Friday, June 27, 2008

Growing Creativity

I'm indebted to Jurgen Wolff for alerting me to this delightful spoof film on creativity.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dumbing down the culture

I fear that the leveling tendency of Reformed aesthetics has brought about a “dumbing down” of discernment and cultural engagement. And that, without question, is a loss. We’ve spent so much time valuing popular culture, it has come at the expense of the riches of “high” culture. We’ve devoted so much ink and energy to convincing students that God shows up in the frames of American Beauty or the lyrics of Johnny Cash that they’ve stopped looking for him in the genius of Bach’s motets or the romance of Rossetti’s poetry.

James K.A. Smith
“Dumbing down discernment?” in catapult magazine

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Chaos and creativity

I was interested in this paragraph from page 53 of The Making of Star Wars, by J W Rinzler, because it very much describes not just the creative process that artists go through, but similar creative processes other people have to work in, including the place where I'm working at the moment.

Industrial Light and Magic
at its birth seemed to have the two elements necessary for creativity: a certain amount of chaos and a certain amount of money. After their first three weeks o existence in June, Lucas had already shelled out $87, 921. While those same two elements, in differing quantities, wold combine to create other situations, at the beginning everyone was enthusiastic. 'I thought that at some point, things have got to change – the people who have ideas to do thing should be allowed to do them,' Edlund says. 'It was providential to me that Star Wars came along, because it was the response to that dream. We all got together, in a highly unorthodox way, in this little warehouse out in Van Nuys.'

The Making of Star Wars - J W Rinzler

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Getting to grips with the acting

My first rehearsal of the next Narnia play yesterday. Felt quite uncomfortable (apart from not having been feeling the best health-wise most of the week); couldn't even get my first three lines out without reference to the script and nothing seemed to be moving along well. The three 'kids' (Edmund, Eustace and Lucy) were going so well (having had an extra rehearsal earlier in the week) that they were doing their first scenes without scripts at all. Bit off-putting!

Still, I think whenever people start rehearsing a play there's a time when you think, 'Anything I do will look silly,' and, 'Everyone else has got it together, how come I haven't?' Neither of these things is true, and furthermore, the other actors will be feeling just as uncomfortable in those first rehearsals as you do. You need time to get used to each other, to get settled into how you're going to play the particular role (and this can go on for several weeks, when the rehearsals are spread out over three months, as ours are), to feel as though you're getting the hang of what the director might or might not want (even when you've worked with him/her before), and in general you need time to get over plain ordinary nerves; not the sort of nerves that render you paralytic, but the sort of nerves that everyone has in starting something new - and each play you do is something altogether new, however established an actor you are.

Acting requires a period when you have to just let go and forget about what the other actors think - in fact, they'll be doing exactly the same, wondering what those around them think of their work. We're all pretty sensitive, really, us performers!

Two movies

We last saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River in Melbourne, when we were visiting there about four years ago. It’s a powerful and disturbing movie that keeps on uncovering more layers just when you think you’ve got it sussed out. The acting is uniformly superb, especially amongst the three male leads, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, and the two wives: Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden.. With a kind of gritty almost documentary look to the photography, none of the actors are allowed to look like ‘film stars’; every crease and crevice in their faces is visible.

I don’t know why it’s such a moving film, considering that it’s violent and has a murderer at its heart, paedophilia as one of its subject matters, petty criminals acting as though they’re pillars of society, a wife who dobs her husband in and another wife who turns out to have an incredibly warped view of morality - and policemen who can’t pin down at least two murders because they’ve been so well covered. And then there’s the ongoing silent phone calls from Bacon’s wife, which becomes the only thing to be resolved by the end of the movie. (The murders and murderers are resolved but not at all comfortably.)

Somehow Eastwood makes us have sympathy for these people: Penn’s attempts to repress his sorrow for his daughter, the way Robbins has the incident from his childhood hanging over his whole life, Bacon’s disillusionment with his job. It’s a man’s film, about tough men, but it’s not a blokey one. There are genuine tears aplenty. These are tragic characters fit to stand alongside some of the great tragic characters of famous dramas. They may not be as articulate, but their sorrows and pains are as deep.

