Wednesday, January 27, 2016

7 Disney Films That Could Be Made Into Great Gender-Swapped Reboots

Solidly settled as we are in the era of the remake and the reboot, perhaps it's the moment to embrace and figure out not just how to make an old movie new, but an old movie better. And given the extreme inequities in female representation, both behind and in front of the camera, there has never been a better moment to use reboots to flout old gender norms and paradigms. There is hope that this model may in fact be adopted; this coming July, we can anticipate a gender-swapped Ghostbusters, starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. However, the most staunchly conservative studio remains the Disney studio, though it is very, very, very slowly beginning to dismantle its resolutely patriarchal gender models. Given that children's films are, rightly or wrongly (and I would be inclined to say wrongly), regarded as teaching films that instill moral lessons and enact role models, it is particularly imperative that Disney films start to diversify their gender modeling. With an obscene number of reboots and remakes already released, and a solid six more on the way, the Disney studio could consider rebooting and gender-swapping:

The Absent-Minded Professor
This 1961 madcap comedy starring Fred MacMurray as Professor Ned Brainard has already been remade in 1997 as Flubber, starring the more frenetically slapstick Robin Williams, but it cries out for a remake, precisely because the story can be easily bent and adapted to the comedic style of its star. A female Professor Brainard would be unusual in multiple ways: 1) women are rarely depicted as scientists at all, let alone misunderstood genius inventors, 2) women are essentially never depicted as being more engrossed in their vocation than in a romantic partnership, and 3) women very rarely pursue men without being ridiculed because of their gender or masculinized. The story itself - a brilliant professor accidentally invents a chemical substance that simultaneously causes him/her to miss his/her wedding and to attract the suspicion of the government - needs no real revision, but gender-swapping the characters bores a sizable hole in the monolithic gender paradigms the rather misogynistic original film promulgates.

Beauty and the Beast
A live-action remake of this 1991 animated film starring Emma Watson is already set for release in 2017, but it appears that, like this past year's abysmal Cinderella remake, the film will be a fairly straight-forward remake, including the Disney original characters (a live-action talking teapot, anyone?) and that's a great pity. The fairy tales are some of the most difficult stories to reconfigure in accord with contemporary ideas about gender, but I think it would prove a salutary experiment to simply switch the genders without trying to impose some sort of justifying reversal in gendered behavior. In a gender-swapped version, the female Beast would be the tortured, dominating element in the relationship, the one with power and emotional complexity, the one that has to learn to love in order to throw off ugliness, and the one who inspires love despite ugliness, while the male Belle (Beau, perhaps?) would be the good-natured, vulnerable, dreamy, and subjugated element, the one who adjusts his expectations of romantic yearning and loves despite appearances, the one prepared to make quiet sacrifices for the sake of others. I highly doubt that Disney would ever have the moxie to make this movie. If someone ever does, I would bet that it's more likely to be a filmmaker like Catherine Breillat or Jane Campion.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I don't know what bizarre train of thought made someone at Disney think that Victor Hugo's deeply upsetting, gloomy novel about desperation, lust, and religious despair would make a good kiddie flick, complete with farting gargoyles, but somebody did. This 1996 film is frankly lousy, but given that the original novel has already been left so far behind, a remake could do something remarkable and, one might almost say, revolutionary. A female hunchback, heroic and sympathetic, who is ultimately accepted into society and hailed for her bravery and selflessness would break every rule that states how women should be depicted in movies. It would be even better if the film changed the original's ending - in which the hunchback accepts the death of his romantic aspirations - to accommodate those aspirations. Cinema has a terrible track-record of portraying the disabled as fundamentally devoid of healthy sexuality and incapable of inspiring romantic love. A Disney film that challenged that assumption would be a powerful tool for positive change in how people, especially children, with disabilities are perceived. 

