuttled back and forth -- sometimes even entirely forgotten -- by narcissistic divorcing parents, Beale (Steve Coogan) and Susanna (Julianne Moore). New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott observes that "watching these monsters has a twofold effect. On the one hand, you may be forgiven a frisson of self-righteous superiority, since whatever your own shortcomings, you are surely above such blatant acts of deceit and neglect. On the other hand, since Beale and Susanna exist on a recognizable continuum of parental behavior, you can’t help feeling implicated." Among the film's strengths is its success at making us feel our complicity in a culture that not only condones but almost encourages the kind of behavior these parents exhibit, with its steady push toward materialism and self-gratification.

Joss Whedon? Much Ado about Nothing? Strange but true, and what a delight it is. A sprawling Southern California house of an affluent host, decorated with a Pottery Barn aesthetic, is the perfect setting for Shakespeare's sexy screwball comedy, and the lines trip off the lips of a marvelous ensemble fueled by dry Chardonnay and wry wit. The score, which Whedon also wrote, harks back to a late-'50s, early-'60s swinging jazzy sound, and he creates a beautifully effective ballad for Shakespeare's lines in "Sigh No More."
 NYT Critics' Pick


The comedic possibilities for the premise of Austenland are squandered by director and co-writer Jerusha Hess and writer Shannon Hale, who wrote the novel. Watching the previews I thought, "This is going to be a hoot!" Not. The central character is obsessed with Jane Austen and discovers a vacation theme park designed to let guests live inside an Austen novel. It is unclear whether anyone involved has more than a passing familiarity with Austen, an ounce of psychological insight, or a soupçon of irony or wit. The cast is peopled with good actors whose talents likewise are squandered.

John Wells's August: Osage County could be viewed as sins of the mothers rather than the fathers. The men function as a sort of Greek chorus to the women, though the catalogue of tragedies the story encompasses seems rather too thorough. Indeed, the film has come under considerable critical attack, not only for its thematic excesses but for its over the top performances. Meryl Streep has come under particular reproof for chewing the scenery to shreds. I'm going to weigh in by saying I think that judgment is overly harsh, and for me at least the movie was worth seeing. As far as I'm concerned, the cast played the roles and delivered the lines as they were written for them.

Most people other than New Yorkers and Londoners do not have much of a chance to see live theater, with the exception of the numerous Shakespeare productions at festivals across the U.S. There is the anomaly of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Sheperdstown, WV, of all places, but most people who are not involved with a Humanities Department at a major university simply have no exposure to the stage.

A friend of mine turned me on to London's Royal National Theatre filmed productions of Nick Dear's Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated in the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster). I enjoyed them so much I went to Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, a self-reflexive play about the theater examined through the art and friendship of poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. These experiences reminded me of the difference(s) between the stage and screen.

Theater is simply more over the top than cinema, especially contemporary cinema. Contemporary dramatic film (I'm not talking fantasy or sci-fi or other CGI orgies) strives for realism. I don't mean that film has moved into some pure realm of direct cinema or cinéma vérité, but contemporary films from anywhere in the world these days are expected to have a visual look and a style of story telling that is stripped of the embellishments that playwrights employ for effect and stage actors employ to magnify inflection, both gestural and vocal. Like Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor, which he should have written as a novel first and then let someone adapt for the screen, August's playwright Tracy Letts should have let a screenwriter adapt the play for the cinema.

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