Curiously Laura Linney appeared in the film that followed Mystic River on TV last night. It was an odd piece called You Can Count On Me, and somehow, in spite of excellent acting from Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick and yet another of the Culkin clan - Rory – it never really took off. It was hard to figure what writer/director Kenneth Lonergan was trying to do. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s seldom laugh-out-loud funny, in spite of some humorous scenes. Lonergan himself appears as a priest in it, and it’s hard to tell whether we’re supposed to take the guy seriously or see him as a bit of a fraud.

Linney’s character accuses her somewhat shiftless brother of hypocrisy, but this comes oddly out of her mouth when she’s having it off with the boss, and her boyfriend, and telling lies to her child and brother. We never quite know what to make of her: does she know what she wants and can’t find it, or is she just confused. Perhaps her brother is the one who’s really alive by contrast? None of these things are clear enough to make sense for the viewer.

Leonard Maltin calls it ‘a wonderful comedy-drama about the peccadilloes of sibling relationships, the workplace, and life in general, sparked by great performances and an unusually perceptive script.’ Ebert calls it one of the best movies of the year, saying that it’s rare ‘for the director to be more fascinated by the process than the outcome.’ Unfortunately while that might be fair enough, it’s very unsatisfying for the audience, and the lack of any sort of denouement leaves the viewers up in the air.

Salon.com gets closer to how I felt about the movie: ‘All the praise being heaped on "You Can Count on Me," the filmmaking debut of New York playwright Kenneth Lonergan, may say more about the tepid state of American cinema in 2000 than about this wry, modestly appealing small-town drama.’

It could have been a good comedy; instead it shifts back and forth between serious drama and hurts, and never quite makes up its mind where it wants to wind up.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Kind of Opera

Quite by accident I came across John Tierney's piece, The Aria of Prince Algorino. It's a wonderful spoof of the possible libretto of an operatic version of Al Gore's movie/book, An Inconvenient Truth, that officials of La Scala in Milan say the Italian composer Giorgio Battistelli has been commissioned to write it for the 2011 season.

I'm a bit unsure about the reality of this opera getting off the ground, but Tierney's 'libretto' outline is hilarious, full of wit and puns (Algorino being merely one of them). The comments that follow his article are quite astonishing: the number of people who take exception to what he's written far outweighs those who saw the humour in it all.

We're not likely to see this opera in a hurry, but an Australian comedy show, The Mansion, did its own take on it: you can see it below.

The First Italian Job


I thought I'd seen the original The Italian Job back when it came out around 1969, but there wasn't a thing in it that was familiar. (I watched it last night with a group of the blokes from church - it was our 'petrol-head' selection.)

It was surprisingly disappointing. My impression was that it had been an excellent comedy, with great car chases. The comedy is weak, however, and the car chase stuff takes so long to arrive that the long-winded expository stuff makes you impatient.

The actual heist idea is pretty good, although all the preliminary explanation seems to bear not a great deal of relevance to what actually happens, and the three Minis running around Turin and the Roman countryside are quite fun, but you come out thinking, So what?

Michael Caine is pretty wet in his role - there's no guts to it, which doesn't help - and Noel Coward makes a tired impression in his last screen role, one that doesn't do his memory any good whatsoever. Benny Hill appears playing Benny Hill and then is dumped from the film for no apparent reason; and the only pleasant moments on the acting side come from Irene Handl and John le Mesurier playing their usual screen personalities, personalities which served them well in film after film. Rosanno Brazzi has a few minutes of screen time, along with Raf Vallone as the Mafia boss. Both of them are woefully underused.

Peter Collinson was the director; he's not someone I know at all, so I checked out what else he'd done. Very little of substance, which probably accounts for why the film hasn't stood up to the test of time too well. No doubt it was the car chasing around that made it a hit at the time.