The Lion King
The inevitable reboot of The Lion King should definitely be The Lion Queen, not least of all given that the lioness dominates leonine social structure. The obsession with monarchy inherited through male primogeniture is an odd one for the All-American studio and it's about time that it was questioned anyway. A gender-swapped Lion King places all the power, for both good and evil, in female paws, while male characters for once fall away into mere romantic partners, peripheral to the action and functioning primarily as emotional support for the heroines. The most radical aspect of the gender-swapping would lie in the total dismantling of patriarchal structure in favor of a radical matriarchy. This movie would be brilliant: Hamlet meets Herland in the African pride lands. 

The Shaggy Dog
This popular 1959 film starring Fred MacMurray has already spawned both film and TV sequels and a junky remake starring Tim Allen; a gender-swapped version would deconstruct the majority of the sexist overtones of the film. For one, the nagging wife would become a nagging husband, while the man-child husband would become a (wo)man-child wife, thus reversing decades-old assumptions that normalize misogynistic paradigms of marriage. For another, both heroes and villains become female, while the sexy European teenage girl needing rescue becomes a boy needing rescue, and further needing to be rescued by a girl. Women would hold a diverse range of unusual roles: a brilliant professor with expertise in magic, a horde of non-sexualized spies stealing nuclear defense secrets, two deeply confused police(wo)men, and, all of the protagonists. Men, on the other hand, would be granted only two roles: adorable teenage boys for the protagonist girls to date and the aforementioned nagging husband. All of the fun, the magical transformations, the spy shenanigans, the one-liners and gags, would be reserved for women and girls, in stark contrast to the original.

Swiss Family Robinson
This 1960 adventure film starring John Mills and Dorothy McGuire is one of the best live-action films the studio ever produced. Out of nine named, speaking roles, only two are women, and absolutely all of the unnamed extras are men. The film's primary story concerns how the Swiss family becomes entirely self-reliant, inventing what they need as they need it and learning to survive in a hostile, isolated wilderness. The original novel and the film emphasize a sort of a pseudo-caveman logic that dictates that men are the hunters and warriors, while women occupy the home and create a safe haven for their children; a gender-swapped remake would instead be a story of female empowerment, in which the female children become independent, self-sufficient survivors and even rescue a namby-pamby, coddled English boy kidnapped by pirates, all of whom would be female. A more satisfyingly transgressive film I couldn't imagine. 

Treasure Island
Disney's first live-action movie was this 1950 Stevenson adaptation starring one of my very favorite actors, Robert Newton, as Long John Silver and much as I adore this film, it would gladden my heart to have a gender-swapped adaptation of the best pirate novel ever written. Every single role would be played by women and that would already put it in the rarefied company of such all-female films as The Women, and to put into perspective how rare it is for a movie to be cast exclusively with women, wikipedia lists only seven. Even better, however, an all-female Treasure Island would completely eschew an obsession with talking about men; in fact, men would essentially cease to exist in the world of the movie, just as happens in the hundreds of movies with all-male casts in which women just aren't there (just to name the first that come to mind: most war films, Reservoir Dogs, 12 Angry Men, Glengarry Glen Ross minus the girl who checks coats, Lawrence of Arabia, Master and Commander, and I could certainly continue). Gender-swapped Treasure Island would be a quietly radical film, one that offered an entirely alternative view of the universe to every little girl.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Monsters Within: What Movies Tell Us About Gender and the Split Psyche

Since 1886 when Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the idea of a good self and a bad self, divisible and distinct, coexisting within the psyche has taken hold with such force that despite everything we've learned about human psychology it continues to hold currency in the cultural imagination, all the more so since the dual character of Jekyll and Hyde undergoes endless adaptation and interpretation, having appeared in well over a hundred cinematic versions alone, not including parodies, spin-offs, or television, stage, and radio adaptations. I start with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because it's the ur-text when it comes to stories about doppelgangers and split personalities.

