Thursday, February 24, 2005

Starting to get caught up: The Merchant of Venice and Witnesses

I haven't stopped seeing movies (not by a long shot!), but a few things have held back my ability to write about them in a timely manner: Mainly, my job moved to a spot even further into Waltham (actually, probably almost to the point of coming out the other side), which means rather than twenty minutes on trains every day plus ten minutes of walking/waiting, we're looking at fifty minutes on the bus. Not only is that an hour sucked out of my day, but it's also a lot harder to open up the laptop and write someting on the bus than the train.

So, bear with me while I catch up over the next few days - I think I've got eight movies to review before getting to the fifteen-movie Boston Science Fiction Film Festival/Marathon. And I may rearrange the order of some of these - not much, but just enough to put the three Korean movies together as a sort of theme posting.

(Oh, and thanks to whoever bought some stuff. Remember, any money I earn from Amazon goes into more movies purchased and reviewed, giving you more to read.)

Anyway, reviews. If we're going to have explicit themes for the next few posts, then let's call this "ethnic conflict in Europe, past and present":

The Merchant of Venice

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2005 at Landmark Kendal Square #8 (first-run)

So, here's what we have: A well-cast, good-looking, nicely shot adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, which is both faithful to the text and placed in its historical context. The catch here is that that play is The Merchant of Venice, which the march of years has made the most problematic of The Bard's "problem comedies". The anti-semitism smacks the modern viewer in the face under the best of circumstances, and director Michael Radford opts to be heavy-handed with it.

For a playwright less revered than Shakespeare, someone staging a modern adaptation might perhaps remove dialogue stating that Shylock is Jewish, or downplay that aspect of the character, or remove some of the vindictiveness from the courtroom scene. But this is Shakespeare, and while it may be necessary to streamline a play in order to fit it into the approximately two hours a movie is expected to run, and a director may opt to place it within another time period, changing the words themselves would be considered almost sacrieligious. The irony being that a play initially meant to be a crowd-pleaser, as most of Shakespeare's work was, becomes thoroughly unpleasant by the end.

Read the rest at HBS

Witnesses (Svjedoci)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener) (projected video)

Witnesses isn't really a war movie. It's got some thoughts on combat, soldiers, the homefront, and how war can sap the humanity from the entire country, and they're good ones, but nothing revelatory. As the name suggests, though, the war mostly acts as a backdrop for a crime story. And once you strip away the need for greater meaning, the end result is fairly solid.

There aren't many tears shed over a murder that takes place in a Croation village during the 1991-1995 war for independence. The victim is not Croation, and lives in a large house paid for via war profiteering. An army unit comprised mostly of local soldiers is in town, so there's no shortage of people who could have committed the crime. It also means that nobody is particularly willing to help; the investigating detective, Babir (Drazen Kuhn), is berated when he asks questions of neighbors - what does it matter who killed one Serbian? And, truth be told, he's distracted; his wife lies in a coma, shrapnel lodged in her brain. The only person who seems to actually be interested in solving the case is a pretty reporter (Alma Prica), who notices that a man alone likely would not have had chocolate-coated cereal as his last meal.

Read the rest at HBS

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Star Trek: Enterprise cancelled

The link.

So, this throws a monkey-wrench into the "Franchise Friday" overview I was going to write for HBS this week, doesn't it? I think I'll still write it, because I am sort of uncomfortable with the homogeneity and lack of cool ideas in the four sci-fi shows that air that night, but there will have to be some more analysis of what led to this.

Personally, I think you can't redefine a franchise as often as Star Trek has in the past four years without shedding many more fans than you pick up. Enterprise was a tough sell in the first place, with a lot of fans saying "the past" (relative to Jean-Luc Picard, I guess) had no interesting stories to tell. For the first two years, they lurched between standard Trek fare with a nifty design sense and a frighteningly ill-conceived "temporal cold war" story arc. Then, for the third season, they went with the nearly-as-bad Xindi story. Then, finally, this season they packed the Xindi and TCW away and went with telling prequel stories to classic Original Series stuff.

Changing a series's direction is an act of desperation. For all the times it works, there are about a dozen times it simply drives part of the existing audience away and doesn't entice a new audience, because they already know they don't like the pre-change series and either don't know about the new direction or figure it's not new enough. Pull it enough times, and you'll whittle your core audience down to nothing, even if the end result - Enterprise's fourth season - is the strongest Trek to be captured on film/video since the end of Deep Space Nine. For the first time in its run, Enterprise is a show that I'll actually miss now that it's gone.

Granted, all that's been announced is that UPN won't be running Enterprise come September; it could hypothetically show up on Spike or Sci-Fi, but I doubt it. The question now is, how long will Paramount keep Star Trek on ice?

I'm guessing two years, at which point they'll notice that the ancillary merchandise for everything but The Next Generation isn't selling at all now that the show isn't "current" any more. Hopefully, they'll still have Manny Coto's phone number, because he's done great work on Enterprise this year, and deserves a chance to show what he can do without the fanbase burned out on what Rick Bermand and Brannon Braga have made a once-great franchise into.

And as for B&B, good luck finding work. You'll notice the DS9 people have been more or less constantly employed since their show ended, but B&B don't have their good reputation any more. That's what comes of holding on to the goose who lays the golden eggs so long and so tight that you eventually strangle it.