Friday, May 6, 2022

Hammered


There are few topics that will present a film with as daunting an underpinning as the Holocaust. It's a fair statement to suggest that it might be difficult to approach from a new angle or be able to say something that hasn't been stated in the many excellent films about it that have been done in the past half-century. But it's a topic that continues to resonate because of the lasting tragedy that it was and continues to be. Indeed, with the rise of fascism in many nations around the world at present, it's a story that almost demands to be told again; a story of unfathomable cruelty that begins with a simple assumption about people as 'others', rather than as humans. In this respect, The Survivor is another in the long list of those films that delivers that brutal message with hands both overt and subtle. Almost like a talented boxer, you might say.

I didn't know the story of Harry Haft before seeing it this evening, so everything that was old was new again, as it were, and I certainly appreciate that both writer Justine Joel Gilmer and director Barry Levinson apparently stuck closely to the work of Harry's son, Alan, who wrote the book that the film is based on, which in turn was based on the stories that Harry relayed to him throughout his life. In historical films like these, you often don't want to take liberties with a tragedy that still remains a living memory to many people and because the dramatic effect is already built in. You don't need to try very hard to make people react to what was done in the camps and what effects it had on the people who did manage to survive, as well as those who lived alongside them in the years that followed. All of those emotional effects are on display in this film and it's something that can and should resonate with any empathetic person. The aspect that always reaches me in films like this is the question of how these characters- these humans -deal with the mental and emotional impact, not only of things that happened to them, but decisions that they made that contributed to or altered those events.


In this case, the most obvious element of that was Harry boxing in the camps at the behest of an SS officer. In doing so, he was seen as "cooperating" with the scions of evil that were torturing him and everyone he knew because of their identity. But it was also a perfect example of a survivor's instinct (hence, the title.) Not only did he accept the path that was offered to him on behalf of his own lizard brain, as the first instinct of most when offered a route out of that hell would be to take it, but also because he was driven by the memory of his lover, Leah, and figured that the better the chance he stood of survival, the better the chance he would be reunited with her. Those are both quite self-oriented motivations. But as his friend, John, also suggests to him at one point, they can be seen as an expression of defiance all their own, in that not only would he not be killed at the hands of the butchers that treated him as something subhuman, but he would persist beyond all their efforts to treat him as something less than, so that he could return to at least some part of the life that had been normal before they arrived. In that respect, it was a personal statement that represented all those who came through the Nazi effort to exterminate them; that no matter how hard they tried, Harry and his people would survive. That SS officer suggests to Harry that it's a choice between being the hammer or the anvil, but the anvil always survives the attempts by the hammer to reshape it, even if it leaves marks in the process.

It takes an actor of a certain magnetism to carry that role and I think Ben Foster and his driving eyes was an ideal choice. He was excellent as the younger brother in Hell or High Water and also steals a couple scenes as Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma, which is a personal favorite. In this film, you're never in doubt that Harry is struggling with every breath as he yearns for his lost love, who had become the driving force of his life in the camps, and with the guilt that he carried from those camps, which is the weight that drags at his every step in the decades that followed. You can see his reluctance to get close to anyone, for fear of losing them like he lost Leah, but also perhaps for fear of infecting them with the remorse that he carries for being the survivor that he is. Vicky Krieps is also solid as the woman who tries to reach inside that shell, not out of pity, but because she can see the human and the very human choices that he made in order to be standing next to her in the first place. Similarly, Peter Sarsgaard gives a good turn as a reporter who can also see something more than just the brawler that Harry presents in the ring. I think Levinson borrowed somewhat from earlier films with the decision to show all of the flasbbacks to the camps in black-and-white, but it doesn't come across as trite. Also, Hans Zimmer's score is as brilliant as ever, following each scene with a sound that never loses poignancy, regardless of what's happening on the screen.