It's also worth noting, as Nabokov did in his essay on the novella, that Jekyll and Hyde are not the good and bad halves of the personality, although this paradigm has become the norm in cultural representations of the story. Rather, Jekyll "is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad, a preparation consisting of ninety-nine percent solution of Jekyllite and one percent of Hyde." Thus, the way in which we use the names of Jekyll and Hyde is usually and fundamentally wrong. Hyde is all bad, but Jekyll is far from all good because he is human and there is his ultimate folly. He doesn't succeed in separating the good from the bad; he succeeds in separating the bad from the good, granting autonomy to the bad, while the good remains trapped in the complexities of his identity as Jekyll.

Nabokov makes another astute observation about the novella, echoing the critic Stephen Gwynn: women are almost wholly absent from the story, mere furniture in the street scenes, objects to be walloped by Hyde, frightened creatures that weep and faint under the ghastly influence of the bogey's presence. There isn't a line of dialogue spoken by a female character. The maidservant who observes Hyde's brutal murder of Danvers is quoted only indirectly. Stevenson's "monkish" version of London is thus curiously free of perhaps the most obvious duality of Victorian society: gender. The characters are all bachelors, well-to-do and fond of a glass of fine wine, lawyers, doctors, and scientists.

Film adaptations typically follow the example set by theatrical adaptations with the addition of two female characters: a beautiful, aristocratic, and virginal fiancee for Jekyll and a victimized, terror-stricken prostitute or cabaret dancer for Hyde. Thus, the queasily vague and sadistically flavored forbidden pleasures of the novella's Hyde become explicitly sexual (and heterosexual, though were I to write an adaptation of the story, given the almost exclusively male milieu, I would be inclined towards making Jekyll's "undignified" and embarrassing proclivities homosexual). In what I consider the best version, Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 adaptation starring the brilliant Fredric March in perhaps his best performance, the pleasures Hyde is unleashed to pursue are very explicitly sexual. His fiancee's father continuously obstructs his marriage and the overt implication is that Jekyll's bad side is driven to violence by his sexual frustration. Whereas Hyde's victims in the novel are attacked out of pique and irritation, Hyde's victims in the film are rape and attempted rape victims and a man who stands in the way of his sexual conquest of Jekyll's fiancee. Implicit in these choices is an underlying assumption that the bad in man is fortified by a lack of "natural" outlets that men need to quiet the violence and sexual desire within.

A similar assumption runs through Albert Lewin's idiosyncratic 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though Dorian's proclivities are allowed to remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, sexuality is at the core of his indulgences and women are again the victims of his selfishly pursued pleasures. Again, there are two female figures: the upper-class, virginal fiancee and the lower-class victimized pub singer. Though Dorian may have more refined and sophisticated tastes than Hyde, in both films a mystical transformation, reflected in a splitting both physical and psychological, is the catalyst for the emergence of repressed sexual desire, desire that becomes violent when an attempt is made to control it.

A similar duality - the bestial, sexual self and the moral, responsible, repressed self - is found again and again in films in which men are tormented with a split personality. In M, Fritz Lang's 1931 masterpiece, the murderer and implied pedophile Hans Beckert, whose crimes are so heinous that he is put on trial by the criminal underworld, protests desperately that no one can understand him, no one can understand why he is helplessly driven to commit atrocities that he knows to be evil. He leads a double life, his transition to the evil side of his personality signaled by his whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Such a dichotomy even finds echoes in Jean Cocteau's eerie 1946 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, in which the tormented beast fights the bestial instincts that threaten to overtake the sensitive, suffering human nature underneath. That bestiality is somewhat tamed by Beauty's positive attentions, by her pity, by the simple gesture of touching him without fear, but fanned by the sight of her sleeping, helpless body. This sexual duality is given perhaps its ripest treatment in Philip Kaufman's 2000 film, Quills, in which the Abbé falls under the influence of the Marquis de Sade, who ultimately succeeds in dismantling the humane, rational, Christian, and moral man to reveal the sexually aroused, manic, and dangerous man - the man not restrained by either compassion or faith - lurking underneath. The unhinged madman, the man who compulsively seeks to live out his sexual fantasies, whether physically or on paper, is what remains.

