Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Time To Rent A Movie... But Which One?

The other day, I was chatting to a fresher (A delightful girl by the name of Sian - She'll appreciate the name dropping) and we discovered we shared a mutual love for the musical Rent. To my horror, I discovered she had not seen the stage production, only the movie. Luckily for her, I have the 2008 Broadway Filming on my laptop. Cue a movie night at the end of which Sian said the words, 'I prefer the film.' A discussion broke out and the suggestion was made that I review them both, so here we go.

If, somehow, you are not aware of Rent or what it is about, here is a quick synopsis: a group of seven friends living in poverty in New York are struggling with love, failing careers, and AIDS. They face eviction from their homes due to their old friend Benny having married into a fair amount of money and buying the block that the protagonists live in. A musical that copes with sickness, friendship, and love in a touching manner. The film cuts several songs out but has the advantage of a real landscape for the characters to perform around. The 2008 Broadway movie obviously has more songs (in fact is mostly sung) and an (almost) entirely different cast. A near bare stage and less extras. How do they compare to one another? Let's see.

Rent: The Film

Anthony Rapp - Mark Cohen
Adam Pascal - Roger Davis
Rosario Dawson - Mimi Marquez
Jesse L. Martin - Thomas B. "Tom" Collins
Wilson Jermaine Heredia - Angel Dumott Schunard
Idina Menzel - Maureen Johnson
Tracie Thoms - Joanne Jefferson
Taye Diggs - Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III

A truly fantastic cast. Most of the cast that had been performing together from the show's first performance on Broadway. The two newcomers, Thoms and Dawson, are both incredible additions to the cast and it is impossible to tell that they hadn't previously been in the cast. They provide two of the most dedicated performances in the film and Dawson's voice is simply indescribably perfect for Mimi's character. Daphne Rubin-Vega and Fredi Walker (the original Mimi and Joanne, respectively) both left the cast because they felt they were too old for their characters - which perhaps a few more cast members should have considered... Rubin- Vega was also pregnant - and their replacements fitted their roles perfectly. In fact, the only issue with the cast is Pascal's portrayal of Roger. There is little emotional change in his character at all. Admittedly, the songs that show this most are rushed or cut out (Without You, Goodbye Love) but for a man who hasn't left his apartment for seven months, there never seems to be that deep hurt that Roger is meant to have. The hidden pain is not there.

The real issues with the film come from the script. Having kept most of the dialogue from the stage production, one would think that the film would flow like it does on stage. It does not. Considering most of the lines in the stage production are sung, when spoken in the film they sound jarring and peculiar. the rhyming pattern in the speech sound like a Dr Seuss book when simply spoken.The second huge issue with the writing is so much of importance is cut out or rushed. Obviously, the stage production comes in at around two and a half hours and therefore needs a lot of cutting. We don't find out that Roger's ex slit her wrists and telling him he had AIDs in the note. We miss Mark's entire issue about being the only one to survive out of his closest friends. The film still works without these aspects, but it does lose a lot in terms of emotion. Christopher Columbus actually cut most of Goodbye Love and Halloween (two of Mark's most important songs) because he was fearful of the emotional overload, which is what, ironically, the film suffered without.

While it may be pretty to look at and listen to during the songs, the film lacks a strong core. As with many on-screen musicals, it suffers from a pile of cheese during musical numbers that make it all a bit soft. Walking through deserts, singing off rooftops, throwing flaming paper into the road because your home is cold (that one really makes no sense), an engagement party that goes wrong, complete with on-the-table dancing. Get the soundtrack for the film; that's all you really need.

Best Bit?  Rosario Dawson's voice is incredible and her song, Out Tonight, is absolutely incredible. Without You, despite being rushed, is still the most touching moment of the film, followed closely by I'll Cover You (Reprise).

Rent: Filmed Live On Broadway

Will Chase - Roger Davis
Adam Kantor - Mark Cohen
Michael McElroy - Thomas B. "Tom" Collins
Rodney Hicks - Benjamin "Benny" Coffin III
Tracie Thoms - Joanne Jefferson
Justin Johnston - Angel Dumott-Schunard
Renée Elise Goldsberry - Mimi Marquez
Eden Espinosa - Maureen Johnson

There is few things in films that I can call flawless, but this cast is exactly that. Every single cast member on stage has an incredible voice and also gives the performance of their lives. The chemistry in all of the relationships is so strong you wouldn't believe there was any acting involved. Of course, Thoms is still playing Joanne, but the rest of the cast (except Hicks, who was a Benny understudy, and Gwen Stewart (Bag Lady)) are new and extremely different to the film cast. No particular performance can be picke out as the best. Though, McElroy's rendition of I'll Cover You (Reprise) will cause even the hardest of hearts to melt and the driest of eyes to water. It is simply beautiful and touching.

