2012 Battle of the Nutcrackers

Last year I took inspiration from Ovation TV’s annual Battle of the Nutcrackers for a post on a cinematic version thereof. This year I decided to be a bit more literal about it.

While I’ve known of this programming block for years, and it’s served as background, or the occasional distraction during past year-end dashes, I have never seen enough of each selection to vote. This year I wanted to do so.

Now, clearly I will look for a cinematic treatment in a selection, but it does come down to the ballet. While I, through my production company, sponsor a competition, I can claim no expertise but I know what I like and know this story extremely well.

I could give this an over-analytical approach as I tend to compartmentalize and choose which one has the best in the following general categories: libretto, choreography, blocking, set design and depth thereof, filmic treatment, casting, then with show specifics: Russian Dance, Arabian Dance, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; Look of the Nutcracker and Rats/Rat King; Tree, prince casting, the snowfall; and I just might next year, but this year I wanted to just give overall impressions and why I picked what I picked.

The Australian Ballet’s rendition of an alternate take called Clara’s Story is the better of the two non-traditional selections and the most cinematically rendered. The Casting of the San Francisco Ballet may be the best.

However, the best overall production in my mind, which did have its visual allure, is the Mariinsky production. The color palette is spectacular. The first half usually makes or breaks a production, the second is the tiebreaker. The consistency of costuming and color selections ties together the seemingly disconnected pieces of this tale. Also, lending to this cohesion is that some part of the town set is always visible. The execution of the individual dances is consistently excellent. Even though there is a lot of the musical conductor it is visually intriguing because of the occasional interesting shot or movement, the sets and costumes.

Overall, it was fascinating to view each of these unique productions, to compare and contrast. It’s a story I know well and enjoy, I could’ve easily voted for quite a few versions. The winner of the vote airs on Christmas Eve at 8PM EST. A marathon of encores airs all day on Christmas Day. For channels and schedules visit Ovation’s site.

Cinematic Battle of the Nutcrackers

Every year for the past 5 years Ovation TV has a Battle of the Nutcracker’s wherein they play 5 different versions (rotating some out annually) of the ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s most renowned work. While I definitely qualify myself as an enthusiast rather than a savant of dance, this is a piece I know well enough such that I find it interesting to watch the different versions and pick a favorite.

Now within the ballet there are many variations for while Tchaikovsky’s music is the standard each choreographer has their signature while it was Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov who originally choreographed it, it’s perhaps Balanchine’s that’s most well known.

What’s most interesting to me about this “competition” where the viewers are invited to vote for their favorites is that it gets me thinking about adaptation. One could do quite a lengthy case study on The Nutcracker alone. While there are many either “filmed ballets” or cinematic versions based on Tchaikovsky there are many based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Just the fact that you have these two available sources available to freely adapt makes this quite a notable story.

However, a narrative as flexible as this wouldn’t suffice for a post for one could argue that “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft are more malleable pieces of fiction based on the films they’ve spurned. What makes The Nutcracker a unique tale, is not only the fact that I personally would put it on a list of ‘The Great Stories’ meaning classic narratives I could watch re-interpreted any number of ways but also the fact that it does have two potential origins as a source material either in literature or in dance.

In honor of this great story and the novel idea by Ovation I thought it’d be good to have some suggested Nutcracker-related film viewing for the holiday season.

Here are perhaps the three most well-known (the ones I’ve seen) cinematic versions to get you started.

The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)

The Nutcracker in 3D (2009, Freestyle Releasing)

During its all too brief cinematic run it was referred to as The Nutcracker in 3D. Now with 3D being the cinematic boogeyman du jour home video is the way to check this film out. I won’t give too much away but this version is most definitely different and based on the story rather than the ballet. This allows the storytellers to have a lot of latitude and there are few if any safe decisions and this film will likely cause divisive reactions all around. Partially musical and very allegorical it’s a film that refuses to be ignored. It also features Elle Fanning (Super 8, We Bought a Zoo) and Charlie Rowe (Neverland).

Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (Disney)

If you’re one who prefers your references and adaptations a bit more oblique then you need look no further than Disney’s pet project Fantasia. Along with many numbers from The Nutcracker you will of course see interpretations of may other classical pieces. This film is definitely all about Tchaikovsky’s music rather than the ballet though there is dancing too as you may well know.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993)

Macaulay Culkin and Jessica Lynn Cohen in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (Warner Bros.)

