Being the Princess' unsolicited opinions on books, movies and miscellanea...

Monday, November 09, 2009

Where'd She Go?

Anyone out there? *taps microphone* I know, I know, it's been forever and ever since I've posted here. I got so busy with school and work, and by the time things had calmed down, the way I was interacting with the internet had changed completely.

Well, I just started a new, very different kind of blog. It still has recommendations, but it's MUCH less wordy, more like an annotated catalog of Things I Love on the Internet than a collection of essays.

If you're at all interested in that (or would just like to come over and say "Hi!"), I'm at Hyperbole is the Best Thing Ever.

Friday, September 05, 2008

In Praise of Paul Gross

Who is Paul Gross? He's the most talented and appealing actor you've never heard of. He lives and works mainly in Canada, and is probably most famous in the US for his portrayal of a displaced Mountie--Benton Fraser--on the short-lived, but charming television show, Due South. You might also have seen him in the original television mini-series of Tales of the City, or (and this one's my personal favorite) as a frazzled and possibly crazy theater director in Slings & Arrows. Gross is also a writer, director, producer and musician. He is a passionate and articulate defender for arts funding in Canada.

Now, why should you care?

Let's get the shallow part out of the way first: the man is beautiful. There's no point in even disputing that. He's got the sort of old-fashioned movie-star looks you just don't see very often. Say, once in a generation. And he's not a plastic doll, either. He has the charisma to match. It radiates off of him in a way that is frankly almost ridiculous in its intensity. I once watched a double feature of him and then a Cary Grant movie. No joke: Cary Grant lost that round.

Gross is not just a pretty face. Far from it. He's a talented actor with the almost preternatural ability to create a complex, seemingly-whole new person for each of the parts he plays. As I said before, my favorite role of his is as Geoffrey Tennant in the absolutely outstanding series, Slings & Arrows. Geoffrey is brilliant, unstable and hilariously temperamental, with a core of passionate integrity that is almost maddening, but ultimately lovable. Watch him here, as he attempts to coach one of his actors in a production of Hamlet. This may very well be my favorite moment in all of television. Gross is Ophelia for a moment. It's uncanny.

Then there's the do-gooder Mountie of Due South, a character that could so easily have been a soulless caricature. In Gross's capable hands, he's anything but.

This week, Mr. Gross's newest project, Passchendaele, which he wrote, produced, directed and stars in, was the opening night film for the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

Passchendaele is a love story centered around the WWI battle that claimed the lives of 15,000 Canadians, an event that played a major role in shaping the Canadian national identity. With a $20-million-dollar budget, the film is one of the most expensive ever made in Canada. Just to give you some perspective on what that really means: it's an epic war movie on the scale of Saving Private Ryan, made for the price of something like Sideways. Looks pretty amazing, yes?

It may be a while before Passchendaele gets released in the United States, so if I've piqued your interest at all, the other things I've mentioned are available on DVD. I also highly recommend Wilby Wonderful. Written by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, it's about a day in the life of a small island town. The cast is uniformly outstanding, and includes a young(er) Ellen Page.

Edited to add this video clip of Mr. Gross speaking eloquently about his new film, and looking fantastic while he does it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Shortbus (2006)

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

This has been a great fall movie season. Wonderful films like The Departed, Half Nelson and The Illusionist all piled one on top of the other like great, unexpected gifts, but the greatest miracle of the year so far has been John Cameron Mitchell’s sad, joyful, hilarious and chaotic film, Shortbus.

Mitchell is a bonafide American genius, quite deservedly famous for his freewheeling, sentimental rock opera, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This second film is mainly notorious for containing a lot of graphic, un-simulated sex. The film follows the stories of several loosely connected New Yorkers, all dealing with trials in love and sex and loneliness and connection. They all come together at a salon/sex-club called Shortbus, which is presided over by the beautiful Justin Bond. Though Mitchell called it his “sex movie” in the casting ads he ran in industry papers a few years ago, the film is most emphatically not pornography (whatever the hell that means, anyway). Instead, the sex is used to explore the way we connect—or fail to connect—with one another. It’s played for sweetness, for grief, for beauty, and frequently for slapstick hilarity, but not really for prurient interest.

