Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Red Riding Trilogy, and multi-part movies

The multi-part movie is not exactly a new idea; the second and third Back to The Future movies were filmed together in the late 1980s. It's become a much more popular mode of operation since the Lord of the Rings was such a massive success, though. The second and third Pirates movies were shot together or back-to-back, while in Japan, the adaptations of the sprawling Death Note and 20th Century Boys mangas were planned as big, multi-film projects from the start. Not only are the Harry Potter andTwilight series being produced with an unusually quick turnaround for modern Hollywood event films, but the final volumes (of series whose source novels' page counts increased with their volume numbers) are being split in two. There were rumors that Spider-Man 4 & 5 were going to be shot back to back, to somehow morph into a panned new trilogy. And the interconnectedness of Marvel's movie universe is pretty amazing.

What's behind this, in a time when the movie industry seems to be becoming, if anything, more risk-averse? Part of it is that risk-aversion, I imagine; if you can get two blockbusters for the price of one and three quarters, it's not a bad deal, although committing to something open-ended isn't always a great move (see: The Golden Compass; Chronicles of Riddick is potentially another example). But I think another factor can be found in the medium for which Red Riding was partially created: Television.

Though still the home to a lot of crap, the upper end of television has gotten much more impressive, in large part by recognizing what its particular strengths were. For the longest time, TV tried to create mini-movies, using the familiarity to excise a bunch of exposition after the first week, but essentially making each episode fairly self-contained. Not all shows were like this; soaps were designed as never-ending serials, almost entirely based on familiar personalities. Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a shift began. Sci-fi fans like to point to Babylon 5, although Murder One did something similar a few years earlier: Leverage viewer loyalty to create stories larger in scope than movies, or even the mini-series of years past, but which unlike soaps, offered the promise of a satisfying climax, either at the end of the series (B5), or at regular intervals (Buffy).

It worked, in part because technology allowed people to follow these stories without having to giving up every Thursday night (thank you, VCR, DVR, streaming video). But it left film, which had historically been considered "bigger" than television, having to play a bit of catch-up. Folks already avoiding theaters because... well, that's a whole different rant... anyway, not only could they claim that the technological experience was better at home, but that television had more sophisticated storytelling.

Thus, the multipart movie. I don't think they'll become the norm in Hollywood - it's still a big commitment right off the bat. I think it will happen more for can't-miss franchises, though, especially as television is considered more and more the equal of film. I don't know how many more Red Riding-type project we'll see, although I think the number and profile will increase. Despite the frequent complaints about the dumbing-down of America (and the world), the trend is still toward more complexity, not less.

Red Riding: 1974

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

The Red Riding trilogy is a daunting prospect, especially if one is inclined to see it during its brief American theatrical release as opposed to as a video on demand offering or on DVD. I'd recommend it, as it's a fine piece of work and everything is better in the theater, but finding the five hours can be tough. So start with just committing to the first; it's the tightest and most self-contained, and thus will either be a satisfactory experience on its own or will serve as motivation to find time for the rest.

As the subtitle tells us, it is "The Year of Our Lord 1974". The place is Yorkshire. A nine-year-old girl has disappeared, and Eddie Dunford's father has died. Eddie (Andrew Garfield) is coming home not just for his funeral, but taking a job with the local newspaper after a brief time in London. Naturally, one of his first assignments is the Kemplay girl's disappearance, and while the senior crime reporter, Jack Whitehead (Eddie Marsan) has a close relationship with the local constabulary, Eddie finds himself more sympathetic with colleague Barry Gannon (Anthony Flanagan), who sees conspiracies around every corner, particularly in developer John Dawson (Sean Bean) and his plan to build a shopping plaza on land currently occupied by gypsies. Eddie finds that this may be the third girl in the area to go missing in five years, and his attempt to interview the mother of one of the missing girls, Paula Garland (Rebecca Hall), gets him a visit from coppers Bob Craven (Sean Harris) and Tommy Douglas (Tony Mooney). Only she says she never complained to the police...