This was the first place I was able to complete viewing the complete story of The Nutcracker ballet. My first attempt to view it live at Lincoln Center was interrupted halfway through. There are a few things that are interesting about this film not the least of which is that you have within it an encapsulation of George Balanchine’s choreography. You also have the fine narration of Kevin Kline. However, of course, what most will note is that it features Macaulay Culkin in the lead. The only major alteration is that the choreography, which for the nephew/nutcracker is rather minimal is diminished further here. While some may not even know this film even exists you might be further surprised to learn that this film is really perhaps the biggest power play Kit Culkin, Macaulay’s father and perhaps the most notorious stage parent in modern times, ever pulled off. Macaulay’s participation in The Nutcracker was really a case of living vicariously through your child. Though he speaks of it earnestly now of his distaste for the project it really doesn’t translate very much on film. Furthermore, Kit tried to influence the final cut of the film removing said narration and when it wouldn’t happen Culkin didn’t publicize the film so it was another Nutcracker box office bomb.

The Ovation block certainly made me want to look for other versions on film and I hope you enjoy these as well as seeking out others.

O Canada Blogathon: Brendan Meyer, Part One (Early Roles)

Introduction

I had participated in both prior editions of the O Canada Blogathon, however, after I read the parameters anew and I was glad I did. I already wanted to profile a person but the freedom to make my focus a modern figure including TV and film made the decision easy.

Picking a performer allowed me to slip into an old viewing habit anew, watching things based on an actor involved; it also gave me the chance to feature someone whose work I am quite familiar with, and who should be more well-known. And I love trying to bring films and performers to a larger audience.

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The OA (Netflix)

If you’re addicted to Netflix it’s possible you know Brendan from The OA, which just came out in November. However, I’ve been familiar with his work since Disney X.D. picked up Mr. Young from YTV. Since then he’s evolved from the lead in a sitcom aimed at young audiences, to someone whose involvement leads to a project’s ascent to automatic betterment, to a BAM Award nominee for his performance in The Guest; to a consummate performer who is ever deepening his ease, skill-set and mastery of the craft of acting. Potential is quickly becoming potency, as at the age of 22, he can still play far younger  with the commensurate ability of someone with both extensive training and experience.

As such, it seems likely we’re only witness to the tip of the iceberg and his talents will shine forth even brighter as his characters become even deeper, richer, and more complex.

Brendan was gracious enough to grant me an interview, which I’ll incorporate throughout as appropriate. As I was deciding how to tackle his precociously expansive filmography, I figured the best way to approach things would be with a pseudo-Inside the Actors Studio look at his works to date. If the first eleven-plus years of his work are any indicator he will get to be on the real deal at some point in the future. As there are already a great many credits to discuss, I will split this post into three parts.

Here goes…

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The Movie Rat: How did you get started in acting?

Brendan Meyer: I was always interested in being an actor. So, when I was young my parents took me to the theatre and let me do acting classes during my free time. It started out as a hobby, and then grew into a full time job.

The evolution from hobby to job is evident as you look at credits closely, many of his earliest screen credits were filmed in Alberta near enough to his native Edmonton making participation in those projects more convenient for he and his family. Brendan’s natural talents landed him the roles and he started amassing experience.

Waking Up Wally: The Walter Gretzky Story (2005)

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When I saw that Brendan played “Goalie” in this film, I thought perhaps all he was but a pee wee goalie who flopped about as Young Wayne Gretzky scored a goal. However, I was pleasantly surprised, that even in his first film role, he was one of the featured youth players.

Wayne Gretzky’s father, Walter (Tom McCamus), on the mend from an aneurysm, is coaching a pee wee teaming having an episode, barely hearing the chatter as he’s asked by many players, Brendan included, “What’s the starting line-up?” the players debate and Brendan the goalie says “It’s Wally’s call! Right, Wally?”

In the game he has a huge moment making a spectacular edit-assisted save on a breakaway chance. Upon arriving at the bench he celebrates with a huge smile stating “That was the best save I ever made!” and punctuates an all-around feel good moment quite well.

The Secret of the Nutcracker (2007)

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If you’ve seen my Battle of the Nutcrackers post, you know I don’t tire of new versions of The Nutcracker. Learning that he’d been in a unique film version that the Alberta Ballet and Alberta Symphony Orchestra were involved in and got Brian Cox to be in, it’d have to be one of my first viewings.

