Saturday, December 20, 2008

Making it new

I always enjoyed the Narnia books when I was a kid and still like to pick them up now; even though I know they're not by any stretch of the imagination Literature with a capital L like you can claim for Tolkien, they have a lot of great description and imaginative characters and places.

I finally got to see Prince Caspian, which I missed in the movie theaters. Fun, though definitely could have used some editing. An entire battle was added, and the themes of teenage frustration with not growing up fast enough were pretty heavily emphasized. Makes sense; I never thought too much about how jarring it would be for these kids to travel back and forth from WWII and post-WWII England to a lovely fantasy world at the drop of a hat. For the religious parable audience, the frustration with a seemingly uncaring and unhearing deity was also a key theme.

As I may have said somewhere before, clearly the children of England all were inspired to take up drama training after Harry Potter and just in time for the Narnia films, because any one of these four could out-act the whole Harry Potter trio at, well, the drop of a hat. The youngest actress (Lucy), who was so delightful and natural in the first film, was straining a bit hard here, but still quite good; ditto for Peter, but Susan and Edmund made the most of their rather un-emphasized characters.

I still want to know what's going to happen if they go on and make this whole franchise, because Narnia's enemies in two time periods are, essentially, Arabs. They're called "Calormenes," but they wear turbans, they're dark, they talk like the Arabian Nights about gardens of delights and so forth, they trade in slaves, they're courteous but cruel, they're treacherous, their women are veiled... you get the idea. They appear briefly in the film under production now, so their appearance or lack thereof might give us a hint as to how it'll be done. I sincerely hope it'll be superior to Peter Jackson's handling of the enemies in Lord of the Rings, who might as well have been bearing flashing signs saying "Dangerous Eastern Peoples."

And finally, what will happen to Susan? Bowing to modern sensibilities and the demand for Girl Power, Susan takes heavy part in the battles here, and Lucy is of course more active in the next film. But in the books, Susan, out of the four, turns her back on Narnia for silk stockings and parties and lipsticks. Will it be blamed on her anger at being shoved around and taken away from her incipient romance with Prince Caspian (in the film, not the books)? Or will they bow to happy endings and include her in the last film? I don't even know what I would like best -- perhaps leaving her out but showing her repenting and thinking of Narnia in England as a closing scene. Lewis was not exactly comfortable with women in his own life, certainly not femininity as such, and it shows badly. I hope it can be improved.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The old dilemma

Art vs. money, or as JRR Tolkien phrased it, cash or kudos. Charles Isherwood has written a great critique of Billy Elliot the musical, now on Broadway. If you don't know, this has music by Elton John, was/is a smash hit in London and now ditto in NYC. But Isherwood beautifully sums up the inevitable artistic flaws of a Big Broadway Piece that simply can't resist giving the audience what it expects. If I ever get to teach on Broadway musicals, as I would very much like to, this will be required reading.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Late-night no more

You all know that I love my late-night TV. What better way to wind down the work day than with the six million internet errands and emails I have to take care of while (hopefully) interesting people talk and play music? Being in Central Time, late-night TV starts at 10pm with Jon Stewart. Imagine my surprise, then, to see that NBC is going to retain Jay Leno by giving him an hourlong weeknight show at 10pm (EST).

I always thought that NBC was nuts for retaining Conan by promising him the Tonight Show without OKing it with Jay. I simply couldn't see what they were going to do with him. This is seen as a cost-saving measure, since his show will cost so much less than an hourlong drama and fill up five days to boot. The exact format will be worked out in the three months that he will take to format the new show, incidentally retaining his studio, though not the Tonight Show name. Sorry, Conan, there goes part of your historical cachet. (God only knows what Conan, who is characterized as fiercely competitive, thinks of all this -- I remember reading that he hit the roof when Stewart was raking up the Emmys a few years ago, considering the hours that he fills up while Stewart does a half-hour show fewer days per week, fewer weeks per year. Can't imagine he's delighted to have someone crashing his party).

I'm also shocked at Leno's workaholicness. Any other person might want to take some time to travel, or at least I personally would have bargained for Fridays off like Stewart/Colbert, and less weeks of work (46 weeks, according to the heavily leaked bargain). I guess he really does love what he does.

This is probably the only way a show like this can break into prime-time: an established name with the connections to bring in other established names (assuming that he continues to interview) and the heft to lean on NBC brass to keep going if the show doesn't take off like a rocket in the first few weeks. All I can say is, if Jimmy Fallon was hoping for any real buzz around his Conan replacement debut, I think it's just officially been killed.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Jay Leno loves it!

And so will you. Frost/Nixon is out, everybody! Look for it at a theater near you. Seriously, run, don't walk.

I wrote about this film when it was in the works, after watching it twice on Broadway, and I've been eagerly awaiting its advent. Unkind as I was to Ron Howard previously, I will say that if he does as good a job as he did in Apollo 13, it'll be a fantastic movie. On the other hand, I then read the NY Times review of the movie, and Manola Dargis, who seems to have liked the film, said this:

Mr. Howard, a competent craftsman who tends to dim the lights in his movies even while brightening their themes (“A Beautiful Mind”), has neither the skill nor the will to draw out a dangerous performance from Mr. Langella, something to make your skin crawl or heart leap.

I fear that she's right about Howard's competency. On the other hand, I don't know that I would blame this entirely on Howard; Nixon's irrepressibly comic in the play, and apparently was just an insanely weird figure in real life. I don't know that he is a skin-crawling character if he's done true to the record. That doesn't take away from the fact that Morgan and Langella's Nixon is a titanically flawed figure, tragic in his machinations and his self-awareness. Poor doomed-to-be-overshadowed Michael Sheen is equally an amazing David Frost, living life on the surface but well aware of the depths that await him if he can't blend journalism and entertainment.

Can't wait, can't wait, can't wait. I will no doubt go on at length about key differences between the play and film when I see it. There were some very interesting staging techniques that can't possibly be reproduced on film, so I'll be interested to see what they did instead.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I did, I did as I promised and went to see Australia in the theater. And in spite of its beautiful landscapes, its Baz Luhrmann zany bits that didn't work so well, its racial politics with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, an impossibly evil villain, a darling, earnest child actor, an impossibly slender and frozen-faced Nicole Kidman, and an impossibly hot Hugh Jackman, I think I've already forgotten it.