Despite having little more than a few tables, some stairs, and a little trap door, the scenery surrounding the action is completely there. At no point will you find yourself questioning what is going on. Something about the intimacy on stage - the reality of it all - makes even the minimalistic set seem defined and identifiable. The singing is outstanding and as almost the entire production is sung, the texture and layers of all the songs adds something that no score could ever do. Even songs like Christmas Bells which deals with, in a single song, love, drug addictions, friendship, the homeless, and snow, to name but a few things. Filmed like a movie, only the occasional shot shows the entire stage, but it means that those who were never fortunate enough to visit Broadway (like yours truly) can get an intimate viewing of the show and get the idea of what it would have been like both in the audience and on stage. 

Unavailable as a soundtrack, but if it were, it would still not be enough. While the singing is fantastic, it is by no means the only strong point of the show. The acting is incredible, the direction is incredible, the singing is beyond words. A fantastic watch, especially for those who love seeing productions on the stage. Simply a must-see for musical fans.

Best Bit? La Vie Boheme is a definite highlight of the production and the chills that will be sent down your spine during I'll Cover You (Reprise) are unbelievable. If you don't cry, you're evidently soulless. 

How They Compare

The immediate thing that must be discussed when comparing these two films is the scenery. One has real scenery, one is minimalistic. How could the latter ever live up to that? The film does have this as an easy advantage; it is a lot easier to see where the characters are and what they are doing without Mark's occasional narration that the production has. However, on stage, four different scenarios can be playing out at the same time. Examples of this include Rent and Christmas Bells, the former of which is also in the film but only has two stories running during the song - Mark and Roger having to pay rent and Collins getting attacked - whereas the stage production also introduces us to Joanne and her relationship with Maureen and a more human side to Benny, something the film does not do at all. This adds more depth to the stage production and, honestly, it looks and sounds better than the film as well.

Acting is hard to compare as the new cast act very differently to the old cast - with the exception of Thoms. Rosario Dawson is a better singer than Renée Elise Goldsberry however Goldsberry has a better connection with her fellow cast, which makes her a lot easier to watch. her connection with Will Chase as Roger in particular is something that is rare to see in even the bes actors. Chase, in general, seems to capture more of Roger's past in his performance. There are clearer signs of the pain he has experienced; something that just doesn't come across in Pascal's performance. Apart from this, both casts are pretty equal. We see Justin Johnston's impressive vocal range than we do of Wilson Jermaine Heredia's, though this is probably because Contact and Happy New Year B are not in the film, Angel's best songs to show of his vocal range. Also, Eden Espinosa is creepily similar to Idina Menzel, buut not quite as good in any way.

The complexity of the music on stage really outdoes that in the film in every sense and it doesn't require completely ridiculous set pieces. I will never be entirely sure what Christopher Columbus was aiming to do in the following scenes: Everyone throwing fire out of their windows during Rent, Roger singing off his balcony whilst everyone sings up at him from the street with no purpose for being there in Another Day, Mark hitting his head and imagining a large Tango session with Joanne in Tango: Maureen, the piles of TVs that Maureen uses during Over the Moon despite being so poor, Roger walking through the desert in What You Own, Mark and Roger singing off their roof in What You Own - Mark in fact tells the sky, 'Alexi? I need to finish my own film, I quit!' I don't think that's an official resignation Mark. There are also fantastic set pieces in the film; both Sante Fe and Today 4 U are better in the film than on stage. However, the entire Joanne/Maureen engagement is a completely unneeded extra plot which could have easily been replaced with better songs and scenes.

My final point is that the film tries a little too hard to be big and grand. The set pieces already mention which don't work as well as Columbus hoped they would are examples of this, but also moments like the entire cast singing the end of Rent which completely removes the intensity of Mark and Roger's problems and also cuts out their incredible final harmony. (Seriously, as a singer, those notes are hard to hit.)

If you want to watch Rent then, watch the 2008 Broadway filming. It's as simple as that. I would suggest watching both to make a fair decision on them for yourself, but, as I mentioned previously, the soundtrack from the film is really the best thing about it, so owning that should suffice.

Rent: The Film

Rent: Filmed Live On Broadway

Monday, 22 October 2012

Russians Like Their Tattoos.

There are a lot of Mafia and mob related movies out there in the world. Gangs films can become cult favourites, like The Warriors, and gangster movies can be regarded as the best films in creation, like The Godfather and The Departed. You would think there would be nothing more that can be done with gangs and the Mafia and you'd be wrong. Every year a couple are released and in 2007 the film we look at today was released. It's called Eastern Promises.

When an unidentified young women dies while giving birth to a baby girl in Anna's (Naomi Watts) ward, Anna takes it upon herself to translate the late mother’s Russian diary to find the correct home for the new born, Christine. After little help from her mother, Helen (Sinéad Cusack), and uncle, Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski), she stumbles upon a restaurant run by Russians, in which the owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), offers to translate the diary faster than her uncle. What Anna doesn't realise is she’s just handed the diary over to a Russian mob known as Vory v Zakone. Semyon is the head but he has to keep looking out for his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and often sends his driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) to keep an eye on him. Desperate for answers, Anna tries to appeal to Nikolai’s good side and plead him for help. Unfortunately, due to Kirill rash decisions of revenge, the mob have plenty of issues on their hands, including staying alive.

