Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New Broadway Dracula!

A quarter-century ago, Frank Langella starred in a vivid Broadway production of the same play that pretty much created Bela Lugosi's career as a movie star.  This December, a new version of the same play will open, one I'm entering contests to win a chance to go see (check the links below to take your own chance).  Paul Alexander is directing, with George Hearn (probably best known for playing the lead in the national tour of the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd) as Van Helsing, and former child star Thora Birch (of American Beauty fame as well as many other films) as the female lead, Lucy Seward.

This specific show has cast a well-known Italian stage actor Michel Alteri as the title character.  He's a very handsome man, which makes sense given the dynamics of the play (as opposed to the novel).  Mind you, this is also an interesting cast by any standards.  One suspicion that comes to my mind is that the play is set in the 1930s, and some aspect of that era might be explored.

Performances are due to begin December 14, 2010 at the Little Shubert Theatre (442 West 42nd Street).

Here is their Facebook page.

Here is their Twitter page.

Here is their YouTube page.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Deathy Hallows Pt. 1 (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

As we all know by now, the next-to-last installment of the first motion picture adaptations of the Harry Potter series opened last weekend to spectacular box office.  Millions attended midnight shows.  One of the local cinemas here in Los Angeles began regular showings at 9 a.m. instead of their more usual 11:30.  Headlines heralding "the end of an era" as well as stories about the kiss that seems to startle people (hadn't they read the book?).  I saw it yesterday.  For entirely personal reasons, I will enjoy it more the next time.  Not that I didn't enjoy it the first time!  Quite the opposite.  Rather, I fell into a classic dilemna for book fans seeing them transformed into a new medium--not a rejection but something of a disconnect.  Certain bits I loved were cut, and honestly I cannot really disagree with any of those cuts.  Turning seven-hundred-plus pages into two and half hours isn't easy.  Deathly Hallows Part One manages this with great skill.  For example, the somewhat clumsy explanation of how Voldemort recognized the "right" Harry was changed into something a little more visceral, more visual, and tied up to the first of many deaths in this story.  Meanwhile the Horcrux Ron destroys comes across as a lot more powerful and frightening than an eye inside a locket!  Kudos!  Another neat little change--making Pius an actual Death Eater rather than imperioused was such a neat piece of streamlining.

Let me also mention that many lovely bits made it into the flick.  When Harry wakes up at Grimmauld Place, he sees that Ron and Hermione evidently fell asleep holding hands.  Adored that!  When Harry (really Fleur) gets on a thestral at the beginning and hugs "her" fiancee from behind, it took less than a second but was just lovely.  And hilarious.  Luna and her Dad were everything I could have hoped for (not a strong man, Mr. Lovegood, but hardly an evil one--he has a breaking point and I cannot blame him too much).  The Malfoy household looked great, with lots of subtle tensions and dynamics at play.  Must say the casting of Jaime Campbell Brower as Grindelwald in the flashbacks and old photos was inspired (and a little gossipy shout out--congrats to him and Bonnie Wright who plays Ginny upon their recent engagement!).

Part of my discordant reaction to the film lies in its tone.  My favorite Harry Potter film remains Prisoner of Azkaban if for no other reason than that one felt just right.  It blended the naturalistic and fantastical to a degree that felt perfect, and none of the others in series came very close (with the possible exception of Order of the Phoenix).  Lest anyone think I'm trashing this one, allow me to publicly proclaim Deathly Hallows Part One my second favorite--it really is that good!  My complaint is quite subtle, worthy of notice and even discussion.  But is also a matter of taste in many ways--taste about degree and nuance rather than anything fundamental.  In Azkaban the magic of the wizarding world echoed in all kinds of details, from the lighting to the camera angles to the way things totally un-real just kept happening in the background.

