Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Proposal for the Fairy Tale Movie Trend

     The movie industry goes through trends in movies the way teenagers go through pop culture icons. Some of the more recent cycles include zombies, vampires, and superheroes. The summer of 2011 was defined by superhero movies on the big screen, while the TV screen was dominated with vampire and zombie trends. This year launches the fairy tale trend, and as proof I submit upcoming movie releases Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Pan, Jack the Giant Killer, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, as well popular TV shows Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Although it’s true that last year turned out its own adaptations of Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast (in a strange, uncelebrated film called Beastly), it seems that this year studio executives decided to actually and try make something good out of the classic tales (exception being Disney’s Tangled tale of Rapunzel).

     Snow White and the Huntsman has some potential, despite casting Kristen Stewart in the leading role. But to be fair, no one can be blamed for being enterprising as that simple casting choice will reel in a host of Twi-hards (Twilight fans) which means more money for the studio. Not a bold choice on their part, but a shrewd one, financially speaking. Kudos to them for at least recognizing that the evil queen is supposed to be beautiful, calling into question whose idea it was to cast has-been Julia Roberts in the role in Mirror Mirror. As for Hansel, Gretel, and Jack, it is hard to say at this point if these vindictive retellings/continuations will be worth their salt when the tickets hit the booths. The same can be said of the modernized Pan, which is if nothing else, ambitious. Modernizing a tale about ageless youth, piracy, and fantasy presents obvious problems, not the least of which is what message is being portrayed by reimagining the pirates into policemen. And I’m curious how the studio will deal with the Indians. Probably by making them a band of ethnically diverse people of the city who are mistreated by the local law enforcement. For the sake of optimism, I’m going to assume that “flying” in this modernized version is not a drug reference.

     Clearly there are plenty of fairy tales that Hollywood has already tapped for inspiration, but I have a proposal of my own to toss into this trend. First of all, let go of Snow White as two movies in one year based off the same over-told tale is quite enough to be getting on with. Folk tales such as the legend of William Tell could make for an exceedingly interesting plot with some embellishments. In this case I’m envisioning a climactic scene featuring William bruised, bleeding, and shaking with exhaustion after a narrow escape from his part in the assassination of the tyrant. He returns to his home to find his village under threat, and he is now forced to shoot the apple off his hostage son’s head when he can barely stand, let alone hold a bow. Feel the tension!

     Cinderella is generally considered to be a happy fairy tale and not particularly dark, but it certainly could be without too much effort. Let’s say that the man Cinderella calls father was a trusted ally of a would-be king whose evil relative usurps the thrown. Cinderella is the daughter of the rightful king, who of course dies early on. Later, her “father” marries a noblewoman who becomes privy to this game for the crown and kills her “father”, hiding the evidence that Cinderella is the rightful heir to the throne, and cooking up a master plan to either use the unknowing Cinderella as a pawn, or raise one of her own daughters to be an imposter. Is there any doubt that Cate Blanchett could accomplish all this with delicious coldness? Forget the shoe, a noble family committed to restoring the true heir to the throne wants to find out who dropped this ring that identifies the owner as the heir. All the while the current king is on his own quest to find the girl and either force a marriage that would legitimize his family’s claim to the throne, or more likely, kill her. Or both! Call me cliché, but I say this could be a fantastic intrigue that has all the elements of a great period piece: mystery, scandal, romance, and plenty of opportunities for swordplay.

     With movie executivess going back to folk tales and fairy tales for inspiration, the new trend has potential to turn out some great results, but only if handled with respect. Sometime next year an adaptation of Arabian Nights will hit the silver screen, but judging by the casting choices so far, don’t expect Gladiator - expect Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Hopefully the current heightened interest in fairy tales will yield at least a few acceptable results and creative twists, to balance out the inevitable hack-jobs of the classic stories. But at the risk of sounding insufferably superior, I think they should listen to me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why The Legend of Zelda Will Never Be a Movie

My teenage years were very much defined by my repeat quests through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, learning every nook and cranny of Hyrule. It was not until Hollywood began turning its face to games for movie ideas that I ever considered how The Legend of Zelda might do as a movie. Certainly with a Lord of the Rings type budget and tone, it had potential to be the next great epic fantasy film. But as the thought grew in my mind and I even began composing my ideal cast list, a gnawing feeling stuck with me: The Legend of Zelda is un-filmable.