It is definitely more film than ballet, however, as opposed to the ballet where Frank’s analogue (Fritz) drops out after the first act, he has to carry much of the action as part of a brother-sister team and does so effectively.

Blood Ties (2007)

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This appearance as a guest star on a TV episode aside from leaving a cliffhanger that was never fulfilled by his character recurring, but it serves as an exercise in single-camera film acting technique. He doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue but has to rely on his glances, context, and expression to convey emotions and does so.

DinoSapien (2007)

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One theme that came up based on Brendan’s works was science, and based on the anti-science climate propped up by some, I could not be happier.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I saw myself in the likes of the dinosaur-knowledgeable kids in Jurassic World and Jurassic Park, and that’s Brendan in this series with a boisterous enthusiasm for the subject matter and a natural ability. His performance plays second fiddle only to the concept of intelligent, evolved dinosaurs. It’s an idea that could’ve been further developed and explored with more seasons and budget.

Freezer Burn: The Invasion of Laxdale (2008)

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The stock phrase goes that there are no small parts only small actors. However, when a role is small and your few moments are memorable that does help. One example of that is this film wherein Brendan’s first line of three is “My dad says you’re a loser!” immediately followed by punching the protagonist (Tom Green) in the genitals.

Christmas in Canaan (2009)

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One thing that has to be acknowledged is that there is a sort of enlightenment going on both with young actors, who are persistently improving and directors and dialect coaches are more willing to work with them. Kodi Smit-McPhee mentioned how he learned the American dialect at a young age from a coach and never really forgot. Many other Australian and British actors are in the same boat. So, it really shouldn’t really have surprised me that Brendan showed up in this film with a slow Southern drawl that blends seamlessly. It certainly added impact to another brief appearance.

The Tooth Fairy (2010)

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One dichotomy of type that’s difficult play is both bully and bullied. Brendan has been able to do both successfully. His first turn at either was in The Tooth Fairy. He was bigger and more imposing than the lead, Chase Ellison, at the time but also plays the part well aside from suiting it.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Dead Body (2010)

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I wrote of The Haunting Hour before in one of my rare to-date cinematic episode pieces. Here is something of what I said regarding this episode:

It uses a cinematic settling-in-of-fact to take the journey of discovery along with its protagonist (Brendan Meyer) and, though the audience may jump ahead of the conclusion, the impact is heightened because of the fact that for the last few minutes you’re allowed to feel the enormity of the reversal of fortune sink in for the characters involved as well as for yourself.

This is an example of a story wherein his character is typically bullied and gets a taste of bullying. Not only can he do both, but he can do both in the same work, which comes up again later.

Following up on the above quote though the end was one of the standout moment for Brendan as his moment of realization is compounded and chilling.

Note: There was a sequel to this episode in 2013.  Sadly, it has not been released on digital or physical media yet, so I couldn’t include it here. 

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: Creature Feature, Part 1 and Creature Feature, Part 2 (2011)

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Brendan’s second tour of duty on The Haunting Hour was in a two-part spectacular that kicked off season two. Perhaps the most interesting part about it structurally is that Brendan’s character,  Nathan, goes from supporting player to protagonist. This is even more fitting because his character is an average kid striving for the cool girl while also trying to appease his geeky friend (Joel Courtney).

While in the first episode his best moment is a dramatized topping exercise with Courtney, in the second episode he is properly and naturally cut-off mid-sentence (a feat more difficult than it sounds), uses effective non-verbal responses, and exceptionally conveys the bittersweetness of the closing phone call.

Segue

The Haunting Hour episodes were the first things I saw Brendan in. I am not sure I recognized him from one season to the next. At most, it would’ve been as one of those actors who came back to the show a few times over.

Soon, however, he’d be a name I knew well.

To Be Continued… 

Tomorrow’s Post: Part Two, Who You Calling Kid?

MR YOUNG

 

Cinematic Episodes: The Secrets of Barslet

Cinematic Episodes is another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

One of the recent changes to the landscape of television here in the US is that in the gradual shift from the immovable regimented season structure there has also come a redefining of what a season is. Sure, if you follow entertainment outlets you’ll note that the major networks have recently concluded seasons and have announced what has survived to return in the fall and what pilots will be picked up. There is still that traditional structure, however, there is a greater flexibility to it all now than there ever was. There are shows, mostly of the non-scripted variety that start up in the summer; other’s are slated as mid-season replacements. Whereas during the first Golden Age of television seasons would run in excess of 35 episodes; even the now more common 22-episode season is not necessarily the norm.

