Friday, September 16, 2016

‘La Cucaracha’ in Technicolor

In honor of the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, I'm posting a curio: the first live-action film to be shot in the three-color Technicolor process. It’s the 1934 Hollywood musical short La Cucaracha. Maybe it’s not the ideal way to observe the month, but I think it’s intriguing that such a historically important (albeit dopey) film is set in Latin America. It’ll be a break from all those serious Cesar Chavez documentaries.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tatiana Maslany on ‘Orphan Black’: Best TV Performance Ever?

Tatiana Maslany as ‘Orphan Black’s’ clones (left to right): Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel, and Helena
As I’ve said before, I’m not big on awards, especially those handed out by the entertainment industry.  The bequeathed statuettes do more to signify a snapshot of the industry at that particular moment in time, rather than a bid for posterity.  The fact that Orson Welles, one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, won only two Oscars, one for co-writing Citizen Kane and the other an honorary award, tells me that industry self-recognition should not be taken seriously. 

However, for the last four years, I’ve seen on my television screen a superlative acting performance of such depth and dexterity that it cries out for the TV industry to acknowledge it with the highest honor.  I haven’t watched enough television to say for certain that it is the best performance by a thespian ever to shoot through the cable and into the living room, but I can’t think of a better one I’ve seen.  

Since 2013, I have been mesmerized by the cable-TV science-fiction thriller Orphan Black.  The series gradually unveils the story of a dozen different laboratory-conceived female clones, genetic identicals, who are separated at birth but discover each other as adults and become enmeshed in a net of intrigue that threatens their very existence.  Not only is the series well crafted and compelling, but it also trenchantly touches on issues of identity and bodily autonomy.  And holding this sprawling series together are the masterful performances of the lead actress Tatiana Maslany, who portrays all of the numerous female clones.  Incredibly, Maslany has never won an Emmy for her astounding work.  But this year, for the second time in a row, the Emmys have nominated Maslany’s performance(s) in Orphan Black for Outstanding Female Actress in a Drama Series.  Still, why she wasn’t nominated from the very beginning of Orphan Black’s eligibility and why she lost last time remain mysteries to me. 
Maslany as both Alison (left) and Sarah
Playing each and every female clone character (I’ve counted twelve so far, some of them featured on the show only very briefly), Maslany endows the clone characters with distinct mannerisms and vocal traits.  Not only does the Canadian actress nail an utterly convincing London accent for the lead character of street-smart Sarah, but she also gives her multiple North American characters distinct styles of speaking.  (The series is set somewhere in the northeastern quadrant of North America.)  Combined with the show’s award-worthy make-up, which endows each of her characters with a distinctive appearance, Maslany’s performances, by the end of the episode, leave the viewer incredulous that these unique characters are all played by the same actress.  If I had my way, every Emmy acting nominee to qualify for best performer in their category would need to play multiple roles on their shows and try to convince the audience that these characters are played by different people.  I wonder how many other thespians can do that
Maslany as both Sarah (top) and Rachel
But more than that, Maslany endows each of her characters with a palpable complexity and layering that I have only seen the most gifted performers accomplish (Robert De Niro comes to mind).  Often when her characters speak, Maslany gives their voices inflections and intonations that suggest multiple layers of feelings and motives, even when the scenes don’t necessarily call for going that extra mile.  And her body language is equally expressive.  In one scene from the second episode of the second season, Sarah fires a warning shot close to the head of antagonist clone Rachel (also played by Maslany), whose body then jerks into nervous convulsions.  The performance comes across as though Maslany were genuinely frightened and had genuinely lost control of her body, rather than an actor’s obviously controlled affectation of alarm. 

Below is the very first scene of the very first episode of Orphan Black, where Sarah witnesses the suicide of policewoman clone Beth (Maslany again), the event that sets the show’s plots and subplots into motion. 

