25 September 2007

Discover and Review: Tell Me You Love Me

Genre: Drama

In today's "error" of fast-food entertainment, the good TV show is a rarity, the great show a needle in the hay, and the excellent a veritable phoenix, seeming the shimmer for only a mythical instant and tending thereafter to vanish with but the merest thought of its possible impermanence. Well, here's to hoping that this phoenix never so outburns and vanishes. Tell Me You Love Me is a work of consummate genius, a project that extends the heights and depths to which HBO reaches and has ever reached, and an exquisite work of art that compels the TV genre as a whole. Truly, can I say, I have never before seen a TV program with such consistent diligence, attention to detail, and realism in all aspects as this show in the dramatic genre. After watching only its first episode, I was so impressed by it, that I was ready and willing to give it a grade of A-, almost perfection, so highly did I regard its ambitions and follow-through and so confidently its promise - with the minus coming from my sole significant complaint: its cinematography, which I found uncertain and uneven in that first hour. However, I remanded and stuck to my policy of determination and grading only after the first four episodes and, so, having now just watched the fourth episode - thank you, On Demand! - I am more than pleased to report my official grade for the young series so far. Resoundingly, after a serious study, which found the show's quality, not only consistent, but even improved - for its boldness, its attention, its goals, its progress, its incredibly well-written scripts, its exceptional acting (especially in the character Katie), and its cinematographer's inspired moves both to back up and (relatedly) to use the power dynamic regarding distance - I am thrilled to present Tell Me with:

Grade: A+/A (i. e., the highest grade that I've ever given to a television show and a grade that, I think, no more than two other shows, if any, in the entire canon of television deserve). Congratulations! I can't wait for more!

24 September 2007

Review: Across the Universe

Genre: Musical

O, Julie. Julie.

OK, it's time now for me to elaborate on that previous lament, because for a filmmaker in whom I believed as much as I in her and for a film which I had before seeing it ascribed to my list "My Most Excitedly Anticipated of 2007" such a brief commentary is surely insufficient.
To begin, what troubled me most about Ms. Taymor's latest work is exactly what about her penultimate (cinematic) piece (i. e., Frida) pleased me most: her control of the palette and the frame. Whereas in Frida she appeared to me to have determinedly worked with her cinematographer, to create a rich textile of colors and hued lightings that built and refracted and expanded the power of her story, in Across the Universe she appeared to me to have but lazily slapped on a similarly broad, yet obscurely focused palette that at best could have been described as a hackneyed stereotype of what the 60s and Vietnam mean visually. Needless to say - though I do it anyway - I was terribly distraught. From the same spectrum from which she had previously culled an intimately detailed beam she only managed to split a flickering splurge of misfascination.
Adding to this injurious motion, she and her cinematographer also seem to have chosen rather obtuse angles from which to come at their subject(s). Far more than one shot or frame left me puzzling, "What was that?" Characters were oddly occluded, off-centered, and combative with one another in scenes and the whole thing lacked the cohesive fluidity such a large-scope film should unquestionably have.
Which brings me to a third complaint: The film was just too ambitious; she seemed just completely unable to control or limit herself and her selection of episodes and songs from which she had to choose. Instead of presenting a tighter, better wraught revue of a choice few Beatles' songs, she greedily reached to include nearly their entire canon. Now, while their work is certainly worthy enough to make a director, essentially attempting to create a contextual homage to them, want to include it all, it is clearly (to me) counterproductive to hew and hedge the work so, just to ensure that each piece gets to be touched on the screen. Is it not? The time that was required to process and manage the constantly changing music was enormously costly of other parts that could have used the extra room to breathe and even to create a solid foundation for the story. For, the forced fit, like that by a frustrated and impatient puzzle-figuring child, was clumsy and rough. The heart of the story, whatever it was supposed to be, was thrown off by the lack of focus that the limitation to a few key songs would have erstwhile bolstered. It was a rocky road trying to pick out that heart from the heaping runs-over that were. And there was barely any time to breathe between competing songs, for both the characters and the audience, barely any time to contemplate the significance of the previous melodies and lyrics, to sort them out in dialogue or imagery. It was mish-mosh and entirely contrary against the point of a play being a musical in the first place (i. e., greater exposition and focus via the emotionally expansive vehicle of music). Had I the reigns, I would have earnestly tried to really use the music, really focus the songs and use them as vehicles, and construct the visuals to correspond and corroborate with them. *If any film in recent times, it is this film that, I believe, could have truly made fantastic use of the return to the square.*
However, despite these very disagreeable qualities, there was one singular sequence that shone out to me in connection with what I had hoped and expected for this film to be: the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" scene, in which spectacular animation comes together wonderfully with the other visuals and with the music to deliver a powerful and sharply focused message and step in the course of the story. It is of this sole redemptive scene that the picture I posted above is.
So, I do hope still, Ms. Taymor, that this most recent work of yours is but aberration, a project gone awry, a rollercoaster event that somehow got away from you; I sincerely and in the best complimentary way do hope so.