If rampant sexual desire, exploding forth as violent deviance when it lacks an outlet, is often at the root of the split personality, so is skepticism. As Freud's theories became more deeply ingrained and more frequently questioned, horror films began to dwell increasingly on a new, modernized danger: unbelief. This is not the lack of Christian faith instilled by older vampire stories and early horror films, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 cult masterpiece, Vampyr. Rather, the modern danger of unbelief is a denial of a supernatural reality that borrows heavily from both pagan and monotheistic symbolism, imagery, and lore, but that is secularized in that it lacks any firm theological foundation. In An American Werewolf in London, John Landis's landmark 1981 film, skepticism and a modern resistance to belief in the supernatural are the underlying cause of David Kessler's wandering into the path of a werewolf, to become one himself. His inability to grant credence to the stuff of nightmares, to give in to fear, proves his doom (and the death of more than a few others). In other words, his denial of his own irrationality proves his doom; the irrational overcomes the rational, just as the lustful Hyde takes over the sexually responsible Jekyll, just as the Abbé sheds his values and Christian faith and succumbs to an embrace of his most forbidden sexual desires.

What happens when it's a woman afflicted with a split personality, a monster lurking beneath the surface? In Val Lewton's Cat People, released in 1942, sexuality is at the core of monstrous transformation, but the mechanics of that transformation are in stark contrast to Dr. Jekyll's or Dorian Gray's. Irena believes herself to be descended from a Serbian race of "cat people." These people transform into panthers when sexually aroused and strike violently at whoever lies within their reach. Significantly, the only cat people encountered in the film are women. The difference here is that Irena holds little to no control. She has not experimented with some mystical scientific compound or made foolhardy vows to ancient gods. Instead, like the Beast, she is cursed by her heritage and loathes the violence within her. However, in contrast to the Beast, sexual arousal, whether born of love, lust, or jealousy, is always the catalyst for violence; whereas a line is drawn between the animalistic lust of the Beast and the pure, untainted love of the man within, for Irena, there is no possibility of any form of sexuality that doesn't render her a monster. For her, it is not a battle between a sexuality sanctioned by love and a sexuality driven by crude instinct; rather, her monstrosity lies within the fact that she is a sexual being, and it doesn't matter what emotion lies behind it.

In Brian De Palma's classic 1976 horror film, Carrie, the conflict is a bit more complicated. Carrie's telekinetic powers are awakened with the coming of sexual maturity (it's worth noting that all of the male characters I have listed above are older and already well within the aegis of sexual initiation). In this case, it is humiliation linked to her sexuality that releases her monstrosity, rather than sexuality itself, whether the cruel taunting of her evangelistic mother, the shrieking hilarity of the other girls in the locker room, hurling tampons at her, or the realization that a boy's seeming interest is not rooted in desire but in mockery. Carrie's murderous power is fueled by the denial of her sexuality by other people, by her inability to be safely sexual. Carrie's monstrosity is a reaction, not a chosen action, though it does carry a subversive power that defies, to an extent at least, the narrow strictures of American suburban life.

Based on Henry James's novella, The Aspern Papers, Martin Gabel's odd 1947 Gothic thriller, The Lost Moment, hints at a supernatural explanation for Miss Tina's split personality, but ultimately settles on psychosis driven by sexual repression. Tina's great-aunt was the lover of a brilliant and mysteriously disappeared poet and when Tina wears the ring he gave her and reads his letters, she transforms herself into a ghostly re-imagining of her aunt. A priest cautions the young publisher who has come in pursuit of the letters that a cure for Tina's madness lies in an actual, rather than an imagined, love affair. In other words, Tina's alternate personality is awakened because she has no lover of her own. But because Tina is a woman, she cannot, like Jekyll or Dorian Gray, pursue a relationship of her own. She is helpless, in thrall to her aunt's long-dead lover, simply because no flesh-and-blood lover has presented himself. There is no hubris, no selfishness, at the core of Tina's alternate personality - just loneliness. The evil part of her is essentially a tumor that will be cut away with the loss of her virginity.