Once she sees Beth fatally throw herself under a train, Sarah’s eyes well with tears, as though Maslany were shocked and upset by actually witnessing a suicide.  The eye-welling is a touch that wasn’t absolutely necessary for the scene, but Maslany’s tearing up bequeaths a better sense of Sarah’s inner life and makes the authenticity of the character more credible.  This scene (which also shows off the actress’s mastery of an Estuary London accent for Sarah) is only one small example of Maslany’s extraordinary work on Orphan Black

However, this actress from the Great White North isn’t favored to win the Emmy this year, just as she lost last year.  While her competition is very talented, what Maslany is doing on Orphan Black — something that she is unlikely to be called upon to do in her future projects — is utterly phenomenal, and I can’t imagine Maslany’s competition pulling off what the Canadian actress pulls off week after week on the series.  And I can’t understand why Emmy voters and the conventional wisdom don’t regard her as a shoo-in for the award.  What Tatiana Maslany is doing on Orphan Black looks to me like the kind of work that the Emmy was invented for. 

Update, September 19, 2016:

Tatiana Maslany won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama after all.  Her work in Orphan Black has been recognized by the television academy.  Huzzah!  Now, I can go back to not caring about show-biz awards.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

400 Years Since Shakespeare’s Passing

Today marks 400 years since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil.  Only two years ago, also on April 23, we were celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth.  Yes, historians aren’t completely certain of the date he was born, but it’s likely that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday.  Because it’s the quadricentennial of the famous playwright’s passing, I feel the need to write a post in commemoration.  However, I don’t have anything on hand.  So, I’m re-posting the article I wrote for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, on April 23, 2014.  Of course, an apple, cleft in two, is not more twin than these two blogposts — because they’re the same one.  But I couldn’t let the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death pass with my blog untouched.  

Jon Finch in Roman Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ (1971)

Here’s a nice article from the website Word & Film, which discusses ten Shakespeare movies to watch as a celebration of the Bard’s 45oth birthday.  Yes, 450 years ago today, William Shakespeare was born (and 398 years ago, would die on the same day), and watching a film based on one of his plays would certainly be a fitting way to celebrate.

I particularly like this list’s inclusion of Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, based on the Henriad), Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957, based on Macbeth), and Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968, based on … you figure it out).  I would enthusiastically endorse all of these three Shakespeare films!

I would add two others: Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Peter Brook’s King Lear (both 1971). 

In particular, Polanski’s Macbeth is an appropriately cynical vision of what is arguably Shakespeare’s most cynical play.  Perhaps most infamous for Lady Macbeth’s (Francesca Annis) nude “out, damned spot” soliloquy, the starkness of the grim setting reflects both Polanski’s personal despair (it was his first film after the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family) and the precariousness of a Western world that had lost its confidence in the face of the Vietnam War and other global calamities.  Particularly intriguing is Polanski’s portrayal of Ross (John Stride) as an unscrupulous opportunist, not intrinsic to Shakespeare’s play, who sides with Macbeth’s (Jon Finch) usurpation when fortune favors it but turns against the tyrant after a petty slight.  And rather than end on a note of triumph when the throne is rightfully restored, Polanski’s film ends with the insinuation that the madness of regicide will continue.  (I’m guessing that one reason Polanski’s version is not included in the Word & Film article is that it limited itself to only one adaptation per play.)

Peter Brook’s ‘King Lear’ (1971)

Brook’s black & white, two-hours-plus King Lear, which begins and ends with the same bleak tone, is a rather difficult film to watch.  It portrays a barren land where the people aren’t given much of a reason to survive, and the viewer suspects that the dead are more fortunate than the living.  Still, Brook’s intriguing use of jump cuts and odd camera angles intimates the possibility of a freer and more hopeful world beyond the desolation of Lear’s fractured realm.

Calista Flockhart as Helena in Michael Hoffman’s
19th-century-set ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1999)

Given the thematic richness of his theatrical works, and their many fascinating interpretations over the years, there will probably never be a definitive film version of any Shakespeare play — although Polanski’s Macbeth and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet come close.  Still, I haven’t yet seen a completely satisfying film version of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The Word & Film article recommends Michael Hoffman’s 1999 adaptation, which features some scrumptious cinematography and natty 19th-century costumes, but its Arthur Rackham-inspired vision of the fairy world seems more mechanical than magical, and its tossed salad of British and American accents is distracting.  (However, I’m happy to see the mercurial Calista Flockhart, here cast as Helena, in anything!)