Grade: C

20 September 2007

Review: Eastern Promises

Genre: Drama

About to discuss Mr. Cronenberg's latest piece while considering the nearly adamantine fealty and respect Mr. Mortensen shows for him, I suddenly feel as though the appropriate verb were less "discuss" than "tackle." And, indeed, it is a rather heavy, barnacled, and formidable piece to be done so. An attempted exploration of the inherent intentions of man that works to strip away all vital contentions that may otherwise cloud the matter, the film is both acid and barren, cold and fierce, bare and serious. They are these qualities that give the film its appreciable quality, its strength and ability to probe and question as art, as film does and ought do. However, I must signal the shortcomings of the film as such an exploration, for that, while its intentions may be clear and sharp, its delivery staggers behind.
The most significant indication of this lagging is the unembellished, bone-white structure of the screenplay. To me, it was an extremely polished and hewed piece but one that in being so pared and processed found itself only a safe imposing sterility that fails to permeate, or try serious punches at, the point of its creation (i. e., its primary question). Indeed, it had virtues in its duplicate pairings, correspondingly matched, (e. g., birth and death, decisions of youth, the metaphysical tension of being a policeman or a doctor, the old school and the new), but the couplings so finely adjoined, so cleanly juxtaposed, in my opinion cannot be nearly as incisive or dynamic in effect as they might have been in a more crumpled, provocative (but I'm wary of that term "provocative") cooperation. I wanted to feel the flushed heartbeat of the birth scene or the undercutting pain of the bathhouse fight, and I did not. I wanted to know the rawness and the expositive power of the contradictions, a feat I found Mr. Cronenberg handled better in his penultimate A History of Violence (despite the film's opposite difficulties with balance). It was simply too neat, too straightforward, too metronomic.
A large contributing reason for the lagging I found to be the extremely sparse utilization of Mr. Howard's score, which, though unextraordinary, is still music, "to the condition of [which] all art aspires" (Pater). During the fight scene especially, I found myself appreciating the foregoing of theatrics, but missing the responsive, attending, transcendent cues of an active score. The entire scene for me was just not resonant, and my fellow theatergoers, though probably unconsciously, felt the hole too, as they at the fight's grim conclusion issued nervous laughter for their unguided emotions.
Finally, I must comment on the cinematography, which I found to be spotty. The palette was nice, but the framing was often awkward for me. Splicing off legs and arms, wobbling between activity and passivity, and precariously trying to manage the power dynamics of it all detracted from my experience of the film.
Other than those three areas where I felt there could have been improvement, I thought the film was good. Mr. Mortensen and Ms. Watts were completely satisfactory in their roles, for whose impermeability I cannot decry their efforts; and the editing was, in keeping with the screenplay, trim and inexiguous.
It was not great work, but it worked still and I look forward to Mr. Cronenberg's next piece.

Grade: B