Friday, February 24, 2012

Paradise Lost Lost

Well, that was a short, bumpy ride. Tragically, just days after it was announced filming would start in June, the plug was pulled on Alex Proyas's Bradley Cooper-studded adaptation of John Milton's 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost. Let's have a few stanzas of silence.

My emotional relationship with this hypothetical movie has been fraught and exciting. When I first heard that a big-budget action movie of Paradise Lost was being made, and that romcom everydouche Bradley Cooper was playing Lucifer, my facial expressions ranged from 0_0 to >:| .

I've never gotten the Bradley Cooper thing. People think he is sexy, I guess? Men have even said the whole "I'm not gay at all, but..." routine to me re: Cooper. I just don't see the hotness. And this role? For Lucifer/Satan, I could see them going brawny & broody (Javier Bardem) or snottily pretty (Michael Pitt), but Cooper's kind of a weird in-between. His popular image - hair gel, polo shirts - also seems very modern, so it was hard to picture him as a character predating the solar system.

Branded windbreaker, newsie hat...Lucifer is set!

But something good happened with all my smug assholery. I realized that I couldn't really complain about an adaptation of a book I hadn't studied since AP English, and decided to re-read it. And I realized that, uh, there's a reason it's a classic.

Milton's Lucifer is a flawed (understatement) but very understandable, very human, character. He's prideful, but also second-guesses himself. He's impulsive at the worst possible times, but then overthinks his way into even more trouble. His conniving ways have gotten his fellow fallen angels into this mess, but he wants to do right by them now that they're here...yet he isn't regretful enough to stop with the manipulative trickery. He can be very brave but also feels fear. He's capable of love and friendship but stubbornly insists on revenge. He's hardly literature's least likeable protagonist. You don't want to kill him; you just want to grab him by the shoulders and say, "STOP. Stop right now and we are going to really talk this over!"

Also, snakes do not count as pants, Satan.

The more I read, the more I became interested in what Cooper would do with the role. It's a complex, timeless part, and I began to see why Cooper was a good choice for it. Another actor I was looking forward to watching was Camilla Belle, cast as Eve. Milton's depiction of Eve is famously, um... Rep. Darrell Issa-esque, but even in scenes where we aren't offered Eve's voice or thinking, Belle would have had a lot to work with. Eve is talked down to and talked over a lot in the pre-fall scenes. Adam takes a "don't worry your pretty little head" approach to her, and when archangel Raphael comes to warn the couple after Lucifer has breached Eden security, he ignores Eve almost completely. What might Eve be doing during those scenes? Would she be complacent in the background, or might Belle's eyes have shown something deeper, an emotion Eve can't yet express aloud? A frustration with her passive state? A budding thirst for knowledge? With his philosophical musings on the nature of the universe and many references to cutting-edge (17th Century) science, it's hard to argue that Milton argues against knowledge in Paradise Lost.

Also Casey Affleck was going to play Gabriel. Casey Affleck. Gabriel. A Bostonian archangel. We lost that.

One of the other wonderful things about the poem is the power of Milton's imagination when it comes to settings. His descriptions of varied but uniformly despairing landscapes of Hell, the extremely efficient fallen angels mining their new home for metals and building a palace out of them, the disorienting Chaos of drifting elements, the farthest reaches of space (or at least as far as Milton's friend Galileo had been able to see), the cosmic battlegrounds...these are all breathtaking, and tempting to imagine in HD on the big screen. But what might have been one of the film's greatest strengths was also its downfall (oh, the irony!) - the movie would have required a ton of very expensive special effects, and cost was why the film was axed.

I agree, Satan.

Image credits:
Photo by David Shankbone
Watercolor by William Blake
Etching by Gustave Dore

Friday, February 17, 2012

Wasting Time on Youtube

Youtube is the worst. It's the ultimate time suck. You get stuck in a loop of "one more video" and then it's 3am and somehow via "suggested videos" you've transitioned from a link your friend posted on Facebook to the midst of the turtles-humping-pigeons subgenre you didn't know existed. That's why it's so great when you find a new favorite prolific channel - hours and hours of videos to catch up on and no ventures into that "weird part" of Youtube. This is by no means a definitive list, but here are some (okay, four...if I list all of my favorites at once this blog will be dissertation-length) reliable channels with pages and pages of videos for your perusal.