The flexible nature of the length of a season or even a series, as opposed to the old mini-series mold, allows for more cinematic storytelling. In some ways this is a trend that has been adopted by US networks, both premium and not, from foreign TV Markets. And, yes, clearly there is a financial incentive to making smaller commitments, but there is also an artistically liberating aspect to this all as well.

One of the best examples of the narrative benefits of a limited TV run can be seen on the Dutch-produced The Secrets of Barslet. This was a show that aired 2012 and was comprised of merely seven episodes. However, for the story being told that was precisely as long as it needed to go. One of the things people can hold against television is that the brass ring is renewal even at the cost of the quality of the product on screen. This and many other foreign series never run into that issue because there is an emphasis, it would seem, on engaging an audience for the run of a show and trying to bring them back for another, as opposed to trying to “squat” on their devotion even as the product they used to love descends into tedium.

The Secrets of Barslet is a story that unfolds over the course of seven episodes. Each episode tells the story from the perspective of one of the central characters in the tale. As each perspective is taken into account blanks are filled in and previously unexplained or misunderstood mysteries are brought into sharper focus.

There are inevitably through the course of this series incidents that are examined from various angles, both figuratively and literally. Such that the program develops its own shorthand to quickly re-include previously seen scenes so that their place in chronology and the impact to that particular character is instantly made clear.

This structure of seven episodes of roundabout an hour of content is not unlike what Bela Tarr did with Satantango, in strictly structural terms only. In that film the structure is not unlike the steps of a tango such that the story will backslide chronologically when dealing with a new character. Here there are backslides, multiple dovetails and then each episode (for the most part) pushes things forward. So that the number is similar, as well as the character-based approach to the narrative. In terms of the aesthetics of the frame and the edit there are obvious differences.

Oddly enough, Tarr’s long-take ballet of the camera is, even with a necessary intermission, at its seven-plus hour length is a cumulative, more cinema-friendly experience. When I first viewed it I had it on VHS and watched it on four consecutive nights. When I acquired it on DVD I watched in one day and the experience, though harder to schedule was more complete and moving. The Secrets of Barslet not just with its mysteries but with its addictive nature is perfectly realized as a television show. You finish a chapter and you immediately want to proceed and are forced to wait until you can see the next one.

Another similarity it has Satantango is that there are some small mysteries this show feels no need to explain furthermore its not interested in the banal histrionics of having everyone understand everything in the end. True to its format of limited omniscience it allows the viewer to see the whole truth while the characters remain fairly myopic. The Secrets of Barslet is the epitome of a modern cinematic television series not just because of its aesthetic, or the way it cuts but because of its narrative sophistication.

Make Your Own Film Festival: Macaulay Culkin

Introduction

I’ve been planning this post for a while. It’s been put off a few times due to timing. I, unlike many, am not interested in poaching traffic when the tabloids create a story based on the latest candid shot of Culkin replete with speculation on his health, state-of-mind and the like. Therefore, the only logical date upon which to post such a festival/retrospective list would be on his birthday.

One reason Culkin’s birthday always stuck in my head is because he’s precisely 366 days older than I am. So aside from being the matinee idol of my generation, I always felt a certain kinship due in part to that fact.

In assembling this list, or a list of any actor’s work, there will be hits-and-misses, the order of this list is based on a combination of the the quality of the film and the quality of his performance.

Without further ado the list. Happy viewing, and happy birthday, Macaulay!

10. Saved! (2004)

Saved! (2004, United Artists)

I had no issue with the intent of the satire, but it just didn’t work for me; it’s been done so you better be damn good at it and it wasn’t . It wasn’t righteous indignation so much as self-righteous indignation. It was good to see Macaulay with a cast of his peers for a change, it just seemed like stretching for stretching’s sake. Ironically, it was his younger brother Rory who became better at post-adolescent snarkiness.

9. Party Monster (2003)

Party Monster (2003, Strand Releasing)

If this list was predicated solely on the quality of his performance this one lands much higher. It slips based on the film. I thought he really kicked ass and was on the comeback trail. Maybe others thought there wasn’t a lot of acting going on and that was the persona he’d grown into, I disagree.

