Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movie Review: RENT

I recently saw the movie version of RENT, an adaptation of a Broadway play I did not see. It is about a group of Bohemians in New York at the end of the eighties, trying to keep their head above water and a roof above their head without selling out. Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) filmed it shortly after directing the first two Harry Potter movies but doesn’t leave a distinctive mark. The original play was cruelly spoofed in the puppet-comedy Team America, which showed a musical number called ‘Everyone has AIDS’. And a lot of people in the movie do indeed have AIDS and are on the then new - and fairly toxic - drug AZT but are far from guaranteed to beat the disease. It’s odd to have the word AIDS thrown around so much, when nowadays people have HIV and only get diagnosed with AIDS if treatments fail and they get into more trouble. But then RENT definitely feels like a period piece, set in a time of anger and activism. Its family of friends are angry at corporate America while fighting – and singing – amongst themselves about matters of love and politics.

Saying this may cause someone to come and take my Gay Card away, but I generally don’t like musicals. It’s jarring to have people burst into song for no apparent reason and even sillier when other people start to join in with the singing, knowing the lyrics through some neat trick of telepathy. The cast of RENT does this kind of impromptu group harmonizing with alarming frequency. The sometimes daft and forced lyrics don’t help. (Sample: “Who do you think you are? Barging in on me and my guitar”) And while a musical like Moulin Rouge cuts all ties with reality and moves into a circus-like hyper reality, making it easier to just go with it once you have taken the initial jump, RENT clings to realism uncomfortably. To hear people sing how cold they are, burning precious belongings to generate some heat, only to then topple these burning goods out into the streets as a form of ineffectual though visually interesting protest, seems – well – just stupid. Grittiness and musicals are not an easy mix to pull off.

RENT is considered to be a classic, but it left me feeling decidedly ‘meh’. Most of the melodies didn’t stick in my mind for too long and especially the rockier numbers handed to ‘Roger Davis’, a character seemingly molded after Bon Jovi, left me cold. Actrice Tracie Thoms comes off best and is graced with two of the more interesting songs: ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ and ‘The Tango Maureen’. Of course, music is a matter of taste more than most other arts and maybe on second viewing the numbers would reel me in and get me humming along, but the sometimes daft rhymes and overall lack of a good first impression, discourage taking a second listen.

It seems that the songs get in the way of the story in RENT: building nuanced characters through lyrics is a tricky business and this musical doesn’t quite succeed. The cast comes off as a vehicle for the songs more than a collection of living and breathing individuals, each with their own complex personality and goals. You don’t feel that you really get to know them, the movie just skimming their stereotypical surface. Together with the frequent song-breaks derailing reality, this makes it hard to get involved in the story.

However, if you don’t mind the silliness of someone who is on the edge of death from shooting up heroin – found at just the right dramatic moment by her friends - opening her eyes and going straight into a duet with her star-crossed lover, you may want to check it out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Television Review: Wonders of the Solar System

In Wonders of the Solar System, Brain Cox explains things scientists know about the past, present and future of our extended habitat. This series consists of five episodes, each being led by a theme, such as how order was created out of chaos, why we have an atmosphere protecting us or the possibility of life on other planets. It was followed by Wonders of the Universe, which I haven’t checked out yet. I mostly bought the first series on BluRay because I figured it would be informative and more importantly, because it would look awesome in HiDef, along the lines of the BBC Earth and BBC Life series.

Brian Cox is the Jamie Oliver of the scientific world, be it a bit less of a bloke and a bit more of a geek (even though he used to play keyboard for D:Ream, which is of course very cool). He is one of those ‘nice boys’ who would be a big hit with your parents and grandparents. Maybe he is a bit tóó nice even: the wide-eyed, sincere fascination with which he talks about planets and constellations and the physics that hold our universe together is charming generally, but can start to grate when taken in too large a quantity. The words ‘wonder’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘amaayzing’ pop up often and lead to increasing amounts of eye-rolling. There must be a connection between this and the word ‘wonder’ in the title, but I am not sure if he keeps using it to explain why the series is called thusly or if they just figured afterwards: ‘Well, we may as well just stick it in the title.’ In any case, if you manage to get across with images and information how magnificent and ‘amaayzing‘ something is, you don’t need to point it out explicitly every time as well. We get it.

