Film Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is that rare breed of sequel that surpasses the original in quality. Released in 2008, the original Cloverfield was by no means a bad movie – it breathed fresh life into the found-footage horror film, a genre still in desperate need of new ideas. The story of that film concerned a Godzilla-like monster attack on New York City, this time told from the viewpoint of the citizens of said city. It was a riotous, action-packed thrill ride that kept you on the edge of your seat.

10 Cloverfield Lane takes a vastly different approach and ends up delivering a more satisfying and suspenseful thriller in the process. Instead of a chaotic romp though various New York burrows, this installment is set in one confined and intimate space. Similarly, while the original Cloverfield‘s characters were merely one-dimensional fodder for the alien creature, 10 Cloverfield Lane provides three interesting, nuanced characters that are well-developed and sympathetic.

The story revolves around Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead),  a woman who gets in a car crash after packing up and leaving her significant other. She wakes up in what she later discovers to be a bomb shelter created by a man named Howard (John Goodman). He explains that he brought her there after discovering the wreckage of her accident and that they can’t leave the shelter because of an air-borne chemical attack that’s occurred up above.

Michelle doesn’t believe Howard at first, but after meeting Emmett (Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr.), the only other inhabitant of the bunker, she starts to change her mind. As time slowly passes in the hatch, further mysteries unravel that leave Michelle questioning not only the fate of the world above but also the motives of Howard himself.

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman

John Goodman provides a virtuoso turn as Howard, a man we never completely learn the truth about. Thanks to fine writing and Goodman’s sensitive performance the character has depth and substance that would be lacking in an inferior production. Hopefully this opens doors for new opportunities in Goodman’s acting career. He obviously has a lot of unexplored potential.

Michelle is the central figure of this story, however, and it’s invigorating to see a female character on screen that is readily able to fight and outwit any obstacle thrown at her. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is more than up to the challenge and memorably makes the role her own. Near the end of the film she delivers a much-earned expletive that earned several sympathetic laughs from the audience at the showing I attended.

By shifting the intent and focus of the original film for this installment, writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle cleverly toy with our pre-conceived notions of movie sequels and what we expect of them. This approach works two-fold: for viewers who have seen the original, the added knowledge of what’s going on in the world above provides a sense of forbidding doom to the film; but for those who have not, this strange mystery only adds to the already intense atmosphere. Because of this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is one of the few sequels that can be easily watched without having viewed the original, and might actually be a more satisfying experience going in “cold-turkey”.

The ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane leaves things open for another continuation, but it’s hard to believe that another installment in this franchise could be as electrifyingly fierce as this one. Knowing his track record, however, there is hope that producer J.J. Abrams will throw another curveball and redefine movie trilogies in the process.

5 out 0f 5 stars.

Film Review: Snow Queen

Note: This is a review I wrote when Hallmark’s “Snow Queen” was first released on DVD back in 2003. Since I just revisited the film for my Fairy Tale Year I thought it was worth republishing my initial thoughts here.

As a cold, icy winter storm brews outside my window I can think of no better time to experience Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Snow Queen, which was just recently made into a fantastic new television mini-series by Hallmark and the Halmis.

The new film aired on the Hallmark Channel in December, and has just recently been released on home video and DVD.

This new adaptation of the classic tale is definitely an inspired re-imagining. Outwardly it bears little resemblance to its fairy tale counterpart, but it still retains the integral themes and messages inherent in the work. I love fresh new interpretations of fairy tales. That’s what keeps them alive and makes them so powerful. They can be retold in an infinite number of ways and still be vibrant and new.

The original fairy tale revolves around two childhood friends, Kai and Gerda. One day a piece of enchanted mirror falls into Kai’s eye and he starts acting viciously towards Gerda. Their friendship disintegrates, leaving Gerda alone and wondering what has happened to Kai. When the magical enchantress the Snow Queen spirits Kai away to her winter palace Gerda knows she must trek after them and bring Kai back home. She has many adventures until finally reaching the gates of the Snow Queen’s palace and the destiny that awaits both her and Kai.

The film Snow Queen attaches a new prologue to the story—it shows Gerda’s mother being killed by an icy winter storm dealt out by the Snow Queen. Gerda grows up a shy and quiet young girl, obviously affected by this traumatic experience.

The first half of the story now takes place at a remote hotel. Gerda’s father runs the hotel and Kai is the new bellboy just hired by him. The film translates Kai and Gerda’s age as much older—they are now teenagers. Kai and Gerda fall in love until the Snow Queen gets in the middle of their blooming relationship.

The story of the film is really about growing up, specifically for those children who have suffered from loss. Interestingly, this theme has also been dealt with in two other Hallmark mini-series: Snow White and The 10th Kingdom. The struggle to let other people in and be loved is beautifully dealt with in the film through story, symbolism, and imagery. Both Kai and Gerda learn to break free of their pasts and let in their future. They both learn what it is to love.

