In for a penny, in for a pound - I got Outlander Season 1 vol.2 this week, and in addition Falling Down and Guardians of the Galaxy on DVD.
At the movies: Crimson Peak looks gorgeous, but it's probably the weakest Guillermo del Toro film I've seen in a while, not that I'd usually commend his films - Pan's Labyrinth aside - for their plots. Though the trailer sells it as a horror story, it's really a Gothic romance with a supernatural element, and it mostly works as a throwback to that genre. I suppose my problem with it is that the last act falls back on thriller clichés and loses something of its magical qualities. It does hark back to Pan's Labyrinth in that it tries to layer in an ambiguous reality - how much of the story happened and how much was Edith's fiction? - but that puzzle, if you want to call it one, is slight, its impact on the film negligible. Similarly, if this were a true Gothic romance, the ghosts would be figments of the imagination, not real. The film tries to be ambiguous about this, but in the final analysis really isn't. That said, it is beautifully directed and designed, this story of aristocrats clinging to the literalized open wound of their sins as represented by their decaying house. Jane Eyre meets The Fall of the House of Usher, with Tom Hiddleston's butt for good measure.
Denis Villeneuve's Sicario - a title I find impossible to remember - is a smart inter-agency procedural thriller, featuring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent plunged into a dodgy CIA op meant to disrupt Mexican drug cartels. The film is involving, the action beats strong, the U.S.-Mexico border are well-realized setting, and the acting strong. And yet, I find myself in the throes of a deep ambivalence. Not the kind where you just don't care one way or the other, but the kind where you're not sure what to think. A large part of the problem is that Emily Blunt is more of a stand-in for the audience than a protagonist at times, which means she's a witness and occasional victim of circumstance, but not a proper "hero". And there's nothing wrong with that. But it still sits oddly. And if this is an outsider's perspective as chaos erupts, why does the film decide to show us scenes where she isn't present? Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are cool as ice, mind you, and magnetic even in their opacity. I WANT to see those scenes, but on a script and thematic level, should they be in there? And the same holds true of those featuring the Mexican cop's family, an engine for the film's naturalism (endless cycles of violence and all that), but distracting from the more central theme of ends justifying means and the fluidity of morality. Being pulled in two directions is perhaps not a bad thing for a film to do, but I'm going to have to call Sicario "flawed".
Our local movie theaters have been offering live performances of plays, operas and ballets for a while now, but I never managed to go. They were showing Hamlet? Well, you know me, now I HAD to. The difficulty now is to keep this down to a "capsule review". Ok, here goes. Up front, I've got to admit that the moment I found most touching was the pre-packaged stuff before the play began, with Benedict Cumberbatch, star of this version of Hamlet, visiting a school where the kids are putting on their own version. Hearing those kids talk about it was revelatory, and I hope that if they ever put this performance on DVD, they include that bit as an extra. Cumberbatch is a more extreme Hamlet than most - the tears flow freely when he's sad, and his madness is a grand circus act - but he's solid, especially in the soliloquies, which seem to happen in between seconds with the cast moving at a crawl behind him. His Ophelia, Sian Brooke, is very effective at first, but devolves into tics to express her madness; she loses me after a while. Ciarán Hinds' Claudius is good, and Anastasia Hille's Gertrude delivers one of the most emotional - and so believable - descriptions of Ophelia's death, yet her character is given short shrift because her own death is rushed in what I would call the production's only real blunder. Bonus points to Jim Norton (Polonius) and Matthew Steer (Rosencrantz) for being very funny. The production shocked me with its re-ordering of scenes, especially early on, but the changes actually made narrative sense (this is stuff I could argue 'til doomsday), and presents a Denmark obsessed with war, with the lobby acting as a war room, Hamlet mockingly dressed as a toy soldier, and chaos erupting dramatically with a winter storm blasting the stage just before we go to intermission. The second "act" turns Elsinore into the muddy trenches of World War I, as if a truck had dumped tons of dirt onto it for the finale. But for all that talk of war, Fortinbras' arrival seemed rather timid. So my issues with the direction are mostly on the script level - what was kept or cut - but there was a lot to admire too, like lighting changes and on-stage effects that would be the envy of many cinematographers and editors. I saw it with some few people who didn't know the play at all, were even worried about the Elizabethan language, which means it IS useful to put hot actors in the role and offer such performances to different audiences, and they came away with questions like "so was he mad or wasn't he?". In other words, they got it. Now somebody fix Laertes' microphone before the encore!