His method of showing and telling: travelling around the world to places which illustrate some force at work in the universe at large, possibly aided by placing some grainy photographs around him for further clarification. Occasionally rocks or condiments may be used to create a facsimile of our Solar System. The worldwide locations make for some beautiful imagery, but you can’t help but occasionally scratch your head at the necessity of it. Did Cox really have to travel to the South Pole to show us what a clear, flat piece of ice looks like? Or to a seasonal flower market someplace exotic to show how having seasons impacts life on our planet? It’s the visual sugar that makes the medicine of information go down, but I could have done with a bit more of the second and a little less of the first, great BluRay images or no.

If you are going for density of information, a book on the Solar System is a better bet – you will teach yourself more in less time. However, if you have some patience, are visually inclined and are looking for an affable, mild-tempered scientist to tell you interesting things about the universe in a slightly dreamy voice while roaming the planet, then Wonders of the Solar System (and likely its sequel Wonders of the Universe) is where it’s at.

Movie Review: Final Destination (Number 1 to Infinity)

Franchise plot summary: a big accident causes a load of people to die. A teenager has a vision beforehand and manages to save a small group of the future victims. An unseen force then proceeds to restore order by offing these people in a series of creative freak accidents. Rinse, lather, drown, repeat.

It’s not exactly a cheery thought, but the moment we are conceived, our death becomes inevitable. Whether you believe your fate has already been decided for you or you feel like you are in full control of it, your demise is at an unknown point in the future, drawing ever nearer, the form in which it will come unclear. A ‘natural’ death at a ripe old age is what we generally hope for: gently drifting away in our sleep, perhaps, with no Freddy Krueger in sight. But there is always the nagging fear we may be taken out of the game prematurely: an accident or a medical condition suddenly dragging us down and laying waste to our plans for the future. The Final Destination franchise plays on that fear, at least on the more sensational ‘accident’ part of it.

The killer in these movies is creepier than any number of slightly supernatural movie psycho’s with a pointy weapon and an antisocial attitude. There is no corporeal evil and no clear purpose, just an unstoppable force that wants you gone. Call it Fate, Destiny or simply Death – it’s ultimately an amorphous personification of our mortality. In this most basic of terms, the concept behind Final Destination is genius. It takes all the fatal freak accidents you ever heard of and makes you wonder if there wasn’t some kind of ingenious domino effect preceding it. And in a lot of cases, there likely was: cause and effect multiplied by the passing of time can take one cause which leads to a totally unforeseen and apparently unconnected effect down the road (Also see: The Butterfly Effect). Everything seems predestined when looking backwards, tracing back to a cause, though there’s more likely to be a complex network of causes, each with their own causes and so on until the dawn of time. Of course, the domino effect in real life tends to be a lot less sensational than the instances portrayed in Final Destination: a marriage slowly turned sour may lead to a fight in a car, which in turn may lead to a moment of carelessness at a traffic light, a crash and a dead biker who just ended up in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Final Destination gets a bit silly when it tries to detail Fate’s process. There is apparently a very intricate plan for all of us, which gets upset when random teenagers have visions of their impending demise and manage to save a bunch of people. Who is giving the teens these visions? No one knows. Maybe some other force is teasing and challenging Fate or the vision is part of the plan to begin with, something Fate does to amuse himself. Instead of giving all the unintended survivors of the calamity a massive coronary or brain hemorrhage to clean up quick, he starts to set up massively complicated webs of causality, taking out his victims one by one even if he has an opportunity to blow them all up together in the same room by – for instance – planting a gas leak in advance. Since Fate seems to be able to predict the future, offing more than one victim at a time should not be a problem. But Fate seems hell-bent on being unnecessarily creative, varying the way he kills and sometimes even setting up a red-herring set of circumstances, only to strike in a simpler way moments later, like he decided to throw an improv and is trying to keep spectators entertained. In other words: Fate is acting suspiciously much like a screenwriter. The creepiness of Fate as a killer is lessened in the couple of instances where the screenwriter/Fate cheats and gets hand-on with the disaster in the making: visibly turning a screw loose or otherwise interacting directly with the world. He is at his best when totally invisible.