The ending is an extraordinary cop-out. After successfully making off with four million pounds of gold bars (which never seem to be as heavy as they ought to be), the three Minis are dumped spectacularly down the Alpine hillsides - a rather sad moment really - and then the bus driver drives wildly around the various twists and turns in the road in his jubilation at being part of the gang to have pulled off the heist. This causes the bus to miss a turn and somehow to wind up hanging half over the edge of the road; it's the back half with the gold that's hanging over, of course.

Now at this point you'd think the writers would have come up with a clever way of getting the crooks out of their mess - or else rescuing them without the gold. Nope. None of these. The last we see of the crooks is them standing in the half of the bus that's over the road while the gold slides further towwards the back of the bus. And that's it. In a helicopter shot, we fly further and further away from the scene. Goodbye!

What a woeful ending!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

End of The West Wing, for us.

My wife and I watched the last episode of The West Wing tonight – I mean the last episode of the last series. It was like leaving a bunch of old friends. Nothing particularly dramatic happened; in fact, there were more goodbyes and clearings-out than I’ve seen in a program in a long time.

But at least the country was left in good hands (!) with Jimmy Smits taking over from Martin Sheen. They must have been hard shoes to fill.

I don’t remember watching a series before where the names of the characters were as familiar to me as the names of people at work. That might be classed as being a bit sad, but The West Wing, even in its final less glorious three seasons without Aaron Sorkin. While Sorkin’s writing style – a combination of wit and intellectual rigour - was one of the things that made the show in the first instance, the series managed to keep its end up pretty well, thanks to a superb cast, interesting plotlines and top production values.

The last two or three episodes seemed to be a round-up of cast members who’d long since vanished from the program. For example there was the briefest of appearances from Ainsley Hayes, the slightly nutty Republican who got employed by a Democratic government, Timothy Busfield, as C J Craig’s old flame, the three Bartlett daughters, Mallory O’Brian, (Leo McGarry’s daughter), Rob Lowe looking as though he’d never really been part of the main cast at all; Mary-Louise Parker who seemed to appear out of nowhere and take over a place in the cast again, and of course, the Secret Service agent who’d played a big role in earlier seasons.

It was like gathering all the gold back under one roof.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My wife's waltz

My wife suggested I write a piece of cheerful music the other day, so I wrote a waltz for piano. It’s fairly cheerful, in so far as any of my music could be considered ‘cheerful!’

I thought I had it sorted out, but today took to it with a bit of a hacksaw and chopped and changed stuff. Hopefully that will bring it into line.

I told her I’d written her a waltz and she suggested the next piece should be a cha cha. I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to dance to these at the same time as I’m playing them.

Avatar

James Cameron is currently completing a new movie, Avatar, his first feature film since his blockbuster Titanic, which was filmed in 1997. Cameron began the shoot of the new movie with virtual photography (don’t ask me quite what that is), following it up with live-action work. Let’s hope the cast aren’t ‘animated’ in the same way those in Beowolf were.

Cameron wrote the screenplay for the movie as well. It’s the story of a wounded marine who’s sent to the faraway planet of Pandora against his wishes, and finds himself caught up in a battle for survival with the planet's inhabitants.

The 52-year-old Cameron has spent years researching and developing the new filming techniques needed to create the movie's $190 million hybrid of action and animation, and he claims he's been "the busiest unemployed director in Hollywood." He says, "We're going to blow you to the back wall of the theatre in a way you haven't seen for a long time. My goal is to rekindle those amazing mystical moments my generation felt when we first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey or the next generation's Star Wars. It took me 10 years to find something hard enough to be interesting." The sci-fi epic is due to be released in 2009.

Well, at the moment the most interesting factor about the movie is Sigourney Weaver, who can be guaranteed to light up any scene she’s in. Cameron was a brilliant director when he made The Terminator series, but Titanic, in spite of its enormous popularity, leaves me cold: it has some of the worst acting this side of the silent movies, and even Kate Winslet and Di Caprio barely make their scenes work. The whole thing got overloaded with technical stuff and spectacular effects, to my way of thinking. And it was so long: it could have done with a dose of lipovox to thin it down!