If you've been reading these for any stretch of time, you've probably come to understand that the storytelling approaches that most appeal to me are those that ask basic questions about humanity and how characters deal with those questions and the ripples that they leave, even in hammered steel. Definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

As simple as point A to Blood


Vikings have been the hot thing in various media for the past several years. From Michael Hirst's Vikings (now with a Netflix sequel, Vikings Valhalla) to The Last Kingdom to games like Raiders of the North Sea and Champions of Midgard. On the one hand, you could say that it's just an historical period that hasn't gotten as much exposure as many others and people jumped on the wave once it started forward. On the other hand, you could argue that some of the impetus may be coming from the surge in White nationalism that is on the rise in places like the US and Western Europe. (No, I'm not saying that just because someone makes a Viking movie or game that they're a White nationalist. Please save the outrage for something actually pertinent.) The latest entry in the cinematic field is Robert Eggers' The Northman.

When we first saw the trailer, it was intensely visually appealing. It was clear that a great deal of craft had gone into the lighting, costuming, and cinematography. This was a film that was fully immersed in the idea of the visual medium. The cynical side of me might suggest that that concerted focus was because there wasn't much of a story to back it up and they were trying to cover that fact with fancy visual effects and moments of shock to keep the audience interested at all. The screenplay is about as "stock Hollywood" medieval revenge fantasy as you can get. Son witnesses father die to usurper. Son spends decades with his rage keeping him alive. Son finally finds a way to try to avenge his father. Much blood happens. The end. There's a difference between "simple" and "simplistic." Rashomon is a simple story. The Northman is the latter and does not benefit for it. What happens in those instances is that any of the audience versed in either/both popular culture and/or adventure stories can immediately start drawing parallels to what has gone before. The scene where Amleth's (Alexander Skarsgârd) vengeance is set in motion is almost a carbon copy of the scene in Conan the Barbarian, where the latter is also set on the path of revenge. Amleth's muttering of how he'll avenge his father and save his mother to keep focused while rowing a boat out to (presumably) the North Sea is reminiscent of nothing so much as Arya Stark's list of people that she's going to kill. What results is that nothing in the film feels original. It feels like a pastiche of what Hollywood thinks a big budget Viking film should be.


Again, there's no arguing that the visuals are resplendent. From the vistas of Iceland and Scandinavia to the intensity on Amleth's face as he pursues his ultimate goal, the emotion and wonder are there in abundance. In that way, it's not dissimilar from Eggers' previous film, The Lighthouse, but the two scripts are completely night and day, with the latter presenting an opaque situation with plenty of mysticism and things to question, while this film is basically lifted right from an Icelandic saga, most of which were both linear and not too complicated by dint of the form and because they were preserved in the oral tradition. We've, uh, moved past that just a bit in the last millennium. Those intense visuals don't stop at the regular intervals of violence, either. My friend, Larissa, visibly flinched at several instances of blood showering this or that corner of the set, while I started raising an eyebrow at the absurdity of it all about halfway through the film. Yes, it was a violent era and a fairly violent culture at the time. But are you saying that your film is so linear that the only way to get through its 2+-hour running time is to follow that straight line through a sea of blood? Oh. I guess you are.


The performances were solid, such as they were. Anna Taylor-Joy is still a delight as Olga of the Birch Forest, while Nicole Kidman does a good turn as Queen Gudrún, Amleth's seemingly conflicted mother, although her role was as predictable to me as anything else about the film. I also liked Ralph Ineson (Dagmer Cleftjaw of GoT fame) in a bit role as the Rus captain who aids Amleth and Olga in their attempt to reach Iceland. And, of course, with many things Icelandic, Björk was involved and at least played an interesting version of herself as the Seeress of Amleth's dream-state. But none of that can cover for the fact that the initial story pitch had to comprise about 40 words, at best, and left me thinking of a half-dozen other films or TV shows, rather than the one right in front of me. I didn't get lost on the straight line. I just didn't feel like I should've bothered by the time I got off it.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Finding the right elephant


Most films are created with an intent. Unless you're doing something avant garde, you're not just throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks. (TV series, on the other hand...) If you're the director, you get a screenplay and think: "This is the film that I want to make." and then proceed into production and casting and everything that's going to make your piece of rock eventually look like an elephant. If you had a competent writer, that piece of rock should already have impressions for trunk, tusks, and tail, but some directors can overcome that absence (and others can ruin the rock when they first take a chisel to it.) With that said, it has to be noted that Everything Everywhere All at Once is a remarkable film, not only for what shows up on the screen, but for the driving vision of co-writers/co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. No matter what else I may say about it, it has to be clear that I enjoyed it and would probably like to see it again someday. Can I recommend it to everyone as the gushing hordes on Twitter have insisted? Well... no. I think there's something essential that is lacking there that would turn it from "interesting and enjoyable" into "GREATEST FILM EVAAAAAHHH!" as seems to be the popular opinion among many of the younger people I know and hear from. Perhaps the way to explain this without sounding too harsh is to do a comparison.

