Jump Cut: Trainspotting on TV

Tonight ushers in the premiere of CBS’s Elementary, the newest rehashing of the Sherlock Holmes story, set in a contemporary New York. It looks as if, in some circles at least, its promising buzz has turned into less-than-enthusiastic reviews. But I am going to watch anyway, for Jonny Lee Miller plays the iconic character. You see, with him returning to the American tube, this means that you can see four of the six members of the principal cast of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) on TV every week. You might recall that besides being one of my very favorite films, Trainspotting represents a watershed moment in the history of my cinephilia.

In addition to Miller’s (Sick Boy) starring role on Elementary, three other Trainspotters keep busy as parts of big TV casts. Robert “Bobby” Carlyle (Begbie) is on the audience favorite Once Upon a Time (2011-present), playing a certain Mr. Gold, a creep whose storybook world double is Rumpelstiltskin. I only ever watched the pilot that aired last year. I watched, of course, because he is in it, but sadly it was not my cup of tea. Since 2008 (or the fifth season), Kevin McKidd (Tommy) has appeared on the same network, ABC, as Dr. Owen Hunt, Iraq War veteran/PTSD sufferer/Dr. Christina Yang husband-turned-adulterer in the commercial juggernaut that is Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present), which is entering its ninth—and hopefully last—season tonight. Finally, we have Kelly Macdonald (Diane). If there is a leading lady on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), then it would have to be her: she plays Margaret Shroeder, an Irish immigrant in 1920 Atlantic City who falls under the spell of the county treasurer/bootlegging gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. The third season started a little more than two weeks ago with them, having gotten married to protect his investments, on the outs.

The star of Trainspotting—and the only bonafide “movie star” of the bunch—Ewan McGregor (Renton), was going to be part of an ensemble for HBO: indie auteur Noah Baumbach developed, co-wrote, and directed the pilot adaptation of The Corrections with author Jonathan Franzen’s full participation. Then in May, the cable channel pulled the plug on the production, for whatever reason. I was really looking forward to this, not because I know anything about The Corrections (which for the record, I do not), but because I knew it meant five, yes, FIVE! cast members of Trainspotting were going to be on American TV regularly. Interesting to see how their wildly different career trajectories brought them to the same medium, “across the pond” as it were, but on programs that couldn’t be any less similar.

The only cast member never to have secured a regular role on an American TV show is Ewen Bremner (Spud). What hypothetical or existing show can you imagine him having a part on? Although I gave up on it within the first five episodes of its most recent third season, I think I could imagine Ewen on FX’s Justified (2010-present). If you think the waifish Jeremy Davies can play the heir to an Appalachian drug empire with the most nervous energy, I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Bremner to do him one or two better. If he were cast—and I know this is nothing but a pipe dream—then maybe I’d tune into the show again. Even with Timothy Olyphant’s central performance, I couldn’t get interested in Justified, particularly because its Southern California filming locations betrayed its Kentucky setting to such an extent that I didn’t buy any of it. But I digress.

By way of conclusion, I think it’s worth noting the fun coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Day” is “trainspotter.” Not only do I subscribe to this mailing list, I collect the words I like the sound and/or meaning(s) of. Allow me to educate: according to the trusty ol’ OED, the word, a noun and originally and chiefly British, refers to 1) “A person (often a boy) whose hobby is observing trains and recording railway locomotive numbers, sometimes with other details” and 2) “In extended use (freq. depreciative): a person who enthusiastically or obsessively studies the minutiae of any subject; a collector of trivial information.” That’s me!

Though the OED gives “trainspotterish” as a related word, it stops short of giving the further association and definition of “trainspotting,” which refers to a heroin addict’s practice of finding a fresh vein into which he or she can inject the drug. (The markings on their arms resemble train tracks.) Yes, this means that the title of the book and movie Trainspotting represents a utilitarian concept, and in much the same way that we say we “geek out” whenever we get really excited about something in pop culture, thereby taking ownership of the image which may make us seem uncool or esoteric to others, I like to call myself a “trainspotter.” I don’t watch trains (but I do whenever I have the chance), and I’m not a heroin addict, but I am a trainspotter—especially when it comes to Trainspotting.

Long Take: The Crimson Petal and the White Makes for Compelling Feminist Melodrama

Viewed September 12 & 14, 2012

CINE FEEL YEAH is all about the cinema, this much is true. But sometimes it is necessary to cast a glance at moving images more broadly defined. Case in point: director Marc Munden’s BBC Two miniseries adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel of the same name, The Crimson Petal and the White (2011), is so filled to the brim with less than reputable but intriguing characters, compelling melodrama, and enough symbolism to captivate any humanities major that I just couldn’t ignore it. Besides, the dramatic miniseries neatly fits the bill of one of my favorite subgenres, which centers around (usually historical) women rebelling against the dictated norms of her contemporary society. I caught the four-hour-long program when it aired on American premium cable television earlier this month, divided into two parts rather than its original four, and I cannot verify otherwise if the American telecast differs at all from the British standard. Either way, it is long and slow in some parts, but never so dull as to discourage continued viewing. It is also one of the more cinematic miniseries I have seen, featuring a more modern and eclectic score and a number of dizzying edits that are not the bread and butter of literary adaptations for TV. Before I forget: I have to warn you that I’m going to spoil pretty much everything.

The enviously prolific Romola Garai stars as the infamous teenage prostitute Sugar, but as she warns you in her voiceover narration, she is “far from sweet.” The story takes off in 1874, as she plies her trade at Madam Castaway’s (Gillian Anderson, looking a lot like a redheaded Gina McKee to me), a brothel tucked deep inside the dodgy end of London, where poverty, hunger, and disease persist. After hearing raves about Sugar from his friends who only wish they could have her, the feckless William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd), both the heir to a soap-manufacturing company and an aspiring novelist, seeks out her company. Their unproductive encounter, shall we say (drunk, he passes out and wets the bed before they can even begin), sets everything in motion: from that point on, he is hopelessly drawn to her, eventually buying her exclusivity, then moving her to her own apartment and finally into his family home. Right, I must mention that William is married to Agnes (Amanda Hale), who is psychologically disturbed after enduring years of sexual abuse and trauma. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly there; I will discuss this subject in due course. There is a robust cast of supporting characters, including William’s pious brother Henry (Mark Gatiss), the reformer of prostitutes and tuberculosis sufferer Mrs. Fox (Shirley Henderson), and Mrs. Fox’s brother and Agnes’s physician, Dr. Curlew (Richard E. Grant).

But The Crimson Petal and the White belongs to Garai and, to a lesser extent, O’Dowd. I have watched the English actress seemingly grow up on-screen, and I haven’t always been a fan. Though I love I Capture the Castle (Tim Fywell, 2003), I freely admit that Garai’s central performance is sometimes unpolished, but she has consistently gotten better in everything she has done, from Angel (François Ozon, 2007) to The Hour (2011-present). I don’t wish to be so gushy, but she really excels as Sugar, particularly in presenting her as a confident and pragmatic woman who starts out with ambiguous intentions but eventually earns our sympathy completely by miniseries’ end. It’s a bravura performance. As for O’Dowd, it is strange to see him in a non-comedic role, and in a costume drama to boot! I almost always find him a likable (OK, adorable) countenance, but because his character develops negatively, he gradually becomes less and less attractive. William is pompous, sexist, vulnerable, and brutish.

I haven’t read the book (all of its 800+ pages), so I cannot comment on it, but The Crimson Petal and the White reminded me of certain classic works of English literature and their own screen adaptations, including Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and pretty much anything by Charles Dickens, for it is a coming-of-age story about upward mobility (albeit centered on a woman who doesn’t achieve it). The comparison to Jane Eyre is obvious enough: our heroine enters a household to work as a governess for the child of her lover; who cares if she’s a prostitute and knows the mad wife already exists? William is no Rochester. He’s more like Alec from Tess, as he throws out the woman he seduces and impregnates. Through displays of moral courage and indescribable suffering, Sugar, like Tess, is redeemed. And let us not forget that the title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” which at one point Sugar reads aloud to her charge. I am no expert on poetry, but I think its stanzas speak to the dualism of Sugar’s and Anges’s lives.

