Thursday, December 13, 2007

Television Review: Dexter

There was a bit of controversy when this concept was launched: a series told - mostly - from the point of a serial killer. To make him palatable to a general audience, he of course adheres to a sort of moral code, only killing 'bad guys'. But it is clear that Dexter is not a well person, in the grip of urges he can't repress, which he has just managed to channel into something semi-defensible. Dexter narrates his thoughts and motivations, though it is not clear to whom. Maybe someday the finale will reveal the answer to that question. Without this device the series would be lost though, as Dexter cannot share his real self with anyone around him: his colleagues at the Miami police - yes, he works in law enforcement - his sister or his girlfriend. He only has the viewers to really talk to and he does this with irony and detachment. I am not sure if the books that spawned him - three so far - are written in the same tone. I also don't know how similar the plots are to the series, as I haven't read them (yet). A friend informed me that they are an 'okay' read and give more insight into the main character.
In any case, the writers for the series manage to keep Dexter on the knife-edge between sympathetic and psychopathic. The internal struggle between his humane side and his monstrous side is what drives the narrative. He tries to build a normal life with his girlfriend and her kids, all the while conscious that they would run in terror if they knew who he really was. The possibility that he will be caught and exposed is ever-present. In the two seasons so far, his past has been uncovered, serving as an explanation - in part - for him being the man he is. Season one was driven by the appearance of a mysterious rival serial killer with a disturbing connection to Dexter, in the second one the discovery of a couple of Dexter's victims set the law hot on his trail. I will be curious to see where the next season goes and will be holding my breath, hoping they won't screw it up or milk the formula for too long. As it stands, Dexter is a very tense, dark series with a sly sense of humour that doesn't have an equal on television at the moment. If you don't mind some blood, gore and moral queasiness, check it out.

Movie Review: Michael Clayton

Who is Michael Clayton? Several characters in the movie are wondering about that, not least of all Michael Clayton himself. What he is, job description-wise in any case, is a 'fixer'. As a cross between an investigator and a lawyer, he tries to find information and make arrangements to help the cliënts of the law firm he works for. He is called in to control the situation when a colleague and friend of his goes off on a manic-depressive bender. The man has information that makes him a liability: proof that a chemical used on crops causes cancer. The company that makes the chemical is willing to go a long way to make sure the information doesn't leak out, leading to legal wrangling and - ultimately - murder.
The movie was executive produced by Steven Soderbergh of Erin Brockovich fame ('woman leads claim against major company and makes them pay') and this story feels like a collision of that movie with a John Grisham legal thriller. It's very low-key and internal however, with lots of close-ups of George Clooney as we know and love him: broody or looking like a kicked puppy. What makes Clayton so unique and great at his job is something that eluded me, as it is said more than it is shown. The real meat of the story is not in the conspiracy and murder but in the mind of Clayton, who is broke, doing an unfulfilling job and generally wondering what his life is all about. His world seems grey and corporate. By the end, there is a resolution and a shift seems to be occurring in the mind of Clayton, but it is all so understated that it is hard to define what his emotional arc was. There are also some strands to the story that don't really seem to matter, mostly to do with Clayton's family. The movie keeps you interested - if not riveted - but ultimately won't stick in your memory for too long.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Movie Review: Beowulf

Gosh, does Beowulf ever love the sound of his own name. If a drinking game was based on this movie - a sip for every time the name is mentioned - it would end in first aid with a case of alcohol poisoning. Beowulf's crew could probably handle it though, as they are big on booze and women. They respond to a summons by Danish King Hrothgar who is plagued by a monster called Grendel and is offering gold as an incentive to whoever can rid him of it. This monster makes an impressive appearance early in the movie. Looking like an oversized Gollum after an acid shower, he shows up at the town hall during festivities, rips people apart and generally raises heck. He also speaks in an old Danish /Germanic (?) tongue, a nice nod to the origin of the tale. The rest - of course - speak current day English. A certain newcomer named 'Jesus' is mentioned a couple of times, as an alternative to the Nordic gods, nicely anchoring events in history.
At one point, we hear Beowulf telling of his own accomplishments, as we see a slightly different version of events and his crew is commenting on how the story is getting inflated with each telling. I am not sure if there are also different versions of the Beowulf legend - there have been previous films in any case - but director Robert Zemeckis is no slouch at spinning a yarn and tells his one with style. The movie feels adult, with just enough action scenes and small humorous touches too keep it from getting too dour.
The same motion-capture technique is used here that he used for the sweet and fluffy The Polar Express: actors are filmed first and then animated over by computer. Some of these actors are like photocopies of their real counterpart. Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie look like the real deal. Others, like Crispin Glover as Grendel, are unrecognisable. The virtual cinematography is beautiful, as is the animation, though they still haven't quite got the eyes right. The faces are very detailed and expressive, but there is something vacant about the characters sometimes. And smooth skin seems hard to reproduce without calling plastic to mind.
Speaking of skin, there is an interesting scene where Beowulf decides it would only be fair to fight Grendel hand-to-hand without the aid of weapons. And in the nude, for reasons that I must have missed. So we get a big, bloody fight in the town hall - containing a really gross decapitation by mouth - during which Beowulf is running and jumping around in the nude while mayhem rules around him. Miraculously, the camera angles and diverse objects keep covering up his genitals, much the same as in a scene from Austin Powers. It did draw some giggles from the showing I was at and was a little distracting. But even though there is no full frontal, the women and gay men in the audience will at least enjoy a digital butt and body well worth drooling at. I am not sure which ancient Danish gym Beowulf went to, but I want to sign up there!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Television Review: Ugly Betty