Then there's Rhoda, eight years old, the cute little blonde tyke of Mervyn LeRoy's 1956 classic, The Bad Seed. The role of sexuality in this film is less overt, though still important. Rhoda's adoring mother discovers that she herself was adopted and that her own mother, Rhoda's grandmother, was a bloodthirsty serial killer. This proves the key to understanding Rhoda's personality. Outwardly sweet, smiling, and neat, attentive to her schoolwork and music lessons, Rhoda exhibits a disturbing lack of empathy, avarice, and the occasional shocking outburst. Though her mother initially wants to impute her daughter's cold selfishness and total lack of compassion to the trauma of seeing a little boy's corpse, the evidence stacks up and she is forced to confront the reality that her beloved daughter is a monster. In this film, evil is genetic, but it's significant that this particular evil is so specifically female. If Jekyll is, when himself, 99% Jekyll and 1% Hyde, then Rhoda is 99% evil and only 1% good. Rhoda's good half is the saccharine crust that covers the murdering, greedy hellion within; she wants to be perceived as perfect, rather than actually be so.

One striking thing to note about these female characters is the role that birthright plays in monstrosity. Whether there is an explicit genetic component - descent from "cat people" or a raging murderess - or a twisted family relationship - an abusive, sadistic mother or an obsessive quest to take the place of an ancestor - inheritance plays a distinctive role for these women that it does not for men. While men are individuals endowed with free will and the ability to destroy or redeem themselves, women are usually constricted not only by the restraints placed on women by society as a whole, but by some sort of tainted or unwholesome inheritance that corrupts them. While men hurl towards their destruction or painfully excise the evil and madness from their souls, whether to be absolved in death or life, women are either driven to their end by a monstrosity not of their own choosing or purpose or redeemed by someone else, inevitably a man. The fatal flaw in the male character destroys him when he acts upon it; the fatal flaw in the female character destroys her when she is acted upon.

There is a stark difference between male sexuality and female sexuality and the roles they play in the interaction of the two halves of a split personality. Male characters are permitted to be sexual beings - their sexually dangerous exploits are the result of a lack of healthy intercourse and the solution to their split personality is often posited as marriage to a (virginal) character. The stark exception is Hans Beckert whose sexual predilection for children renders him absolutely irredeemable. Attitudes towards female sexuality, on the other hand, have evolved significantly. Whereas in earlier films, women's sexual arousal was in and of itself dangerous, even within the context of marriage, slowly acceptance grew to allowing women a measure of sexual need, though only in the context of a love relationship, ideally culminating in marriage, that stresses female subjugation to men as sexual actors. With the feminist movement came a consciousness and greater acceptance of women as sexual beings, but female characters were still held between the poles of being loved, and thus able to express sexuality in relation to a man, and being unloved, and thus unable to even be sexual.

That being said, there is such a thing as a feminist horror film. Mitchell Lichtenstein's 2007 comedy-horror film, Teeth, is about a young woman, Dawn, who discovers that she has a vagina dentata. When I first heard about this film, and especially since it's directed by a man, I assumed that it must be intensely misogynistic. The concept of the vagina dentata is found in a number of different folklores and it features heavily in stories about male fears of castration and the attendant loss of power. However, Lichtenstein's film turns the tables on both the traditional vagina dentata legend and the genre horror trope that sexually active young women are marked for death. Instead, Dawn harnesses her sexual power. Her vagina dentata is only dangerous when she resists, resents, or doesn't want sex; when she wants to have sex, when she's enjoying herself, no harm comes to the men she sleeps with. Thus, Dawn's monstrosity becomes a means of empowerment, a means of asserting herself sexually. Far from destroying her, it allows her to navigate the patriarchal world in which she is perceived as a sexual object and to affirm her own subjectivity. Monstrosity itself is transformed and the monster within, the terror of the patriarchal world, is a woman who cannot be coerced into sex.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The 7 Worst Ways They Screwed Up the Third Harry Potter Movie