The Gilbert & George of Youtube, Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla have been making videos together since 2005. They got lucky as far as timing goes with their early college-kids-lipsynching-to-90s-cartoon-theme-songs shtick, but had the charisma and talent to channel that easy-won viral fame into an enduring brand, which also includes the Cracked-lite Smosh website, second channel Ian Is Bored (where they amusingly eat lunch and open mail from the legion of Tumblr fangirls that will someday kidnap and ritualistically consume them), and a forthcoming channel in Spanish. Their current skits can err on the side of overproduced slickness and can lack the off-beat charm of such DIY gems as Boxman's Girlfriend, but they're still making good - and often great - stuff.

Mr. Arturo Trejo & Amigos

It's a funny guy, his funny wife, and their cherubic toddler. That might sound yuppie-obnoxious, but it's not. "Arturo Trejo" does a great job with editing, and the family is sweet and down-to-earth. I'm a single girl who knows she has no resources for a kid right now and is also terrified that childbirth would rip her pelvis in half, but nothing makes my ovaries go into "must procure baby!" mode like this channel. If you don't have the patience to sit through the lengthy family videos of Youtube legend ShayCarl, but still enjoy hilarious family antics, the Trejos are for you.
The simple premise of this show by real-life brothers the Fine Bros: a bunch of kids are shown some piece of viral/pop culture ephemera, and then are asked questions about it. It might sound like Kids Say the Darndest Things 2.0, but Kids React shows a fuller range of childhood: from "from the mouths of babes" wisdom to childish ignorance, from heartwarming displays of openness to the judgmental instincts of which playground bullying is born. Their on-the-fly "very special episode" on the death of Osama bin Laden (seen here) was one of the best commentaries on that event.

Epic Rap Battles of History

What started as a John Lennon versus Bill O'Reilly skit between Nice Peter and Lloyd Alquist has turned into one of Youtube's most popular series - and one of its cleverest. The episodes can be found on Nice Peter's channel, although a new channel was recently created just for new installments. With pairings from logical (Stephen Hawking vs. Einstein) to completely nonsensical (Genghis Khan vs. the Easter Bunny), each episode is nicely produced by powerhouse Maker Studios, even though lines this biting hardly need visuals. I have lots of favorites, but the depth and craftsmanship of Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare is sound and fury signifying sublimity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rain, Sex, and Records: Norwegian Wood in Film

The first change I noticed about the long-awaited film adaptation of Haruki Murakami's beloved novel Norwegian Wood was, well, the first seconds of the movie. The novel opens with our narrator at age 37, landing in dreary weather at a German airport for one of what we sense has been a monotonous string of business trips. Then an instrumental version of the Beatles' odd, melancholy "Norwegian Wood" begins to play, and our narrator drifts back in time to that fabled year of '69.

Of course I am not implying that a good movie adaptation necessarily sticks to the book verbatim. And in film, this opening might have come off as a bit cliched, or aging the actor playing Toru Wantanabe, our protagonist, from 19 to 37, might have come off as inauthentic. But I mention this difference between book and film because I feel like sticking to this framing device might have made this somewhat disjointed retelling feel a bit more grounded.

Murakami's Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru, a college student newly transplanted to Tokyo, and his love for Naoko, the girlfriend of his childhood friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. When Naoko and Toru reunite, they seem to be newly discovered soul mates, but Naoko's crippling depression soon greatly complicates matters, as does Toru's introduction to sparkling, sexually frank Midori. Toru is soon caught between two worlds: Naoko in her remote but gorgeous rural sanitarium, and Midori in vibrant, changing Tokyo.

Film adaptations of novels are almost always going to have cut content; that's just the reality of the medium and commercial movie lengths. However, I didn't feel like this adaptation by director and writer Ahn Hung Tran always cut and kept wisely. We get lots of beautiful, long shots of nature and the dim light of city apartments on rainy days - which set the tone perfectly - but there are also scenes that feel randomly inserted (Toru being helped by old hippies after a workplace accident, a go-nowhere plot point with Midori's dad) and could have been sacrificed, their time put to better use by letting us get a fuller sense of these characters and their relationships. The character of Reiko, an older musician who is Naoko's caring, wry sanitarium roommate, is especially shortchanged. I was most saddened with the ruthless paring down of a scene that occurs near the end: what was in the novel a multi-layered scene of two people connecting over loss and gathering the strength to move on becomes a rote sex act with little explanation (and no 60's acoustic guitar strumming!) in the movie. Even in the equally whittled-down context, the scene makes little sense.