There's a film called Big Trouble in Little China. It was made during the extended downswing of Jobn Carpenter's career and has a decent-sized cult audience. Amusingly enough, what first made me consider this comparison was when I was sitting in the theater watching EEAaO and noticed that one of its leads was James Hong, who played the wicked Lo Pan (Indeed!) in Big Trouble. Carpenter's film is somewhere between a B-action flick and an intentional farce. With Kurt Russell chewing scenery and Kim Cattrall doing an exposition dump every five minutes, it's not a good film, but I'd argue that it was never intended to be. It's pretty clear about 20 minutes in that both Carpenter and his cast had decided to go full-bore into the absurdity of the situation and let whatever happened, happen. What did happen is that it justly bombed at the box office, but has since developed a following among those who'd seen it and simply appreciated the circus for what it was.


EEAaO is in a similar but not identical situation, in that I think Kwan and Scheinert intended to present a visual spectacle, first and foremost. In that respect, they succeeded. The repeated transitions of Michelle Yeoh through multiple and wildly varying other-dimensional versions of herself is definitely entertaining to watch. You could almost have gone down that more artistic, experimental path that I referenced above and still had something worthwhile to display. But, instead, the filmmakers decided to angle toward a more philosophical bent, constructing an elaborate story that explores all of Evelyn's (Yeoh) personal foibles, relationships, history, and emotions. All of these things are splayed out in often jarring fashion that leaves the audience little room to digest what's happening... until the third act, when all of it is regurgitated again in repetitive, droning, agonizing detail. There is something to be said for a story about a main character who simply fails to register what's right in front of them. Constructing the entire third act of a film about a character who simply refuses to do so is something else entirely.

And that was my main disaffection with the film. As enjoyable and funny and surprising as it could often be, I think the filmmakers lost the thread of what they had begun weaving when they got into it. Big Trouble was clearly intended to be a cult film. It's a circus and you're supposed to just turn your brain off and enjoy it. (Something I often have a very difficult time doing.) But EEAaO presents as a circus, but attempts to drown you in personal metaphor in that third act. Suddenly, everything has deeper meaning and you will be repeatedly instructed on how to absorb said meaning before you leave your seat. It's kind of like an analogy for P.T. Barnum, who is credited with various bits of sage advice from running a carnival and a "museum of oddities" in the 19th century. No matter how sage Barnum could be, in the end, he never held himself up as anything other than a showman trying to squeeze coins from the local audience for coming in to see the freaks. Kwan and Scheinert attempt to attach a very serious underpinning to their circus and it never quite finds its footing. In a way, their story rooted in personal travail and the difficulties of human relationships ends up so overwhelmed by the dizzying array of visuals that it all ends up feeling lighter than it should have been. The story isn't married to the visual storytelling, but is kind of an adjunct that makes the third act longer than it needs to be when it could've been just a great show.


Most of the performances are excellent, with both Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis as a menacing IRS auditor particularly standing out. If this elephant could've had a slightly shorter and less onerous tail, I think it would've reached the heights that a lot of others are assigning to it. But that would've been a somewhat different beast (Indeed!)

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Everything means something else


The use of parable to establish customs and convey larger meaning has been around since the dawn of civilization. Telling someone "Things aren't always as they seem" generally has less impact than if you tell them the story of the blind men and the elephant. My guess is that that's where writer/director Goran Stolevski began with You Won't Be Alone. Having dual Australian and Macedonian heritage, he decided to explore some of the roots of the latter by telling a story about witches, societal roles, sex, personal identity, questioning social mores, and half a dozen other things in 19th-century Macedonia, which was still under the rule of the Ottomans, which is also pointed out several times and is often important in understanding modern Balkan societies. Does that sound like a lot to pack in to one story? Because it is and that may be the film's overarching flaw that detracts from something which may have been better delivered with the extraneous parts cut away. Or clawed away, as the case may be, because that happens quite a bit in this film, too.