DVDs: Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well is apparently lumped in with his Shakespearean adaptations Ran and Throne of Blood, but it doesn't follow Hamlet's plot so much as it remixes its elements. It echoes Hamlet, but does not retell it. It IS a revenge tragedy, starring an unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune (if he's not in samurai garb, I just don't see it) as business executive Nishi who has infiltrated a corrupt corporation to avenge his father's death, a man pushed to suicide by the board. Now he's making them pay, forcing them into disgrace and suicide themselves. Kurosawa has essentially taken "The Mouse-Trap" and made it the core of his film, with false ghosts haunting board members, and a blasted post-war Japan as a stand-in for rotten Denmark. Nishi is more a figure from Film Noir than he is Hamlet, however, having little of the Danish Prince's introspection, though he retains his doubts. Journalists as a kind of opening chorus from another era of theater, a hellish scene in the mouth of a volcano, the way the plot is slowly revealed to the audience even to the point of not showing important events against all narrative sense - I admire Kurosawa's craft and bravery a great deal. But while corporate corruption isn't a problem unique to 1960 Japan, it's also not that engaging as Kurosawa's chanbara films, and will never feel as rewatch-worthy as the director's better known classics in that genre. The DVD includes a making of filled with interesting anecdotes, part of a series on Kurosawa that has installments on other Criterion releases, and a booklet with a couple of critical essays.
I knew I was going to want to watch Outlander when I saw Ron Moore's name attached, but of course, this is pretty far from Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica, even though the latter's composer Bear McCreary uses BSG-like Celtic cues to the proceedings. Outlander, based on the book series, is about a time travel romance in which a WWII-era nurse is magically sent back to 18th-century Scotland, where she tries to survive so she can get back to her husband in the 20th, navigating love and politics, and making friends and enemies along the way. The character of Claire Randall is a strong one, clever and sexy, and the world she enters detailed and, to my eye anyway, historically accurate. I did think the nudity was often gratuitous however, showing its star Caitriona Balfe topless a little too often. I'd go so far as to say the series falls into erotica at times, which is fine, but a crucial love scene would have been, I think, much more effective and powerful if they'd held on until then. These first 8 episodes (Season 1, vol.1) are accompanied on DVD by a featurette on how the books were adapted - in which the writer claims the whole thing was inspired by Doctor Who's Jamie McCrimmon! - and another on the costuming.
For my thoughts on Millennium's third and final season, track through the last 3-4 weeks of daily reviews, but in short, this was another sharp turn for a program that never found its voice due to showrunner changes. The new guys tried to bounce back from Morgan & Wong's vision not by going with it and exploring new ground, but by trying to go back to Season 1, and it took a good half-season to make any of it work, coming off as a poor cousin to The X-Files most of the time. The second half has some stand-out episodes, however, which did make me want it to continue a little longer. The DVD does include the X-Files crossover episode as a coda, so a fan of Millennium need not go out and also purchased the other's show's 7th Season collection, as well as actor commentary on the first episode (Henrikson and Scott don't say too much of interest though), a making of where FINALLY (after respectfully dodging the issue in the Season 2 extras) everyone admits M&W's direction wasn't right and screwed up the show, and another Academy Group featurette, this one explaining graphology and other means of identification through writing (was this really a major part of some episode? still, good of them to participate after the show turned the group they inspired into the show's villains).