8. Rocket Gibraltar (1988)

Rocket Gibraltar (1988, Columbia Pictures)

This one is not omitted and sneaks on to the list for two reasons: First, it’s a larger, in terms of screen time, and less well-known pre-Home Alone appearance than Jacob’s Ladder. Secondly, it’s a late-career appearance by Burt Lancaster. Those are both qualities that make it worthy of some note. And, frankly, if you haven’t seen Jacob’s Ladder get off the Internet and get to it already.

7. Getting Even with Dad (1994)

Getting Even with Dad (1994, MGM)

At least in this film Culkin seemed to draw on his personal experience to make the movie a modicum better than it would’ve been otherwise. There was a bit more press about behind-the-scenes aspects than onscreen about this one, such as Culkin’s salary. Kit’s dealings and negotiating tactics were beyond infamous at this point. One thing that made its presence felt in the film was this as reported by Lehigh Valley’s Morning Call:

Macaulay Culkin’s character was supposed to have a short haircut in this movie, but Culkin, who had let his hair grow at the time, liked his looks and did not
want to cut it. His father, Kit Culkin, demanded on behalf of his son that he be allowed to keep his hair the way it was, pointing out that his character was
more a rough around the edges, working class boy and not a clean-cut, prep school one. He got to keep his long hair.

Quite honestly, it was these few bits of truth that made and otherwise milquetoast film tolerable.

6. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992, 20th Century Fox)

This film is, as many have noted, a mirror image of the original. He’s not actually home, nor is he really alone. It’s a good imitation by him and the film. The wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing aspect made me backlash against it when I realized it. I almost tried to keep it off this list, but it was the first time I ever laughed so hard I cried so that’s why it’s here.

5. Richie Rich (1994)

Richie Rich (1994, Warner Bros.)

Rather than readdress reservations discussed in the aforementioned link, I think this could’ve been a more chameleon-like turn. Culkin by this point just seemed like he was going through the motions, so the character had to be more him than the other way around.

It is, however, a frightening simulacrum also when you extrapolate to his real life at the time “poor little rich boy.”

So there is some ambivalence but I still like it…though maybe not as much as I did then.

4. The Nutcracker (1993)

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (1993, Warner Bros.)

Again, in the above-linked post I discussed this film. This is his father/manager’s ultimate triumph. This film was his wish-fulfillment not Macaulay’s. He looked the part, and they didn’t ask him to dance it; so as a hybrid it’s a better film than a ballet. I’m surprised it maintained Balanchine’s name on it for that reason now that I think of it

3. The Good Son (1993)

The Good Son (1993, 20th Century Fox)

There are actually a lot of good talking points to this film I find. It seems like a film that was too easily dismissed at the time due to its cliffhanger. I think the scripting, credited to Ian McEwan (a writer not yet on my ‘Essentials’ list, but who I have read a bit of), is underrated; and the tension is quite palpable throughout. While it does take a Bad Seed-style approach things never get too outlandish.

Again, if you dig, there are behind-the-scenes dramas, namely Fox’s initial desire to cast an unknown and Kit’s power-playing for Macaulay’s inclusion. In the end, it created one of the best young tandems I’ve seen: Culkin and Elijah Wood.

2. Home Alone

Home Alone (1990, 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps what has not been said about the original Home Alone is that it is yet another example of John Hughes’ prophetic casting genius. I heard many such stories at a screening of The Breakfast Club, however, this was one too. Culkin’s character interrogates his uncle’s girlfriend through the mail slot in a door in Uncle Buck, (omitted from this list) and that was the spark for this film.

Aside from that, you probably have heard it all: it’s an actually-deserved Golden Globe nominated turn and a new-age Christmas staple, hilarious, rewatchable and memorable film.

1. My Girl (1991)

My Girl (1991, Columbia Pictures)

However, this was once upon a time my all-time favorite film and, of course, still holds a special place in my heart. Specifically to this list, My Girl was awesome for him because it really wasn’t his persona before or after. It’s probably his best performance to date because of that. In light of that fact and his clout it was also amazing he was attached to it considering the fate of his character.

Honorable Mentions

Wish Kid (1991, DiC Enterprises)

As noted in the body of this piece, a few titles were left out, and rare ones remain unseen. You can view his complete filmography here.

I already mentioned Jacob’s Ladder above.

