Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Plane Fare-- Movies of Late and Movie Piracy

You can watch a lot of movies of various sorts and quality on airplanes. I saw two coming back from Turkey yesterday, one of which was simply excellent, one of which was-- fun fluff. I also went to the cinema in Izmir (ancient Smyrna) and watched Pirates of the Caribbean III with a Turkish audience (they got the subtitles, the voice track was in English). The two airplane movies I saw were The Painted Veil, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, one of the great English novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, and the new Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore movie about an aging pop star from the 80s whose career is revitalized. More on this anon.

Two of Maugham's novels should be familiar to anyone who knows English literature (Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Six Pence). He was a remarkable writer who traveled all over the world, and the Painted Veil is set in China in the 1920s during a cholera epidemic and the rise of the Nationalist Movement of Chiang Kai-Shek. The movie is full of local color and culture and is a fascinating study of the relationship of 'western imperialism' to Chinese nationalism. It is superbly acted by Naomi Watts (nominated for best actress at the Oscars this year for her performance), Edward Norton, and an amazing cameo role for Diana Rigg who has now come full circle-- the former prototype for the Bond girls as Emma Peel in the TV series the Avengers, she now plays an elderly mother superior at a Catholic Convent in the interior of China. Amazing transformation, and at first she was barely recognizable.

The movie 'The Painted Veil' is beautifully filmed and capture the monsoon rains, lush green vegitation, and the honor and shame nature of the Oriental culture very well indeed. The essential story is about a British research bacteriologist/doctor who is not a clinician and yet signs on to go and deal with the cholera epidemic in China as a clinician. Before he does, he finds a girl from a 'proper' family in London to marry, who is a normal, spoiled, upper class British woman of no great ambition. The film portrays well the plight of women caught up in a system of semi-arranged marriages which prove to be loveless and bloodless. Kitty, having rejected her parents various arrangements and partly in defiance of them marries the good but painfully shy Dr. Walter Fane, who unfortunately is too self-absorbed and work-absorbed to do the proper job of being a good husband, lover, etc. Equally self-absorbed is Kitty who gives upper class girls a bad name of the ilk of "girls just wanna have fun".

What is remarkable about the movie is not just the quality of acting of Norton, Watts, and Rigg, but the way the story unfolds in an unexpected direction. The sexual dalliance between Kitty and another British man in Shanghai (the consul no less) because her husband simply neglects her and seems passionless is not surprising but what is surprising is the amazing way that this couple's relationship recovers from this disaster and they learn to love each other long long after they got married. It is a cautionary tale that reminds us that God's grace can make something good out of something tawdry and immoral. I will not spoil the story of 'loss', 'recovery' and 'loss' but it is also wonderful to see how over time and through gut wrenching experiences as many die in the cholera epidemic two persons learn how to be more self-sacrificial, indeed they learn how to give their lives for others. I can only urge you to go out and rent or see this movie. It will move you.

As for the latest fluff from Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore "Music and Lyrics" I actually enjoyed it. As a musician I have seen some mighty strange partnerships between lyricists and music writers (e.g. Elton John and Bernie Taupin) but this one takes the cake. I loved the spoof on Britany Speers with the "Cora" character, and I have to say that Grant and Barrymore were quite good together, and Grant does a fine job of being his usual charming, self-effacing, air-head self. If you like cotton candy or pure entertainment which has no pretensions of being serious cinema, this one fills the bill. It would have been better had they released it for this summer, as thus far the summer films promise to be lugubrious, over-bloated action flicks. I am hoping "Evan Almighty' is the exception.

