Monday, November 29, 2004

Unmet Expectations

Great Expectations (1998). Dir. Alfonso Cuaron. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro, Josh Mostel, Kim Dickens.

In a this modernized form of Charles Dickens' literary masterpiece, the cast and crew of Great Expectations blend together the emotions of Dickens' protagonist with twentieth-century tale of lust, riches, and Mob influences. Though Dickens' own concepts are drawn out from time to time as the film progresses, young Finn (Hawke) moves through the movie set adrift without the comfort of many of the supporting literary chracters.

Cuaron focuses mainly on the relationship between Finn and Estella (Paltrow), beginning with their enforced acquaintance in a fancy house on the gulf coast of Florida and continuing on through their adolescence and early adulthood, when they find one another in New York city and continue their tagle of uncertainty, intrigue, temptation, and desire. Paltrow's Estella is seductive and not unlovely, but lacking some of the iciness commonly associated with her character.

Artistically, the film is sleek and polished. Its abrupt and rougher moments are intentional, and Cuaron obviously designed the scenes to parallel Finn's emotions. Although a little time is given to Uncle Joe (Cooper) and Ms. Dinsmoor (Bancroft), they serve as tangential characters, appearing only when necessary to Finn's story and with very little development. The suspense is well plotted, and the often lighthearted soundtrack paralleled the tones of the film very well. The unnecessary language and sexuality was unnecessary; although Estella's first nude scene was well crafted and sensually shot, a similar feel could have been accomplished far less crudely. Similarly, the swear words of the convict served to set him apart effectively only until all the other characters began to exhibit similar vocabulary and traits, at which point the use of language became meaningless.

Overall, the film is well written although it serves as a miserable excuse for the novel on which it was founded. Just enough of the original was kept to leave well-read viewers frustrated by the bastardizations. The high point of the film comes as Estella makes a surprisingly Dickens-esque speech to Finn, describing her upbringing and training to Finn as the Estella of the novel does to Dickens' Miss Havisham, but aside from this one scene and Finn's development as a whole, Cuaron's Great Expectations is a shoddy representation of a beautiful novel. He would have been far better off with an original and less-adapted script.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Orange you glad I didn't say "Oozhassny"?

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Norton, 1967 (1963).

Alex is a young man of the streets in Anthony Burgess' futuristic world of violence and desecration. His nocturnal hobbies include theft, beatings, rape, and the occasional murder, and in the daytime he spends his hours cutting school to listen to the works of Beethoven, Bach, or Handel. A Clockwork Orange begins at a time when the Alex of the night is kept separate from the Alex of the music, and progresses onwards as Alex is arrested, imprisoned, and subsequently reformed into a model citizen, as his two sides suddenly collide in a cacophony of misery for Alex, to whom all that once seemed beautiful becomes abhorrent. At once, Alex finds himself hating those things he loves best.

Several editions of this novel, apparently, have been published without the final chapter, simply to make the book less optimistic. Burgess in his introduction explains that the story is worthless without its conclusion, which shows the power of the human's will to choose. Morality in A Clockwork Orange becomes meaningless unless it comes from one's will. The final chapter, then, exhibits Alex's choice in a way that gives purpose to the rest of the book, as once again the Alex of the night and the Alex of the music are separated, although in this second instance, Alex's two personae struggle to coexist in a way that one would not have expected in earlier chapters.

A Clockwork Orange is surprisingly self-aware of itself on multiple levels; both Alex in his narrations and Burgess in his coincidences seem determined to make the reader aware of the media as well as the story, perhaps because of their point. Burgess is correct; the book is pointless without its conclusion. Although it deals with some harsh subjects, A Clockwork Orange asks some fundamental human questions, and even takes a step towards answering a few of these, in bold and daring black and white.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Mr. Duncan's Fine Opus

Mr. Holland's Opus. 2005. Dir. Stephen Herek. Perf. Richard Dreyfuss, Glenne Headly, Jay Thomas, Olympia Dukakis , William H. Macy, Alicia Witt, Terrence Dashon Howard, Damon Whitaker, Jean Louisa Kelly.

Mr. Holland (Dreyfuss) is a musician who dreams of composing. His house is littered with staff paper and random musical scribbles, and his wife, pretty and relatively charming, fully intends to support him as best she can. Holland takes a job as a music teacher at a local high school, intending to save for a few years and then write full-time. Fate, however, intervenes. Soon, the young couple are moving into their first house and expecting a young son. Baby Cole is raised on music from conception until the day when he is pronounced dear. Holland withdraws into his school and his music, while his wife desperately struggles to balance the two egos in her household.

As might be expected, the film incorporates a great deal of music, both classical and popular, into its soundtrack, creating a charming blend of haunting melodies, familiar classical pieces, and rock standards. The cinematography is subtle, as the director apparently chose to focus more on the phenomenal story of a man learning to love his work, his family, and his life than on camera angles and cheap tricks, and the result is supremely satisfying. Duncan's story eases from sentimentality into humanity, bringing to the screen a strong script and the actors to carry it through, both verbally and in sign language.

The film is sentimental. It has a point to make, it tries to make the viewer feel Mr. Holland's struggles, and it occasionally takes sentiment or scenes a trifle too far past reality. Even without its emotional moments, however, it provides a clean, family film with some clear values and the theme of changing lives. Not bad for Hollywood.