When we saw the trailer, it was presented as a horror film, which it ostensibly still is. I went in expecting something spooky and largely centered around the isolation that comes with being an apex predator that human society- your prey -will work pretty hard to, well, isolate and destroy. What we got instead sprawled in so many different directions that any sense of the horrific was subsumed by all the other messages being delivered. This is what the term "overwritten" often refers to and this film was a prime example of it. We begin with Nevena, as a baby, being marked by Old Maid Maria; the seeming progenitor of the scourge of witchery. In response, her mother imprisons Nevena in a cave, occasionally bringing food and some grooming, so that Maria won't be able to find her and steal her away when she comes of age. The fact that imprisoning her daughter in a cave without human contact is effectively stealing her away better than Maria might have apparently doesn't occur to mom. But that's one of those messages about the need for community in the human condition. The problem here is that that same community would tear the witchling Nevena "to shreds" as her mother warns. These aphorismal contrasts continue throughout the story; the need for men to provide the literal seed leading to the joy of children, despite their abusive behavior; the need for the weaker members of society to depend on the assistance of that community, despite being scorned or mocked for their weakness; the question of identity and the individual within that larger grouping and how difficult it is to see things from someone else's perspective; and so on.


The largest theme is that which centers around the mistreatment of women, not only in the chauvinistic cultures of the 19th-century Balkans, but in human society in general. It's pointed out that Old Maid Maria becomes bitter and vengeful, and continues to carry out that bitterness against Nevena who refuses to share it, essentially because she didn't get married and serve in the role that women are nominally assigned. Of course, that whole perspective is a form of misogyny. Maria is pointedly the villain, not only towards normal humans, but also Nevena, who is so desperate to be like them that she begins wearing their skins not to prey upon them, but to assimilate. But Maria is the villain because she essentially shrugged off that role that society tried to dictate to her. She preys on those who wanted to treat her as a resource, rather than a human, and tried to burn her alive. It's kind of like suggesting that  revolution is something we should aspire to, but the person who started said revolution is a criminal who shouldn't be tolerated. It ends up becoming something of a mixed message, likely because of the overload of themes that Stolevski attempted to pack in. We don't really spend much time getting to know anyone but Maria, since Nevena is kind of a blank slate attempting to be like others, but when Maria is pointedly the villain, the question of whom we're supposed to sympathize with becomes muddled. Clearly, it's Nevena to a certain degree, but we end up sympathizing with her because she's denied the chance to be the subservient resource that society says she should be...?

Visually, I was somewhat disappointed, as well. The implications of the trailer gave me the idea that we would be seeing something that was much more phantasmagoric in nature and with camera work that involved the scenery in a more arresting fashion. Instead, we got a lot of very basic shots of mundane dwellings and not overly interesting forests and hillsides. Was the visual medium just the framework to hang all of those metaphors upon? Even when attempting that, you'd usually like to include something that was cool to look at while delivering your message. But most of the visual effects, involving a not atypical level of gore, weren't that impressive; not least because most of the transformations took place off-screen and were more audibly interesting than anything that showed up in the lens. It was as if someone had decided they wanted to do a version of The Howling but didn't have the money to pay for the CGI or makeup (which, for all I know, may have been the case.)


It sounds like I'm trashing the film, but I don't think it was bad, per se. I just think it was trying to do and say too many things at once and so didn't say any of them well at all. I'm still glad that I took the time to see it because it's not often we get to see something from that corner of the world. But I can't really recommend it to the horror fans I know, nor to the drama fans, nor to those who just like watching cool things happen on screen. It underdelivered in all of those respects, even though it was reaching higher than most other storytellers try to in the space of two hours.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Compartmentalizing