The first half of the three-hour running time is the strongest. The writing is very good and presents the viewer with a sense of mystery and foreboding. Simon Moore, who wrote the enchanting teleplay, also wrote the teleplays for Dinotopia and The 10th Kingdom. The world he creates in this film is much different than either of those in the two previously listed films. This is a much darker, surreal, dream-like world, where there aren’t always happy endings. Snow Queen has its light moments but those are more reserved for the second half of the film.

The second half is more action-packed, and I think suffers because of this. It’s a stark contrast to the more subdued, peaceful, but with a touch of foreboding atmosphere that marks the first. The addition of a rather annoying talking polar bear character in the second half is also tedious and unnecessary, but I suppose Moore had to think of something for Kai to do while waiting for Gerda in the Snow Queen’s palace.

In short, I think the movie could have been shorter. Two hours would have been sufficient. Tacking another hour on to the running time made it a bit long, I think. This is a fault I found with another Simon Moore script, The 10th Kingdom. I love the themes and ideas expressed in that work and this one, but both stories could have reached their denouements much faster. Otherwise they come across as a bit stretched-out, and they seem to lose sight of their original purpose and intention.

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Jeremy Guilbaut and Bridget Fonda

What really holds the film together, though, are the outstanding performances. Jeremy Guilbaut brings a haunting, tortured spirit to Kai, while Bridget Fonda exudes a cold, icy chill as the Snow Queen. Their scenes together are quite sexually tense for a family film. But I mark that as a good quality—sexuality is present without one inch of provocative skin being shown.

Chelsea Hobbs does a fair job of portraying Gerda, but she could have done more. After a while she comes across as rather whiney and helpless, which is exactly the opposite of what her character is supposed to be. She has some charming moments near the beginning of the film with Guilbaut. Too bad there aren’t more of them in the film.

I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing my own version of The Snow Queen for about two years now. I haven’t done it yet, but it seems Hallmark’s Snow Queen comes fairly close to what I would do. It’s a pleasant surprise.

The Halmis (Roberts Sr, and Jr.) are responsible for producing a new batch of wonderful family television movies, including Snow White, Dinotopia, Arabian Nights, The 10th Kingdom, Alice in Wonderland, Merlin, and Gulliver’s Travels. Let’s hope they don’t stop. Films that spark the imaginations of kids and make them want to read are rare to find these days.

Fairy Tale Music

Fairy tales have inspired countless composers and musicians throughout the centuries. I’d like to share a few of my favorite musical pieces for your listening pleasure, some of which were directly inspired by fairy tales and others that simply invoke the fairy tale world.

My partner introduced me to Shostakovich’s wonderful Festive Overture and I’m forever grateful. It’s the perfect entry music to the fairy tale world. It’s easy to imagine a colorful cast of fairy tale characters cavorting to this regal piece:

 

With its delicate waves of tinkling glissandos, “Aquarium” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals suite brings to mind frolicking fairies and magical enchantments. This piece also inspired Alan Menken’s prologue music to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:

 

Based on the Charles Perrault tale, Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the most famous fairy tale ballet in existence. Tchaikovsky’s music became so synonymous with the story that when it came time for Walt Disney to make his animated version in 1959 he chose George Bruns to adapt the ballet score for the film medium. The ballet’s Act I waltz is the most well-known musical piece from the score, and was transformed into the song “Once Upon a Dream” with lyrics by Tom Adair in the Disney film:

 

In 1864 Edvard Grieg set four of fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen’s love poems to music. One of these was “Jeg Elsker Dig” (“I Love You”). A beautiful declaration of love, Andersen wrote the original poem to acquaintance Riborg Voigt who ended up marrying another man. Grieg’s aching melody is the perfect accompaniment to Andersen’s simple, wistful words:

 

“Le jardin feerique” (“The Fairy Garden”) is the last movement in Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and, as its name implies, illustrates the gradual awakening of an enchanted fairy garden into magical, burgeoning life. With its glorious crescendo, Ravel’s piece provides a stunning conclusion to our musical journey in the land of the fey:

 

All of these pieces and even more of my favorites can be found in a YouTube playlist I’ve specially created. You can access it below or at the link right here. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Review: Theater Latte Da’s “Gypsy”

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Michelle Barber as “Rose”

Now playing, Theater Latte Da‘s Gypsy is a big, bold and brassy production of a classic musical, one that hearkens back to the art form’s Golden Era. It’s nice to see local productions of this grand scale on a Minneapolis stage.