And I can remember my first viewing of 2001. Like millions of others, it was a revelation – or so it seemed until you tried to figure out what the heck it was all about. Seeing some of it again in recent years confirms my opinion that it should join Titanic in the Most Overrated Movies of All Time Lists. It’s even worse in terms of length than Titanic (where at least there’s something happening most of the time), the acting is non-existent because there aren’t any characters in it, and Hal is about the only interesting bit of the story.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Making Star Wars


Just reading J W Rinzler’s mammoth The Making of Star Wars, and it’s interesting to see how complex a route the writing of the original scenario took. What seems, in the movie, to be something fully-formed and conceived, is seen here to be a long, hard process of changing focus, changing plot lines, changing characters (and their names), swapping ideas around, having one or two scenes that would survive from the first draft through to the end, endlessly swapping how things worked and where they worked, dumping characters and pinching their names for someone else, morphing people like Han Solo from an alien to a human, and the two robots from a couple of bickering bureaucrats to a bickering golden robot and a chirping trash can on wheels.
It’s very encouraging for any writer who’s trying to tackle something large.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Goodbye to Mr Still's play; hullo to Narnia again

The play is finished; one of the cast lost her voice because of a heavy cold early in the season and struggled to make herself heard during the rest of the performances; two more of us have succumbed to a similar bug, and apart from a nasty moment when the video froze at the Saturday matinee, things in general went fine.

I can’t say it’s my favourite play of all time – I think James Still doesn’t quite give the actors enough to work on in some scenes because of their brevity (the scenes, not the actors) – but it obviously works for the audiences. Every night there’d be snuffles and sobs, particularly in the scene at the end where all the cast light candles as a kind of memorial to the dead, and the unrelenting seriousness of the work plainly gets the message across.

As always we said goodbye to some people we’d got to know reasonably well during the last couple of months, and that’s one of the sad parts about doing plays with an ad hoc group. On the other hand, we had a read-through of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader today, and at least four of us from And Then They Came for Me are appearing in that as well. Some of us just don’t when to stop.

Another interesting aspect of the play we’ve just finished was that most of us are Christians, so every performance was preceded by a prayer in one of the dressing rooms. Another good way to knit people together!

Artists are important

The loss of recognition of artists, thinkers, and scientists has impoverished our culture in innumerable ways, but let me mention one. When virtually all of a culture’s celebrated figures are in sports or entertainment, how few possible role models we offer the young. There are so many other ways to lead a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money or fame. Adult life begins in a child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.


Dana Gioia
“The Impoverishment of American Culture” in The Wall Street Journal

Thursday, June 12, 2008

And Then They Came For Me - up and running!

I’ve been too busy to write in here for the last week, because the play we’ve been working on is now finally on, and there’s been the usual lead-up of extra rehearsals.

Last Saturday we had a really muddly rehearsal: people not available, or not turning up for nearly an hour or having to go early. The only thing achieved was a bit of tidying up of scenes with the people who did actually make it. So it was worthwhile, but not as good as it could have been. We went home earlier than intended as it was freezing cold, and one of the windows in the school assembly hall where we’ve been rehearsing wouldn’t shut.

Sunday I treated the Friends of the Opera Company to four of my piano pieces, including the world premiere of one: Arnold Schoenberg plays with his grandchildren. (Had to check beforehand that he might actually have had any grandchildren; seems likely!) The pieces were intermingled with a bunch of songs presented by my old friend, Arnold Bachop; Erin Pickering, one of the stalwarts of Opera Alive when it was functioning, and now a superbly accomplished singer, with great diction and tremendous tone. She lives and teaches in Invercargill these days, which is kind of a pity. (For Dunedinites, that is.) There were two other singers, Nicola Steel and a young lady whose first name is Sarah, but whose surname has decided to go AWOL on me. It was an excellent concert, in fact, which even the high-powered wind outside couldn’t undermine. (The winds over the weekend were hectic.)