Helen Mirren as Titania and Brian Glover as Bottom in Elijah Moshinsky’s
spooky BBC ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1981)

Another Dream apparently inspired by Rackham is Elijah Moshinsky’s 1981 BBC version, which, in its replacement of the fanciful with the frightening, is more of a nightmare.  An additional adaptation of same, Peter Hall’s 1968 film, begins with disorienting jump cuts and other cinematic devices that don’t establish a firm sense of place; it would have been wiser for Hall to have saved this disorientation for the magical woodland, for there is not enough to distinguish the inhibition-free woods from the more staid and civilized setting of Athens.  And Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s Hollywoodized 1936 interpretation, with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck, looks dated with the air of a film weighted with self-conscious importance and antiquated staging.  I’m still waiting for a Midsummer Night’s Dream that will capture the playfulness of the love stories and the magic of the fairyland. 

Paul Rogers as Bottom and Judi Dench as Titania in Peter Hall’s
disorienting ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1968)

Happy 450th, Mr. Shakespeare!  Where would the English language and the performing arts — and the movies! — be without you?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I don’t watch ‘Gilmore Girls’ for the mushy stuff

Lauren Graham as Lorelai Gilmore and Scott Patterson as Luke Danes in
the upcoming Netflix revival of ‘Gilmore Girls’

Just for the record: I don’t care who ends up with whom, romantic-relationship-wise, on the four-episode Gilmore Girls revival, to be streamed by Netflix later this year.  When the series originally ended in 2007, many fans were left hanging, wanting some resolution to the love lives of Lorelai and Rory, the titular mother-daughter duo.  But as far as I’m concerned, Lorelai and longtime love interest Luke could never speak to each other again. Instead of ending up with any of her sequential boyfriends, Dean or Jess or Logan, Rory could finish the series romantically unattached for all I care. The show’s fascinating characters and scopious situations — ranging from the delightfully quirky to the uncomfortably authentic — are developed well enough to thrive beyond any romantic entanglements.  (Actually, I ’ship Rory and Paris, but that’s never gonna go canon.) I just want to know how showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino originally envisioned Gilmore Girls to end and — in context, when the episode is broadcast, and not before — what the fabled “final four words” are.

The cut-loose kiss between Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel, left) and Paris Geller (Liza Weill)
on spring break in the original series.  I doubt their relationship will go beyond that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

12 Cool Crowd Pleasers

Was my list of “10 Favorite Films” too art-housey for you?  Okay, to make up for it, here is a list of twelve movies whose carefully honed, audience-tested appeal has won a place in the sprocket holes of my heart, oldest to youngest:


With crackling dialogue and a sure-footed storyline, the film that defined the romantic comedy. 


The Marx Brothers rein in their explosive anarchy to appeal to a wider audience, but the results are still sublime.  


Made in 1942 but officially released in January 1943, it won the latter year’s Oscar for Best Picture.  Hollywood’s studio-era apotheosis.  


Epic. Action-packed. Awesome.


Silver-screen Hollywood craftsmanship at its heartwarming best.  (Listen to the DVD’s commentary by Bruce Block to realize just how much thought and care went into this film.)


Shoot-’em-up excitement with an art-house edge. 


The Seven Samurai (or at least their cowboy counterparts) saunter south of the border.


The funniest film I’ve ever seen. No joke. 

MAD MAX 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior, 1981)

Casablanca with a case of road rage. 


Steven Soderbergh rebounds from his mid-career doldrums to capture Elmore Leonard’s semi-cynical, semi-sentimental romantic roundelay between a U.S. marshal and an escaped con.  Exhilarating and arresting. 


Stop saying that Saving Private Ryan was robbed of its Oscar! Shakespeare in Love is a compelling, character-driven masterwork with lots of laughs and an air-tight story. Methinks its critics protest too much. 

KING KONG (2005)

Peter Jackson’s Kong-sized do-over of the 1933 classic is going to give CGI-heavy remakes of pre-sold properties a good name. 
(However, the film’s brief portrayal of the Skull Island natives as barbaric savages is a big step backwards.)

