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Entries in eleanor morrow (60)

Monday
Mar272017

In Which Dan Stevens Is Your Rumpled Warden For Now

Attack by Wolves

by ELEANOR MORROW

Beauty and the Beast
dir. Bill Condon
118 minutes

Beast (Dan Stevens) looks like a vaguely unkempt man, the sort who sleeps on a couch. He is starved for female company, or any company at all to be completely honest. His bestial qualities are not many, basically he doesn't use utensils or say please. In this reenactment of the 1991 film, the fantastic songs of Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman are supplemented by new music that adds about as much as Emma Watson does to the role of Belle.

Now 26, Watson's girlish charm evaporated quickly. She is now a woman in middle age. "They think I'm strange in the village," Belle informs Dan Stevens, who is looking at her like, is it really kind to compare our two situations? The only odd thing about Belle is that she always wears the same dress. Belle does not seem to understand the reason she is stared at is because of a man: specifically her father (Kevin Kline).

Kline's role is rather thankless. The fact of his poor parenting makes substantially more sense in the Bill Condon version, since while an animated character pissing away her day reading books seems fine and dandy, Emma Watson doing the same is a less enviable life goal. Belle doesn't want to marry Gaston (Luke Evans), which makes sense, since in this version Gaston is a decade her senior and Evans' face implies he has had a hard life.

None of these actors can sing worth a shit outside of the specific ones that Condon has recruited for the purpose. Whoever is doing Watson's vocals is particularly inept, making some of the numbers sound like the sea chantys you might hear from actual reenacters at a local seaport. The visual look of the film also suffers from this pseudo-realist aesthetic. Instead of giving us these characters reimagined in an actual society, the environments look staged and reduced from their original versions.

Stevens is a fine Beast to the extent that he makes voice acting into a character beneath the effects. Watson is particularly awful as Belle – perhaps because she has never actually been anguished or agonized in life, her method of showing any displeasure comes to simply pursing her lips as if she is suffering a mild ulcer. She never really touches Beast or invades his personal space at all. During the sequence where Beast is recovering from an attack by wolves she seems vaguely uncaring towards him, like the main method by which any human being relates to her is one of inconvenience.

Using magic, Beast takes her to Paris, where the power of imagination allows Watson to whine about her mother dying in the city. Thus she does not ever want to return to society. Instead of forcing her to change and adapt to the world, as the lyrics of the film's signature strong suggest Beast does, it adapts to her. Shown Beast's immense library, he says that Belle can have it if she wants. What isn't given to her? Given that theme, maybe the choice of Ms. Watson for the role does not seem so strange.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Friday
Feb032017

In Which Kem Nunn Did Not Get Along With His Shrink

Four People

by ELEANOR MORROW

Chance
creators Kem Nunn and Alexandra Cunningham
Hulu

"God is an American," it must have occurred to Hugh Laurie at some point. He has spent much of the second half of his career with the best American accent he can muster. There were American men who talked the way that Hugh Laurie does to his wife and she to him; in the 18th century, they lived in mansions in Virginia and were at home in the country. While he filmed House he spent most of the year away from his wife and kids, and of course on the show, where he portrayed a perpetually cranky doctor, he did not have either.

Laurie is deeply acquainted with the subject of depression as well. Despite the fact that he is a semi-capable neuropsychiatrist, whatever that is, Dr. Eldon Chance is suffering from this familiar phenomenon. It began shortly before the divorce with his wife, Carla, initiated when she began fucking her personal trainer. Carla (the hard-to-look-at Diane Farr) has one main complaint about her soon-to-be ex-husband. He is not decisive enough – he doesn't make things happen, he simply receives them when they do.

Chance seems to take this characterization as a personal challenge. Novelist Kem Nunn (Tapping the Source) used Chance to fold a book-length indictment of the institution of psychiatry into a noirish murder mystery. Nunn never says so directly, but he hates shrinks. He finds them lacking from every conceivable angle, and the man he loathes the most in the genre is Dr. Freud. The only thing he believes Freud is any good at is writing – identifying psychiatric treatment with what he does, bullshit, is the most backhanded compliment Nunn can pay to this troubled profession.

Dr. Chance does not really treat patients often. His position in the medical firmament is that of a diagnostician, and the reason he seeks this role is because he is frequently alarmed by the intensity of the empathy he feels for others. This experience scares him again and again, giving him insight into himself. We thus see therapy as an act that exists mainly for the person perpetrating the dialogue. In addition, it is key for the economic sustenance of therapist, and thus this arrangement can never be wholly positive no matter how genuine the concern on the part of the practitioner. There is always poison in the drink.

Chance refers Jaclyn Blackstone (Gretchen Mol) to a psychiatrist better equipped to deal with her multiple-personality disorder, Dr. Suzanne Silver (LisaGay Hamilton). The two discuss their patient in extensive scenes which allow Nunn to display how self-involved and ill-equipped they are to treat this woman. Therapy, Nunn argues, is like groping around in the dark for another person and finding only a mirror when you flick the light on. Dr. Silver is most upset about how long she had to wait for her lunch.

Once he begins fucking his patient, Dr. Chance is still referring to the literature, caught up in his shifting view of a person about whom he never really cares enough to get to know. "Freud had famously said that he had come to regard any sexual act as one involving at least four people," Nunn has Dr. Chance think in the novel. "Chance had no idea how many of them were there in the room, coming and going at all hours of day and night, but between the two of them it was how it had been with the madman among the tombs, that their number was legion." The analysis itself is the only guide a lost soul has available to him.