This movie, understandably, shapes itself as a heart-wrenching thriller wherein our heroes--Harry, Ron and Hermion--find themselves on the run as Voldemort and his Death Eaters successfully take over the Wizarding World (at least in the British Isles).  A Nazi-like regime is soon promoting blood purity, hounding those of Muggle ancestry.  The new Minister of Magic (in a nicely evil touch) proudly proclaims he will protect this bastion of equality while standing before a statue that shows Muggles in their natural place--struggling to hold up a vast statue of an enthroned wizard.  For the first time in a Harry Potter film, we do not see Hogwarts.  Nor most of the staff.  Hagrid and Snape make appearances but no others.  Part of the story is about maturity, about how each of these three need to become a lot older and do it fast.  They don't always make it.  Making everything much worse is when they actually find and acquire one of Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes--a locket.  Destroying it is another thing.  Dealing with having a tiny piece of Voldemort's soul near them is another.  A subtle touch is that while the Horcrux tends to make Harry ill-tempered and Ron selfish, it seems to make Hermione depressed.

As months go by, they all feel increasingly daunted by what faces them.  Only a combination of luck, courage and Hermione's brilliance saves them.  Here is something of a clue, incidentally, about the next film, at least in my eyes.  Central to the book are three mysteries that confront them while they're on the run--Dumbledore's past and motivations, the Horcruxes themselves, and the mysterious Deathly Hallows of the title (the telling of this tale is handled very well indeed--a kind of shadow puppet show showing what became of the three brothers).  But these are kept to a bare minimum here.  Why?  This is totally central to the story, and without these the climax of the seven-volume epic makes precious little sense.  Methinks it likely that the "cutoff," namely where the filmmakers decided to divide the book into two, offers a clue.  This film ends as Harry and his friends escape Malfoy Manor while Voldemort acquires the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb.  Now, this takes place rather late in the book.  I would posit that the bulk of solving the mysteries takes place amid the incredibly elaborate "action sequences" to come in the next film (previews show Hogwarts itself in ruins).  We'll find out next summer!

A minor point to make about the difference between all the books and all the movies, which now results in a little bit of imbalance.  In the books, while Hermione is utterly brilliant at least at first she isn't that good at action.  Not at first.  She keeps getting better and better, so that by the end she's the equal of the boys--who likewise become increasingly more attentive to details and more intellectual stuff.  The films show Hermione excellent at this from the beginning, which makes Ron in particular seem like a third wheel.  Perhaps this also helps set up the scene when he destroys the Horcrux, though.

On that subject--The Kiss.  Nowhere near as "fierce" as reports would lead you to think.  Very effective in its own right, though.

Soon after seeing the film I overheard two nice young women discussing the flick, and they repeated what I'd heard from others--that this film was intense of a "children's story."  Kinda misses the point, at least in my humble view.  Harry, Ron and Hermione aren't children any more.  The story has gotten increasingly adult.  And honestly, what did you think the PG13 rating was all about?

This summer, the story comes to its spectacular conclusion.  At least for this, first re-telling.  No way it is the only one, not so long as our civilization continues.  Narnia has had multiple versions.  So has Lord of the Rings.  Methinks it only a matter of time until Harry Potter returns with a different cast and tells the whole epic one more time through a different lens.  I hope it proves at least as good as this one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Writing: Heroic Trios

Odds are you've seen them.  Perhaps as you read a description you will even recognize them.  But do you understand what they are and how they work?  I speak (er...write) of a certain trope or character dynamic dubbed (by yours truly) as the Heroic Trio.

First of the trio I call the Decider.  In whatever essential conflict of the story, he or she will be the one to...well...decide.  Another way to look at it is they have the ultimate responsibility in resolving the central conflict of the story.  Be it to defeat the Dark Lord, or rescue the princess from the evil galactic empire, or solve the mystery of who is the werewolf threatening the entire town--the Decider has to make the central choices leading to success or failure.

Helping the Decider are two others--companions or co-workers or family members or something.  What distinguishes these two are the roles they play.

One I call the Ace, because first and foremost this person is an expert.  At what entire depends upon the story details.  Sometimes they are a brilliant scholar or scientist, possibly the brightest student in school.  Then again, maybe they alone know how to enter the secret lair of the evil wizard.