Macaulay Culkin also took over a part of my Saturday morning cartoon line-up in the twilight of my obsessively watching whatever cartoon offerings were available; so if you feel like looking out for his 13-episode series called Wish Kid it is out there.

Lastly, the Michael Jackson’s Black or White was a big deal at the time, both its premiere and its groundbreaking artistry and he kicks things off there too.

The Magic Flute: My History with Opera on Film

My History With Opera

I cannot claim that I have a foundation in opera. Nor can I claim, as I can with ballet, that I have a very active appreciation of it.

What my history with this artform is, in all likelihood, not unlike that of most people. Pieces that were featured in Looney Tunes shorts either in part, or as the basis for entire stories I know well. In fact, two of my more memorable Looney Tunes viewing experiences were shorts of this type, Rabbit of Seville being one of the funnier ones, and Long-Haired Hair being one that as a kid made me a bit uncomfortable because I did start to feel bad for the pompous Mr. Jones (I got over that eventually).

My first true introduction to opera appropriately enough was through a film. In French class we watched Franceso Rosi’s Carmen (1984) as one of our screenings to get more acclimated with hearing the language; this time through Bizet. I absolutely loved it. I later found what I thought was the same film and didn’t like that interpretation of the story at all (that version being Saura’s 1983 version).

Opera (1987, Blue Undrground)

There was a long hiatus after that where I really didn’t take another jump back in. As I discovered the works of Dario Argento, Opera quickly became one of my favorite works in his oeuvre. In that film I did learn both a bit about Argento outside film and also about the operatic version of Macbeth; and how it has similar tales of misfortune associated with it.

Later on I would, again going through the works of a particular director, this time Ingmar Bergman; come to know The Magic Flute. Yes, heathen that I am, I first experienced Mozart’s tale with all-Swedish libretto. I enjoyed that version a lot and then viewed it in German, as it was written, at a Fathom Events screening at a local movie theater.

Since then, while I may not have gained too much narrative or other insights into operas in general, I have listened to a lot more of them through a few means. Namely borrowing CDs from the library and on Spotify (I’ve used both these means to become more versed in classical music as well).

The Magic Flute (2006, or 2013 as the case may be)

The Magic Flute (2006, Revolver)

That brings me to the present and my latest brush with the artform in Kenneth Branagh’s only-recently-distributed English rendition of The Magic Flute. What Branagh does with this film is not that unlike what many have done with Shakespeare: the text is the same albeit translated and the setting is updated. This tale taking place during World War I.

Branagh’s doing this makes perfect sense when you consider that most are familiar with him through his Shakespearean adaptations. However, this film is perhaps the best assimilation of his sensibilities: there’s the classical dramatic sensibility he’s familiar with in Shakespeare and parlayed well in Thor, but also a zany, irreverent humor that he possesses as he’s shown as an actor in the Harry Potter series that fit this film as well.

Being an opera on film it will invariably have its stagier moments, but it has infinitely more cinematic ones. The camera, and at times even the characters in motion, accompany the movements of the music. This is especially true in the “Queen of the Night Aria” which is as mind-blowing cinematically as it is musically in this version.

In short, after all prior re-introductions to opera on film are taken into consideration the Looney Tunes are a wonderful warm up, but Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute is the perfect introduction to opera for the uninitiated.

Short Film Saturday – The Adventures of Billy (1911)

There are a few things to note here: the first is that this is the second Griffith title I watched for this weekend. The first I felt, though more interesting in its construction, is not as effective a narrative. Also, interesting to note, and I haven’t seen too much of this even in the silent era, but the title role of Billy, a boy, is played by Edna Foster, a girl. This is a practice more common on stage and in ballet than on film. In spite of that it is still an enjoyable film that gives you a sense of Griffith’s penchant for melodrama and social problem films.

Cinematic Episodes: Introduction

Themes are sometimes difficult to stick to. The way I usually manage to stick to them is by getting a bunch of installments written and ready and then scheduling ahead of time. Themes that I work on extemporaneously have a chance of being more inconsistent, or worse, falling into abandonment entirely.

I say this because I have had it in mind to do this idea for quite some time. I have not made the intention to do this theme known here, just in a few conversations. The main reason I’ve not announced this one to try and get this one started, and to give themes I do not consider to be done, some staying power.