But this isn't to say I hated the movie. It is gorgeous, and as I mentioned, Tran captures the mood beautifully.  The true bleakness of depression is tangible here, as is the majesty of the hills and woods surrounding the rural clinic. It's hard to imagine a more breathtaking aerial shot of a blow job performed against a barren snowy landscape, and I say that sans snark. Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Naoko, brings the swirling, overwhelming emotions of depression to the screen with great authenticity. This character - pensive, secretive, sweet, intelligent, and often on the verge of a breakdown - is a tough role to do well, and Kikuchi (Oscar-nominated for 2006's Babel) excels.

In the end, the movie generally captures Murakami's story: in a turbulent time, a young man moves from a beautiful but tragic past to a more hopeful but uncertain future. Perhaps I am so critical because I love the book so much. The friend I saw the movie with, who is also a fan of Norwegian Wood, had a similar reaction. I'm not sure what someone who hasn't read the novel would make of this jumble of lovely scenes. The "look" and feeling of the story is there, but disjointed editing and too-deep cuts to character development hinder this adaptation from being the powerful film it could be. I guess I'll have to hold out hope for the perfect David Lynch adaptation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I've produced in my head.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Occupy Shakespeare: Coriolanus

True fact: I did not realize how sexy Gerard Butler is until this film.

If you've never heard of the play Coriolanus, you're in good company. It's not one of Shakespeare's better known works, although it has its contrarian fans (most famously T.S. Eliot). However, its themes of plebeian revolt and militaristic hubris has made it topical at various times since Shakespeare wrote it in the early 1600s, such as when Laurence Olivier played the role with echoes of Mussolini in 1959. Here in star and director Ralph Fiennes's version, citizens film scuffles with riot police on their camera phones and angry graffiti marks the cityscape.

Coriolanus is the story of what happens when a militaristic society creates the perfect Slaughterbot 3000 and gives it lots of power, but doesn't teach it to do anything else, and also it turns out that Slaughterbot 3000 gets really irritating after awhile and is honestly kind of a dick. Ralph Fiennes stars as Caius Martius, a brutally effective aristocratic Roman warrior. After successful battle earns him the title Coriolanus, his shrewd but honor-crazed mother, Volumnia (wonderfully and creepily played by Vanessa Redgrave), and ambitious politician and family friend Menenius push him into politics. Unfortunately, while Coriolanus has internalized the "Kill. Kill. Kill. Jingoism! Kill. Kill. Kill" internal monologue necessary of Slaughterbot 3000, he hasn't gotten the GOP's memo on faking populism. Instead of telling a starving populace that the reason they can't have food is that those meanie liberals taxed him and his rich buddies so much that they barely have any billions left and therefore can't pay them living wages or sell wheat at a reasonable price, he basically says, "Fuck you, gross poor people. Starve." Not surprisingly, this does not go over well with the chanting, sign-wielding, hoodie-wearing protesters, and a core resistance group eventually teams up with a pair of smarmy but more people-friendly politicians to get Coriolanus banished. This angers and confuses Slaughterbot 3000, and he storms off to arch-enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the general of the impoverished neighboring country Rome has been shitting all over.

Aufidius is equally matched in fighting power to Coriolanus, and they've sworn to fight to the death a la Batman and Joker. And while Aufidius is very different from Coriolanus - Aufidius is a man of the people who is fighting for his people, not some abstract idea of patria - and has plenty of corpse-shaped reasons to hate him, he's younger and idolizes his older enemy. When Coriolanus shows up and offers his services to Aufidius, starry-eyed Aufidius gushes:

I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

Yikes. But this man-crush has been brewing all along, as seen during their, um, physical knife fight earlier (Can't blame Fiennes. The subtext is there, and if I were directing Gerard Butler in a fight scene with me, I'd be all, "Cut! We need even more physical contact here. Take 25!" too.). Sadly, Aufidius is about to learn just how quickly Slaughterbot 3000 can go from "wow, so useful!" to "geezus, what a douche."