Many reviewers have gone on at length about how not-erotic Shortbus is, and in a sense, I just now agreed with them. At the same time, I really don’t. Just because the film isn’t pornographic (again, whatever the hell that means), doesn’t mean it isn’t sexy. It is deliriously sexy, but maybe not in the ways you would expect. It lives in hundreds of small details. The sexy is in a close-up of the fingers of the Statue of Liberty as Anita O’Day croons “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby,” and in the swoop of the camera over a colorful, fairy-tale version of New York. It’s in the look of warm sympathy a beautiful girl gives Sook-Yin Lee’s character as Lee stares longingly at a tangle of fun from the outside, and in the cheerfully unselfconscious way that Jay Brennan’s character calls out, “Switch!” during a threesome. It is in lots of sweet kisses, and in the awkward-beautiful tangle of knees and elbows and breasts and cocks that is the Sex-not-Bombs room of Shortbus. It is in the idiosyncratic beauty of each of the actors, and it is in every second of screen time for the scorching-hot Justin Bond. (That man’s mouth is clearly one of the seven wonders, and he’s funny as hell on top of it all.) And the sexy is in the deliriously hopeful tone of the movie, every frame trumpeting the joys of freedom and courage and difference.

Yet for all that, the film isn’t just about sex, nor is it entirely joyful. Shortbus doesn’t bother to hide the fact that—all too often—living is a struggle. The movie and its characters are all too aware that we are each trapped, alone inside our separate skins. Sex can be a way to get close to breaching that wall, but in the end, that barrier will never come completely down. Shortbus is full of folks attempting to make that connection against the odds, sometimes succeeding beautifully, sometimes failing painfully.

But I am making this film sound like an art-house tone poem of boredom, when it really is quite the opposite. It is very snappily paced for an ensemble piece, and there is enough uncertainty in each of the entwined plots to keep you curious about the outcomes right up to the very end. There isn’t a moment when the film seems to drag or slow, or when you just wish it would hurry up and end. And it is funny, my god! There are so many fantastic visual jokes in the film that the audience I saw it with was laughing over a good quarter of the dialogue. I had to see it twice just to get some of the plot points. Believe me, that was no hardship. It’s a rollercoaster whirlwind of a good time, and would be worth it just for the entertainment value, but it has a real heart, and a hopeful vision for us humans, and both times I saw it, I left the theater feeling as if the world had been saved for just one more day.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Bleak House (2005)

Directors: Justin Chadwick& Susanna White
Writing credits: Andrew Davies & Charles Dickens (novel)

I grew up on public television. My parents, being hippies and socialists, didn’t have a TV when I was very young, but even after they did, us kids were allowed to watch only a very small number of things: ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at Easter, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ at Christmas, Sesame Street, the Muppets, Nova and Masterpiece Theater were the only things I recall watching. I loved Masterpiece Theater almost in spite of itself, because—with a few notable exceptions—it was like literature with all the juice sucked out of it. Watching a word-perfect adaptation—one with every costume, bonnet-ribbon, drinking glass, chair and buckle flawlessly recreated to period—that is at the same time absolutely without a discernable pulse, or any discernable passion can be an almost unbearably frustrating experience. If they got the hairdo right, you wonder, and the whiskers, and the shoes, why, oh, why can they not feel what the book is ABOUT, for crying out loud?

Well, thank the merciful heavens for Andrew Davies. He’s actually been writing screen adaptations of books for the BBC since before I was born, and he seems to be getting better all the time. He is currently famous for ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ and for the 1995 BBC version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ starring Colin Firth, but he is also the writer for several of my very favorite BBC productions over the years, including ‘Middlemarch’, ‘Tipping the Velvet’, and now this wondrous, amazing ‘Bleak House.’ He is one of very few literary adapters who are respectful to, but don’t seem at all stifled by the presence of the original work, and he has been blessed with many excellent directors and actors.

In the case of ‘Bleak House,’ which was released on DVD last week, his adaptation managed to acquire the stunning Gillian Anderson, perfectly cast as the coldly mysterious Lady Dedlock, Charles Dance for the role of the cunningly sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn, and wonder of wonders, a young actress named Anna Maxwell Martin, who is able to play one of Dickens’ treacly good-girl characters in such a way that she seems like a real—and profoundly loveable—person. This last is possibly the most unlikely miracle in BBC history. Dickens’ good girls are almost impossibly good, and often without other discernable qualities. The roles don’t leave much for actresses to work with, and frequently reduce them to pretty faces with candy-fluff lines. Not so here. Martin’s Esther Summerson is forthright, always kind, soft-spoken and completely genuine. Her round face, slightly crooked smile, and perfectly clear blue eyes express everything her character feels in the most subtle and heart-wrenching way. You ache for her troubles and rejoice in her good fortune, as if she was the best sister you never had. If there weren’t already a thousand excellent reasons to love this ‘Bleak House,’ she would be more than enough all on her own.