The miniseries, and presumably Faber’s tome, is undoubtedly feminist, as it deconstructs how prostitution manifests in many different forms. And I don’t just mean as a comparative analysis of the various hierarchical venues that Sugar inhabits (i.e. the brothel and seedy taverns, the kept apartment, and finally the family home where she works as a governess and serves as William’s mistress and secretary). The Crimson Petal and the White, as adapted by Lucinda Coxon, makes clear that marriage is also a kind of prostitution, and this point is explicitly made through the juxtaposition of Sugar’s and Agnes’s individual experiences.

Whereas Sugar is sexually mature, having been pushed into prostitution at age 13 by her own mother (that’s right, Mrs. Castaway herself! but don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled anything you don’t learn within the first 80 minutes) and gained years of experience in giving men exactly what they desire, Agnes is sexually immature. She is locked in a young, almost prepubescent state, signified by her blonde ringlets, constant nightie-wearing, and, most importantly, fevered anorexia, which curtails her regular menstruation. On top of it all, becoming a mother eight years prior profoundly scarred Agnes’s psyche, so much so that she cannot accept that she ever gave birth in the first place. Thus her postpartum depression is so severe and permanent that William ensures that Agnes never sees their daughter, Sophie (Isla Watt), whom he keeps in another part of the house. Dr. Curlew visits Agnes weekly, using physical examinations as a pretense for violating her body. Ascribing a poor and poorer prognosis surely keeps up appearances, but it is also accurate. Agnes must get worse before she can ever get better.

Long before William set Sugar up her in own flat, she shadowed the man she did not yet trust, to his work and his home. (How ironic it is that he should own a soap-making factory, given his indiscretions.) One day, when Agnes looks out the window and finds Sugar on the street, staring back at her, Agnes becomes convinced that the stranger is her guardian angel come to rescue her (the small feathered wings stitched onto Sugar’s leather jacket help lend this impression). Once William confides in his mistress that his wife is having such delusions (obviously unaware that Sugar is Agnes’s “angel”), Sugar begins to interact with Agnes, either from a distance or on the condition that Agnes not look at her face. Things come to a head when William employs Sugar as Sophie’s governess and the women come face-to-face, usually when Agnes is in distress.

A shut-in from society, Agnes looks out her window and looks for her guardian angel, whom she doesn’t know is actually her husband’s mistress. Image courtesy of http://www.isserleylovesbooks.tumblr.com.

Out of pity (not jealousy), Sugar comes to Agnes’s aid and plots Agnes’s flight in the middle of the night. By this time, William has turned inattentive and cruel, and so I view Sugar’s planning Agnes’s disappearing act as one made out of female solidarity. Perhaps Sugar once wanted to replace Agnes, to bear William the son and heir he always wanted, but it’s clear that William’s raping Agnes one evening, to Sugar’s horror, encourages her to break Agnes out of the prison that is her marriage, which has traumatized her for over eight years and caused her to lose her mind. Thankfully, Agnes flees just in time, before William and Dr. Curlew have her committed. While letting a mentally disturbed woman loose unto the world may be inadvisable, Sugar’s determination to help is unambiguously romantic, possibly even an expression of her own desire to escape. Later, through a case of mistaken identity, William is led to believe he is a widower, and only Sugar knows that the river-ravaged corpse that washed ashore can’t possibly be Agnes because she cut her hair short before departing without a trace. The miniseries ends with no update on Agnes’s whereabouts, again lending a romantic air to Sugar’s emotional and intellectual attachment to Agnes and her gender struggle.

There is never any doubt that Agnes is a pathetic character and therefore deserving of our sympathy. On the other hand, before Sugar fulfills her promise as a guardian angel, she presents a more complex portrait. Having taught herself to read and write, Sugar keeps what she calls a “Hate Book,” which is either a tell-all memoir or a semi-autobiographical novel—it’s hard to say. She fills it with fantasies of exacting revenge on the men who have taken her innocence, and even as she gets to know William she conjures scenes in which she slits his throat or stabs his chest. Although it is clear that these are just her imaginings, the spectator might begin to wonder just what she is capable of. It is only after he takes Sugar away from Mrs. Castaway’s and encourages her to counsel him on business affairs that she begins to see her new client differently (he grants her more space and power than any other has ever done). That Sugar’s livelihood, particularly once William buys exclusive rights to her body, allows her time to write in the “Hate Book” is in stark contrast to William’s fledgling literary career. At Sugar’s urging, he throws himself into his job at the soap factory, choosing to express his masculine identity not through words but through accumulating wealth. More crucially, the “Hate Book” represents an escape, and it is telling that Sugar gives up writing in it as she becomes ever more entrenched in William’s family life, especially as Sophie’s governess. This leads me to the final point of comparison between Sugar and Agnes: it hinges on motherhood.

As I have already described, Agnes is literally unfit to be a mother. Her fragile emotional and mental state won’t allow it, and in her absence, Sophie has been reared by a strict disciplinarian nurse named Miss Cleave (Wendy Nottingham). When Sugar moves into the house and assumes her duties as governess, her predecessor warns that Sophie is a horrible, manipulative child. Nothing could be further from the truth. Within a minute, Sugar understands that she will look after Sophie differently; it’s clear the outgoing woman never gave Sophie a chance and shares William’s view that it is pointless to educate girls (then what does that make you, Miss Cleave, eh?!). In short, Sugar and Sophie form a tight bond, Sugar acting as both the mother Sophie never had as well as the mother she wishes she herself had. In case Sugar’s empathy towards Agnes doesn’t fully redeem her character, her devotion to Sophie does. When they profess their love for each other, it is the only time either one has ever heard those words spoken to her. But then their love is thrown asunder. Late in the miniseries, William casts Sugar out of his home and his life when he learns from Dr. Curlew that she is with child. Desperate, she takes Sophie with her. And that is how it ends.

Sugar and Sophie. Image courtesy of http://www.neovictorianthoughts.wordpress.com.

I am not crazy about Sugar’s kidnapping Sophie. I feel this way not only because she has committed a crime, but because this conclusion reaffirms that (even a fallen or, in Sugar’s words, “pushed”) woman’s role is as mother. Perhaps this is too harsh, given the emotional and psychological torment that biological motherhood bestowed upon Agnes, which was aggravated by the men’s sexual mistreatment of her. After all, she abandons her child forever when she makes way in the night, so being a mom isn’t for everyone. Moreover, I sure am glad that The Crimson Petal and the White doesn’t end tragically, with Sugar dead, say, and by William’s hand no less. In fact, I rather like the actual terms through which Sugar and Sophie’s escape takes place. Sugar tells Sophie to pack for an “exploration,” thereby echoing an earlier scene in which the budding cartographer Sophie asks if she can grow up to be an explorer. “I don’t see why not,” Sugar, ever the retroactive feminist, tells her. Sophie, who at age eight understands she is a second class citizen by virtue of her sex, assumes then that she will only be able to explore places that men do not or will not go to. How can I argue with this kind of language? While technically Sophie won’t be as materially well off as if she were still at home, there is no denying that she will be better loved and raised by Sugar. It is also noteworthy that in the final scene, as they wait for a train to take them far away, Sugar begins to write again, this time on a new pad of paper (the wind blew away pages from the “Hate Book” in their escape and they wind up in William’s befuddled possession).