There are times when you just have to make things fit. Or you want to find ways to make them fit and readjust your perspective in the process. That's true for both large events, as in the ones depicted in the two films I'll be talking about, and sometimes small ones, as in why I'm talking about two films in this post and not just one. The first is Compartment No. 6; a Finnish film, which is unusual on its face, since not many from that nation make it to this part of the world. It was also partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, because it's wholly based in that nation. It's about a Finnish paleontologist taking the long train ride from Moscow to Murmansk to study the petroglyphs in the area. Along the way, she rides in the title sleeping compartment, sharing it with a Russian man who's heading there to work in the mines. Their personalities are as disparate as their professions, as Laura is pretty delicate and introverted, while Lyokha sometimes literally fills the room, physically and socially. Along the way, both have their expectations met and readjusted, revealing more about who and what they are and how they relate to each other.


Right away, I'll say that I enjoyed the film, but wasn't particularly inspired by it. While Yuri Borisov's performance was frequently hilarious, there was something to be said for the texture and tenderness of Seidi Haarla, as well. Both of them were relatable and, in a film that spent half the time in an 8' x 8' box, that's a great feature. Furthermore, it was a great insight into typical Russian life and the reality that everyday people, even those on the wealthy Moscow end, encounter. The lack of the omnipresent smart phones was notable, especially because Laura's most prized possession is a camcorder (When's the last time the typical American audience saw one of those?) It also said some good things about how relationships can often be only valued for their immediacy, as Laura learns that her girlfriend in Moscow considers her to be out of sight, out of mind, while it becomes easier to be attracted to the boorish Russian who has an equally sensitive side that he strives to hide. But it also didn't really say anything original and began to drag in act 3 when we had all arrived in the promised destination of Murmansk and watched everything proceeding just as act 2 told us to expect. We get that both main characters' perspectives on the other had change, but none of this is really enlightening or invigorating. I think it was a good film, but I wouldn't urge anyone to rush out and find it unless you're particularly interested in that corner of the world.


We also watched Master; the title for which I've been trying to parse more out of. The film was insistent on saying so many things that it really feels like there should be more to it. On the one hand, it's a casual reference to the dated traditions and titles of tiny New England universities and prep schools, as Regina Hall plays Gail Bishop, a professor and college leader/dorm supervisor at the fictional Ancaster University. On the other hand, it's also a play into the overarching theme of the story, which is about the persistent racism in such places, where Blacks who were almost exclusively servants until the 1970s, are now filling different roles and occasionally even being treated as humans. That atmosphere of racism is constantly reinforced, sometimes subtly in new student Jasmine Moore's (Zoe Renee) interactions with classmates, and sometimes overtly, like when the librarian insists on nervously checking her bag to see if she's walking out with more books than permitted. The foundation to this whole story is its presentation as a psychological horror film, in which old paintings are seen with broken skulls instead of faces and old servant bells are mysteriously rung with no one in the room and  a cloaked figure representing a 17th-century witch stalks the campus. Almost all of said horror is directed at the Black characters of the story, both in the past and in the present, which is continually presented in a manner that suggests nothing has really changed.


The problem that I encountered was that the film seems to be trying too hard to deliver too many messages at once. There's the occasionally-hurled-cinderblock-obvious metaphor for racism present in all of the horror elements. But we're also given a great deal of material about the witch trials of early America which were primarily directed at White women. Certainly, you don't have to draw a line between misogyny and racism and the story is set up to engage both, since all three of the main characters are both Black and identify as female. But the witch angle, aside from depicting those horror elements which could've been simply presented as typical ghosts, seemed superfluous. On top of that, halfway through the film, we're informed that a local community of pseudo-Amish people who still dress and act in a manner akin to the 17th century, live nearby and one of them has a child at the school who no longer identifies as White. So now we suddenly have cultural appropriation on the menu, as well, which leaves the viewer as distracted and unfocused as poor Gail is by the end of the film. There are some great moments of tension and the horror elements are handled well, with a lot of it happening off-camera and presenting only the reaction of the victims to the circumstances (think: Jaws.) And, again, there's nothing wrong with weaving those thematic social ills together, as they are often symptomatic of the dominant White culture resisting change in America (witness the same people shrieking about Colin Kaepernick and Disney's support of LBGTQ+ folks.) But it leaves what seemed like a solid and occasionally even subtle film about racism hieing off in other directions that it really didn't need to go. I think a stricter editor might have produced a tighter package. Just like Compartment 6, it's not a bad film, but I'm not raving about it, either.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A decent fit