Finally there is the Supporter, the person who acts as an emotional anchor for the trio.  In practice this often means a humorous person, something of a clown, but not always.  A Supporter might just as easily be the equivalent of a butler or nanny or even a bartender -- someone who helps emotionally and physically.

Kirk has Spock and Bones.  They also function as two sides of Kirk's personality, or at least the voice of each.  An interesting aspect of that dynamic is that Kirk leans so heavily on Spock precisely because Kirk tends to be so intuitive rather than logical.  In heroic trios this often happens, that the Decider becomes in some ways more associated with the one who is least like them.  Fan fiction abounds with tales of Kirk and Spock, their famous friendship, at times positing a romantic/sexual aspect to it.  The new Star Trek movie was almost completely built around that relationship.

Buffy has Willow and Xander.  At one point in the series they were explicitly labeled the Hand, the Head and the Heart -- during a season that was explicitly about reforging the trio in the wake of graduating high school.  Willow and Xander are extremely close friends, having known and leaned upon each other practically since infancy.  Yet not until Buffy arrived did they begin to find focus in their lives.  Again, this is common aspect of the heroic trio.  The Decider becomes the focus, the point around which the other two orbit to some extent.

Frodo has Gollum and Sam, which helps illustrate another common trait.  The Ace and the Supporter often seem to be polar opposites.  In Lord of the Rings it is harder to imagine a more typical Hobbit than Samwise Gamgee, nor a less typical one than Smeagol/Gollum.  One is obsessed by the Ring, addicted to it, both loving and hating it as he loves and hates himself.  The other is among the tiny minority almost unaffected by the thing.  Even their eating habits are (famously and comically) at opposite ends of the spectrum.  One is ancient, the other young.  One is fat, the other scrawny to the point of emaciation.  One loves plants and gardens, while the other is most comfortable in underground caves.

Vlad from Young Dracula has Chloe and Robin, who highlight how the desires of the characters in a heroic trio are usually intertwined.  Vlad is a vampire who wants to be human.  Robin is a human who wants to be a vampire.  Chloe is the clear-sighted one who clearly sees that hanging around a real vampire is very, very dangerous -- yet continues to do so (Robin is her brother after all, and Chloe does seem to genuinely like Vlad).

Harry Potter has Hermione and Ron.  That trio was formed early on in the very first novel of the series and once continuing theme is how their relationship is stretched and bent, net never quite truly broken.  It also illustrates something universal in the heroic trio--the Ace and the Supporter have a powerful emotional relationship.  They never exist separately and are never indifferent to one another.  In this series, they fall in love.  Elsewhere they are siblings, rivals, hate one another, are deeply loyal in contentious colleagues, etc.  No matter the details, when these two characters interact, some kinds of sparks fly.  Unless of course the trio is dysfunctional for some reason...

Looked at in a certain way, Bill Compton on True Blood has Eric and Sookie (this is from the perspective of Bill's character of course--the series itself generally is from Sookie's POV).  In The Dark Knight you can see that Bruce Wayne/Batman has Alfred and Rachel Dawes (the Butler in this case being the Ace).  Dexter violates this trope in that he always seems to be trying form such a trio -- but they collapse, not least because in terms of the character dynamic he has to keep his Ace and Supporter apart.  This fits into his particular storyline, that of a serial killer trying to turn into a normal human being (a quest that, if successful, would of course destroy Dexter completely -- talk about an inherent and unresolvable conflict!).  On the opposite legal end of the spectrum is the intense and often-brilliant Kurt Wallander (played in English by Kenneth Branaugh on Masterpiece Mystery), much of whose internal conflicts can be seen from a near-total lack of anyone who can function as part of a trio with him.  He is alone, and that fact tortures him.

Bones has Booth and Angela.  House has Wilson and his team (being a bit dysfunctional, his Ace is a group whose membership keeps changing).  Like any such trope, the Heroic Trio is a tool -- something to help and clarify things for the writer.  Its dynamic can be useful.  Be warned however of using it as a crutch or a formula for success.  It is and remains only a tool.

Unclicking my soapbox icon.  For now.