Going by the franchise, Fate seems to be hung up on the original order in which people were intended to die, replicating the order on his second try. It’s a neat way to set up tension in the scripts, but doesn’t make much sense when you think about it in terms of causality, where the original order of dying would be less important to the Grand Scheme than the amount of disturbance any specific survivor was causing. For instance: you’d think Fate would take out that pesky person who was having the visions first. It makes sense that the characters in Final Destination try to figure out the method behind’s Fate’s blood thirst and that they try to make sense of it all is also necessary for the movies to be more than just a string of roundabout executions, even though that is the bloody meat of the story. But Fate always ends up on top and the characters six feet under, like we ourselves will all face death one day and ultimately, inevitably lose.

The Final Destination series may make you a bit paranoid after watching an installment, wondering if mopping up that drink you just spilt will somehow end up killing you. It will also make you ponder death in a morbid way: what is the worst way to go? Getting burnt, eviscerated, decapitated, skewered, crushed, choked, drowned, blown up, run over or ripped apart? The terminating force in Final Destination doesn’t care if you have been naughty or nice, which also seems to be true enough in real life. The amount of pain with which someone checks out doesn’t correlate to their karma: someone who has never done anything wrong may slowly get roasted to death, while a real bastard may get off easy by getting quickly splattered by some kind of blunt force. Bloodiness may be the most disturbing factor visually, but the time it takes to die ultimately decides the amount of suffering for the person checking out. Death is less scary than dying and if you’re going to check out, you may as well do it on the fast track. By the time you’re in your eighties, would you want to start going slowly senile, feeling yourself slipping away or prefer to suddenly keel over from a heart attack? Personally, I am hoping for a gigantic glitter ball to fatally hit me over the head during disco night at the old folks’ home. At least that should give people something to smile about.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: Pina

I am more pop culture than high culture and am allergic to pretentiousness, especially if it doesn’t come with some self-awareness and a sense of humor about itself. I also am someone who appreciates directness when an artist is trying to bring something across. None of this vague ‘insert your own meaning here’ for me, unless the aesthetics are so breathtaking that the meaning doesn’t even really matter. These qualities make me a bad fit for poetry and for most of modern art, be it theatre, music, paintings, sculpture or dance. But the trailer for Pina intrigued me: a movie about dance shot in 3D by Wim Wenders, as a tribute to leader of a dance troupe. Pina Bausch was a dancer, choreographer, teacher and the artistic director at the Tanztheater in Wuppertal. She died in 2009. Being a cultural barbarian, I had never heard of her, but that didn’t stop me from going to see her choreography.

Pina admittedly isn’t the first movie to realize that dance would benefit from the extra dimension to play around with on screen, allowing a projection to approximate the experience of a live performance, but as far as I know, it is the first one aimed at an art-house audience. It feels more intimate than its grand-scale predecessors and doesn’t really have a ‘story’; it is a collection of ‘best of’ fragments from her choreographies, interspersed with shots of the dancers reminiscing about Pina. The viewpoint of the virtual audience isn’t fixed during the performances, stuck to a seat as they would be in a theater, instead the viewers leap in between the dancers and move around, making for a more dynamic event.

To start with the negative, of which I don’t have a lot: there were a few choreographies I didn’t ‘get’. In particular the piece in a large grey room littered with chairs – titled Café Müller – didn’t grab me in either aesthetics or meaning. Unfortunately, this was one of the longer pieces in the movie and considering that the movie overall does end up feeling long, it could have been whittled down a bit to give Pina as a whole more forward momentum. The other on-stage pieces - one with a tribal, earthy flavor taking place on a layer of red sand, one featuring water and a big rock and one which contrasts and plays around with dancers of different genders and ages – hold your attention but feel a little confined in contrast to the pieces that take the dancers outside or at least let the outside world pour in. These pieces are more visually striking and uplifting, most of them shot towards the end of a crisp, sunny day it seems. There is a glass-encased dance studio which shows a bright explosion of leaves just outside and there is a metro on a rail through Wuppertal which is put to great use. Though the movie doesn’t crack a smile for the most part, there is at least one short, very funny sequence in which a woman stomps onto said metro with a pillow.

Overall, I am not the intended audience for this movie methinks, but if you have any interest in modern dance whatsoever, Pina deserves a good, long look.