Monday we finally got into the theatre – the Globe, famous for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is its dilapidated state, something I remember from when I first had contact with it in the 1960s! It was probably better in those days, but it’s always been a place where you know an amateur carpenter was seriously at work. The theatre itself has steps up beside the seats, but none of them seem regular, and they’re likely to send an unwitting customer flying. The place needs a good overhaul, but it’s probably not going to happen, even though there’s a good committee that’s turned it around from a dead duck to a thriving little theatre.

We’re not using any scenery, so the black drapes are all exposed to view: with their various little holes and tears.

Anyway, the drapes and other oddities were the least of our problems on Monday. We’ve been rehearsing with the video behind us since we first began using it, and this has been fine. However, when we got to the theatre we found that the video projector was set up at the front of the stage (people sitting in the front seats in the Globe have their feet on the stage) and that meant that no one could pass in front of the screen while anything was being played on it. We tried to show the picture from the reverse but the screen wasn’t suitable for this. In the end we did two run-throughs of the play (it’s only 70 minutes long); the first was a major struggle as we worked out how to play around the video instead of getting in its way, and the second, while better, was still unsatisfactory – although we could have coped.

We all went home despondent. And I had a horrible time about four in the morning when I woke up stressed and feeling quite ill with it.

However, the father of two of the girls in the show (he’s also the husband of the woman who directs the Narnia plays – the next one of which has a read-through this Sunday !) came to the rescue, and by the time we arrived on Tuesday, for our second lot of run-throughs, the screen had been replaced with a back-projection job, had been set further back (giving us more room –the stage at the Globe isn’t large at the best of times) and was functioning wonderfully. Oh, yes, that’s right – on the Monday we’d had no amplified sound either! No wonder stress came rushing in!

So our Tuesday night rehearsals were as good dress rehearsals should be: everything in place, and only minor things to sort out. I stopped trying to direct, and concentrated on just being in the play itself, and everyone else pulled out all the stops and got on with their parts and did extremely well.

Wednesday was our first performance, and it went like a dream. Everything flowed: the interleaving video was always in the right place, and the cast upped the ante considerably. Comments from the audience were all very positive. We’d got to the point where we didn’t have any sense of whether it was working or not – a not uncommon feature of theatre productions, I’ve found – and to hear that people were in tears at the end, and that it came across as a very emotional piece was music to our rather knocked-around souls. (It’s been a bit of a trial, this production!)

When we got to the end, where we each place a candle on the floor of the stage, in silence, while the music in the background is heartrending, you couldn’t hear a peep from the audience. Great stuff! The scene with the candles was something again that didn’t seem to have the stuff of great drama in it, yet it works. Thanks, Mr Still, we should never have doubted your play!

Two more performances this morning, for mostly school audiences, and four more over the next couple of days. I can’t say this has been my favourite play of all time, but I’m very glad to see that it’s proving its worth.

Incidentally, our producer (she who was the director before I got the job!) had contacted Eva Schloss, one of the two people who narrate throughout the play, on video. She emailed back to say she was pleased to hear about the play being produced in NZ. It’s the NZ premiere of the play, in fact.

The photo at the top is of Arnold Schoenberg, not Arnold Bachop, in case there's any confusion!

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Uncommon Reader


I finished Alan Bennett’s book, The Uncommon Reader, in a couple of days – it’s not only pocket-sized, but also only 124 pages long with roughly 240 words per page (less than 30,000 words in total). Nevertheless he packs plenty of wit and satire into those small pages and the result is a great read.
The Queen comes off as a sharp character who’s well aware of the nature and ambitions of those around her. She may seem like a slightly dotty old lady to them, but she’s been around a long time, and seen a lot of politicians, equerries and other factotums come and go, and she knows how to keep one step ahead of those who try to outsmart her.
Prince Philip is similar to the version that appeared in the movie, The Queen. Preoccupied with his own little world, fairly unintelligent (!) and pretty much unrelated to anything that’s going on around him.
The story is about a period in the Queen’s life where she suddenly discovers the joys of reading – to the detriment of her usual duties. Unfortunately her enthusiasm is shared by none of her staff, except a male kitchen hand, who gets promoted to page boy when he introduces her to the world of literature. Trying to keep one step ahead of bureaucracy within the palace is a bit of a trial, but the Queen is no slouch. The ending of the book, which comes with considerable speed, is delightful.