I didn’t have much use for the subplot involving a tentative romance between Henry Rackham, William’s older brother, and Mrs. Fox of the Rescue Society. It does, however, serve to show that men are so easily crippled or undone by their (repressed) sexual passions. (Henry cannot reconcile his lust for an ailing Mrs. Fox with his desire to become a clergyman and so dies in a fire while fantasizing about her.) Women, on the other hand, are stronger and more resourceful, as evidenced by Mrs. Fox unexpectedly making a full recovery from consumption. As Dr. Curlew’s sister, she also points out how members of the same family can be advocates of diametrically opposed causes: he devotes his time to molesting his female patients while she selflessly labors to rehabilitate women and girls away from their previous lives of sexual exploitation. If only she knew of her brother’s misdeeds.

The Crimson Petal and the White isn’t only graphic in terms of representations of sexuality, it doesn’t pull punches when it comes to bodily functions either. That is, it doesn’t shrink from showing us what bathing, going to the bathroom, and miscarrying might have been like for women in the late nineteenth century. In fact, the scenes in which Sugar, having lost all hope in a future of wedded, familial bliss with William, fails to induce an abortion, first by administering chemicals and next by flinging herself down the stairs, are particularly harrowing. Later, when she hemorrhages at William’s soap factory in front of Sophie, it is a truly gut-wrenching sight. But there still is a sense of relief. And this is all of a piece with the filmmakers’ commitment to impressionistic realism. I know this might sound like a contradiction in terms, but I use “impressionistic” to clarify that the brutal realities of Sugar’s and William’s Londons are filtered through her unique perspective, steeped in abjection and ambition. Also, there is something refreshing about Sugar’s scars, undoubtedly the result of abuse at the hands of her former clients, always being on display, along with patches of irritated skin and her chronically chapped lips. It reminds us that living is hard, and this is especially the case for the sexually exploited.

News Clip: Before Midnight Can’t Come Soon Enough

The ending of Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) presents a litmus test, a method for separating the romantics from the skeptics in the audience. Being a logical person, however, I have always thought Jesse’s satisfied smile as he answers, “I know” to Celine’s playful admonishment, “Honey, you’re gonna miss that plane” meant their remaining together—perhaps even in Paris—was a sure thing.

Before Sunset is one of those rare “franchise” films in that it’s actually better than the originator of the series, Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995). The later film, edited so that Jesse and Celine’s chance reunion over the course of one afternoon unravels in approximate real-time, is wistful in tone and very adult in theme. By virtue of their having a history (and our being privy to it), it’s much more intimate than Sunrise. And who could resist the opportunity to see the idealistic twentysomethings (who, as strangers, once shared a formative romantic night together in Vienna) all grown-up and cynical, processing that rendezvous and how it has shaped their lives since. That’s why, combined with the supposed ambiguity of Before Sunset‘s conclusion, we fans have hoped that director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy would bring these vivid characters back to the big screen again.

Aside from wanting to fulfill their own creative energies and desires to shoot another picture about Jesse and Celine, I would imagine that the creators also want to please the fans who can’t let the characters go. Like many others, I have followed the possibility of a third film coming to fruition, reading everything from an online interview over here to a newspaper profile over there. Recently, everyone involved has kept the details of the (pre)production close to the vest, only ever going so far as to say something to the effect of “we’re working on it, we’re working on the script.” Well, good news, friends: they’ve done us even better by finishing the shoot just yesterday! Mike Fleming of Deadline New York reports that Before Midnight wrapped production in Greece Tuesday night (I guess Hawke’s title suggestion, Before We Go Crazy, didn’t make the cut). Fleming quotes a written statement from the co-writers, which offers nothing in terms of the story or plot of the new film. In other words, it’s still unclear if Jesse and Celine have stayed together since Paris or are reconciling yet again. Hell, they may have even dated and split up in the interim. We have to wait a little bit longer to find out.

But what a coup, huh? How marvelous that everyone managed to fool us all into thinking that the film hadn’t even gone into production yet. Here’s to a swift post-production and not-too-distant release date!

Quick Edit: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Bernie?

Viewed August 21, 2012

Director Richard Linklater originally made a name for himself with film-stories set in his native Texas, everything from Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993) to SubUrbia(1996) and The Newton Boys (1998). Even his beloved European-set Before Sunrise “franchise” has a Texas connection: Ethan Hawke’s writer, who in some small part might be based on Linklater himself, also hails from the southwestern state. The comedic true crime story Bernie (2011) returns Linklater to Texas for the first time since 2006’s Fast Food Nation and reunites him with the star of 2003’s The School of Rock, Jack Black, as well as early muse Matthew McConaughey.

I passed on Bernie when the film hit select theaters in late April of this year, not because I wasn’t interested in the story of a much fawned-over gay assistant funeral director shooting dead his 81-year-old multi-millionaire companion, the small town’s wicked witch, but because I already knew all of its plot details. I had read a New York Times Magazine article by Joe Rhodes, the nephew of the victim Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, and learned that for nine months Bernie kept up the pretense that Marjorie, stuffed in a freezer, was alive while he spent millions of her dollars, “generously” gifting people all over town. Despite Bernie’s, uh, indiscretions, Rhodes, like practically everyone involved, seems to find him the more sympathetic character. It’s a fascinating story, but I wonder if Bernie‘s storytelling format was the best choice. In any case, I heartily recommend Rhodes’s examination of the events leading up to and following Bernie Tiede’s killing Mrs. Nugent that, as the movie’s tagline says, constitutes a story “so unbelievable it must be true.” You just might want to see the movie first, because it does spoil the plot. As does this review of the film Bernie.

East Texas. The date? I’m not quite sure, as the true events took place in the 1990s. But while the production and costume design seem to indicate this period, Bernie (played by Jack Black) has an iPhone, which wasn’t released until summer 2007. So what can you do? Anyway, as the assistant funeral director in Carthage (approximately 7,000 inhabitants strong), Bernie is well-known for his attentive care of the recently bereaved (particularly elderly widows), and his boss especially values his employee’s superb up-selling skills. Bernie manages to thaw Marjorie’s (Shirley MacLaine) cold, miserly heart following his supervision of her bank-owning husband’s funeral (which actually took place in 1990). From that point on, they are virtually inseparable. They travel everywhere together, go on extensive shopping sprees, and eat at the finest restaurants as well as the local, rustic watering holes. (Hilariously, in one scene, Marjorie pesters Bernie to help her pick out a nice dress for dinner, forcing him to stop whatever he was doing at the time he received her call. Then, in an unfussy cut, it’s revealed that they’re only dining at a chintzy Mexican cantina in town). People speculate that Bernie has to be supplying sexual favors in order to receive that kind of lavish, undivided attention from Marjorie, who has alienated everyone who has ever come in her path, including her family members. Marjorie becomes so attached to Bernie that she demands to know where he is and what he is doing at every hour. In his defense, the word that Bernie constantly uses to describe Marjorie’s dependency on him is “possessive.” Then, in an impulsive move one day in 1996 (again, according to actual events), Bernie takes the shotgun for killing pesky armadillos and shoots Marjorie in the back four times, the symbolism not lost on the audience. Immediately remorseful, Bernie prays, but instead of alerting the police, he packs her into the freezer in the garage and goes about life as if she is merely the house-bound victim of a series of strokes. No one else likes to see or talk to her, anyway—except for her nosy stockbroker (Richard Robichaux), who’s onto Bernie’s misdeeds.

As they grow closer, Marjorie defers to Bernie on all matters of fashion. She even starts to wear her hair down. Image courtesy of http://www.nytimes.com.