Without much further ado, the idea I purport to embark upon is one I call Cinematic Episodes. This would be another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

It’s no coincidence that on the day I sit awaiting delivery of Game of Thrones‘ second season that I post this, HBO and other cable outlets have truly blurred the lines more so than most in the past due not only to single camera approach, but also production values and elimination of the commercial break, thus, creating a more cinematic structure that builds its ebb and flow in a more traditional three-act manner than an hour of network television does due to the crescendo to commercial, the precipitous drop upon retuning and then the rise anew.

However, many shows on many outlets come to mind when thinking of the parallels and the current landscape, which I will plumb for the examples I am familiar with. This evolution didn’t happen on its own. I will look back and try and trace, to the extent I possibly can, the evolution of the exchange of ideas.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Universal)

However, it’s not only a technique and structural focus. The first topic I thought of and will likely examine, with what I have access to are the Hitchcock-directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There will be other topics to examine, other specific shows, but I won’t be tiresome in listing them here.

Essentially, any other medium in relation to cinema is worth taking a look at. I’ve always viewed film as a culmination of all the other arts since the advent of sound. With the introduction of sound elements of theatre were further added, music was added as a permanently affixed appendage rather than a variable live element, through the ages an artist’s touch in framing and composition, be it in color or black and white, has been needed. As any new form of communication and/or artistic expression has come about, film has been challenged, however, it perseveres both by adapting itself and also by an eventual embracing and exchanging of ideas and symbiotic influence. It’s been illustrated before with the rise of radio and then with television, the internet is the next frontier, but that landscape is still a bit nebulous. Film is not yet truly threatened or totally changed, similarly those making content for YouTube and other such sites are progressing, pushing back and breaking through but, still being in process, the changes are not yet as evident.

Television being the middle child of “Threats to Film” has firmly established its foothold as a fixture, mostly due to its varied nature of content and usage, but on the entertainment side it remains vital. The last thing that bears saying is that the fallacious “which is better” arguement will not be found in this space – and considering the main focus of my site I doubt you want to read such an anti-climactic piece. As many similarities as I will find, and as many cases of shared influence I will illustrate both films and television work, or don’t, due to completely different reasons. If television is in a halcyon it’s certainly not due to the networks. It’s a bit like the major/indie dynamic in film. What’s pushing the envelope and advancing episodic visual storytelling is basic and prime cable original content.

The Hitchcock piece will likely be the first. I have a definitely viewing list for that and taking an auteurist approach and looking at a different kind of show is actually one of the better easier way to start such a comparative analysis. Stay tuned.

Bad Movies I Love (Part Three of Four)

This is yet another post that has been inspired by Bob Freelander and his wonderful blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

I’ve ruminated on this list long enough I believe. In the spirit of my recent post about lists not really being finished, I’ll just go with what I have at my disposal currently and spitball it. For the mutual convenience of myself and whomever may read this, I will split the list into four posts.

Now, I did, as most who have compiled this list recently, have to examine what makes a movie both bad and one I can enjoy because of that. There were a few different directions I could’ve gone with this list. I could’ve picked some films universally considered to be bad that I like and I don’t care who knows it (Many of those can be found here). I could’ve picked the rare film that’s so bad that it’s good, which in my mind are few and far between, but I do have a few that come to mind, and I also won’t argue if you believe there’s no such thing.

What I decided to do instead was to pick movies that I find to be bad, however, that I still enjoy certain things about them (badness included), and in many cases I have given them more than one viewing due to their uniquely awesome badness.

Now, without much further ado, my continued elections:

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (1983)

Here is the third and final appearance of a film with some connection to Mystery Science Theater 3000, it in essence highlights one of the better more overlooked aspects of that show; there are many of these movies that people would not be aware of were it not for its being lampooned there. Another odd note is that this TV film has, for reasons I don’t yet understand, been stuck from the IMDb.

As for the film itself, the story is quite out there. It concerns a futuristic dystopia wherein arts are prohibited. There are many other weird facets to the story that, if you would like to know them, can be found on the film’s Wikipedia. However, beware, as is often the case, it is rife with spoilers. Perhaps if the film the protagonist was obsessed with, and that this one cribs from, were not Casablanca my take on the film would be somewhat different, as Casablanca is too often referenced, lampooned and cribbed from. It’s also a very high-concept idea with a seemingly rather low budget. Something else I learned about this film was that is was shot on VHS, which I was not aware of, so that is a mark of distinction as older formats are having a renaissance, most notably as featured in Super 8 and the upcoming V/H/S.