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Dalton — Timothy Dalton

I have a female friend who’s a big Sean Connery fan.  When we first met, she seemed to come up with an excuse to bring up the movie star most associated with playing secret agent James Bond 007 in each of our conversations.  Sean Connery this — Sean Connery that — Sean Connery the other thing.  She talks about him less these days, but shortly after we first met, I’m sure the Scottish movie star’s ears were ringing whenever my friend and I shot the breeze.  One evening, she was hosting a James Bond-themed event at a local restaurant.  I ended up sitting at a table with my friend and some of her companions.  That night, one of my friend’s friends asked me a question that my friend herself had never asked: “Who’s your favorite Bond?”  I replied, “Timothy Dalton.”  My friend did a double take at the table: “Whuh?”  She probably just assumed that Connery was everybody’s favorite 007 and was thrown for a loop when I — her sounding board on all things Connery — proved her assumption to be untrue. 

At the time, I was aware that my pro-Dalton opinion was in the distinct minority.  I’m not the world’s biggest Bond fan, but I did see most of the movies and follow the literature about the character from time to time, so I know it wasn’t long after Dalton inherited the role from Roger Moore in 1987’s The Living Daylights that many Bond aficionados started grousing about the Welsh actor’s performance.  Among ardent fans, the vituperation was especially venomous, but it was never really clear to me exactly why these fans were so upset.  I got the idea that these grumblers merely thought that Dalton’s inadequacy in the role was self-evident and no further explanation was needed.  Dalton made only one more film as Bond, Licence [sic] to Kill (1989), but the criticism continued.  As the years went by, this opinion seemed to be set in stone: the fans liked Roger Moore; they liked Pierce Brosnan; they loved Sean Connery, of course.  You could even find a few to put in a good word for the one-off George Lazenby.  But they hated Timothy Dalton.  And I wasn’t given a straight answer as to why. 

It’s difficult to find any of the scathing anti-Dalton diatribes of the 1980s on the Web at the moment, but as one Internet poster puts it: “All I’ve ever heard from friends ... is that [The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill] are lesser Bond films and that Dalton sucks.”  

With the latest Bond adventure, Spectre, now in theatres, I was contemplating writing a defense of Dalton-as-007 on this blog.  But as I read over some on-line articles in preparation, I learned that my disquisition of Dalton was no longer necessary: Dalton-as-Bond now has quite a few advocates on the Internet.  It appears that several fans have reconsidered Dalton’s two outings as Bond and found more to champion than to criticize. 

Timothy Dalton as James Bond 007 in ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987)

Looking for an explanation of this reversal of popular opinion, I stumbled upon this theory: Dalton inherited the role from Roger Moore, who played the secret agent as a semi-comical figure.  Moore’s penchant for dryly raising an eyebrow each time he heard a double entendre became a signature of the film series.  The only Moore Bond that I really liked — indeed, my favorite film in the series up to that time — was For Your Eyes Only (1981), which had a more serious plot than usual and a more feral performance by Moore than usual.  But by the time Moore retired from the role after A View to a Kill (1985), the Bond movies were noted more for their camp than their cloak and dagger. 

Behind the scenes, it’s well known that Dalton was first offered the role of Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), but the actor, then in his twenties, felt himself too young for the part and turned it down, whereupon it was later offered to Lazenby.  Also, after Moore’s departure, the creators’ first choice as his replacement was Pierce Brosnan, who by then had made a name for himself in the humorous detective TV series Remington Steele (1982-87), but at the last minute, the show activated an option on Brosnan’s contract, making him unavailable to play Bond.  With Brosnan out of the picture, in both senses of the term, Dalton was persuaded to accept the part he declined 18 years before. 

Poster for ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989)

When Dalton took over the role of Bond, he and the films’ creators wanted to return to a more serious interpretation of the character:

[Dalton] made two Bond films, both noteworthy more for his darker, brooding take on the role than for the films themselves. Dalton sought to get away from Moore’s jokey boulevardier and instead played Bond as a man with an edge, an interpretation he felt was closer to how author Ian Fleming had depicted the character in the books. Indeed, Dalton was often spotted on the sets of his 007 films paging through the original Fleming novels as a reference aid.