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is often cited as the best, or most beloved, film in the series. As an avid fan of J. K. Rowling's novels though, I find that it has its problems. Before moving forward however, I would like to briefly honor Alan Rickman, who passed away this week, far too soon, at the age of 69. One of the greatest actors of his generation, or any generation for that matter, Rickman's performance as Severus Snape was the best part of the Harry Potter films, brilliant, bitter, incisive, and mysterious, the beating heart of the series. His loss is devastating, but his work stays with us and for that, at least, we owe him a great debt of gratitude.

The third film is a fast-paced adventure that stands on its own better than the other films, primarily because it's the only one in the series that doesn't explicitly deal with a confrontation with Voldemort. Yes, the time travel elements are difficult, but as I've discussed previously, I think they work as well as they possibly can, not least of all given that any fictional story involving time travel is going to fail to measure up to the actual scientific strictures of theories of time travel, purely because the human brain isn't capable of analyzing every possible element of a moment in time and space and therefore can't evaluate the full implications of changes to that moment. I've already discussed the worst ways they screwed up the second and fifth movies; here are the seven biggest missteps in the third film:

7. The CGI dog
Sirius's dog-form in this film is portrayed by some manky CGI. This might seem like a quibble, but it's more than an annoyance. Good CGI enhances the fantasy and immerses the viewer more deeply into the film; bad CGI jolts the viewer out of his suspension of disbelief. And this is bad CGI. Dogs are not mythical creatures, so why not simply use an actual dog? The design in the film looks to me like it's supposed to be a Scottish deerhound, but any large, darkly colored hound would work. Either that, or more time and effort (and yes, more money) on the CGI needed to be expended. Contrary to a common assumption, CGI is ludicrously expensive and extremely time-consuming, so the choice doesn't make sense either on a practical film-making level or on a story-telling level.

6. The CGI werewolf
Unlike a dog, a werewolf is a mythical creature, so I understand the need for CGI here, though a wolf-like dog could have sufficed. What I don't understand is why exactly the design is so weird. The creature has oddly elongated limbs that bend in ways that seem ergonomically impossible and look as flexible and breakable as strands of spaghetti. It resembles a wolf only in so far as it is grey and has large teeth and it resembles a man only in so far as it occasionally rears up on hind legs and galumphs along upright. However, the real failure of the design is that the werewolf isn't particularly scary. Its most salient quality is its puzzling oddity.

5. Hunchbacked Tom
Tom is described in the books as being a very old, toothless man whose head resembles a walnut. In this film, he is played by Jim Tavaré who is neither old nor toothless and decidedly does not resemble a walnut - that's forgivable. But this bizarre, shambling cartoon of a character, hunchback and all, seems to have wandered over from the set of a comically febrile remake of Young Frankenstein. I think this character must be referencing a character from another movie, but I can't figure out what it could be unless it's Frank Zappa's ridiculous cameo in the Faerie Tale Theatre episode, "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers." That's a rather obscure reference. The whole routine falls flat and strikes a discordant note, but what I dislike most about this role is that we're supposed to find him funny because he has a hunchback and thus walks "funny" - that's just a lousy, tired, and frankly mean joke.

