Theatre as Film

muchado_coverI recently had the pleasure of seeing Joss Whedon’s version of Much Ado About Nothing. In a word: delightful. However as much as I enjoyed all the shenanigans onscreen I had to wonder why this movie had been made at all.

There is nothing cinematic about it. As my friend put it, “It’s like Joss Whedon had a party and after the fifth bottle of wine they were all like, ‘Let’s do some Shakespeare!'” Granted, I would kill to have been a fly on the wall at that party. However this film played like he set up the camera in the corner and instructed the actors to put on a stage drama in front of it. By which I mean, there are no intriguing camera angles and no visual style (besides the hipster use of black and white).

As I said, I found the film delightful. But if you’re not going to do anything with film as a medium why not save yourself the expense and put on a stage play?

Any thoughts?

(I own nothing related to anything ever.)


Stoker (2013)

If I had to use one word to describe South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s first English language feature Stokerit would be ATMOSPHERE.


The movie is dripping with gothic horror– the kind of story in which it is conceivable that a modern teenage girl would not immediately call the police after her potentially murderous uncle makes a pass at her. The mansion which serves as the main locale is overgrown with weeds, has a suspiciously large freezer in its ostentatiously creepy basement (all the better to stuff your dead body in, my dear) and appears to play host only to the most creepy of visitors. Honestly, in a place like this it would be shocking if someone wasn’t murdered.

The film opens with a young girl running through a field. She is alone. Then shots of the girl, still alone, are juxtaposed with her father’s funeral. We see her lying on her bed surrounded by shoes. It is at this point that we are introduced to the shoe motif. Shoes are overwhelmingly important in Stoker. Perhaps they are even more important than the human characters. By the time we see the third shoe montage half way through the film I believe we can reliably say that Park Chan-Wood has a bit of a shoe fetish.


Many critics have called this film pretentious. I don’t like it when that term is lobbed at movies or books. People are pretentious. Movies are exactly as they are, and we can only judge them on how well they succeed in and of themselves. I think the reason that people have called Stoker pretentious is that so much is it is overwrought with symbolism. LOOK at this girl popping a blister. LOOK at these boxes of shoes. LOOK at this man digging a hole. And finally, LOOK at this girl eating ice cream.

Of course any of these lingering shots could have great meaning. However a continual succession does not drive forward the story. Instead the audience will be tempted to simply roll its eyes, particularly when it is asked to attach great significance to the fact that someone is eating both vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Sometimes ice cream should just be ice cream.

stoker_coupleAt the funeral of India’s father we learn several important things. One, the girl is named India (Mia Washikowska), and she does not like to be touched. Two, there is a chilly distance between India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Three, India’s uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she has never met, has come back from traveling the world to attend his brother’s funeral. Charlie quickly uses facts one and two to ingratiate himself with Evelyn, who may be a widow but is still young enough to be intrigued by the good looks and charm of this worldly brother-in-law. He has less luck with India, but a quick meeting of the eyes between the two guarantees that Evelyn will not be the only one receiving inappropriate advances from the houseguest.


Of course Charlie turns out to be a sociopath. Every lonely mansion needs a charming murderer; otherwise what would the residents do to while away the evenings? Of course his target is India. However he doesn’t want to kill her. On the contrary, he has been in love with her since he learned of her existence. He senses that she carries within her the same germ of evil with which he was born.

Park Chan-Wook and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung utilize a haunting tracking shot showing India moving through the funeral guests while Charlie follows close behind. It is the same kind of shot Joe Wright used in his Pride and Prejudice to show Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden) following Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley), save here it focuses on a character hunting a young woman rather than being enchanted by her.

stoker_kidmanAs bodies begin to fall, the atmosphere becomes even heavier until even the smallest detail is wrought with Meaning (with a capital M). Yet in the end I was unmoved.

For one thing, perhaps it is because Park is not an English speaker– he had to have an interpreter onset– but the dialogue is not consistent with the mood. Kidman, Washikowska and Goode are all accomplished actors, but even they cannot make a conversation about pork chops be anything but a conversation about pork chops. Furthermore I was suitably charmed against my will by Goode’s Charlie and I felt sympathy for Kidman’s Evelyn; however I never felt anything for Washikowska’s India. The problem is less with her acting than it is with the writing. I don’t understand this girl, and more importantly I don’t think there is anything to understand. In a film dominated by strong personalities, she is a cipher.


Stoker is interesting to look at and professionally made, but it doesn’t deliver on its atmospheric promise. Blood is everywhere, yet there is no emotional punch.

Did you see this movie? Or do you just swoon over Matthew Goode? I would love to hear from you?