Fortunately for her, Martin doesn’t have the slightest need to carry this picture. It does not require a crutch. It has all of those pitch-perfect details that are the signature of a true BBC production, but none of the stiltedness. Davies and the directors juggle the dozens of characters and story lines in a lively and blessedly comprehensible way, and they never lose sight of the emotional consequences of the action. This ‘Bleak House’ has a beating heart, not a metronome, at its center. And, though I must admit that I have never read the book, and therefore was able to be surprised at every turn, I do know that real Dickens fans were just as excited about it as I was. Not being a Dickens fan myself, I am ashamed to admit that I might actually prefer the movie version. The man did like to take the long way around the barn, as they say, and Davies prefers to go straight to the heart of the matter. Yes, Dad, I know I’m a philistine, but it’s true.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

By Jeff Chang

This is my week for hip-hop. The release of ‘Hustle & Flow’ on video just happened to come on the heels of the paperback release of this outstanding, wide-ranging history of hip-hop and of the social conditions that led to it. This music may very well be the significant artistic and cultural innovation of my generation, and it would be an exaggeration to say that I was unaware of some of its creation myths. How could I remain completely ignorant? Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and N.W.A. effectively ruled the airwaves (and hallways) when I was a kid, but really, I was too young, and too far removed from the birthplace to see the full picture. I am grateful that I have the chance to catch up on what I missed, and that Jeff Chang has so carefully placed the cultural manifestation of rap in to its rightful, and still relevant, sociological and political context.

Chang is clearly passionate about the music, and about the people involved with its creation, and his prose fairly rings with his perfectly justified rage at the conditions under which hip-hop flourished. The book, in addition to being so well-paced and so packed with insider stories that one races through it as if it were a mystery novel, is a bracing (and infuriating) reminder that the terrible situation in the “inner city” did not happen merely by accident. We all know part of the story, and anyone living in a big city has seen the ravages of it firsthand: in the late 60s and early 70s, the assassination or imprisonment of every potential or actual leader for the black community dovetailed synergistically with deindustrialization and other factors to exacerbate poverty and hopelessness in poor urban neighborhoods like the Bronx. When crime in these areas quite understandably began to escalate, city, state and federal government in many places responded to the problem with a policy bearing the euphemistic moniker of “benign neglect.” Another way of putting it is that cities like New York began to pull essential infrastructure and social services out of these neighborhoods that needed them so desperately, and left those who couldn’t afford to move away to soldier on without the support one would optimistically suppose to be universal in a “First World” country.

With a miraculous alchemy common to folk arts everywhere, this lead-bullet of a situation was the cradle for what would become the biggest, most lucrative and most controversial art of my generation. It is this alchemy that ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’ attempts to capture. What is amazing about Chang’s book is his ability to synthesize the many disparate and complex elements in to a heart pounding, race-to-the-finish narrative. Weaving policy statements from politicians, first-hand accounts gleaned from hundreds of personal interviews and quotes taken from essays by leading scholars with observations about market forces, international politics and cultural heritage, he has managed to create a document that is rich with detail, and confounding in its scope. I don’t want to ruin his game, so I won’t even try to give any further synopsis. It’s a task that would be nearly impossible anyway. After taking us on this roller-coaster, Chang closes the book with several riffs on a quote from William Wimsatt, made in the wake of the increased commercialization and co-optation of hip-hop: “Young people are noticing that the only thing that can’t be bought, sold, co-opted or marketed anymore is substantive political organizing and dissent.”[1] Amen to that. I’ll see you there…but first read this book.

To purchase, go here:

For another viewpoint on ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,’ go here:

[1] William Upski Wamsatt, “State of the Movement,” in Future 500: Youth Organizing and Activism in the United States, comp. Jee Kim, Mathilda de Rios, Pablo Caraballo, Manuela Arciniegas, Ibrahim Abdul-Martin and Kofi Taha (New Orleans, LA : Subway and Elevated, 2002).