I will grant that JRR Tolkien said the same thing about his grand Lord of the Rings series, but I wonder if even Tolkien could have foreseen how far special effects and cinematography have come. Probably not. But the issues that would be faced in looking at a Legend of Zelda movie would not be in the realm of special effects, but in story and characters. In over 20 years of Zelda, the hero Link has never spoken a single word. If that doesn't make for difficult casting, I don't know what does. 

Being that the Legend of Zelda has been made and remade many times over the course of the last twenty-something years, choosing what storyline would be most condusive to a movie would be a major challenge for any writer who understood the devotion of the fans. Recognizing that choosing a game on which to base the movie would be entirely futile, combining elements of the various stories could be either degree of ingenious or disastrous. Ingenious because incorporating references, characters, or locations of the different games could be delightful, but at the same time the zealots that have been following Zelda for all these years may just have a cow. While I'm by no means suggesting that every single fan needs to be appeased, creating an entirely original story without regard for the previously published material would be disastrous.

There is also the difficulty that Link travels back and forth through time and affects history on multiple occasions, meaning that even choosing a starting point for a new story would create loopholes that the religiously dedicated fans would deem heresy. While it is true that each game has managed to come up with another story that doesn’t shred the intersecting timelines, a movie would out of necessity require some origin story. Due to the nature of Zelda, just the origin would not be enough for audiences who are not well-versed in the Legend of Zelda canon. For the sake of clarity and faithfulness to the essence of the stories, a good bit of explanation would be needed, which then presents the whole issue again of which timeline to follow.

Clearly, presenting a flowing storyline would be a challenge enough without the previously mentioned difficulty of casting someone in what would have to be a non-speaking role in order to remain faithful to the
games. I can hear the critics now saying that Link would not have to remain silent, but I would like to posit that he would indeed have to. When reading a book, the interpretation of the character is largely left to the reader to imagine the character’s voice inflections, their cadence, the tone of their voice and the expression in their eyes. These interpretations are based on lines of dialogue or descriptions of their thoughts, but with Link we have no such advantage. Hence the interpretations of Link’s character are open to be all over the board. Link as a silent protagonist may be a youth of quiet desperation and longing, a young man of deep conviction and philosophy, a stuck-up entitled orphan with a messiah complex, a loner with a silent but vicious nature, a drifter with a quest he is resistant to claim, and so on. Link could reasonably be any one of these things. We simply do not know, and apparently we were never meant to because Link is the player's avatar-- the gamer's shell. Before the idea that this movie could never be made took root in my mind, I had the entire cast picked out for each character with the exception of Link-- the most imporant character. Ganon would have been played by Liam Neeson or Gerard Butler, Zelda by Emma Watson; see my postnote for the full list. But could any actor really handle Link? Silent, expressive, but at least somewhat touchable, human, and likable as a hero?

As much as I hate to admit it, I find it exceedingly hard to believe that any kind of Legend of Zelda movie could be made and made well. And perhaps that is better than settling for another Prince of Persia style interpretation of a beloved story. Better to let it live in its confined game-glory than ruin it by trying to bring it to the silver screen. But if anyone ever dares undertake this quest, dares to risk the wrath of the fans who are arguably more vicious than Ganon himself, dares to make the impossible story possible, and does all this well, I will be the first in line for a ticket.

Full suggested cast list:
Zelda- Emma Watson
Ganondorf- Liam Neeson, Gerard Butler, Ralph Fiennes
Saria - Saoirse Ronan
Young Link-- Asa Butterfield
Malon- Emma Stone
Impa- Tilda Swinton, Mila Jokovich
Ruto- Katie McGrath
Nabooru (Gerudo Leader)- Aishwarya Rai, Noomi Rapace
Darunia- Ray Winstone
Raaru- Anthony Hopkins

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Help

Sometimes when I get into reviewing a movie, I get into a rut of what points I focus on and most of my reviews follow a basic structure that gets a little dull to write after a while, and I imagine rather unexciting to read. So this time around I’m going to just shoot from the hip as it were, and go at this review like a coffee chat. If it still strikes you as pompous and overly wordy, know that’s just the way I am.