4. The makeover of Hogwarts
Hogwarts was almost completely redesigned for this film. Suddenly the castle grounds are on a literal mountain, complete with drawbridges across cliffs and a major tramp between Hogwarts itself and the owlry, sitting on its own little mountain. Hogwarts students should be required to wear hiking boots to get to Hagrid's classes. This started a trend in the series, where the landscape changes according to the immediate exigencies of the plot and the whims of the director, thereby making it much harder for the films to play in sequence without losing a certain degree of verisimilitude. This film also saw the introduction of the senseless pendulum in the entry hall, a bit of production design that looks cool as a static element, but is puzzling given its potential for chopping off the heads of any forgetful person passing under it. There are also an inexplicable number of crows over which the characters constantly trip and stumble, a pestilence from which Hogwarts never again suffers. These changes, which became more ubiquitous as the series went on, are disorienting.

3. "Lumos maxima!"
The opening scene of the film, in which Harry attempts to study under his covers, repeating an apparently useless spell for light, is the most idiotic in the movie. Reason #1: this "lumos maxima" spell is the only one in the entire series that has to be repeated constantly for it to work and if that's the case, why not just use a bloody flashlight (as Harry does in the book)? Reason #2: Harry is forbidden from using magic outside of school and is nearly expelled several times, in the second and fifth books particularly, for doing so. Furthermore, in the very next scene, Harry accidentally blows up Aunt Marge and Uncle Vernon, screaming at him to put her back to rights, reminds us that Harry faces expulsion for what he's done. If it's true - and every other relevant scene confirms this - then Harry should have had a nasty letter from the Ministry expelling him post- his wonky "lumos maxima" spell and probably making a snarky comment about shoddy wandwork.

2. Parvati's bone-chilling, horrifying, unacceptably frightening clown jack-in-the-box
The scene in which Professor Lupin teaches the third years how to battle a boggart is one of the most fun in the book (and in the film, we have the delight of seeing Alan Rickman play Snape in Neville's grandmother's vulture-adorned hat), but the scene is somewhat spoiled in the movie. I'm bothered by the strange choice of having Lupin inexplicably play a big band record, a tonally dissonant choice, but the bigger problem is Parvati's boggart. When she first faces it, it transforms into an obscenely large snake, so big that it doesn't even succeed as scary, just fake-looking, but her solution to render it ridiculous is the most terrifying thing to happen in all eight films. What sort of maniac thinks a twelve-foot-tall clown jack-in-the-box is anything but horrifying? I realize I'm coulrophobic, but this moment, somehow not courtesy of Stephen King, is absolutely awful. I'd face the classroom-size serpent any time over that clown abomination and I question the sanity of anyone who says different.

1. The (racist) shrunken heads
The filmmakers really doubled down on Dre Head, the shrunken head that makes terrible puns on the Knight Bus, heavily featuring him in promotional materials and producing a set of uncomfortably pun-laden interviews with the main cast, with the head as an interviewer. I think this is one of those pet ideas that creators can't bear to kill off because Dre Head is just awful, not in the slightest bit funny, and frankly rather racist. The extreme Jamaican accent and the dreadlocks are just a step too far. The shrunken heads are never mentioned in the books and they aren't in any of the other films; Dre Head and his cohorts were unnecessary, annoying, and, as far as I'm concerned, politically questionable additions to this film.

Readers, what did I miss? Do you disagree? Are there some favorite Alan Rickman moments you'd like to share?

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Film Review: "Far from the Madding Crowd"

I expected far too much from Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. For one thing, it's rare for an adaptation of a favorite novel to garner approval from the fanatic reader, and Thomas Hardy is one of my absolute favorite authors, while Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite novels. For another, the story, like so many of Hardy's plots, is largely psychological, only to be punctuated by moments of high emotional intensity, trauma, and violence. Such a plot is hardly cinematic and requires a willingness to rely on the visual to portray the inner states of the characters; Vinterberg seems to have lacked the necessary trust in his actors and confidence in himself.