3 stars

Next: 2001: A Space Odyssey

(I own nothing related to Stoker)

12 Angry Men (1957)

“This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism–the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, “12 Angry Men” was lean and mean.” Roger Ebert, 12 Angry Men (Great Movies Review)


We learn only a few personal details about each juror in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, yet by the end of the movie, I felt like I had met each of them:

12angrymen_coverJuror #1 (Martin Balsam)– the genial foreman who is primarily concerned with keeping the debates friendly and organized

Juror #2 (John Fiedler)– physically small but big-hearted (it’s not his fault he has a squeaky voice!)

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb)– pathetic and hateful

Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall)– the most logical and analytic of the bunch

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman)– soft-spoken with roots in the lower class

Juror #6 (Edward Binns)– shopkeeper, not the type to be pushed around by loudmouths like Juror #3

Juror #7 (Jack Warden)– brash and clad in an outrageous checkered jacket

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda)– white knight

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney)– the oldest juror, has a knack for noticing what others miss

Juror #10 (Ed Begley)– not very intelligent, hiding some racist views

Juror #11 (George Voskovec)– the only foreign-born juror

Juror #12 (Robert Webber)– an advertising exec who behaves like a proto-Pete Campbell

I may not know everything about these men, but I know enough to understand why they make the choices they do in this film. That is what differentiates 12 Angry Men from lesser films– the quality of the writing and acting is such that even the brief amount of time each individual receives in this film is enough to establish their backgrounds and motivations.

12angrymen_fondaThe spirit of 12 Angry Men (1957) is perhaps best expressed in the physicality of its one A-lister, the late Henry Fonda. He is an imposing figure onscreen without a scrap of extra flesh on his bones; his cheekbones in particular seem best fit for the shadows of a black and white feature. His eyes are intelligent and kind but fierce. That balance of intellect and ferocity define his portrayal of Juror #8. In this story of a twelve man jury debating the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father, Fonda expresses most articulately the ideals at the heart of the American judicial system: the accused are innocent until proven guilty, it is on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused and if there is reasonable doubt that the accused did not commit the crime they must be acquitted by a jury of their peers.

Besides Fonda (who helped secure funding for the film), the other stand-out is Lee J. Cobb. He seems friendly enough at first–maybe a little loud– but as Fonda’s Juror #8 begins to persuade the others to reconsider their guilty votes, he erupts into a loathsome vendetta. Having driven away his own child years ago, he now seeks a terrible revenge with the accused boy as a scapegoat. It is fascinating how even as he spews out his hateful speech, Cobb shows that Juror #3 has not consciously drawn the connection between the kid charged with murder and his own son. He is so lost in his pain and anger that, like a wounded animal, he strikes out at the nearest stand-in.

Recently I was indulging in a reread of my childhood favorite Matilda when I came across this description of the wretched Miss Trunchbull:

Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was something else altogether. She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike. There was aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal. . . . Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush–climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away. (p. 67)

That is what I think of when I think of Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3.


12 Angry Men is a remarkably intelligent film. Yes, the script spells out the definition of reasonable doubt several times for the audience, but it trusts that we will decide on our own what we think about the characters.

Fonda’s Juror #8 understands the American judicial system better than anyone else in the film, but after listening to him preach for an hour, I became frustrated. From the first moments of the movie, he seeks to prove to his fellow jurors (and the audience) that there is enough reasonable doubt in this case to prevent a guilty verdict. He argues so passionately that it is easy to forget that he is arguing for a reasonable doubt verdict rather than a full-out innocent verdict. He says at one point, “I know this boy. He wouldn’t have done it.”

Except he doesn’t know this boy. In fact, one of his methods of proving the young man’s innocence–going to the neighborhood of the crime to see if he could purchase a switch blade similar to the one allegedly used by the boy to kill his father– is illegal. After a while, it seems that this juror is projecting an awful lot on the alleged murderer.

Of course, Fonda’s Juror #8 is the most admirable (our white knight even wears a white jacket for much of the film); however in the end I found other characters more sympathetic. For example Juror #5 (Jack Klugman of TV’s The Odd Couple) has same ideals as Juror #8 but has some insecurities arising from his lower class background which prevent him from being an outspoken proponent of justice.

Likewise, Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) is lizard-like in his chilly demeanor and clipped tone, but he is not indifferent to the fate of the boy they are about to convict. He simply relies on facts above idealism. This juror is at the heart of the most interesting conflict in the film.


It is Marshall’s Juror #4 who brings up the most cogent arguments as to why the boy is guilty. The boy says he was at the movies during the time of the murder, but he couldn’t remember the film he saw and there were no witnesses. Juror #8 tries to point a hole in this by pointing out that Juror #4 can’t remember what he did only a few days earlier, but that doesn’t change the fact that there were no witnesses to the boy going to the movies. In fact, as this A.V. club review points out, there is actually a lot of solid evidence against him. It would be extraordinary if the young man was innocent.