Despite its San Francisco setting, the environments that surround Dr. Chance never really play a huge part in the novel. Nunn's collaborator Alexandra Cunningham and director Lenny Abrahamson (Room) have made a point of indicting San Francisco as well. The separation between the haves and have not could not be more apparent. Chance uses a homosexual black man (Clarke Peters) to sell his furniture, and befriends the man's in-house carpenter, Darius (the brilliant Ethan Suplee). Like any tourist who stays too long, he does not know anything about such types, and endeavors to learn.

In the character of Darius, Nunn manifests his most appealing creation – a self-proclaimed veteran capable of inflicting violence on everyone but Chance himself. Laurie makes a point of not appearing too physically frail, in contrast to his most famous role, but he struggles to compete with Darius and the litany of more present people that fill the rest of the narrative: his troubled patient (a harried-looking Mol), her mysterious husband (Paul Adelstein), and his troubled daughter (Stefania Owen).

Like much of Nunn's work, Chance seems to operate with its own set of moral strictures and bears little resemblance to the contemporary world or current events. This gives the series a certain timeless feeling, and many times it channels the never-ending atmosphere of another noir, Vertigo, with which it shares a city and many themes. If we really believe what we are seeing, we risk incriminating ourselves. Thus it is only possible to watch Chance in a detached way, to hope that we are not as these people are.

There is no cinematic mood more difficult to sustain than menace. At times Chance seems to thrive on this not-knowing, fearful state, but it is much more achievable in the short running time of a feature. Stretching out this sensation into multiple seasons is just that: a stretch. We cannot possibly identify with a group of people who only see themselves as victims or perpetrators, and the uneasy feeling never coalesces into an understanding that could make either side any kind of a victor.

By the end of Chance we have not found anyone we really like. As Nunn puts it, there are feeders and receivers, and the world is full of the latter, perhaps completely full. This meaningless binary is even sadder if it might, in some respects, be true.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Tuesday
Jan032017

In Which Brit Marling Died More Times Than We Can Count

Time to Go Online

by ELEANOR MORROW 

The OA
creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij
Netflix

Sometimes you really just need to get on the internet. Once there, you can safely check Drudge and maybe see what's in your e-mail. Prairie Johnson (Brit Marling) sounds like a euphemism for something terrible, but instead it's just the name of a woman with a similar feeling. Ms. Johnson prefers to be called The OA, which means Original Angel. After the OA returns to American life after seven years imprisoned in an abandoned mine, she just needs to get some wifi, so she gets in touch with Steve (Patrick Gibson). He gives her a mobile router in exchange for help in preventing his father from shipping him to a military academy.

Marling and collaborator Zal Batmanglij have been on the internet a lot in preparation for this eight episode Netflix series, which feels like the prodigious and exciting dramatic efforts of a newborn baby reaching out. Like their feature film Sound of My Voice, The OA has a somewhat different pacing than what we are used to from traditional movies and television, resembling more of a youtube video than a traditional dramatic series. This slight shift is liberating at a time when the inclination seem to over-explain in order to justify the expense of locations, budgets and actors.

Marling herself holds this diverse cast together. She is an exceedingly subtle performer. There is one brief scene where she is just curling up on a blanket that I think about a lot; she is in the first throes of being a person and she is literally deciding which way to turn. The teen actors Marling has cast around are just as talented, and their story in the present is as compelling as the tale of incarceration that the OA tells them at length. "You have to pretend to trust me until you actually do," the OA explains to them. "Before you close your eyes, I want you to imagine everything I tell you as if you are there yourself, as if you are me."

The OA describes a Moscow childhood, and we are not really sure if we are supposed to believe her or not. Even the series' title sequence seems more like a cosmic joke than a plaintive representation of reality. Beauty in The OA comes completely unexpectedly, but it holds no particular or specific meaning. It is only the details of the story meant to convince her new friends. Moscow is not Moscow, it is merely images from a helicopter. A tale is only as credible as the people telling it.

For seven years the OA is imprisoned by a scientist named Hap (Jason Isaacs) in what resembles a massive human terrarium. There her fellow captors discover five movements that, properly aligned, intend to create a way to escape from their captivity. This core tragedy never engenders much sympathy, and as much of a monster as Hap is, he seems to be going about things for generally positive reasons. He doesn't overly mistreat his captives, and even after he drowns them in a tank they always come back to life. 

Isaacs himself is the worst performer in this entire milieu. I can understand why he keeps being cast as the prototypical middle-aged man, and here it maybe helps that he is so transparently not a scientist, since it gives a bizarre illegitimacy to the story the OA is telling. Still, the present tense of the OA's return to civilization is what really compels us, the "invisible life" of the four teenagers and one teacher (The Office's Phyllis Smith) who are drawn into her dark circle. 

"Sometimes I just need to be alone," the OA explains to her adoptive parents, Nancy (Alice Krige) and Abel (Scott Wilson). Their bracing care for her is one of many instances of inadequate love in The OA. Everyone here, it seems, loves someone who cannot fully receive their affection. It is not that they cannot express love themselves, it is that they can never be loved in the way that they imagine would make them completely happy.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.