For those who have not read the novel (what are you waiting for?), the story concerns Bathsheba Everdene, a strong-willed and independent woman who determines to run her farm, inherited from her uncle, on her own, without a husband. She attracts suitors and three of them are serious contenders for her hand, her heart, and, it must be said, her property: Gabriel Oak, a soft-spoken though stubbornly principled sheep farmer who becomes superintendent of her farm, William Boldwood, a neurotic, narcissistic, and interestingly tortured man who owns the farm adjacent to hers, and Francis Troy, a dashing, seductive soldier with bad habits, a murky past, and a way with a compliment. Four such obdurate characters in one novel are a recipe for tragedy, and Hardy delivers.

One wouldn't know that from Vinterberg's film. Carey Mulligan's Bathsheba appears permanently pained in an embarrassingly flat and one-note performance, though that could be at least partly due to the fact that she sustained a concussion during filming. Michael Sheen, as Boldwood, looks incredibly like the description given by Hardy, but seems perpetually lost, while his character's eventual explosion is both set up too obviously and utterly anticlimactic when it occurs. Tom Sturridge, as Troy, also looks his part, and he injects a wee bit of life in the staid atmosphere, but his performance has no emotional depth to match his splashy red uniform. Matthias Schoenaerts, as Oak, is the only one of the cast to give a somewhat nuanced performance, but he is at his best when silently conveying what the character is feeling and thinking and falters as soon as Oak opens his mouth.

That being said, it isn't fair to blame the listlessness and ennui of the film purely on the actors. The screenplay by David Nicholls is one scene after another of expository dialogue, much of which strikes an unnatural chord ("Lose the barn, lose it all" says one farmhand as they try to put out a fire). Despite the rigidity of class differences being so important to an understanding of the novel, the film casts off all such considerations, except as occasional verbal decoration. The richly idiosyncratic and dialect-speaking secondary characters are squeezed almost entirely away (though granted, this is regularly the way in Hardy adaptations, even in Under the Greenwood Tree, which, in novel form, spends hardly any time on the lovers), and even the central characters are ciphers. Some lip service is paid to a decidedly desultory sort of pandering feminism, i.e. Bathsheba repeatedly states she doesn't want to marry and become a mere piece of property, and, oh goodness me, she rides astride rather sidesaddle, but never has Hardy's headstrong, tough, plucky heroine with a flashing temper and a rather cruel sense of humor been more beholden to the men around her. Everything these characters say has to be taken at face value, for none of it is believable. They seem to act as directed by some god of tragic circumstance, while the characters as written by Hardy are goaded, impelled, bound, and scourged by love of the darkest variety.

And there lies the central problem. The novel hinges on love, love as pain, love as loyalty, love as pride, love as vanity, love as ambition. People may fail, neglect those they love most, murder, betray, and commit any number of cruelties in the film, but never for one second is one convinced that there is actual emotion behind the actions. This lack of emotional depth is certainly due in part to the pacing. Vinterberg leaps from shot to shot as though he meant to race through the whole movie in a minute. Only in the very last scene does he allow the camera to linger long enough to capture onscreen a mote of the feeling Hardy conveys in a word. Vinterberg gets just under two hours of film from a novel well exceeding 400 pages; in contrast, John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation starring Julie Christie left out more of the book and still clocked in at two hours and forty minutes. The shots in and of themselves are often very pretty - the cinematographer was Charlotte Bruus Christensen - but one hardly sees them before they're whisked away to be replace by another. The score by Craig Armstrong is a shallow imitation of the slow, strings-heavy, listlessly romantic type that has been in vogue since Dario Marianelli scored Pride and Prejudice in 2005. In emotional range, it extends from melancholic sadness to melancholic happiness.

What a great pity! Such a brilliant novel with a proto-feminist, deeply complex and difficult, land-owning heroine that examines marriage, gender, class, love, sex, and independence could make for an equally brilliant film. This adaptation is decidedly not it. But even leaving aside questions of adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd is listless and dreary, cosmetically pretty (as long as you don't blink) but without a thing under its pastel veneer.