The story of Gypsy centers around the destructive relationship between infamous Burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, Rose. The musical dramatizes Lee’s adolescent years, when she was simply “Louise”, touring in a Vaudeville act created by her mother and starring her sister, billed as “Baby June”. Rose’s grand theatrical ambitions create a rift between herself and her daughters and she becomes the quintessential overbearing stage mother. This ultimately drives Louise into Burlesque. How this relationship is resolved and how Rose justifies her actions as a mother lie at the heart of Gypsy.

Back in 2006 I was privileged to attend Theater Latte Da’s first outing of this Gypsy, and was delighted to see that director Peter Rothstein retained some staging elements of it for this one. However, the 2006 production played at the intimate Loring Playhouse and that space lent a distinct and ghostly air to the proceedings. It felt like the audience was witnessing the ghosts of Vaudeville haunting the confines of a now closed theater. The new production is much slicker and more traditional. I couldn’t help but miss the rawness and vitality of that original production.

Indeed, the pacing of this particular production seems off. It speeds by at a clip and the staging thus feels rushed. I wish the actors were given a bit more room to breathe and space to dwell inside their characters. Some very dramatic book moments are over in the blink of an eye and have much less of an impact as a result, which is unfortunate. Gypsy is a long show, and I can understand a director’s desire to fit it into a traditional two-and-a-half hour running time, but such shortening of dramatic conflict is a detriment to the whole and should be reconsidered.

In spite of this, great performances abound. Tyler Michaels provides a wholesome turn as loveable Tulsa, the chorus boy Louise has her heart set on. His surprise appearance as a very different character in the second act provides him growth as an actor and a laugh or two from the audience. As Rose’s gaggle of chorus children, Carley Clover, Mario Esteb, Zoe Hollander, Andrew Imm, Peder Lindell, Duncan Reyburn, Josie Turk, Alejandro Vega and Victoria Wyffels are all an absolute delight. They light up the proceedings every time they tread the boards. Cat Brindisi brings a timid sweetness to Louise in the first act and a powerful, commanding presence to Gypsy Rose Lee in the second. I only wish there was some gradual transformation between the two during Louise’s big strip number “Let Me Entertain You”. Without it, it’s hard to believe the two personas are indeed the same character.

Michelle Barber is the force to be reckoned with during the evening. Her Rose packs a punch, especially during the character’s two signature songs, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn”. That finale, especially, is unforgettable. Barber brings a surprising humanity to Rose, a character often portrayed as simply a monster. I was thankful to witness a characterization with such depth and texture. I wish the rest of the production, as a whole, was allowed to provide that as well.

4 out of 5 stars.

As a closing note, this was the first time in my theater-going experience when I was required to be wanded by security before entering the theater. It started out the evening on a very tense note for me and left a pall over the rest of the proceedings. Theater should be a welcoming environment, but the ushers and security guards left me, as an audience member, feeling that it was anything but. If this is the new standard practice for Hennepin Theatre Trust shows, I will no longer be attending. 

The Problem of the Beast

Like every fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” has had to metamorphose throughout the centuries to remain relevant to each succeeding generation. Unlike other popular tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, however, “Beauty and the Beast” has seen a profound shift in the character that is the focal point of the story. Beauty, the central character in the original versions, takes the backseat to the Beast in later retellings. In some cases this also heavily changes the moral of the tale, undermining its ultimate effectiveness.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s tale (1756) was heavily inspired by Madame de Villeneuve’s original tale published in 1740. Villeneuve’s version is mainly concerned with sustainment of the period’s social class system: Beauty’s sisters are condemned for aspiring to an upper class into which they were not born, and in Villeneuve’s lengthy epilogue it is revealed that Beauty is not a common merchant’s daughter, but a royal fairy changeling – a proper bride for any enchanted Prince.

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Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle

In contrast, Beaumont’s version does not concern itself with social castes. Instead, her version focuses on the complications of arranged marriages. In Beaumont’s time, and for many centuries to come, it was standard practice for young women of a certain social status to be married off to wealthy, socially-acceptable mates that, more often than not, were complete strangers to them. Beaumont’s text is sensitive to this issue and its primary objective is to assuage the fears of young women who find themselves in the predicament and offer them hope that eventual romantic love can be a possibility in such a situation. Folklorists have dubbed “Beauty and the Beast” the first “psychological” fairy tale, and the main reason for this is Beauty’s journey in Beaumont’s tale. She holds the primary power in the story. It is only through her own inward transformation that the Beast’s outward transformation can occur. The modern era has seen the claim that the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is an example of Stockholm syndrome, but this argument completely overlooks the historical background of the original tale and the topic of arranged marriages that it makes its central focus.

Because of the eventual denunciation of the practice of arranged marriages in most Western cultures, modern interpretations of the fairy tale have had to work around this issue to varying levels of success. The primary way to do this has been to shift the main spotlight away from Beauty and transfer it to the Beast.