I’ve done more reading in the last few weeks than I have for a while, in spite of the fact that the play I’m involved in starts on Wednesday, and we have had a fair number of rehearsals of late. Hopefully by the time we get in front of an audience the young man who has one of the bigger parts will have remembered how he escapes from Holland. ‘By train, on foot, by bicycle…’ is the line, but he varies it from rehearsal to rehearsal, even including a boat the other day. I’m just waiting for him to say ‘by bus’ one of these days.
Incidentally, my wife has often suggested we buy a bus for going on holidays, or living in permanently. I can’t say it grabs me as an idea – I think you need to be fairly mechanically-minded to be able to cope with the quirks of a bus’s innards, especially if it’s going to be your long-term home. But certainly checking out other people’s buses has sometimes been fun.
Except, where would I put the piano?

Photo by Inel, on Flickr.com

C S Lewis on seeing the world through other men's eyes


I'm grateful for Christianity at the Movies' e-letter for alerting me to the following quote, in which C S Lewis basically follows through on Paul's comments about being a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks (my rough paraphrase), and shows that the arts can help us understand (but not necessarily agree with) the mind that doesn't have a Christian worldview.
In his book, An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis writes, "We therefore delight to enter into other men's beliefs ... even though we think them untrue. And into their passions, though we think them depraved ... And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content."

[Lewis is writing mostly in the context of reading books and poetry, but his thoughts on criticism apply just as well to film—or any art form, for that matter. He continues:] "This must not be understood as if I were making the literature of power once more into a department which existed to gratify our rational curiosity about other people's psychology. It is not a question of knowing (in that sense) at all. It is connaĆ®tre not savoir; it is erleben; we become these other selves. Not only nor chiefly in order to see what they are like but in order to see what they see, to occupy, for a while, their seat in the great theatre, to use their spectacles and be made free of whatever insights, joys, terrors, wonders, or merriment those spectacles reveal ...

"This, so far as I can see, is the specific value or good of literature considered as Logos; it admits us to experiences other than our own. ... Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors." [Or, I might add, movie directors.] "We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less of a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. ... In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."

Monday, June 02, 2008

Indiana Jones returns!