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Hustle & Flow (2005)

Craig Brewer, Director

I watch a lot of movies. Some are great, some are awful; many are right smack in between the two states. Every once in a while there will come along a film that is delightfully entertaining, but at the same time manages to shake me up and turn my preconceptions out on their ears. This year, I thought that movie would be ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ but as interesting as that film may have been, ‘Hustle & Flow is the revolution.

The film follows a small-time pimp and drug dealer named DJay (played by the almost supernaturally seductive Terrence Howard), as well as his “girls”--a softly timid and very pregnant woman named Shug and a hard-as-nails white girl festooned with braided extensions named Nola. DJay is in the middle of a crisis about his life, and about the place to which his choices (and options) have led him. If you have seen even the tiniest preview of the film, you will know that he eventually finds a way to express his life through music, specifically hard-core Memphis-style rap.

Now, reading those words, you may think you know what to expect from this film. What a movie cliché these things have become: pimps, white-trash hookers, poor black towns, crisis and easy redemption. And the film does serve those stereotypes up to you, but it forces your eye to rest on them long enough that you begin to see more than your own tired notions. The characters feel real, complicated and singular, with plenty of inner darkness and also plenty of hidden sweet spots. The film isn’t in the business of judging them, either, or of creating tidy moralistic answers to their problems.

Like all great movies, ‘Hustle & Flow’ isn’t particularly easy on the viewer. It leaves you with plenty of unanswered questions, and a little bit of discomfort. The story is deceptively simple, and it is only when you walk away that you find yourself working over the dilemmas presented by it. The actors and director conspire to leave a little mystery behind every connection, every interaction. Contained within this little movie is a whole string of prayer beads worth of thought-problems.

How the film manages to slip these thorns in to something so exhilarating is anyone’s guess, but it does. Just in case you don’t like worrying over questions, you can walk out of this movie and take only the thrill: from watching this band of misfits create real music, from watching them triumph in way that feels absolutely possible, from listening to some great Memphis sound. And that should be enough for anyone.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

In Praise of Stephanie Zacharek

I love the e-mag, Salon.com. It may be a paid service, but it is well worth the pittance I pay for it. The writing is consistently high-quality, the politics are right up my alley, and it offers lots of goodies to "premium" subscribers. That's all nice, but by far the greatest treasure Salon has at its disposal is its almost-painfully-excellent movie reviewer, Stephanie Zacharek.

If there is a living heir to Pauline Kael, this girl is it. Yes, her writing is lively and engaging, yes, she seems to have excellent taste as far as I can tell, but much, much more than that, she just "gets" it. She is hooked in to what really makes movies grab us, what makes them funny, and how tiny, little things can make the difference between good ones and bad ones, and even more so, good ones and great ones.

And she has her finger on the pulse of what makes movies, and their stars, sexy or mysteriously interesting. A recent piece she wrote on Tony Leung (you might remember him from "Hero" but in any case, run out right now and rent "Infernal Affairs," "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love" if you haven't already), didn't say a single thing about him that I would ever have thought up on my own, but perfectly captured the ways in which I (and probably thousands of others) have been thoroughly seduced by him.

I think the reason Ms. Zacharek can do this so easily is that she's not playing around. She really IS seduced by films, by actors, by the little things about them. You can feel in her writing that she really loves the movies, wants them to be better, wants to trumpet the joys of those few really great ones, and to appreciate the smaller pleasures of the simply fun ones. Reading her essays gives me a contact high. I come away feeling exhilarated, even when the review is negative. I can't really explain it any better than that, and anyway, you'll just have to see for yourself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Firefly (TV, 2002)

Creator, Joss Whedon

I don’t actually watch television, in part because the only channels we get in the basement are 4 and 5, and in part because even two minutes of commercial are usually enough to make me want smash in the screen with a baseball bat. What used to be my three favorite TV shows are all ones that I discovered before my baseball-bat tendency really made itself felt. Each of my shows has since been cancelled or cannibalized, and these days I just stay out of the fray.

Well, thanks to my slightly more tolerant friends, I now have a new series to love beyond all reason. Though, to be fair, I am not sure I would have heard of ‘Firefly’ if’n I had been watching the TV day and night during the period of time that it was on. The poor show was moved around, aired out of order, cancelled repeatedly, and finally abandoned by the network after only 11 episodes. I encountered it three years after that, on a DVD set that includes three never-aired episodes, and numerous cast and crew commentaries. I was hooked from the first episode.