The Mafia's rendition of Sweeney Todd was a huge hit.

There is fantastic acting throughout the movie. Viggo Mortensen is completely intimidating with his cold character that clearly has a caring and soft side. There is something utterly terrifying about the way he performs and then, as a nice juxtaposition, he suddenly shows he cares for his Russian brothers and even, to some extent, Anna and the baby. In contrast, Vincent Cassel, who is also fantastic, has a lack of care for anyone and everything as Kirill. There is something about Cassel's performance that shows deep hurt and repressed emotions – he is possibly/ quite probably a closeted homosexual – and it really shows throughout the film, peaking towards the end. However, his accent did slip from thick Russian – like the other mob members – to slightly French. Oops. Naomi Watts is also brilliant. Caring and compassionate, but strong willed and does not plan on giving up. A really interesting performance because her relationships with the mob members, particularly Nikolai, are completely engaging despite being completely different characters. The supporting cast are superb. A special mention to Jerzy Skolimowski  for his performance as Stepan; he’s a simple character that makes a big impact on the film.

The least incognito thing about Nikolai's appearance was a simple fact...
Sunglasses in England? As if.
An excellently written script that has some of the most engaging dialogue of the modern film age. The seamless transition between speaking English and speaking Russian adds a layer of simple complexity* and brings a sense of diversity and realism to the film. A lot of films choose the easy option of using one fluent language, but David Cronenberg refused to take the lazy route. A very good choice. The technical elements of the film lacked somewhat. A film of this style and standard needed a little more in terms of score and cinematography. There was a brilliantly choreographed fight scene with a handful of complete male nudity but nothing of real decency was added in in the post-production room. It really needed, in particular, more experimentation in the camera work department. That is what would have made this film a masterpiece in modern gangster movies. 

Overall, a wonderful achievement in Mafia movies as well as British movies. Don't be afraid of the common use of subtitles, this movie is worth reading a little bit. It has something for everyone. After watching, you'll dream of being as cool as Mortensen as Nikolai. (It is heartbreaking when you realise you can't be.)

Best Bit? There's a fantastic scene with Kirill and Nikolai with several hookers and Kirill turns nasty. It shows the loyalty of Nikolai and the brutality of Kirill.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Guns Are Bad

A lot of movies are released every year and it is impossible to get round to watching all of them. This means that it takes me a few years to even hear about movies that I should watch. Today's review is an e/xample of such a movie. Released in 2007, Channel 4 and my housemate are to thank (or are they) for me watching today's film. This is The Brave One.

David (Naveen Andrews) and Erica (Jodie Foster) are a happy couple and are planning for their weding. In their happy married life, they go for walks with their dog and flirt over the colour of their wediing invitations. However, one night time stroll, their dog runs off down a tunnel and into the hands of some thugs. The thugs, when they don't get what they want, brutally attack Erica and David, leaving them both in critical condition. While Erica survives, David does not. Erica has to adjust and, having trouble leaving her apartment, decides to buy a gun for protection in the city of New York, the city she once loved. But guns are dangerous things and from the second she gets it, in less than legal circumstances, it starts causing problems. Serious problems.

After not eating much in hospital, all Erica wanted was a subway. 

The acting in the film is fantastic. By far the best aspect of the movie. The characters have such connections that feel genuine and heartfelt. Jodie Foster's Erica was a brilliant representation of someone who had experienced real pain and suffering, someone who is crippled by fear and confusion. Her on screen relationship with Naveen Andrews' David is completely believable and touching. That love for David is visible throughout her entire performance. Terrence Howard's Detective Mercer, while lacking conviction in his emotions, is a great character. He is great fun to watch and ocassionally, there is a glimpse of brilliance in his acting. Again, he connects excellently with Jodie Foster on screen and together they make a completely engaging movie.

Simply wanted to point out how dashing Terrence Howard is in a suit.

The biggest downfall with the film is the music. Often it completely detracts from the action on screen rather than drawing attention to it. It is not just a question of misplaced music, but also of a bad choice of music. Sometimes it sounds like the score from a large scale blockbuster has been placed over the film rather than create a more accurate atmosphere. On top of this, the cinematographer gets a little carried away with his spinning camera. Far too often, one has to tilt their head almost ninety degrees in order to watch the film. And admitedly, the script has enough holes in to have a round of golf. The overall plot is fine and dandy, it is just in the details. Buying a gun from a dodgy man in a backstreet of New York after not leaving your apartment for fear of the people outside, is but one example of these aggrivating holes.

An engaging film. The acting and overall direction make up for the technical faults and it is still a completely watchable film. The 122 minutes do not drag on and that's always the key for a two hour movie. A good time killer but no masterpiece.

Best Bit? My personal favourite scene was Erica's interview with Mercer. Some of the best acting in the film.