No matter how overly prepared I was to watch Bernie, I never expected that Linklater, who co-wrote the script with Texas Monthly crime reporter Skip Hollandsworth, would choose to frame the narrative as a docudrama, complete with historical reenactments starring Black, McConaughey, and MacLaine; numerous talking head interviews with real townspeople; and title-cards that read “Who is Bernie?” and “Was Bernie gay?” One might even be tempted to label the film a mockumentary, for it gently pokes fun at the residents’ bigotry and simple-mindedness. For instance, knowing Bernie to be an outstanding Christian for all his involvement in church activities, including orgiastically singing hymns and paying for a new prayer wing (with Marjorie’s money, of course), the people of Carthage refuse to believe Bernie killed the town’s least popular resident—even after he confesses to the crime once Marjorie’s financial adviser and family members start investigating his trail of lies. In fact, Bernie is so well-liked for his caring and easygoing demeanor that District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey, made comically un-handsome and outfitted with shirts—baggy ones, at that—big, round eyeglasses, and short, matted hair) successfully motions for Bernie’s murder trial to be moved 50 miles away to ensure that selected jurors are unbiased. In the end, he’s sentenced to life in prison, and according to Rhodes, he will be eligible for parole in 2027, when he is sixty-nine-years-old.

One of the real, colorful townspeople of Carthage gives us a handy-dandy geography lesson, enumerating the cultural differences among almost all of the republics of Texas. Image courtesy of http://www.largepopcorn–nobutter.blogspot.com.

In exploring the surreal circumstances of Bernie and Marjorie’s relationship, the film regrettably relies too much on the testimonials of real Carthagians. It’s unclear if their lines are scripted, improvised, or unrehearsed. But the warm, burnt cinematography by Dick Pope seamlessly blends their one-sided conversations (with the documentary lens) with the scenes featuring the trio of the top-lining professional actors and their supporting cast. In other words, despite the fragmented structure of Bernie, Carthage comes across as a fully realized universe and lived-in place, even if Black, McConaughey, and MacLaine barely share any screen-time with the “real” people. However, though all three turn in captivating performances (particularly Black, who dials his trademark zaniness way down), I couldn’t help wishing that Linklater and co. had given the stars more to do. Earlier, I labeled their scenes “historical reenactments” because they mostly just serve the narrative as related by practically everyone in town. They seemingly act out scenes in order to support the Carthagians’ arguments about how gregarious a fellow Bernie was (cue Jack Black, in character, directing and performing in a high school production of The Music Man) and how downright nasty Marjorie was (see MacLaine throw a Hispanic family’s mortgage loan in the garbage as soon as they leave the bank).

Admittedly, one of the best scenes integrates the documentary and comedy-drama bits and, unsurprisingly, unfolds at the very end, allowing the story to come full-circle: one of Bernie’s real-life apologists visits him in jail, still in denial, and reiterates her request that he sing at her own funeral, whenever it is. Touched, Bernie tries to tell her that it’s impossible, as he doubts he’ll ever get permission. But she’s just not hearing him. When their time together is forced to close, the camera follows Bernie contentedly walk back toward his cell, eventually staying put to capture his receding presence—and slightly sashaying hips. As if to say again, “Can you believe this man is a convicted murderer?” This isn’t to say that the filmmakers think Bernie is innocent. He is most definitely not. Having formed my first impression of Bernie Tiede based on Joe Rhodes’s interpretation of his aunt’s life partner-turned-killer, I can see that the filmmakers find him just as sympathetic as Rhodes does. We’re meant to perceive Bernie as simply a good person who snapped and did a very bad thing. More tellingly, to some degree, I think the storytelling structure of Bernie precludes the spectator from strongly identifying with Marjorie. That is, representing the real townspeople’s overwhelmingly sentimental observations about Bernie does very little to redeem Marjorie; no one comes to bat for her. To add insult to injury, MacLaine’s limited screen presence means her character isn’t as fleshed out as Jack Black’s Bernie, leading my dad to comment that her bickering Marjorie recalls her performance as a grumpy and difficult First Lady to Nicolas Cage’s secret serviceman in Guarding Tess (Hugh Wilson, 1994).

It was only during my Google search for images to accompany this article that I made the connection that Bernie has a premise not-too-dissimilar from the one guiding Weekend at Bernie’s (Ted Kotcheff, 1989), wherein Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman live large at their horrible boss’s vacation home after the titular schmuck (Terry Kiser) dies unexpectedly during their stay; like Bernie, the pathetic stooges pretend their employer is still alive and try to outrun the cops (among others). But whereas Weekend at Bernie’s takes a slapstick approach to defiling the sanctity of the human corpse, Bernie explores the all-too-realness of this possibility. It’s an intriguing little story, and it’s shocking that Carthage still sings his praises. Just what exactly is in the well-water over there? I wonder how the town’s residents responded to the film, too.

Long Take: Mirror Mirror, Off the Wall

Viewed August 18 & 19, 2012

Two “subversive” re-hashings of the fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in theaters this year, Mirror Mirror (Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) in late March and Snow White and the Huntsman (Rupert Sanders) in early June, the studios’ schedules leaving barely two months between their releases. In the battle for my interest, the latter prevailed. At the time, I found its darker vision more intriguing, the welcome prospect of meeting an active—even kick-ass—heroine more certain, despite dull-as-wood Kristen Stewart’s playing the part. Mirror Mirror, on the other hand, appeared to be a campy, self-conscious comedy that tries-too-hard. Having now seen it on DVD, I can say that looks aren’t deceiving in this case.

At first glance, it’s easy to identify the colorful, other-worldly mise-en-scène of Mirror Mirror as exactly what we have come to expect from “visionary director” Tarsem (as he is usually credited), whose earlier works include The Cell (2000), The Fall (2006), and the extremely loose adaptation of the Theseus-starring Greek myth Immortals (2011). On closer inspection, however, Tarsem’s characteristic style-over-substance M.O. impresses the observation that Mirror Mirror looks as if Tim Burton had made it as a sort of companion piece to the 2010 revisionist megahit Alice in Wonderland, as both films attempt to give their young heroines more feminist agency while on their journeys toward adult womanhood. There’s just one caveat: the new Snow White adaptation, unlike any Tim Burton film, doesn’t take itself seriously. It is a pastiche of styles and attitudes, mixing a prologue featuring porcelain-like puppets with an epilogue that consists of a Bollywood musical dance number. It’s overwhelmingly cynical but hopelessly romantic at the same time. Crucially, too, the film’s less-than-spectacular special effects are no match for its opulent, golden production and costume design (the latter of which comprises legendary designer Eiko Ishioka’s last on-screen effort).

Mirror Mirror turns the all-too-familiar fairytale upside down—especially its story structure. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t subvert the form and instead reaffirms the romantic ideal, even after doing so much to tear it down. If I haven’t already spoiled it for you, I’m definitely going to do so now.

Julia Roberts, as The Queen and evil stepmother of Snow White (a likeable if thickly browed Lily Collins), narrates the tale from her perspective, asserting that it is her story. Most likely responsible for the King’s presumed death when Snow was a little girl, the beauty-obsessed Queen tyrannically reigns over the kingdom in his absence, for more than a decade by the time the film story begins. Cash-strapped and insecure, she keeps a now teenaged Snow White locked up in her room, demands exorbitant taxes from the destitute commoners to pay for gala events and chemical peels, and desires a new rich husband to ensure her lavish spending habits continue unabated. On her eighteenth birthday, Snow White finally leaves the castle to see what the Queen’s rule has subjected her people to, and en route to town, she encounters the arrogant but handsome Prince Alcott of Valencia (Armie Hammer) and his valet Renbock (Robert Emms). Strung upside down on the branch of a tree in the frosty forest, the men are so ashamed to be the victims of a mugging by a band of dwarfs on stilts that Alcott insists they are commoners. Sparks fly after she cuts them free, and they go their separate ways.