So, The Help. I must say that this movie does an especially respectable job of not demonizing whites or deifying blacks, though it walks a steady line at times. The main antagonist of the movie, Hilly Holbrook, is an aristocratic white woman who is frequently accompanied by changeable, air-headed, Stepford-style wives. They all sit in their pro-social clubs working for the good of the community and chat neatly over their games of bridge, while railing against any sort of support for the maids callously dubbed “the help.” Hilly Holbrook in fact brings to mind Aunt Alexandra of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as they are both maddeningly blinded to the duality of their lives, yet despicably simple in their absolute determination to be so. Hilly pushes an agenda to have all homes employing a black maid to build a separate restroom with plywood walls, because “they carry different diseases than we do.” Honestly I wondered during the pauses when we refilled our drinks if Bryce Dallas Howard had to be extra nice to everyone between takes so that she wouldn’t be judged by the character she so perfectly plays.

Hilly leads a small troupe of other wealthy and bored young wives who lack the capacity to love their own children properly, let alone be asked to think on something so complex as the absurdity of their prejudices. Hilly herself finds her identity in her reputation as a model housewife and good citizen, which explains why she takes a certain prank of Skeeter’s so badly. Most of these ladies claim to be good church-going Christian women, but as a Christian woman, I found myself wanting to bark “evil racists!" at the screen. The perfectly infuriating portrayal of these women is only balanced by the movie’s likable protagonist Skeeter, a sweet and comical misfit named Celia, and her briefly-seen husband. That is why I say the movie walks a steady line—there are barely enough likable white characters to balance out the evil ones.

The real backbone of the movie are the maids Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen is played by Viola Davis, who captured my attention for her stirring performance in Doubt. Her character tenderly cares for her white employer’s toddler Mae Mobley who, despite her young age, clearly identifies Aibileen as her true mother. In Aibileen’s interviews with Skeeter, she specifically tells Skeeter to write that “Mrs. Leefolt should not be having babies.” Mrs. Leefolt treats her children the way a teenage girl treats a puppy— as an accessory that is fun to have on hand every now and then, but the minute they present an inconvenience, it’s too much trouble. As an example, Aibileen mentions that between the time she leaves work in the evenings and returns in the morning, Mae Mobley’s diaper is not changed in ten hours. Aibileen has no lack of passion about the injustices against her fellow maids or her employer’s complete deficit of parenting skills, but she keeps her head down and complies, unlike Minny.

I must say that I found Minny to be delightfully sassy and many of her scenes marked my favorite points in the movie, simply because her attitude and personality translate so clearly onscreen. Octavia Spencer deserved that Oscar win, hands down. She completely nailed the portrayal of Minny as a hard-working maid with fantastic defiance. She has a degree of discernment when it comes to standing up against her evil employer Hilly Holbrook, but she has enough nerve that ultimately she wins a great victory over Hilly, giving her a very devious upper hand. Minny pays a high price for her cheek, but she is also rewarded for her kindness towards Celia. It’s hard not to root for Minny, even as Hilly scarfs down that chocolate pie…

You may have already gathered how infuriating and hilarious I found The Help. I won’t deny however that there were moments that my eyes misted, but I appreciate that the writers didn’t seem to be set on making The Help an emotional catharsis. It certainly has its moments that are tailored to be tearjerkers, but the movie isn’t built on preachy lines designed to be painted in cutesy decals on your walls. The emotionally low moments are such because as a viewer you really care about the individuals onscreen and feel their pain thanks to the immaculate acting.

All in all I would classify The Help as quality entertainment that hits the bull’s-eye in drama, comedy, and social commentary, sometimes simultaneously. Moments of extreme drama are met with well-timed comic relief, and the inevitable tear-jerking moments are balanced out with laughter. Most of the time at least.