What then about "Pirates III"? Well if you thought the long-awaited Spidey III sequel was overly long and over bloated just wait until you see Pirates III. Clocking in at 2 hours and 48 minutes this movie takes forever to get to the End of the World. Jesus could come back before this movie gets to its eschaton. The first hour is fine, and keeps the story moving along, and then it gets well and truly lost in the creation of the myth of the romance between Calypso and Davy Jones, the story of the council of thieves (aka pirates) in which we have some interesting looking characters who never get developed so busy is the camera focusing on Knightly, Bloom, and Depp. And amazingly Depp plays a secondary role in much of this film, with our friend (?) Barbosa stealing his thunder. What were they thinking? No wonder the leading film reviewers give this movie a 36%. The Jack Sparrow character is just too good to play second fiddle to a bunch of gypsies, tramps, and thieves, however fetching they may look. Yes of course there are some good scenes (I like the "four of you tried to kill me, one of you succeeded" scene), but the big final battle scene is interminable and not very convincing at all, even for a fantasy film. Lets hope for far better from the other blockbusters yet to come (especially Ocean's 13 and Harry Potter, though I have less hope for the new Fantastic Four movie). I am afraid I must say that once more 'less' would have been so much 'more' with Pirates III and we are the one's pirated by this movie. Depp is capable of depth, but this raising of him from the deeps of Davy Jones locker is all wet. Make up your mind-- is this a movie about the last Pirate round up? Is this a movie about sea myths? Is this a movie about love lost and rewon? Is this a movie about the irrepressible Jack Sparrow? It would have been better if it had been the latter.

I must end with an analogy. With the rise of the Roman Empire 'entertainment' took an odd turn. Previously the Romans had tried out serious Greek drama and comedy, but found it all too serious and tedious, so they requisition Plautus, Terence and even Horace to write scripts to make them giggle, but whose plots were eminently forgettable. And then something worse happened-- the demand for special effects on the Roman stage. Suddenly there were plays with talking donkeys, blood spurting out of cow's bladders, acrobats pretending to be soldiers, and the like. You catch my drift. What happened was the complete cheapening of the art.

Modern American movie producers could learn a lesson from this. Just because they can make longer more CG enhanced films does not always mean they ought to do so. Unfortunately Pirates III owes too much to the 'I've got a big budget and I'll do what I bloody well like so long as it sells' mentality. I don't care that this film is No. 1 around the world. That was based on the previous films' track record, especially the first one. What I do care about is not wasting good characters, good story line, and decent acting for the sake of pandering to the lust for ever larger effects etc. More bang for the buck often leaves the audience with buckshot, rather than an arrow straight to the heart. Repent and do better. The Turkish audience I saw this with knew they were being had. They did not applaud at the end (as they are won't to do) and there were few wows or giggles along the way. Let's hope American audiences wake up and demand better as well.


Anonymous said...

Glad you're back, Ben!

Richard Steandric Ricsteand said...

though naomi watts should have won this year best actress oscar award for her brilliant performance in the painted veil, unfortunately she was not even nominated due to delays caused by the chinese censorship of the final print of the film, and more importantly warner brothers' politics favoring the 2 client eastwood's films.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Richard:

Surely you jest. There were no nominees to be had from the two Clint Eastwood movies on Iwo Jima if we are talking about best actress. I guess I was thinking of the Globes best actress nominees.


eddie said...

Hi Ben,

I spend far too much of my time on planes and I watched the same too movies that you did on a flight from Africa last weekend. As a Brit, I've got to say that I am terminally embarrassed by Hugh Grant. Please don't think we are like him!

I also saw a French film called 'Pars vite et reviens tard'. One of the benefits of flying Air France is getting to see movies I wouldn't see otherwise and this was superb. A tense action thriller with a very strange twist. Much French cinema is rubbish (same with British or US cinema, I suppose) but every now and then, there is something well worth seeing. It's a shame that it's hard to find them in the anglophone world.

Ben Witherington said...

Anglophone? That must be a new cellphone company in the U.K. with Celtic ringtones-- right?


But seriously, I would love to see that movie. Of recent French films or films made in France I especially liked Chocolat.

Ross said...

Hi Ben

Good to have you back! I am a very big Somerset Maugham fan. He has written extensively about life in this part of the world in past times. I have just bought the DVD of the Painted Veil and am now even more eager to see it. Somerset Maugham was not himself a Christian, but his insights into human nature are spot on and still relevant.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ross:

Looking forward to being with you on Sept. 2. I am afraid you will find this movie strangely familiar in its comment on British presence in the Orient, but it is a powerful film.


Ben W.