We went to the movies today to see the latest Indiana Jones escapade: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I had to look the rest of the title up as that part of the film made no impact on me at all!
The reviews I’d read were a bit mixed, but Roger Ebert seemed as pleased as punch about the movie just because it was so much fun that I thought it would be worth catching it at the cinema rather than waiting for the DVD to come out. If nothing else, the sound in cinemas is far more effective than what comes out of our TV – although when we’re watching West Wing (we’ve just gone through the entire sixth season), the phones ringing in the background often seem to be pitched somewhere away from the TV and occasionally make us want to go and answer them.
Anyway, the film is a hoot. It doesn’t take itself in the least bit seriously, plays off against Harrison Ford’s age on more than one occasion, fills itself with in-jokes, references itself back to the other movies - and offers the most extreme villains (and, as usual, disposes of them in particularly nasty ways – they just never learn, do they?).
The car chases and fights on car chases are so absurdly over-the-top you’d have to be a misery guts to carp at them (one or two reviewers have managed to play misery guts), and the spectacular destruction of practically everything in sight has a certain kind of odd satisfaction. It’s a bit like going to the refuse dump (or tip, as we used to call it; it’s now something absurd like the transit station), and throwing piles of glass off the back of your vehicle, or large pieces of borer-ridden furniture, or great heavy chunks of metal, all of which you can smash with completely-permitted freedom.
The Indy story is pretty regular: it starts off with lots of nasty Russians taking over the atomic bomb site in Nevada (Indy manages to set the bomb off, though how he does it is anyone’s guess), shifts to Indy once again in his proper employment as Professor in some elitist college (which narrowly avoids getting thoroughly wrecked), and then sets him off on a madcap trail around half the world, creating havoc everywhere with his newly-found companion, Mutt Williams, a much younger bloke with a surprising ability in sword-play and a penchant for doing his hair rather too often.
There are a couple of real plot surprises (the film doesn’t really have time for much plot with all its other antics), and a curious ensemble of characters, Shia LeBeouf as Mutt, John Hurt as a cracked archaeologist, Karen Allen (dug up, as it were, from the first movie in the series) as Indy’s old flame, and Ray Winstone as a goody/baddie/goody/baddie who doesn’t quite know which side he’s on from one scene to the next. Cate Blanchett has enormous fun as the villain (she’s more interesting than similar bad females in the Bond series, which is saying something). She has a sidekick with a constitution like an ox, and a seemingly endless supply of minor villains, none of whom survive – as far as we can tell.
And since we spend some of the time in South America, we have nasty South American natives – slightly more pleasant than the islanders in Jackson’s King Kong – as well as FBI agents and KGB agents and probably various others whom I’ve forgotten about already.
Being only two years younger than Harrison Ford, I find it hard to imagine how he coped with the rigours of filming this piece; sure there are doubles and stunt men in droves, but there are a couple of scenes where it’s obviously him, and you think: that must have puffed him out, or left him very sore.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

We also watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again last night (on TV). I’m afraid it’s even more disappointing on a second viewing. It’s too long, for one thing, and what was more noticeable this second time around was that the green screen work isn’t very good. This is surprising. I didn’t notice it particularly on the big screen, but on television it shows up a good deal: pasty-faced children in front of woods, forests and all that unnecessary ice. Worse, when Adamson had all of NZ’s wonderful scenery to choose from for his backdrops, we’re often given strangely unrealistic scenery: the river waterfall, for example, is one of the worst, and there’s another snow-capped mountains scene that doesn’t work.
The battle scenes seem to be all done at a cartoonish speed, as though slowing it down to a normal speed would make the fighting less effective.
Of the four young Penvensies, only Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) make decent fists of the roles. Willliam Moseley as Peter is wimpish, and weak for too long. By the time he becomes Sir Peter, we feel he isn’t likely to make a very good King. And Anna Popplewell is so sulky so much of the time that she just becomes irritating; when she does have a scene that calls for charm, there isn’t much there.
But the four kids are far better than Tilda Swinton. We know Swinton can act because she’s excellent in a number of other movies. For some reason in this one she’s chosen, or been required, to be so cold that there’s no emotion. Her eyes are dead, her speech has almost no volume about soft, and even in her battle scenes she seems to have her mind on something else. She was disappointing on the first viewing; now she’s just plain annoying.
And Aslan never ever impresses. Perhaps a real lion just isn’t going to work after we’ve read in the books about a lion who is magnificent and royal and charismatic. Aslan’s first entrance in the movie is a damp squid. The lion wanders out of the tent and you think – this is Aslan? Certainly the animatronics are good in relation to a consistency between the real lion and the pretend one, but neither one thrills.
Knowing, the second time around, that the story’s been mucked about with a bit, you’re not quite so annoyed about that, so what’s left to praise? The beavers are fun and well done, James McEvoy’s Mr Tumnus is probably the best Narnian character, and that’s about it.
I can understand now why I haven’t bothered to get my copy of the DVD out of its case before now.