The Beastmaster (1982)

“Born with the courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and the power of a god.” With a tagline like that you know what you’re getting from The Beastmaster, do you not? Essentially, it combines sword-and-sorcery precepts with a dash of Tarzan and there you have it. Plus, it’s another one wherein if you read any synopses you can see how it would end up on a list such as this one. One thing that has occurred to me is that aesthetically this is rather more like what Masters of the Universe would have been had they not employed the-fish-out-of-water element in their telling.

The Redeemer: Son of Satan! (1978)

I love distributors like Code Red, who not only specialize in rare, hard-to-find titles but are also fairly honest about them. I recall the box to this one mentioned something about the opacity of its plot, and boy is it ever opaque! Another way a film can end up on this list is if I thought it could use a remake, and this one could, if anyone wanted to tackle it. There are elements in place that work, and some that come into play that serve to obfuscate what could be a really effective film. It feels longer than it is; it’s confounding at times; gets slow but it never really loses me, which is pretty hard for any bad film to accomplish. An interesting editing experiment comes to mind as I think on it, edit it down into an effective short. In it’s current state it either needs a bit of expansion or contraction to work as a proper good film.

The Nutcracker in 3D (2009)

All credit for this selection making the list goes to Emily Intravia who wrote a guest post on Bob Freelander’s blog that jogged my memory. What really makes this film stand out is that any of the decisions taken in isolation wouldn’t be completely insane, but they all occur in the same film: Involving a thinly veiled Einstein; casting Nathan Lane to play him; making it a musical; having the Rat King and his minions symbolic of Nazis. However, I must say that it is a prime example of the fact that a film does not represent a crystalized version that has to adhere to everyone’s vision of a tale, which is something I’ve written of before. A film adaptation of a tale represents a version of a narrative, the director’s, writer’s and the production. This is why there have been so many adaptations of some of the most popular works in literature, film and cover songs in music and so on.

I have seen myriad versions of the Nutcracker. In fact, in the world of dance interpretations of narrative and choreography differ. As a director, I truly do appreciate Konchalovsky’s uncompromising vision, and some of the elements do work. I saw it upon its initial release and in 3D and that was a good element. The music, as I recall, the instrumentals that is, are pretty good whether Tchaikovsky’s or otherwise. Charlie Rowe, who would later appear in a very different and good interpretation of the Peter Pan myth in, Neverland is also good. As is Elle Fanning, who truly broke out with two amazing performances last year.

It also underscores another common element in the films I tend to choose for this list is that there’s something so unique, an intent so honest that I could never fully disparage the film without some qualifier. It’s one I haven’t revisited yet, but definitely will.

Sidekicks (1992)

The Chuck Norris joke as a cultural phenomenon is rather dead in the water, aside from the rare soul who hears one for the first time and then builds a newfound obsession with them for a time. I’m not sure anyone ever traced the exact source of that phenomenon, and if that would serve any real purpose, but this film may have something to do with it. The reason is, of course, that in this film Chuck Norris plays himself and the idol of a downtrodden kid. At this point Norris had already been in enough bad movies where he improbably beat the crap out of everyone that it made sense and this just adds to his odd mystique, and, of course, up until The Expendables sequel was announced he was the most one of the most notable action star who wasn’t in the club.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion!

Short Film Saturday: Mixtape and Disco

Disco (UK Film Council/ Virgin Media Shorts/ 2 AM Productions)

Below you will find video links to two short films by Luke Snellin. The first, Mixtape, proves just how little time you need to tell a complete and affecting tale and that’s part of why it was nominated for a BAFTA award.

The second is a companion piece which came out the following year called Disco. They both feature a similar core group of actors and a thematic similarity of young love. Essentially, my reaction to having seen Disco was it was precisely what you’d want it to be after having seen Mixtape.

Disco expands the story from a first flirtatious romance to a triangle and being tongue-tied. Without over-explaining I also want to point out you may know some of the cast members here which help make the film what it is: Bill Miler (X-Men: First Class, Is Anybody There? and Son of Rambo), Charlie Rowe (Neverland and The Nutcracker in 3D) Lil Woods (Nanny McPhee Returns) and Izzy Meikle-Small will appear in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Snellin’s work in both these films is superb, so without much further ado enjoy…

Mixtape

Disco