The Morning After: October 31, 2011

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post an individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

The Philadelphia Story

In their fourth film together (third comedy), Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn proved why they were one of the most potent screwball comedy duos of the period. Although I wasn’t as impressed with Bringing Up Baby as many are, Holiday is a wonderful and so too is The Philadelphia Story. Playing ex-spouses through the film, Grant and Hepburn struggle to find a common ground where their bitterness isn’t a barrier. Grant, to protect Hepburn’s father, agrees to help a publisher get into her upcoming wedding affair. Towing a freelance writer and photographer working for the magazine (played winningly by James Stewart and Ruth Hussey respectively), he hatches a scheme to thwart the publisher.

There’s little doubt by this time that Grant and Hepburn worked well together and with the added Stewart and Hussey, it was a treasure trove of capable actors delivering witticisms with grace and humor. Make no mistake, screwball comedies are a far cry from today’s modern romantic comedies, focusing more on clever dialogue than romanticism. What makes The Philadelphia Story such a charmer is that it manages to display its political ambitions against the upper class without flagrantly flaunting it. And with producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, director George Cukor and screenwriter David Ogden Stewart driving the narrative, it’s a stinging indictment of class warfare, the public’s desire to see into the lives of those better off than they and the lengths to which people will go to protect their privacy. The romantic entanglements merely add flavor to the whole affair.

Richard III

Theater groups have long sought to spice up older, classic works, setting various plays from Shakespeare and his antecedents in strange and unusual environments in hopes of drawing a younger audience. It’s a challenging task made more difficult by the uncommon verbiage. In Richard III, actor Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine adapted the classic Shakespearan tragedy about Machiavellian machinations amongst the British nobility as a craven and dangerous Richard, Duke of Gloucester, attempts to wrestle the grasp of the throne out from his siblings and their kin. McKellen’s performance is unquestionably one of the finest the cinema has seen in the world of William Shakespeare. While Laurence Olivier has often been considered the master of the author’s works, McKellen proves his equal in terms of performance.

That’s not to detract from a rather impressive supporting cast including Robert Downey Jr., Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Kristin Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith among others, but it’s McKellen who dominates the film like a skilled puppetmaster delivering a chilly villain to the audience and making him almost anti-heroic, suffering before us and drawing us into his ruthless methods. You can’t help but hope he is victorious despite his evil deeds, nor can you not feel a pang of remorse when the tragedy finally plays itself. Relocated to a Nazified Britain, Richard III retains much of the linguistic style of the Bard of Avon, keeping the audience a little off kilter for much of the film. It’s strange listening to such dialogue issuing from characters in a setting we are already familiar with. It’s disconcerting at first, but as the film progresses, you become more accustomed to and enamored by it.

We Were Here

I will fully admit that the documentary genre isn’t one of my particular favorites. While I can easily identify and become interested by the content presented therein, it’s not a style I’m particularly well versed in, making it a challenge to analyze the form and function on display. The few documentaries I have seen vary in complexity and style from the somber poignancy that was Anne Frank Remembered to the humor-laden and vitriolic Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. Somewhere in between there’s a sweet spot for this genre that keeps me interested without becoming too heavy handed. Celluloid Closet is one of the few such productions that come to mind and, were it not overly simplistic in its form, We Were Here might be another.

We Were Here doesn’t have a wide array of interview subjects, focusing on four men and one woman whose experiences in San Francisco from the 1970’s through the early 1990’s make for fascinating and saddening stories. Each of these subjects conjure up memories of the hopes and dreams once promised by the city and specifically its Castro District, beginning with the gay migration, touching briefly on gay rights leader Harvey Milk and then leading into the most challenging and deadly era the city might ever know. The AIDS crisis was never felt more strongly or wholly than in San Francisco, where thousands of young men, loved and cherished by their friends and family, would perish amid fear and vilification by an outside world that was mostly indifferent to their struggle. It paints a vivid portrait of a community that rallied to support its own without trepidation or recrimination for there were few then that would lift a finger to protect them. And from the eyes of people who were there, on the ground, witnessing every stark detail, you can easily appreciate why the gay community, trapped in a long struggle for acceptance, stands by and supports its weakest members. In unity there is strength and these interviewees can share that courage and compassion with others.

Puss in Boots

One of the brightest elements in the second Shrek film, Antonio Banderas’ Zorro-esque feline Puss in Boots finally has his own film, but with such potential and hype, it was bound to disappoint and in that, it did not disappoint. The film attempts to use modern animation story techniques to weave a semi-complex, but ultimately predictable narrative that threatens to derail many of the more positive elements. Joining Banderas as the film’s protagonist are former friend Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and romantic interest Softpaws (Salma Hayek). After spending his life in an orphanage with fellow anthropomorphic outcast Humpty Dumpty, Puss has long been in search of a legendary set of magic beans that will launch a beanstalk into the sky where they may steal the golden goose whose oval output is solid gold. Betrayal and recrimination abound as writers Tom Wheeler, David H. Steinberg and Brian Lynch mine what’s left of the Shrek universe for a strange compilation of fairy tale tropes and complications. It’s all rather familiar, but the minor details are what make the film at least mildly entertaining.

Among the bright spots are Hayek’s vocal work, a clever dance fight in a small cat bar, and a closing production number set to Lady Gaga’s “Americano”. There are a few witty comments mixed into the banal dialogue and if you can’t see the twists coming all too early, you need to fire your mental telegraph operator. When the film is at its funniest is the varied scenes of cats being cats, especially when they suddenly succumb to their natural instincts instead of their human-like actions. Keeping the film rooted in the Zorro mold is more interesting to those familiar with the genre than it might be to children raised long after that style was popular, which creates an unusual dichotomy between parent and child if indeed you took yours to see the film. While the kids will be more enthused with all the overbearing cutesy elements, some parents may appreciate the more heroic adventures of the feline maverick. Were the film more like the first two Shrek films, it might have been more engaging, but it suffers from the same issues most spin-offs do, an inability to carve out a new and interesting niche of its own.

Torchwood (Season 4, Episodes 6 and 7)

If there’s a finer science fiction series on television today, I’m not familiar with it. Torchwood: Miracle Day continues to compel and excite me, creating new and interesting plot twists and turns as its travels along. In these two most recent episodes, we’re treated to more character development than we’ve really had before, which gets the viewer more invested in the outcomes presented. Explaining more would reveal more of the plot than I want to as by this point, anything I say could be a potential spoiler. Suffice it to say the flashback elements of episode 7 are some of the most compelling yet crafted in this series’ four seasons. While I’ve always somewhat liked John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness, this is the first time I’ve really begun to develop an appreciation for him as an actor as well as for this particular character.

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