At the end of Beaumont’s  story, the Beast of the fairy tale’s title is transformed into a handsome prince:

“A wicked fairy had condemned me to remain under that shape,” the Prince explains to Beauty in the original English translation, “until a beautiful virgin should consent to marry me.” No other reason is given for this strange punishment besides the apparent “wickedness” of the fairy mentioned.

tumblr_inline_ny50r2ssIT1sacq5r_540This lack of explanation has proved a creative asset to future retellings of the tale, the most obvious of these being the 1991 Disney Studios film. The enchanted Prince in their version is punished with his beastly visage for turning away an old beggar woman seeking shelter from a storm. It is when he refuses her because of her ugly appearance that she reveals her true self and punishes him to life as a Beast. This provides a powerful, direct link to the story’s theme of looking beyond appearances to find beauty within that most other versions don’t include. However, this strength is undermined by a necessary shift in the Beast’s character because of it.

In both the original Villeneuve and Beaumont versions of the story the Beast acts as the perfect gentleman towards Beauty. He shows her kindness and consideration and provides her anything she desires. She truly is mistress of his castle, her slightest whims becoming the Beast’s command. After dinner every night he asks for her hand in marriage and she politely refuses. He assents to this and never forces her into wedlock or indeed to do anything that displeases her. The only real impediment to a possible relationship with Beauty is the Beast’s alarming exterior.

In contrast, the Disney film makes the Beast/Prince “spoiled, selfish and unkind.” He has a quick and raging temper that is often unleashed upon Belle, the film’s Beauty. Instead of any kind of personal transformation of her own, Belle’s role in the story is changed to that of a “domesticator” of this unruly Beast. This unfortunately reduces the importance of Beauty’s role in the story, making her mostly a mother figure, and works to subvert the original theme of the fairy tale. Instead of the possibility of beauty already lurking behind a beastly exterior, the theme of this version is that beauty can only be found in a Beast if his savage nature is tamed.

Jean Cocteau attempts something similar in his 1946 film and ends up crafting something much more interesting in the process. Instead of a nasty temper, the main problem of Cocteau’s Beast concerns his actual beastliness. He is a full-fledged animal/human hybrid, trying to reconcile these two opposite natures within himself. When dining with Beauty he appears the perfect gentleman – well-dressed and conversant, if admitting that he’s no wit. At night, however, he succumbs to his feral side, hunting animals in the forests outside his castle and startling Beauty several times in her bedchamber after his midnight romps. There is no concrete resolution to this Beast’s dilemma – he does transform into a handsome prince, but he looks exactly like Avenant (a character Disney drew from for their brutish Gaston), a handsome but roguish would-be suitor of Beauty whom she has refused. This physical similarity to Avenant at first throws Beauty off. When asked by the Prince if she is displeased by his resemblance to Avenant, Beauty responds first with “Yes” and then a smiling “No.”

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Jean Marais as the Prince and Josette Day as Beauty

The Prince tells Beauty at the film’s conclusion: “Love can make a Beast of a man. It can also make an ugly man handsome.” This intentional blurring of the morality of the tale runs deeper than Disney’s take and provides a more satisfying modern sensibility to the story: Beauty comes to discover that she can be alternately attracted to and repulsed by a potential domestic partner – she can enjoy both the beast in the man and the man in the beast.

The duel for the main spotlight between contemporary Beauties and Beasts comes to its most happy medium in the 1987 television series created by Ron Koslow. The setting for this version is updated to twentieth century New York City. The Beast, named Vincent, dwells in the tunnels below the city with an entire community of people who have found themselves cast off from the cruel and unforgiving World Above. His Beauty, Catherine Chandler, works as an Assistant District Attorney and through this comes face-to-face with the evils of her metropolitan society. With Vincent’s help she often thwarts them.

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Ron Perlman as Vincent and Linda Hamilton as Catherine

Similar to Beaumont’s original envisioning of the Beast, Vincent is a thoughtful and compassionate humanitarian. He is the embodiment of a fully developed, spiritual human being, reading classical literature in his spare time and reciting poetry at the drop of a hat. However, as with Cocteau’s Beast, Vincent also battles the animal side of his nature throughout the run of the show. There is no ultimate transformation for him, though – Vincent’s intangible and unexplained existence as a man/beast is permanent and something both he and Catherine must learn to cope with as the series progresses. But unlike previous Beauties, Catherine has an even footing with her mate: she is not his captor and moves independently between his realm and her own. For the first time since Beaumont, then, the ultimate decision of whether Beauty and the Beast can be a pair is placed once again in Beauty’s hands.

These unique twists provide an even balance between the two characters, resulting in a satisfying drama and romance, one that was unfortunately cut short due to actress Linda Hamilton leaving the show. Perhaps if the show had lasted even a season or two longer we might have a contemporary “Beauty and the Beast” that actually outshines its already impressive origins.