Snow White and Prince Alcott meet again later that night—this time as themselves—at the ball that the Queen throws in his honor, an over-the-top attempt to woo him since he comes from a country with lucrative industry and trade. Jealous of the attention he bestows upon her stepdaughter, the Queen demands that her “executive bootlicker” Brighton (Nathan Lane) abandon the girl in the woods so that the mythic but very real beast gobbles her up. Brighton goes so far as to bring Snow White to the forest, but he sets her free. She eventually happens upon the hideout of the seven dwarf bandits and convinces them to let her stay. Her heretofore untainted moral compass directs her to make-over their image by returning to the commoners, in the dwarfs’ name, the Queen’s tax collection that they stole, thereby elevating the social rejects’ status in the eyes of the people. That’s one mission accomplished. By turning the bandits into Robin Hoods, Snow White invites them to transform her into a member of their gang, a partner in arms against the indignities of the Queen. A Karate Kid-like training montage ensues as the leader Butcher (Martin Klebba) intones maxims on thieving. Yep, this sure isn’t your Disney-bred Snow White. But this is just one trope that Mirror Mirror turns on its head; most of them hinge on Snow White’s relationships with the Queen and Prince Alcott.

According to Tarsem, the Queen isn’t “evil; she’s just insecure.” I beg to differ (for reasons already enumerated), but there is something to be said for her vanity. One of the most amusing scenes revolves around her intensive beauty regimen before the gala. All kinds of disgusting “creams,” including animal dung, and insects that burrow in her bellybutton are applied. The Queen, reclining with her eyes covered, admonishes her attendants for taking pleasure in her revolting appearance. It’s unclear, given her quips and the servants’ smiling-to-frowning faces, whether the Queen delivers or receives the brunt of the joke about the ugliness of beauty’s upkeep. After all, she still comes out looking like Julia Roberts, whose casting is definitely meant to be a meta-commentary on the Hollywood edict that proclaims women of a certain age (or women who are not as desirable as they were when they were younger) utterly useless. In Snow White and the Huntsman, thirty-seven-year-old Charlize Theron plays the equivalent role, but rather than exploit her beauty for money (to buy things), Theron’s vampiric Ravenna uses it to usurp power and make everyone suffer under her rule because she has been abused by kings the world over. This constitutes a hyperbolic but provocative feminist assertion, that a woman subverts the culture’s idealization of femininity through an aggressive, albeit aberrant (or murderous), sexuality. Mirror Mirror‘s representation of power is cartoonish by comparison. So Tarsem may want to believe that the Queen’s vanity isn’t her motivation and that it doesn’t make her evil, but he forgets that insecurity and vanity are two sides of the same coin and together they make the Queen commit copious crimes.

If looks could kill, it’d be a much shorter movie. The unambiguously evil despot Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman. Image courtesy of http://www.ew.com.

And this is what makes troublesome Prince Alcott’s motivation in visiting the kingdom: to explore the prospect of marriage to the much older Queen. He hasn’t come to seek Snow White’s hand; in fact, before they meet at the ball, equally ridiculous dressed as a swan (Snow White) or rabbit (Prince Alcott), the prince seems to have no idea that she has ever existed. This is probably because the Queen has kept her beautiful stepdaughter under lock and key, but that doesn’t answer the question why Prince Alcott would ever be moved to pursue the Queen. Hasn’t he ever heard stories of the horrible treatment she inflicts on her people? Doesn’t he know that she’s bleeding money and wouldn’t have much to offer his country by way of wealth or prestige? Does he just not care about her character because she’s supposed to be the fairest of them all (of course, due to a little magic)? This isn’t the first time Prince Charming has ever come across as superficial, but Tarsem and screenwriters Marc Klein and Jason Keller are dead-set on deconstructing the character as an avatar of masculinity and an expression of women’s wish fulfillment. To his credit, the actor Armie Hammer is pretty game.

For starters, Prince Alcott’s shirtlessness at various points throughout the film offers more than just a little comic relief. His arrogance so inextricably linked to his body, whenever he is half-naked he feels vulnerable and emasculated (hence why he won’t admit that dwarfs overpowered him and stole his clothes). The scene of his meeting the Queen, who’s distracted by his nudity, reminded me of the scene in Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012) wherein the queen and princess look at each other from afar while sizing up the grotesquely muscular would-be suitor standing before their thrones. Similarly, it’s clear from Prince Alcott’s introduction as a beautiful man whose body is on display for each of the warring women (as well as for the audience) that Mirror Mirror aims to turn the fairytale upside down by sexually objectifying the prince. But that’s not the only way the filmmakers degrade the character.

Prince Alcott, as seen from the Queen’s perspective, makes quite an alluring first impression. Image courtesy of http://www.mynewplaidpants.blogspot.com.

As I previously mentioned, Prince Alcott arrives at the Queen’s ball (which itself made me wonder whether the filmmakers were confusing Snow White with Cinderella) outfitted with over-sized bunny ears. The Playboy/Playgirl aesthetic wasn’t lost on me, but his costume serves more to humiliate and endear him to Snow White, who is portentously dressed as a swan (although never an ugly duckling, she’s bound to come into her own as a confident woman). As if this didn’t sufficiently make Prince Alcott feel like a giant ass, the filmmakers’ story calls for further debasement. Midway through the film, the Queen seeks a magic love potion from her twisted psyche, which only manifests in the mirror where she sees a version of herself that as calm, wise, and, notably, unwrinkled. Predictably, things go awry, and Prince Alcott, by now in love with the Snow White who lives with the dwarf robbers, becomes hopelessly enamored of the Queen in the same way that a dog is loyal to his master. For a good fifteen minutes or so, the six-foot-five Hammer gets to act like a tiny lap dog, complete with heavy panting, tongue wagging, and non-diegetic yapping and whimpering sounds. At first annoyed by the mix-up in her plan, the Queen accepts this brand of fealty, memorably shooing him away, out of the castle, with a game of fetch.

The Puppy Love Potion cleverly demonstrates how easily Prince Charming is manipulated according to the Queen’s and Snow White’s individual needs and desires. The Queen just needs him to be present for their wedding, but when news first gets out that Prince Alcott has agreed to marry the Queen, Snow White kidnaps him. Notably, rather than use this language (or even “take hostage”), everyone, including both women, says that “Prince Alcott has been stolen,” thereby suggesting his objectified status as both moneybags and lover. And this is where one of the most perplexing instances takes place in the film’s rewriting of the Brothers Grimm fairytale.

Poor Prince Alcott. Napoleon has at him, but only Snow White has the antidote to the Queen’s Puppy Love Potion.

To break the spell, Snow White and the dwarfs try all manner of things: knocking him on the head, slapping his cheek, tickling his sides, whatever will inflict pain. Mainly, it’s just an excuse for the angry woodsmen to exact revenge on the pompous prince who has constantly belittled them. Eventually, Snow White deduces that a kiss will return him to her. OK. We get it, this Snow White is active and not passive, a sexual being rather than a rape victim (a fairytale situation made even more complex in novelist Julia Leigh’s debut feature from 2011, Sleeping Beauty). Upon hearing that this puckering up will constitute her first kiss, one of the dwarfs, Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), splashes powder on her face, reddens her lips with strawberries (didn’t the fruit make an appearance somewhere in the 1937 animated Disney feature?), and ties up her long black locks. It’s unclear whom this gesture is meant to arouse, because Prince Alcott for all intents and purposes is still a dog tied up in a chair. In fact, this scene is incredibly cringe-inducing because Snow White essentially violates the man, despite his emphatic protestations. So instead of Snow White requiring an unsolicited sexual overture to bring her back to consciousness, in Mirror Mirror she is the sexual predator who gets to act out this fairytale wish on the unconscious man of her dreams. And voilà! It works! This isn’t exactly what I had in mind for subverting the kissyface portion of the fairytale.

