Sunday, December 26, 2010

Stormy weather/Under the sea

Yesterday we drove all the way to Maryland to watch Julie Taymor's The Tempest because no theaters here were playing it. Her adaptation of Titus is one of my favorite movies, and I've been really excited to see this since I saw the trailer.

Taymore does a gender switch with Prospero, casting the excellent Helen Mirren as Prospera, the widowed duchess whose brother usurps her position and sets her and her young daughter adrift in a rotting canoe. Fortunately Prospera is smart, resourceful, and happens to be well versed in sorcery (in a flashback, she's shown pottering about in her laboratory under the indulgent gaze of her husband).

Now, Prospera and her daughter, Miranda, live on their mostly-empty island, attended by Caliban (Djimon Hounsou in pie-bald makeup, looking like a golem) and Ariel (Ben Whishaw, in white body makeup and disheveled hair). With over a decade with nothing much to do, Prospera's become really, really good at sorcery, and when a boat carrying the king of Naples, her brother, Antonio, and the king's young son, Ferdinand, along with Alan Cumming's treacherous Sebastian, happens conveniently along, she blows up a storm and forces them onto the island. The shipwreck also spits up the requisite Shakespearean fools, Trinculo and Stephano (Russell Brand, looking like a filthy carney, and the hilarious Alfred Molina).

Taymor handles the gender switch of the main character extremely well - it doesn't seem gimmicky at all, and I thought it gently reshuffled some of the relationships Prospero has with the other characters in a very welcome way. Mirren's Prospera and Miranda have a less overbearing, more poignant relationship as Prospera engineers Miranda's infatuation with Ferdinand, and Ariel and Prospera have a genuinely moving scene when the flighty spirit contemplates leaving his mistress (the acrobatic portrayal of the featherweight Ariel is pulled off with great aplomb by Whishaw, who gets some of the most visually interesting scenes). Prospera's gentle, almost maternal protectiveness towards the delicate Ariel humanizes a character that is often played as too remote or powerful to be sympathetic.

Alan Cumming, predictably, steals every scene he's in as the oily, quick-witted Sebastian, particularly during the castaways march into the island, when Sebastian clashes wits with the babbling, good-natured duffer Gonzalo, played genially by Tom Conti.

The scenes with Mirren, Cumming, or Molina and Brand's drunken, bumbling sailors are definitely the best. The action lags whenever the sweet-natured but boring Ferdinand and Miranda show up, and their love story is sort of two-dimensional (but it's written that way in the play, and neither Felicity Jones or Reeve Carney has the skill to make bland characters interesting). Prospera's sudden about-face and forgiveness of her murderous brother is also thinly sketched, but the excellent actors and Taymor's reliably inventive scenes and costumes make the movie well worth watching, if not quite as solid as the sturdy Titus.

Normally I'd stop there, but because this is a Taymor film, her sets and costumes are almost characters themselves. The island is a variegated, bizarre, and threatening Eden, with sun-baked black rock, forests of loopy, dead-looking trees, man-sized aloe plants, and dripping marshes. Prospera's 'cell' is built into the side of a mountain, with a door built into the right angles of the room and two staircases that lead away down two dizzyingly-pitched walls - sort of a visual representation of the deception on which Prospera's sorcery relies.

Caliban in particular is one of the most interesting character designs. He looks sort of like a man made out of clay who got sun-bleached and half-heartedly dried, with one blue and one brown eye, webbed fingers, and thick talon-like fingernails. Taymore uses zippers, zippers, and more zippers to mimic the stripes of Neapolitan fashion, with heavy, quilted and studded doublets and zippers glinting off of the edges of ruffs, capes, and padded shoulders, and her mountebank design of long-toed shoes and skinny stripes suits the lanky Brand wonderfully.

I also finally, finally watched Ponyo last night, which as it turns out, is kind of an excellent foil for The Tempest. Ponyo is from the wonderful Hayao Miyazaki, director of Spirited Away. I give Disney much credit for releasing the English-dubbed version of Ponyo with both great voice actors (Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Betty White, and Cloris Leachman) and also for not messing with the story line or otherwise mucking up Miyazaki's film.

Ponyo is sort-of-kind-of a retelling of The Little Mermaid, except the mermaid is an adorable, chubby red-haired goldfish, her father, Fujimoto, is a skinny, David Bowie-esque undersea magician who looks like a refugee from a barbershop quartet and pilots a weird undersea craft with flippers, and her mother is the massive, island-sized Goddess of Mercy, Granmamare. Oh, and Ponyo has magical powers that can let her sprout little chicken-feet like legs, and in escaping from her overprotective father, releases some sort of undersea magic that yanks the moon down way too far, throws the ocean out of whack, and releases massive, Cambrian-era prehistoric fish.

Even with the caveat that I'm probably missing all sorts of subtext because I'm not Japanese, I'm still going to say that it's kind of bizarre.

Anyway, little Ponyo gets rescued from a jar she's gotten stuck in by Sosuke and decides she wants to live on the land with him. Her father dispatches his large, grumpy waves to get her back, but Ponyo gets away and returns to the land on the back of the now out-of-control ocean, brilliantly imagined as huge, flailing fish made out of water. Sosuke's level-headed mother, Lisa, seems to be used to tsunamis and floods on their island, and she leaves Ponyo and Sosuke to go help out the other inhabitants, but the ocean continues to swell, so Ponyo and Sosuke set off for a final confrontation between Ponyo's father and the Goddess of Mercy, who seems more kindly disposed towards letting Ponyo stay on land.

The visuals of the movie are stunning, from the exuberant, dangerous fish-waves to the prehistoric marine monsters and Ponyo's massive, just-a-bit-frightening mother. The pacing of the movie is slow, almost languid, except for the chase scenes, and Miyazaki isn't afraid to take his time, even in a kid's movie (the movie clocks in at nearly two hours, but doesn't feel overlong).

What I find particularly interesting about Ponyo and Spirited Away is that Miyazaki's animation absolutely nails the way children move - from Ponyo struggling to pick things up while refusing to put down her treasured green bucket to the way Sosuke kicks off his sandals before plunging into the waves. It also doesn't hurt that goldfish-Ponyo is one of the most adorable character designs I've seen in a while.

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