Red Riding: 1974 is a murder mystery, for certain, although it's not one that's too terribly difficult to puzzle out. As horrifying as the crime in question is, though, it's not really what the film is about. Plotwise, the girl's disappearance soon becomes a terrible part of something more pervasive, too large to be contained by just one film, although the story will not feel incomplete after two hours. But even more than the conspiracy, the film is about Eddie and Paula - who they are as people, who they can become, and what they could mean to each other.

Andrew Garfield is just what the movie needs as Eddie; he comes into the movie with a young man's cynicism, resenting how respected his father is, acting like he knows it all despite the fact that he washed out of the big time and makes a fairly serious blunder or two along the way. He's more than a bit of a jerk, and yet, somewhere underneath that, we see the other traits of youth come through - idealism, belief that he can change the world for the better, compassion. It is, in some ways, the reverse of the path one might expect for a movie packed with vice, corruption, and betrayal, and that is part of what makes Garfield's Eddie the most memorable of the series's protagonists; we believe him even as he makes growing up a positive.

It's a bit of time before Rebecca Hall shows up, but she is also oddly captivating. We know who she is, of course; the young mother who has seen everything in her life destroyed is a familiar type. What sets Paula apart is how Hall plays an aspect of the character that screenwriter Tony Grisoni never quite has anybody say out loud, that she is still young and capable of starting over. She never says anything like that, and we never get the sense that she wants to leave any part of her old life behind, but there is a sense that, along with grief, she's oppressed by the town's pity, their inability to see her as anything but the poor woman whose daughter disappeared, and that part of her attraction to Eddie is that, even though he's investigating that disappearance, he's also seeing her as an attractive woman rather than seeing her as incomplete.

The rest of the cast is very good; many won't have their characters fully fleshed-out until later films, but several make an impression: Flanagan's paranoid reporter, John Henshaw's editor, Peter Mullan's friendly and unorthodox preacher. Then there's Cathryn Bradshaw and Sean Bean as the Dawsons. Bradshaw makes wife Marjorie a disturbed wreck, while Bean has bulked up since his leading-man days, and there's a palpable sense of his character's power whenever he walks into a scene.

Interesting, 1974 is the only film in the series to be presented in the standard HD television ratio, at least in the theater where it played in Cambridge, MA. It is a visually arresting film, though, with every inch of the frame putting us into mid-seventies Yorkshire. There's a sense of the poverty and decay, with the coal plants looming over the mining town. A scene where Eddie walks through a gypsy camp that has been burnt down feels like a trip through a war zone. Director Julian Jarrold also does an excellent job of planting things for the other filmmakers to use, without being too obvious about it, even though at least one moment will have the audience kicking themselves for not picking up on it during 1983.

It's a grim story he creates, even if it does have the seeds of redemption inside. If 1974 is all you can see of Red Riding, you'll get a satisfying experience, but, fortunately, there's another three-plus hours of connected crime to look forward too.

Also at eFilmCritic

Red Riding: 1980

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

David Peace's Red Riding novels are described as a quartet, and if you look at the titles to the filmed Red Riding Trilogy, there's clearly a hole where 1977 should be. For whatever reason, screenwriter Tony Grisoni and the producers decided to skip that one, and though its events are referred to in 1980, it is by no means critical to understanding that year's story.

(NOTE: Although I will attempt not to give away too much of 1974 in reviewing 1980, just the presence or absence of certain characters may be considered a spoiler; continue reading at your own risk.)

Full review at eFilmCritic

Red Riding: 1983

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

The finale of a series never stands up well on its own, no matter how well-intentioned the production may be. One can argue that it shouldn't, that by the time we get to the third act, the only people left watching are the ones invested in what has come before. It's a delicate balance, rewarding loyalty on the one side and telling a story that maintains the same satisfying feel of earlier installments. I suspect that Red Riding: 1983 doesn't quite manage the latter, but has a fine enough ending to make it worthwhile.

(NOTE: Although I will attempt not to give away too much of 1974 and 1980 in reviewing 1983, just the presence or absence of certain characters may be considered a spoiler; continue reading at your own risk.)

Full review at eFilmCritic

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