Thanks to a bout of flue I recently watched all of the first season of Ugly Betty as a marathon. This is the USA version of a concept that has been travelling the globe in many local forms. It was called 'Lotte' in the Netherlands and originally started out as 'Yo soy Betty, la Fea' (I am Betty, the Ugly One), a Columbian 'telenovella'. And my God, it is gay! By which I mean good gay, not derogatory teen speak gay. The central plot concerns an ugly duckling who gets a job at a fashion magazine called 'Mode'. Well, actually America Ferrara (the actress) looks pretty cute without her Betty gear, but for the series she has been saddled with braces, glasses, big eyebrows, layers of unwieldy hair and an unflattering wardrobe. One thing that is never quite explained is how someone who is such a major fan of Mode magazine (as she says in the first episode) can have such a bad fashion sense. It also seems unlikely that she wouldn't ask for a make-over by her friend - the in-house 'seamstress' at Mode - but it would go against the central theme of the series: stay true to yourself.
She is hired for the wrong reasons but wins her boss over with her honesty and pureness of heart. Yes, really. Soon she is swept up in drama on several fronts; the ones within her own family (Suarez) and the ones within the magazine and - by extension - the Mead family, who owns the magazine. While the usual soap-opera scheming goes on around her, with lies, betrayals and regrets flying around and hurting people who should know better, she faces the temptation to join in the fray, and sometimes has to, but gets busy most of the time with damage-control. Even the people who don't like her can't help but secretly admiring her a bit. She always ends up doing the right and moral thing.
Ugly Betty is a classy, intricately designed production. Though the moral involves style frequently clashing with substance, there is no lack of the former. The series makes fun of its own lowly telenovella roots by showing snippets of an amazingly cheesy television soap that the Suarez family likes to watch. Honestly though, the happenings in the 'real' series are often just as farfetched. The characters are as colourful as the sets, thankfully, and are played to the hilt by a very capable cast. Rebecca Romijn turns out to make a fantastic transsexual and Vanessa Williams can play a great evil, scheming bitch (as we knew she could). Special mention for the delightfully flaming Michael Urie as Marc, who shines as both the sardonic flunky of the Williams character and as BBFF (Bitchy Best Friends Forever) with ditzy blonde Amanda (Becki Newton). I might as well add Betty's young nephew to the list (played by Mark Indelicato) who seems to be a budding gay teen, and is accepted without question by his family. Pretty much all the characters are memorable and given enough room to be sympathetic - even the evil ones - as well as multi-layered.
I just started watching the second season and my only fear is that the series won't be able to top itself. If it starts inflating the drama and the characters to out-do the first season, it might end up só much over the top that the audience will stop relating to it. Added to that, some of the scheming is starting to feel repetitive already, as is the drama within the Mead family. And Betty now either needs to finally hook up with that accountant of her dreams or move on, it has been dragged out for long enough.
Still, any show that has this much charm to spare and this many great one-liners will have me clinging on for as long as possible. As Betty would no doubt tell us: hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Movie Review: Stardust

A boy promises his undeserving sweetheart a piece from a fallen star and crosses a wall to find it, landing himself in a fantasy land with flying pirates, evil witches and a dying monarch. When the fallen star turns out to be a girl, hormonal imbalances ensue.
The friend I was with at the theatre to watch this, tried to gnaw his way out through the back of his seat. I had no intention of leaving, however, so he bravely suffered until the end credits. He hated the movie, I sort of liked it. When The Brothers Grimm came out a while ago, it was a sympathetic failure and Stardust reminded me of it, even if this movie is a little less rambling. Both had big budgets, big names, big sets, big special effects, big prosthetics and a flailing 'fantastic' script. Stardust is based on a book by Neil Gaiman, a well-known writer of comics, books and the occasional movie. He loves spinning tales in the realms of folklore, myth and fable. I read the book and though I love his work on the Sandman comics, I must say it didn't take long for the details of this story to evaporate from my memory. I think the movie didn't stray too far from the source, but I am not sure if Gaiman or the screenwriters are to blame for the elements that don't work.
There are fairytale aspects to Stardust that require a lot of suspension of disbelief and the audience needs to be charmed to go along with that. How much you enjoy the movie depends a lot on how much you consciously 'give in' to it. Since I wanted to like Stardust, I sort of did. Some leaps of imagination were too big for me to make though and the main one is a biggie: a fallen star turns out to be human. Her former existence as a heavenly body is never quite explained, and the shock at her change into a human isn't really explored. Other aspects of the fantasy world don't feel thought-out either, the pieces don't hang together well and don't form a cohesive, believable (within the movie) world. The flowery and somewhat flat dialogue doesn't help much with getting you involved; the screenwriter from The Princess Bride should have been hired for a polish. Add to that a somewhat limp main character who has only marginal chemistry with the leading lady - a.k.a. the star - and I can see how people could easily resist the mild charms it does have and only notice the plot holes and pantomime acting. But if you are in a good mood and enjoy a sweet bit of overblown Hollywood nonsense, you could do a lot worse. And a moment of praise for Robert De Niro who pulls off a crossdressing gay pirate with flair. When he is finally outed to his rugged crew - the macho image he was nurturing shattered - their reaction is both hilarious and sweet. Let's hope Disney will recruit them for Pirates of the Caribbean 4.