Friday, May 11, 2012

How Christopher Nolan Ruined Batman

It can be said without too much reservation that Christopher Nolan has simultaneously saved and forever ruined Batman. When Batman Begins debuted in 2005, it was clear that Nolan was determined to make a clean and undisputed departure from the woefully executed previous films that eventually resorted to putting nipples on the batsuit. The franchise changed directorial hands several times, squeezing multiple well-known actors into the bat suit (or into the dreadfully extravagant antagonist costumes), and then the entire story went belly-up. George Clooney couldn’t save it; it seemed that no one could. Fans of the caped crusader were left without a satisfying motion picture representation of the great graphic novels, and it seemed that Batman would be confined to the page, the dark animated series and mini-movies, and the imaginations of the loyal.

Then, when comic-book movies began emerging from the shadows with shockingly respectable results, a lesser-known but well-respected director by the name of Christopher Nolan quietly gathered the broken and disfigured corpse of Batman and carefully laid it in the Lazarus Pool* of recreation. Batman burst out very much alive and, true to the effects of the Lazarus Pool, a new creation. There, it rose from obscurity and daring to take on Star Wars that very same summer, launched the movie trilogy that Batman will now forever be defined by.

As a director, Christopher Nolan’s career has been marked by dark mind-benders and intricate plots that are virtually irreproducible, which is a skill he brings to his Batman creation. Rather than setting out to save what Hollywood had already submitted for this particular hero, Nolan began completely afresh, starting from the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s story and re-imaging his world and the people in it to suit the dark and serious tone of the new Gotham. Clownish villains now eliminated, Bruce himself was not your friendly neighborhood Batman, but a shadow in the dark that the hardest of criminals would fear. Throughout Batman Begins, but especially in The Dark Knight, it became clear that Batman was not a pure-hearted incorruptible hero. Conversely, he is at times barely different than those he fights against, willing to make sacrifices and walk that very fine line. The genius of Nolan’s Batman in the hands of Christian Bale is that for the very first time, Bruce Wayne was made touchable, sympathetic, and more a warm-blooded human than he had ever been before. The newer, edgier Bruce was not just a rich orphan anymore, but a man who had wallowed in the depths of the darkest corners of the human mind and emerged not shining hero, but a man changed by the darkness and determined to overcome it and bring his city out with him. If you have seen the Dark Knight, you know how much this costs him (and I strongly suspect will still cost more in the upcoming The Dark Night Rises).

If anything can be said of Christopher Nolan’s approach to the iconic character and story, it can be summed up as gutsy. Nolan took definite risks in his approach of Batman Begins, but the result left him millions of dollars richer, and audiences hungry for a follow-up. People questioned the choice of Heath Ledger as the Joker, but that character now tops most greatest villain lists. And yet, the brilliance of Nolan’s approach is not just in the character adaptations, but in his sheer mastery of shaping the characters, the story, and the setting to fit into a world that we feel that we know. By the time The Dark Knight came to be, the story was ultimately more about the Joker than Batman, but was also a deep and twisted tale on crime and corruption. Batman just happens to live in this world. Everything about Gotham seemed tangible and uncomfortable in its familiarity. Therein lies one of the greatest weapons in the arsenal—that a story about a comic book hero was taken and shaped into a world that is believable and realistic. Even well-established Batman villains were recreated to suit the squalid nature of Gotham and its multi-faceted corruption. (Personal example, I will never forget how my mouth dropped open and I began shaking with excitement when I realized that Dr. Crane was none other than the Scarecrow. Instead of a little man prancing around in a straw hat and manipulating dreams, Dr. Crane was a shrewd and twisted doctor with a disturbing understanding of psychosis and chemical components that induce hallucinations).

The upcoming summer movie The Dark Knight Rises totes the tagline “The Legend Ends.” This can be interpreted a variety of ways, but the truth is that when Nolan says it ends, it ends. He has saved Batman from being forever marked by the missteps of Kilmer, Keaton, and Clooney, but he has completely ruined it for any director who may have harbored dreams of one day taking the story in a new direction onscreen. Nolan has done something with the story that was so audaciously out of the box that it can never be successfully touched again. Christopher Nolan has ruined Batman because when his adaptation closes once and for all, no other Batman will ever escape comparison to this trilogy. Put simply, anyone hoping to do something else with Batman in the future just... can’t.

*Lazarus Pool is a reference to the graphic novels. Ra’s Al Ghul had a mystical pool that had the ability to bring the dead to life again, but the cost was usually that the once-dead would be mentally an entirely different person.