So how does the modern setting/original text integration work? Pretty well, I'd say. Fiennes does a better job of working exposition into modern devices like newscasts than Baz Luhrman did in Romeo + Juliet, and works in some Skype to boot. Some scenes are a little jarring, like when Aufidius and Coriolanus bring an important battle that has involved machine guns and car bombs to a grinding halt so they can have their little knife fight. There are also unnecessary flourishes like a makeover scene with an arbitrarily weird POV. But overall the ancient story of uprisings and violence works scarily well in the 21st Century setting, and Fiennes does an artful, powerful job telling it. I don't think Fiennes has done for Coriolanus what Julie Taymor did for Titus Andronicus, but this film is certainly one of the best gifts the little-loved play has gotten in centuries.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Javert & Vautrin: Best Buddy Cop Series Ever

They already have matching hats!
Javert (L, by Gustave Brion) & Vautrin (R, by Honore Daumier)

Sometimes you get an idea that's just genius, you know? Well, it recently hit me: Victor Hugo's Javert from Les Miserables and Honore de Balzac's Vautrin from his Human Comedy series need to be in a buddy cop TV show. They're both policemen, their time periods overlap, and despite both being inspired by real-life criminal-turned-officer Eugene Francois Vidocq, they're perfect foils who would have hilarious (if cliched) buddy cop adventures.

Javert: the no-nonsense, humorless straight-arrow. Dour, but devoted to his work. He cares about justice, dammit. The Starsky. The Special Agent Albert Rosenfield. Definitely playing the Bad Cop in the Good Cop/Bad Cop routine.

Vautrin: the cool badass who's also the comic relief. A master criminal who is now a corrupt officer. The honey badger personified. Gregarious, manly, livin' large, with a weakness for hot guys that's always landing him in hot water. Yes, he's gay. Man, there hasn't been a macho, kick-ass, openly gay main character in a major work of mainstream entertainment since...uh...1835? When Vautrin debuted?

Yet Dumbledore, in the 21st Century, had to be an after-the-fact secret.

How it would pan out: Javert's spotless record is tarnished when he finally gets in trouble with the force (probably for being way too obsessed with something trivial, like a freakin' bread thief). To "rein him in," the boss pairs him up with always-in-trouble-and-doesn't-give-a-shit Vautrin, who is on his last chance. At first they fight all the time! Javert thinks Vautrin is a untrustworthy dunce! Vautrin thinks Javert is an uptight killjoy! But then during a major crime (perhaps a small child is in peril?) they have to work together and end up with grudging admiration for the other's strengths. Pretty much every episode repeats this very important lesson.

And of course there would be guest cameos by other literary characters. Imagine them crossing paths with Notre-Dame de Paris's Clopin! Obviously Javert would be completely appalled by him, while Vautrin would think he's the most awesome ever. Maybe after Clopin saves the day, Javert learns an important lesson about judging people. Or maybe after Vautrin starts neglecting his partnership with Javert for fun illegal times with Clopin, he is betrayed by his new pal, and learns an important lesson about true friendship. So many possibilities!

Okay, so actually it would just be every buddy cop series ever...except French! And with a cast of characters that partially reflects sexual diversity among humans! And with snuff and courtesans!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Broadway Eponine & RomCom Lucifer

Lucifer has a case of the dramaz in Gustave Dore's illustration.

Oh, whew. After all the drama surrounding Taylor Swift as Eponine in the upcoming movie adaptation of the musical adaptation of Les Miserables, it looks like Eponine vet Samantha Barks has the role. I'm much happier with this. Barks has reality show roots, but she has done this role many times, is a strong Broadway-style singer, and looks like she could have been birthed by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.

Though hopefully she'll be less mascara-y in the movie. BRB, Marius, but now that I've dressed up as a boy I gotta put on my makeup before taking a bullet for you.

In other controversial-movies-that-haven't-started-filming-yet news, Paradise Lost, a big-screen, big-budget adaptation of John Milton's 1667 epic (like 10,000+ lines epic) poem - with Bradley Cooper as Lucifer - is apparently starting filming in June after delays. Now that the shock of this casting has worn off (will Lucifer wear polo shirts and get into a ridiculous shove-fight with Michael?), I'm looking forward to seeing how this project develops.