When we first saw the preview for The Outfit, one thing stuck out to me: Mark Rylance. That was the driving impetus for me to see the film, as he's been brilliant in everything else that I've seen him in. He made the pedestrian Bridge of Spies worth watching. He was compelling in Dunkirk. He did an excellent Bill Kunstler in The Trial of the Chicago 7. I'll watch pretty much anything with him in it. Otherwise, the preview looked a lot like a typical gangster film. And, 'lo and behold, it was a pretty typical gangster film, but Rylance was still brilliant.

It's difficult to sell gangster stories to me these days because I've seen enough of them to no longer be particularly interested. We had a discussion on ThereWillBe.Games a while back about a game based on the FX show, Sons of Anarchy. A few people mentioned that they had known people who were less interested in playing what was a very interesting engine building game because of having to assume the role of the rather ruthless gang members from the show. They also mentioned that the game, which had gone out of print with the FX license having expired, had been reimplemented as a 1920s gangster game called (sigh) Wise Guys. I pointed out that, not only were those "wise guys" every bit as ruthless as their modern drug-dealing counterparts, but that the topic of gangsters from a bygone era was played out to the point of parody. I still feel that way about most creative outlets that try to delve back into that topic. We've been there, to the point that Martin Scorsese spent an ungodly three-and-a-half hours trying to take a new angle on that tired genre with The Irishman. (Newsflash: He didn't succeed.) So, I was setting myself up to be disappointed with the story as a whole, but felt like Rylance would still make it entertaining. I was right on both counts.


Rylance plays Leonard Burling, an English tailor (or, as he insists, a cutter) running a shop in a rough Chicago neighborhood where the only people that can earn him a living are the gangsters that run said neighborhood. His receptionist, Mabel (Zoey Deutch) regularly talks about "getting outta this town", but is eventually revealed to be involved with the local gang, as the girlfriend of the son of the local leader. When the dropbox that the gang has installed in the back of Burling's shop begins receiving packages from "The Outfit" of Capone fame, the comfortable relationships that all of them enjoy begin to go awry. That's a semi-interesting premise, since it involves a set of people that are directly, but still only indirectly involved with the local mob's business. How they choose to live their lives around it or at the periphery of it generates enough humor for the audience to be entertaining. Rylance, as the focal point of the film, is also the fulcrum of most of that humor. But the rest of the cast is pretty rote, from Mabel to tough guy Francis (Johnny Flynn) to local boss, Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale.) There's some good tension in some of the scenes and a bit of mystery as to how they're going to work their way out of the dilemmas that they stumble into, but the plot is fairly predictable from beginning to end and the film ends up working as solely a vehicle for Rylance's brilliance.


There's nothing wrong with that, of course. At this point, I'd gladly watch a one-man show with Rylance, almost regardless of topic and this film actually doesn't stray too far from that. It's set very much in theater fashion, as we never go farther from the shop than the sidewalk outside and the vast majority of the action takes place in Leonard's fitting room and workshop. But you could tell that Leonard was more than just a simple cutter (or, really, a cutter of a different type) and you could predict Mabel's role in the story almost from the moment she opened her mouth about wanting to be anywhere but her home neighborhood. It was all pretty obvious. That doesn't mean that it wasn't entertaining, but it was largely because of who and what Rylance is, and not because the story was particularly compelling. In fact, most of the characters other than Leonard were fairly cut-and-paste, despite a solid performance from Flynn. So, I can't say that it was either brilliant or compelling... except for Rylance, who is the sole reason that I'd recommend it. If you're not a fan, become one. If you're just a fan of gangster films, see this one for the lead actor and if you enjoy the rest of it because you're a fan of the genre, so much the better. But don't kid yourself. The reason you're sitting there is to watch a modern artist at work and it has nothing to do with his shears or the guns around him.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A nose ahead of other musicals