Honestly, the filmmakers lay thick throughout the picture how hopelessly smitten with Snow White one of the dwarfs is that I wish their romantic union could have had more of a shot. Sure, all seven of them come to love and respect her. But Half Pint (Mark Povinelli) in particular desires a romantic future with her, about which his family of friends wishes he would stop dreaming. Very tellingly, he’s heartbroken that Snow White chooses Prince Alcott over him, and at the dinner table when they all learn that the prince is to marry the Queen, some of the dwarfs wonder aloud how she could love such a jerk. Recalling Prince Alcott and Snow White’s sword-fighting duel, Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark) says, “But he tried to kill her yesterday” simply because she’s in cahoots with the woodsmen who are the bane of his existence. Napoleon’s reply? “Exactly.” In this way, accepting Prince Alcott’s violent behavior from the day before as indicative of their belonging together makes for a extreme case of gendered playground role playing. Apparently, this is no different than a boy, who likes a girl, pushing her down in the sandbox because expressing interest and concern in girls isn’t manly behavior he wants to replicate in front of everyone. I know that the dwarfs act as a unit and therefore not a single one of them could ever make a play for Snow White’s affection. But imagine a story in which this romantic entanglement does take place. The comedy and/or drama could emerge from the friction between Snow White and the others. They might feel threatened by her presence; she might Yoko the band. And maybe she would have difficulty adjusting to his rustic way of life. Oh, to dream of the movies not yet made.

Snow White and her merry band of misfits. Would-be paramour Half Pint’s to the right of her face, in the red cap. Image courtesy of http://www.teaser-trailer.com.

The dwarfs build a charming collective. Racially diverse, with different interests and opinions, they complicate past representations of the group. They may have strange or slightly offensive names (Butcher? Half Pint? Chuckles? Wolf? Grimm? Grub?), but at least they are portrayed by dwarf actors. The dwarfs of Snow White and the Huntsman, you may recall, were played by such British heavyweights as Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, and others, whose heads were digitally super-imposed on those of dwarf actors. But enough about that; it’s puzzling why in the end the dwarfs throw all of their weight behind Prince Alcott. Touted as his personal army, they never actually fight beside him. Especially since Snow White locks Prince Alcott and her friends inside their hillside hut because, as she says, she wants to rewrite the fairytale ending by not relying on Prince Charming to rescue her from the evil forces of her stepmother. Hilariously, Prince Alcott pleads that she not change the story structure; it’s been “focus-grouped” to death and thus satisfies audiences. If only Snow White had remained so ardently independent through to the end of the picture.

After their “special” kiss, the vengeful Queen arrives in the forest hell-bent on killing them all. She sicks the beast on them, and later, once he has our heroine within his grasp, Snow White understands how the Queen can control him. She uses her father’s dagger to cut off the beast’s half-moon necklace, the exact same style that the Queen wears about her neck. In the slow resolution of this scene, I assumed that the Queen would reveal herself to be the beast, as if all the magic at her disposal has only ever gone toward presenting her in Julia Roberts’s pretty form. Nope. Nothing so cool. Instead, the beast is Snow White’s father, who morphs back into his human self (Sean Bean). He goes on to officiate Snow White and Prince Alcott’s wedding in the next scene. Rather than going on to rule benevolently and independently, as the triumphant Kristen Stewart does in Snow White and the Huntsman, in one fell swoop, Snow White’s relationships with the men in her life are redefined yet again. At once, she is an adult, married woman who has proven herself a brave and capable ruler, as well as a subordinate daughter. When I told my sister how much of a letdown I found this ending to be, she chastised me for wishing the King had stayed dead. “Wouldn’t you rather have your dad than be queen?” she asked. Well, yes, I would, but I wanted Snow White to remain free and powerful!

Finally, the last Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs trope that Mirror Mirror unravels concerns Snow White’s vanquishing of the Queen. The villainess attends the wedding ceremony as a peasant hag and gifts Snow White a poisoned apple. Her voice and cryptic diction give her away, and before Snow White takes a bite, she cuts a slice and offers it to the hag, telling her, “It’s important to know when you’ve been beaten.” That’s the exact phrase the Queen used to silence her stepdaughter early in the film. In this way, Snow White gives the Queen a taste of her own medicine, which this time proves lethal. So ding dong, the witch is dead! As if that wasn’t going to happen. Then the Queen, as narrator of the film-story (from beyond the grave?), concedes that it has been Snow White’s tale all along. Again, tell me something I don’t know.

Long Take: Reaffirming Awkward in 21 Jump Street

Viewed June 26, 2012

Having been too young to watch the Fox TV series 21 Jump Street when it originally aired from 1987 to 1991, I mainly just knew it as the show about young-looking undercover cops that launched Johnny Depp, among other also-rans. That’s probably how most people of my generation (the news media has anointed us “millennials,” a moniker that annoys me to no end) “remember” it. So why not re-package it as a comedy with the up-and-comers Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum? Despite the surprisingly positive reviews 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2012) received upon its release as well as my dad’s oft-repeated requests to see it, I refused to see it in the theater. Honestly, I can’t remember my specific reasons for holding so firm on this point; it was not as if I had wanted to see something else and Dad refused to go. March 2012, unless you are a dedicated follower of all things The Hunger Games, was a bad month for movies.

Why did my father want to see 21 Jump Street so badly? Well, ever since catching Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) on basic cable years ago, he has been obsessed with Jonah Hill’s foul-mouthed performances. That’s right: even with the channel’s edits for language and content, my dad still found the film–and Jonah Hill’s horny teenager–uproariously funny. I joke that he is the only 62-and-a-half-year-old who eagerly anticipates Hill’s films. For example, Dad still wants to see The Sitter (David Gordon Green, 2011), which I have no interest in viewing because of its allegedly racist, homophobic, and sexist sense of humor. It’s also noteworthy that my father’s Jonah Hill fandom does not extend to his more “serious roles.” Dad was disappointed that the comic actor played it “straight” in Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Anyway, we rented 21 Jump Street on DVD as soon as it became available, and we both laughed our asses off. It had been a long time since I had seen a comedy that made me laugh so unabashedly hard (it is quite politically incorrect, you know). Unfortunately, owing to the film’s mixture of genres (more on that in a moment), it loses its steam in the last act, as things become more out of control and ridiculous. Now’s a good time to alert you that, as with pretty much everything I write, I’m going to “spoil” 21 Jump Street.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as rookie cops Schmidt and Jenko, respectively, who, after a botched arrest in a public park, are transferred to a secret unit of the unnamed city’s police force: 21 Jump Street. Operating out of an abandoned church at this address, Captain Dickson (a very flummoxed and funny Ice Cube) leads a team of young-looking cops as they go undercover in local high schools and communities to bust criminals. Dickson, his patience already exhausted, assigns Schmidt and Jenko the case of finding the dealer and infiltrating the supplier of a new LSD-like drug on the campus of a neighborhood high school. The drug’s street name is wholly unimaginative (HFS, as in “holy fucking shit”), but Dickson introduces it to the partners and audience in a novel, synced-in way: through the screening on YouTube of a video in which a teenager documents the various stages of his experience on the drug. Dickson fills in the last bit, which immediately ups the stakes of their mission: the kid in the video whose antics so amused Jenko later overdosed and died.

Schmidt and Jenko were enemies all throughout high school because the former was a geek and the latter the dumb jock who picked on him. They only recently became best friends while at the police academy, in a quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange wherein Schmidt openly admires Jenko’s easy physical dexterity and Jenko respects Schmidt’s study habits. In other words, they decide with a fist bump to “be friends,” recognizing that each other’s strengths will help him improve. Now that they are partners and BFFs, it is with a little trepidation that they re-enter high school. Will everything be the same?