In point of fact, I haven’t fallen that hard, that fast for a piece of filmed entertainment since the “she’s dead, wrapped in plastic” scene from the ‘Twin Peaks’ pilot. I have loved science fiction since I discovered its existence at the age of eight, and ‘Firefly’ is the show that I had—unbeknownst to myself—been waiting for all that time. It reminded me almost immediately of the best things about C.J. Cherryh’s ‘Downbelow Station,’ Joan D. Vinge’s ‘Catspaw,’ Daniel Keys Moran’s ‘The Long Run’ and dozens of other good books.

The flickering (and perhaps unintentional) callbacks to other science fiction worlds lend ‘Firefly’ a curious depth and sense of reality, but the show is not really derivative of any of them. Joss Whedon has done several things to make it feel fresh and new. He has cleverly equated the borders of settled space 500 years in our future with the American West circa the mid 19th century, without introducing any overtly cheesy “cowboy” motifs. His characters see themselves as outlaws, and most of them speak with a careful, formalized twang that is both Western and completely new. The actors’ costumes are a lived-in mix of Earth cultures, and their speech is interspersed with creative exclamations in Mandarin Chinese. There are nine main characters, and it is their shifting relationships that really make the thing shine. Each episode has the requisite sci-fi adventure, but even the most mundane of capers is enlivened by extra helpings of wit, emotion and intrigue, and is graced by the excellent acting of the extraordinarily talented cast. It is, in other words, a gem of a cancelled show, and well worth the DVD rental price.

And if you do end up loving the half-season as much as I did, Joss has already completed a full-length feature continuation. It will be released in theatres on September 30, 2005. (I’ve actually seen it already, but am reserving my comments until closer to the release date. I will say that I LOVED it!)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)

Doug Liman, Director

I saw two movies in the theater this week: Batman Begins and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. One of these films was a perfect example of what good can come of a small movie when it is in the hands of a director who has a light touch, intelligence and a sense of humor. The other one was a perfect example of what I like to call the poke-me-in-the-eye-with-a-sharp-stick school of moviemaking. What do these films have in common? Absolutely nothing except for the fact that they were, thankfully, both playing at the Majestic Bay in Ballard last night, so that when it became clear after 20 minutes that Batman was never going to give me any more pleasure than a stick in the eye, I was able to sneak out and head next door just in time to catch almost all of my favorite scenes from Mr. & Mrs. Smith again.

Yes, that’s right folks, the unthinkable has happened: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s little shoot-‘em-up of a romantic comedy has become my new summer favorite. Last night was the third time I watched the two most beautiful people in the world seethe at one another over the barrels of machine guns, and banter deliciously about the “web of lies” that was their marriage. It definitely won’t be the last.

As I said, this is a small movie. There isn’t anything spectacular about it; it does not attempt grandeur of any kind. This is precisely why it wins. It is a domestic comedy, with the action working as an excellent and strangely cathartic metaphor for purely domestic friction. It isn’t a metaphor that is pushed on the viewer in any way; there is no sturm und drang in this film, only small moments of near-perfect pleasure. The numerous little jokes and exhilarating action scenes are placed carefully on top of one another, the actors convey just enough real emotion to allow you to believe in their marriage, and everything is wrapped up just soon enough to let you leave the theater wanting more. To my mind, it is a perfect summer movie: beautiful, beautiful people, just enough touch of reality to keep you with them, and some over-the-top, adrenaline-rush-producing fun thrown in for spice. Take that, Batman! You can keep your sharp stick…

PS. For a detailed review that perfectly conveys exactly what is so great about Mr. & Mrs. Smith, please go here.

Friday, April 22, 2005

In Praise of Delice de Bourgogne

It is all too appropriate that Delice de Bourgogne sounds like an expensive 19th century courtesan. She is not the mistress of kings, but only the most sinfully delectable cheese on God’s green earth. The Delice is a wheel of ivory-coloured, triple-cream lusciousness, with a tangy flavor somewhere between fresh butter and blue cheese, and a texture so smooth and soft and melt-in-your-mouth that it is impossible to resist. It is all the reason you would ever need to love the French, in case you couldn’t think of one before.

I feel almost guilty, tempting anyone to a vice that is so damnably bad on the heart, but, hey, life is short. In my opinion, it just isn’t worth living without trying this lovely lady at least once.