The audience’s ill-preparedness for this darker view of James Bond, it’s been hypothesized, alienated many Roger Moore-weaned fans from Dalton’s version of the character.  Only more recently, with Daniel Craig’s similar approach to the part, has Dalton’s work been reappraised and accepted by a large number of Bond fans.  And many are now voicing the opinion that I have held for quite some time: it’s unfortunate that Dalton — due to a legal dispute that forced the series into a hiatus until his contract expired — didn’t do more than two films as 007.  As one writer says of the fans’ new acceptance of Dalton as James Bond:

The quiet, self-effacing actor … has always kept his private life away from the tabloids, has always been loyal to the Bond franchise … without surrendering himself to endless retrospective chat shows and conventions. And perhaps as a result, people are finally beginning to appreciate his two Bond films for the stylish, underrated thrillers they have always been.

Dalton and the filmmakers didn’t only want to revise Bond’s character; they also wanted to tweak other aspects of the franchise.  The actor’s second entry, Licence to Kill, is a good case in point.  Where most of James Bond’s previous villains had been cartoonish characters with an eye toward world domination, Licence to Kill put 007 up against a topical nemesis: a drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who already controls his own corner of the world and is bent on keeping it.  This was a wise choice since the Cold War was winding down in 1989, so Bond’s antagonists sympathetic to the Soviet Union wouldn’t be as threatening as in years past.  And in moving the milieu from a conflict losing its menace to one ripped from the headlines, Licence to Kill made the story’s environment more realistic and hardened the characters. 
Robert Davi as drug lord Franz Sanchez in ‘Licence to Kill’
The film diverged from the formula in other ways as well.  Where Bond movies had previously tended to be set in at least two different countries on two different continents, all of Licence to Kill is set in the same area: south Florida and northern Latin America.  (In the movie’s biggest false note, it gives its fictional Latin American banana republic the English name of “Isthmus.”)  Instead of Licence to Kill having Bond given his assignment by M, 007 goes rogue to avenge a friend, supplying the agent with a more rebellious bite.  And instead of the villain’s palatial lair exploding in a massive fireball at the story’s climax, what detonates is a gas tanker after a high-speed chase. 

But Licence to Kill subverts still more.  As the most casual observer of the film canon knows, an obligatory moment of each movie is when 007 announces himself to someone as “Bond — James Bond.” In the previous Bond films, the scene consistently comes across as a moment of confident coolness, an eagerly awaited announcement that our unflappable, invincible hero has arrived. The moment in the series isn’t so much the character introducing himself as it is a moment of dauntless self-declaration. (Do I really need to say anything about how entrenched these three words of film dialogue have become in our popular culture?)  But when Dalton says this ultra-important line in License to Kill, it’s during an anomalous moment: when he extends his hand in introduction to Sanchez.  In Licence to Kill, Bond isn't so much announcing the arrival of the hero to the audience as he is merely making the bad guy’s acquaintance. And then, Sanchez blows off Bond by refusing to shake his hand.

In the other movies, “Bond — James Bond” are strong words of self-assertion. In Licence to Kill, they’re convivial words preceding a snub. I think that the Bond fans in 1989 were looking forward to this line in the film, but they didn’t get the moment that they had expected.  These sorts of small deviations from the previous Bond films may have put off the contemporaneous fans even more from Dalton’s interpretation of the secret agent. 

But I’m glad to hear that many Bond fans are now revising their harsh opinions of Dalton’s work in the film series, so any further inarticulate advocacy from me is unnecessary.  Although Dalton only appeared in two movies as James Bond, those offerings, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, remain among the best in the series, despite the latter’s underperformance at the box office.  However, Daniel Craig’s newer rendition of Bond has taken the venerated cinema cycle to a whole new level.  Craig’s films as Bond — Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and now Spectre (2015) — have dazzlingly ratcheted up the action, the spectacle, the humanity, and the overall impact of what is on the screen.  Craig’s 007 efforts will be the new measure for future films in the franchise.  Still, we should spare a thought for the Bond actor who tried to do what Daniel Craig is now doing, but who was at first pilloried by the fans for it: Timothy Dalton.