21 Jump Street has been called the male-centric version of Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999), the romantic comedy in which the homely newspaper copyeditor Drew Barrymore gets a chance to prove her worth as an investigative reporter while reliving the horrors of high school. This comparison is superficial and off-base because 21 Jump Street is not as sentimental or nostalgic (the pre-title sequence is the only scene set in the past). Nor does the newer film’s narrative focus on the protagonists’ transformation from unpopular (or in Jenko’s case, popular) to cool (or uncool). Dickson’s stern pointer to the more handsome of the two, Jenko, to keep his dick in his pants and not have “relations” with teachers, staff, or students is a preemptive “shut-up!” to those viewers who have already made the Never Been Kissed connection (because Barrymore and her English teacher, Michael Vartan, find love). But a tiny romance with a student is slotted in for Schmidt, who’s long been petrified of girls, thereby subverting the rule that “nice guys finish last.” Jenko’s desirability is more often commented upon than his own desires are expressed, which perhaps foreshadows Channing Tatum’s unselfconscious turn and public appeal to be a leading man in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012).

In updating the television show for today’s audiences, screenwriter Michael Bacall (who developed the story with its star, Jonah Hill) combines the police procedural format with conventions from the buddy cop genre, “high-concept” action movies, and even high school-set comedies about social hierarchies. This genre mixing suggests that the film’s intended audience is very cine-literate. As a buddy cop movie, 21 Jump Street has less in common with the classics Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) than it has in common with the recent fan-boy favorites Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) and The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010), which are both parodies and legitimate entries of the genre. For the later films speak the same language, positioning their respective “odd couple” policemen of inaction as the triumphant heroes of Michael Bay’s explosion-laden cinema. The early scene in which Schmidt and Jenko pursue drug dealers while on the beat in a public park, the action cut between their frenzied bicycle-riding in close-up, set to a rocking score, and their more languid rolling over the grass in a medium shot (without music), at once expresses the partners’ frustration with their jobs (it is not as heroic as they would wish) and their desires to live in a Michael Bay-type action film. Later in the film, they chase after the same drug dealers, this time on the ramps of a painfully obvious Southern California freeway, commandeering a number of vehicles (including a student driver car with two steering wheels and a baby pink VW bug) and turning their heads at almost every maneuver because they expect their efforts to have resulted in explosions. Whereas the first scene in the park is subtle, this later car chase scene is like a Saturday Night Live skit run amok.

Thankfully, most of 21 Jump Street‘s comedy derives from its deconstruction of high school’s social hierarchies. Other than Never Been Kissed, the film also references such classics as Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) and The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) and even the resplendent TV series created by Paul Feig, Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000). Having been popular back in the day, Jenko advises his partner and friend with a number of key behaviors that will ensure he fits in, chief among them: make fun of people who “try too hard.” When Jenko demonstrates this on their first day, still in the parking lot, he receives a rude awakening. He calls one of the popular kids “gay” for riding a moped, and when accused of gay-bashing, Jenko reacts by punching the kid, who just happens to be gay. Thus the put-upon popular kid and his friends accuse Jenko of hitting him because he is gay, which Jenko of course couldn’t have known. Meanwhile, Schmidt makes the observation that everything that made him uncool in school, such as his cultural sensitivity, staunch environmentalism, and awkward sense of humor, is now in vogue. Things have changed in the less than ten years since they were in high school, and these changes precipitate an identity crisis for each.

21 Jump Street is not exactly like the teen comedies based on Shakespeare’s plays, including Never Been Kissed (As You Like It) and Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew, 1999), but it does use misidentification as a starting point for comic hijinks. Since neither Schmidt nor Jenko studied their fake profiles before enrolling, they fail to identify correctly as their assumed identities in the principal’s office. This means that the dumb hunk Jenko winds up with Schmidt’s class schedule, which is heavy on the sciences (where Dickson thinks the drug’s makers are convening). The shy and awkward Schmidt is saddled with Jenko’s less academically challenging but more artistic and social courses. It’s in his drama class that he becomes close to Molly (Brie Larson), a pretty, funny girl who non-exclusively dates Eric (Dave Franco), the popular kid who took Jenko to task for bullying his gay friend. Not surprisingly, Eric is soon revealed to be the high school’s number one dealer of HFS, thereby requiring Schmidt to get close to him.

Meanwhile, Jenko uses the nerds in his science class to trace Eric’s phone calls on his mobile. He may become friendly with them, inviting the small group to a party that Schmidt hosts at his parents’ house in spite of Dickson’s forceful reminder never to do so (Schmidt has moved back in with his parents along with Jenko to keep up the charade that they are brothers new to the neighborhood). And Jenko may enjoy science more because of their tutelage of him, but of the two, Jenko grows the least as a character. Unlike Schmidt, who must get over his fear of firing his gun (definitely a sexual handicap), Jenko doesn’t have any real challenges. He hardly has low self-esteem, but hearing his best friend make fun of his intelligence with Schmidt’s new-found popular classmates takes its toll on their relationship. In the end, though, Jenko’s fun science experiments with the gang help him stop the drug dealers from getting away. He effectively builds and hurls a bomb, made with alcohol and batteries, at their runaway vehicle. Cue explosion. Schmidt eventually becomes a man of action when, in puerile, penal fashion, he shoots the drug supplier, the jocky Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle), in the crotch. Upon shooting the P.E. teacher and track coach’s dick off, Schmidt announces that Mr. Walters “peaked in high school.” Talk about rewriting the social rules of high school.

But this begs the question: should Schmidt and Jenko have grown more as characters? On the one hand, I think character development would certainly have improved the story. But on the other hand, I appreciate how the filmmakers eschew traditional storytelling methods. As I previously mentioned, Schmidt and Jenko become friends in a flash while at the academy, with the tacit assumption that Jenko had already become less of a jerk in the years they spent apart. This means that the film neither tracks the development of their relationship, from enemies to best friends, nor their own transformations. Perhaps the protagonists’ not having major narrative trajectories is exactly the point. Sure, Schmidt must learn to take risks (it’s part of his job!), and he does. When it comes to women, his becoming popular has little to do with it. Molly doesn’t like him because he hangs out with Eric; she arguably prefers him for his awkward sense of self. They feel a connection because they have a similar sense of humor. As for Jenko, hanging out with science geeks may make him one by association, but he doesn’t metamorphize into a genius. Besides, that’s impossible to convey in fewer than 120 minutes. In this way, they merely grow together from being inept cops to being fully capable of bringing the bad guys to their knees. Ooh, did I just write that in digital ink?

By way of conclusion, here are some odds and ends to 21 Jump Street that I really enjoyed. Hill and Tatum have tremendous chemistry, and Tatum proves he can deftly handle comedy, as when he tries to intimidate one of the drug dealers in the beginning with, “Hey, you want me to beat your dick off?”

As a big fan of the TV series Parks and Recreation (2009-present), I loved seeing Nick Offerman cameo as the deputy police chief who transfers the bumbling idiots to the undercover bureau. His description of the program as a rehashing of the past because the higher ups lack creativity in catching criminals constitutes a witty meta-commentary on the business of filmmaking today, what with the prevalence of sequels and reboots.

Furthermore, the characterizations of the adults at the school (weirdly named Sagan High… after Carl Sagan?) are clearly meant to make fun of archetypal teachers and principals who are ignorant of their students’ problems. For example, Principal Dadier (Jake Johnson from New Girl) and drama teacher Mr. Gordon (Chris Parnell) regularly say that they should care more about their students than they do. Mr. Walters, the creep that he is, had to have been a douche bag when he was in school because he simply never left. Perhaps the funniest situation arises because Jenko’s science teacher (Ellie Kemper) is overly flirtatious. She is physically conflicted over her desire for Jenko, both making her body available for ogling and saying she just can’t entertain the thought of crossing the line between teacher and student. The good news is that Jenko never takes advantage of her or any other woman who flings herself at him.

On the downside, the filmmakers waste that well-hidden cameo by Johnny Depp. At the end of the film, his Tom Hanson from the original series, along with partner Doug Penhall (Peter DeLuise), appears as an undercover cop who has lived with the drug dealing gang for years, going so far as to get tattoos and wear prosthetic makeup around the clock. When a gunfight breaks out between Schmidt and Jenko and the drug dealers, Hanson and his partner are caught in the cross-hairs and die gruesomely after professing their love for each other. This being a Jonah Hill movie, of course there is bromance. But doing away with these characters in this manner seems insensitive and outlandish. But what really explains this maneuver? Maybe the filmmakers weren’t expecting any fans of the original show to see the movie.