What a fascinating possibility– that a movie all about justice could end with an unjust not guilty verdict. But of course the film isn’t really about whether or not the boy committed the crime. It is about what bubbles up when several humans are placed in a constrained situation and forced to debate on matters of right and wrong. In the case of Juror #10, the stress causes him to deliver a speech which perfectly encapsulates the “us vs. them” mindset behind racism. As he speaks the other jurors one by one stand up and turn their back on them until at last he collapses, overcome by self-loathing. It is a stagey moment (reflecting Lumet’s background in theatre), but it works.

12angrymen_group12 Angry Men deserves to be rescued from high school required viewing lists everywhere. Perhaps we should remake it every decade. Imagine a version with a young Middle Eastern or African-American man as the accused. Think of all the nerves that would hit.

Because today more than ever we need to reminded of our constitutional rights.

Have you seen 12 Angry Men? What did you think? I would love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to 12 Angry Men or Matilda.)

Gigantic Megaplex Movie Screen vs Itty Bitty Laptop

As I was working last night on my review of 12 Angry Men (which will be finished one of these days–seriously), I found myself wondering whether the film would be any different if I watched it in a movie theater. My laptop is great and all. . . actually that’s a lie. My laptop is an evil thing which seeks to thwart me at every turn. But it’s my only option for watching movies, so I must pacify it with soft words.

Anyway, are films better when projected on a movie theater screen? I think most people will agree with me that action films like the upcoming Superman reboot are more impressive when the actors are ten times their normal size. Who doesn’t want to count Henry Cavill’s nose hairs? Action films tend to have a desire to entertain at their core rather than a desire to enlighten, inspire or analyze. Hence why a large screen is more appropriate.

But what about other films? I saw the Iranian film A Separation at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. The film is about a divorce and possible manslaughter. Tensions run high throughout the entire story. But did I need to see it on the big screen?

Though it flies against my love of all things cheap, I say yes. It is always preferable to see a film in a theater rather than at home–especially when you are watching it on a laptop. Not because the sound is better or it is easier to admire the cinematography (though both of these things are true) but because a theater is a defined space. As long as you obey the no-cellphone rule, there is nothing to distract you in a movie theater. At home I have a hundred things I could be doing instead, including sleeping. In a theater I have only myself and the film.

There are days that I feel movie theaters are my church, and the director of whatever movie I am watching is my priest. Then I remember the directors I have met and decide to just enjoy the film. Happy viewing, everyone.

Movie theaters– esteemed place of cinematic worship or damn ripoff. What do you think?

Oh no! A Delay!

I meant to spend last weekend working on my review of 12 Angry Men, but alas! there was illness! And work! And a fire–which, granted, had nothing to do with me, but still. . .  I am behind on everything.

So instead I give you this link to an extended review of the cinematic monstrosity Gigli. The review is much funnier than the film itself.

Jabootu is a review site dedicated to the lowest of the low, whether that be the aforementioned Gigli, bad TV shows like The Hitchhiker or B-movies galore. It is definitely worth a perusal.


May this still of pre-Argo Ben Affleck acting his little heart out brighten your Monday.

The Story is the Thing

bleakhouse_coverAs I work on my upcoming review of 12 Angry Men, I’ve been taking breaks with the 2005 miniseries version of Bleak House, now available on Netflix. I first saw this version a few years ago and enjoyed it. Rewatching it now, I find so much more to admire. Of course the acting is top notch (Gillian Anderson! Carey Mulligan! Anna Maxwell Martin!), and the production values are considerable. But what I find most distinctive about this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ hefty masterpiece is the use of jump cuts to convey a certain mood. We’re looking at a meadow and then BAM! we’ve zeroed in on a carriage carrying Lady Dedlock. This stylistic choice takes a huge novel about a labyrinthine legal case and makes it intimate and modern.

Avid bibliophiles like myself are sometimes guilty of saying about literary adaptations: “It’s good. . . but not as good as the book”– if a book itself is something sacred. It’s not. When someone refers to any kind of art as a sacred thing, they have removed themselves from the art in question. It is no longer something they enjoy and take comfort in. Instead it belongs in a museum.

I’m trying to discipline myself into considering every book and film as itself and nothing more. A film adaptation of a novel–even my favorite novels!– should be judged on its value as a movie. After all, book reading is a private experience. My mental image of Allan Woodcourt is different from everyone else’s. So how can I expect a film to portray exactly my mental experience of a novel?

the hobbit_bookAs I’ve discovered rewatching Bleak House, a film adaptation can in fact update a story and bring it into our modern world. In a different sense, a film can take a story and make it entirely its own. Take for example the most recent adaptation of The Hobbit. I loved the book as a child and liked the film a lot, but they are two different beasts. The book was about a hobbit who had an adventure. The film was about a band of swashbuckling dwarves who happen to have a hobbit in their midst. Of course, the film had its own problems (particularly with the lazy CGI), but in the end I can only judge it on its own merits, not as it relates to the book.

the hobbit_film

I know there are a lot of book lovers out there. What do you think? I love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to Bleak House or The Hobbit.)