What does one say about the story of Cyrano de Bergerac at this point? That it's a story as old as civilization? Well, possibly. The tragedy of love unrequited does go back a while, but this particular story originated with the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand, based roughly on the life of the real French novelist and playwright of the 17th century. It's a simple one- good guy who considers himself ugly tries to connect with a love from afar -but it's one that never quite fades away. Whether that's because of an entertainment industry driven by men who feel like they can't get what they really want is open to question. But it's a story of longing for something more interesting and exciting than what everyday life has wrought, as well, which is the basic premise of an entertainment industry in the first place, regardless of what modern reality TV might suggest. The story of Cyrano can be direct and, for the sake of a more modern audience, given a more uplifting ending, as is the case with Roxanne, my favorite of Steve Martin's films, or it can stick to the original plot and be a lesson about deeper themes and the tragedy often associated with them, as with Cyrano, the version we saw last night, directed by Joe Wright, which was directly adapted from the 2019 stage musical, directed by Erica Schmidt.

The first draw when we initially saw the trailer was that it was Cyrano, but also because it starred Peter Dinklage, whom most people know from Game of Thrones as the irrepressible Tyrion Lannister, but whom also performed this role in Schmidt's stage version. The potential drawback was that it was a musical, which I've never been particularly excited about for some reason (I like opera.) But the musical elements were largely restrained to solos by the three stars: Dinklage as Cyrano, Haley Bennett as Roxanne, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as Christian, without any prolonged song-and-dance routines that interrupted the flow of the story and that seemed to be enough to keep it moving and enjoyable. There's nothing inherently wrong with breaking into song to express deep emotion. I've just often found that it distracts from where the story seems to be going and breaks the rhythm of that progression. [imagine Joel Schumacher voice] "OK, people! We've reached a moment of tension/introspection/emotional depth and we have to stop everything so we can do a song here, OK?"


Again, thankfully, this film didn't really do that... but this was also a pretty slow-paced film, so it would've been more difficult to realize it. Roxanne breaks into the first song while in a carriage heading to the theater with her ostensible suitor, the Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn, who did well here, just as he did in Mississippi Grind.) But there's a viable question as to why we had to spend that much time in the carriage when Roxanne has already talked about her desire for something different when debating with her guardian, Marie (Monica Dolan), moments earlier. But that's part of the overall equation of watching a musical. Some moments are going to be drawn out so that that element of entertainment- the song -can be experienced by the audience and hopefully be more memorable than just a moment of dialogue. Given that all of the singing in the film was recorded on set (e.g. not overdubbed with a studio version later), I'd have to say that all four of the soloists (including Mendelsohn) did really well in that respect. If there were any points at which the film could've been said to drag (and there were a couple), they were mostly around the ending where no song was in sight, as it were.

But that's also an element of watching a tragedy, which Cyrano is, full stop. Unlike the "good guy gets the girl" aspect of adaptations like Roxanne, this one stuck to Rostand's original approach, which was to examine not just societal views of someone who may be considered "ugly" or, in this case, a "freak", but the internal struggle that that person undergoes where they attempt to deny themselves the solution that may be, uh, as obvious as the nose on their face. They embrace the tragedy that doesn't need to be there, which leaves the audience with the sensation of "If only...", which is precisely how these stories are supposed to work. Dinklage sells this well and it's not surprising that he was cast in this role, given his performances in GoT, as well as films like The Station Agent. In other words, he knows how to sell a tragedy without overdoing it and also by leavening it with very energetic moments outside of that central theme. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the presentation of Cyrano as an accomplished duelist, which the actual Cyrano (actually 'Savinien'; 'Cyrano' was the family name) was, as well. In GoT, Tyrion was imposed upon because of his size and was forced to use his mind to get around that impediment. In Cyrano, he's allowed to use both that and his skill with a blade; akin to Arya's water dancing. It doesn't seem huge (ahem), but it's a step away from the main character as the victim of society, which sets up the final tragedy nicely when he comes to the realization that his problems may have been more of his own creation than anything that other people tried to limit him with.


In the end, I'd say it's well worth the time to see it and not just if you're a fan of the story and Dinklage, but being so is certainly an additional advantage. It won't tell you anything new about the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, but it might give you an appreciation for its different approach to character, story, and song.