Long Take: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Is Not Worth Playing

Viewed June 25, 2012

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest literary creation, the private detective Sherlock Holmes, is everywhere these days. If he’s not appearing in the over-hyped BBC series Sherlock (2010-present) as a fast-talking, tech-savvy eccentric with a Dr. Watson who’s a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the war in Afghanistan, then he’s gearing up for a fall CBS show, Elementary (from 2012), where his sidekick will be a woman. Coincidentally, the star of the former program is Benedict Cumberbatch, who co-starred last year in director Danny Boyle’s innovative stage-play Frankenstein for the National Theatre with Elementary‘s lead Jonny Lee Miller. But Warner Bros. has pumped the most money, special effects, and star power into their Sherlock Holmes-as-action-hero franchise, and the sequel to the 2009 revisionist adaptation, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, 2011), is boring and tedious. As always, spoilers follow.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson, respectively, in order to foil the criminal mastermind James Moriarty’s (Jared Harris) plot to instigate and manipulate a world war through the purchase and control of several industries, including the manufacture of machine guns. Downey and Law have a lot of chemistry, because after all it is a bromance. To my mind, the homo-eroticism is more pronounced in A Game of Shadows than in the first film, what with Holmes, disguised as a woman, surreptitiously joining Watson on his honeymoon with the long-suffering Mary (Kelly Reilly). (You’ve seen this sight gag in the trailer.) Of course, Holmes cites Moriarty’s vow to kill Mary and the only person Holmes cares about for the reason that he just had to crash the couple’s much needed alone-time. That, and stopping Moriarty from succeeding in carrying out his plan is simply more important. Holmes perfectly times the moment he pushes Mary off the train so that she lands in the river below the bridge, where his brother Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), making his first appearance in the series, can safely retrieve her. Talk about bride flight.

There is no room in this (b)romance for Mary, but at least Ritchie and his married screenwriters Kiernan and Michele Mulroney write this subtext into Holmes’s and Watson’s dialogue. Watson eventually accepts Holmes’s melodramatic gestures, once he realizes that his and Mary’s assassins are on the train, blowing holes through the walls in pursuit of their prey. Crucially, however, he expels pent-up rage at his best friend, who clasps Watson’s head between his thighs. Remember, Holmes is wearing a dress. Ordinarily I would shriek with delight at this juxtaposition, but the nudge-nudging here is bruising.

On closer inspection, you can see that women just have no place in this world. Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Holmes’s iconic love interest and intellectual sparring partner, resurfaces after her disappearance in the first film, only to fall victim to her employer’s schemes within the first ten minutes or so. (I forgot about that; I guess Moriarty wants to get rid of two people Holmes cares about.) It may be a byproduct of McAdams having so little time on screen, but she and Downey have nowhere near as sparkling a chemistry as Downey and Law do. And that is the point. Other than Mary, the only other Englishwoman to grace us with her presence is Holmes’s daft landlady Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James), who has a brief stint at 221B Baker Street before the real action begins. The scene in which the dandy Mycroft, who is someone indispensable to the British government but without a clearly defined role within it, walks around his house buck-naked, ordering his decrepit butler around and informing Mary of her husband’s whereabouts (received via telegram) despite her discomfort with his nudity, makes it very clear that the boys have a lot more fun without any girls around.

Even Holmes and Watson’s new partner in crime (fighting), the gypsy fortune teller Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace in her first English-language role), hardly gets any play. From the moment of her introduction (Holmes winds up saving her from an assassination attempt before she goes underground in France, where he and Watson later track her down), her part is marginalized. Though she treks all the way to Switzerland with the pair for the climactic event, you barely know she’s there. The guys ostensibly keep her around because she will lead them to her brother, Rene, a member of a revolutionary group that she was once a part of and which Moriarty now controls. Madam Simza coaches them on how to dress less conspicuously as they cross national borders, assists Watson in literally bringing Holmes back to life after Moriarty captured and hung him up by a hook in his shoulder, and identifies Rene at the international summit in Switzerland despite his extreme cosmetic surgery. (I didn’t tell you that this movie is ridiculous?) Since she spends most of her time with Watson, she cannot be a romantic interest for either of the men. While this is refreshing (for once, a woman doesn’t exist in a “manly” action film for the sole purpose of affirming the hero’s masculinity), I’m afraid the screenwriters Mulroney just don’t know what to do with her. Hell, even after the smoke has cleared in the end, there is no follow-up with Madam Simza.

Back in 2009, Sherlock Holmes was billed as an inventive rehashing of a familiar story. For in it, Holmes is literally a man of action, not some aloof intellectual. He’s “edgy,” participating in bare-knuckle fights. It was during this film that audiences first witnessed “Holmesavision,” his deconstruction of hand-to-hand combat, narrated in voice-over so as to grant viewers access to his mind, to his ingenious plans for how to tackle each of his opponents (“Holmesavision” is actually the name of a featurette on the sequel’s DVD about this very storytelling device). Unfortunately, I cannot share in the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for this kind of indulgence. It is tedious and boring how we’re made privy to his particular, slowed-down way of seeing the physical threat before him and then subjected to watching him carry it out in real time. In later scenes, such as when Holmes, Watson, and Madam Simza are running through the forest with Moriarty’s henchman hot on their tail and blazing bullets, the action slows again. Why are people constantly trying to adapt The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999)? Doesn’t it strike anyone else as passe?

Admittedly, I am biased against action movies. This is why I find the narrative emphasis on Holmes’s fighting ability, at the expense of showcasing his intellectual prowess and highly evolved deductive reasoning skills, so disheartening. As much as I find Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock grating, pompous, and too slick for its own good, I can concede that at least the show’s makers get Holmes’s astounding puzzle-solving skills right; his “Holmesavision” zeros in on the teeny tiny details others can’t see because they don’t know where to look. His view of the world is grounded in logic, or at least the logic of his own universe. Thus, when in the end of A Game of Shadows, Holmes defeats Moriarty in Switzerland over a game of chess and reveals how he uncovered his arch-nemesis’s plan to destroy the world, at the same time explaining all to the audience, the fun of watching a brilliant mind at work is already spent. Quite literally. He connected all the dots beforehand, never even letting on to his companions that he has already figured everything out and planned ahead, sending word to Mary in London in order to ensure the public discredits the mild-mannered and secretly evil Professor Moriarty. Well, gee, Mr. Holmes, I’m sure glad you brought me along for this crazy ride. This makes Holmes no different from the hero of other it’s-the-end-of-a-major-plot-to-destroy-the-world movies and almost diametrically opposed to the Holmes that has fascinated us so for 125 years. I’m all for reinvention, but this tactic is just uninspired.

Although the story of A Game of Shadows itself is original, I believe, the ending–in which Holmes and Moriarty fall to their death at the Reichenbach Falls, conveniently located across from Moriarty’s balcony–is drawn from Conan Doyle’s 1891 attempt to kill off his hero. According to Wikipedia, the fans weren’t having it, and so the author was goaded into bringing back Sherlock in a series of prequels. The point is, this is how Holmes dies. Like Sherlock‘s final episode of the second season, titled “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which Watson also witnesses his BFF’s death (Moriarty kills himself instead), Holmes later appears in a cliffhanger. Whereas in Sherlock, he watches from afar as Watson grieves over his grave, in A Game of Shadows, he disguises himself as an armchair in Watson’s study, right before his eyes if only Watson knew to look. Warner Bros. preemptively assumes that audiences want more of this Holmes character, and the studio would do well enough to leave him alone. Trompe-l’œil, indeed.