The Village

Finally caught up with M Night Shyamalan’s The Village last night, on TV.
I always enjoy Shyamalan’s movies, but I’d steered away from this one because I’d heard it hadn’t quite achieved what it seemed to be setting out to do. It turns out still to be a very effective thriller, in its own unusual way, but doesn’t bear thinking about too much afterwards.
The tension would have been stronger if our viewing hadn’t been interrupted by frequent ads, and by my suspecting that things weren’t quite as the villagers tried to make out. I didn’t know the ending but had an inkling that things weren’t quite what they seemed.
It’s an odd story, however, more strange than any of the director/writer’s other outings, more strange because in the end its inner logic is based on shifting sands. The viewer is left with far too many questions at the end: why did the elders decide to continue to lie after Ivy came back from her trip to the ‘towns’. What would Ivy feel about that – she’d met someone who was kind there, not fearful as she’d expected. How was it Adrian Brophy’s character followed her successfully into the fearsome woods and yet managed to be overcome by her. (In fact, he seems immune to pretty much everything else, including the woods themselves.) How does Ivy manage that extraordinary trip through the woods on her own? Philosophising about her ability to ‘see’ when she’s blind because the other villagers may be blind in their thinking, doesn’t really cut it. Unfortunately this aspect of the story isn’t helped by the actress Bryce Dallas Howard. Too often she plainly has no trouble finding her way around. And then there are times when she’s stumbling around the village as though she’d never been there before. (For example, she runs freely in a race with Brophy, but later on walks, arm outstretched and cane tapping the ground, while finding her way to her lover’s house, a trip which ought to be just as familiar.)
Why would the elders sustain the lie that there were evil creatures in the woods to their children and grandchildren? How did they expect this all to be carried through to the next generation? And why is everybody dressed in 19th century garb? Where did all the materials to build their houses come from? And are we expected to believe that no one knows they’re living in a nature reserve?
Okay, okay. We can pull it apart as much as we like (only Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense seems unbreakable in this respect). In the end, what’s it like to watch without quibbling about the details?
The acting is uniformly convincing, and William Hurt and Joaquin Phoenix are excellent, as always. The direction is top-notch, with timing and editing superb (Shyamalan’s movies always shine in this regard) . The design is good with the drab costumes making a distinct contrast to the bold yellows and reds of the two opposing ‘sides’.
In the end it’s the script that doesn’t quite cut it. But the direction manages to make us suspend disbelief long enough to overlook the flaws.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A Random piece from G K Chesterton

The other night I opened Maisie Ward’s book, Return to Chesterton, at random, and came across this rather fiendish piece of verse.

A CURSE IN FREE VERSE

(This is the only rhyme admitted: otherwise the enchanting lyric is all that the most fastidious fashionable taste could require):

I CURSE PARADOX
I curse the contradictory inconsistencies of the Modern Mind:
I curse and curse and curse…

Those who dogmatise about the folly of dogma:
Those who moralise about the non-existence of morals:
Those who say people are too stupid to educate their children
But not too stupid to educate each other’s:
Those who say we can be certain of nothing.
Because we are so certain of all the exploded evolutionary hypotheses
That show we can be certain of nothing…
But what are all these inconsistencies –
Compared with the conduct of Those Who
Deliberately call Their House Christmas Cottage,
And then go away from it at Christmas?

I hate those who wage and win twenty unjust wars
And then say “The World now requires Peace”,
Who then make a League for Peace and use it to make another War:
I hate those who intemperately denounce Beer and call it Temperance;
Those who deny what science says about Cancer
And what Christianity says about Calvary
And Call the Contradiction Christian Science.
I hate those who want to Rise out of Barbarism
By running about naked and grubbing up roots and herbs;
But what are all these aversions….?
Compared with the blighting horror and hatred
With which I regard
THOSE WHO DELIBERATELY CALL THEIR HOUSE CHRISTMAS COTTAGE,
AND THEN GO AWAY FROM IT AT CHRISTMAS?

(The Poet is removed, cursing….)


This ‘poem’ turns up on page 178 of the hardcover edition, and is one of many bits and pieces in the book, poems and prose that Chesterton either never published or which had been published in ephemera, like newspapers. The interesting thing is that it still makes some very valid points – particularly the bit about parents who are ‘too stupid’ to educate their own children, something our own Government seems convinced of.