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May 2012

'Othello': I kissed thee ere I killed thee...

Forgive the lateness of this week's column, my fiends, but I must needs delay long enough to witness the splendor that is Othello.

Sorry. Once you spend an evening in Shakespeare Glen, you start thinking in Elizabethan English. I, of course, have a natural tendency toward it. (Ahem. What's my name again? Thank you, I'll be here all week.)

Othello is striking from the beginning, with sumptuous 1912 costuming and a steampunk set that seems equally at home for Wicked as for one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies. The cogs of consummate villain Iago's machinations are slowly revealed - quite literally, in giant clockwork wheels behind the set - as the story of Othello, Desdemona and their cohorts unfolds. In all technical aspects of this year's production by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Othello is a masterpiece.

In fact, I honestly could find no real fault with this production. The Shakespeare Festival always provides above-average interpretations of the Bard's work, and even when they stumble (Much Ado in the wild wild West?) they are still head and shoulders above most Shakespearean theater I've seen performed.

This time, however, they've outdone themselves. Othello is in more than capable hands with Billy Eugene Jones, who sells us on both sides of Shakespeare's Moor with great dexterity. A soldier and a man, he shows us the tender love Othello bears toward his Desdemona with so much chemistry that the first act makes it seem impossible he could ever harm her.

Aside: If you think I'm going to put a spoiler warning on a 400-year-old play, you're hilariously mistaken. But knowing the end still made me doubt how this charming, loving couple could possibly be torn apart.

Iago spins his web across the stage under the hands of Justin Blanchard. As noted by an essay in the program, Othello is really Iago's story, just as Julius Caesar is far more the story of Brutus. But Iago is no honorable man. The number of times the cast blithely calls him "honest" is all the more teeth-gritting as his hatred and smiling servility smarms across the stage. (Say that three times.) "How am I, then, a villain?" he asks, and at once we see the truth of it: he merely sets the stage, much as Shakespeare himself, and lets others undo themselves. I overheard another patron call Blanchard's performance, "a brilliant asshole," and one cannot truly argue with the assessment.

Shining through is Heather Wood as a Desdemona with both agency and intelligence. It is far too easy to play Desdemona as passive; she is the ultimate victim, of course, the perfect loving Mary Sue adored by all and undone by the actions of others. Wood manages to escape all of that with inflection, tone and dignity, living within the time period that demanded she call her husband Lord, yet clearly a woman of strength and fortitude within herself. More to the point: she is a Desdemona who fights back, who strives to save herself and her husband at the same time, even when it is her husband who is the greatest threat. If you have ever eschewed Othello because you cannot imagine a wife blithely lying in bed waiting for her husband to kill her, you will not be disappointed in this production.

Extra credit goes to Kim Stauffer as Emilia, a functional plot device who nevertheless gets the groundbreaking feminist monologue in Act IV (at least, the feminism of 1604) and stands as the sole voice of righteousness in the final moments of the play. Emilia likewise can be played as her husband's mindless tool whose futile rebellion costs her her life. (Again: the play's been around for 400 years. Read a damn book.) That Emilia stands as the bravest character on the stage at the end, surrounded by cowardly, jealous men, shows that director Bruce Longworth realizes the true strength of Shakespeare's women, far ahead of his time.

It is not a short play; plan on three and a half hours from curtain, not including the always-enjoyable green show beforehand. (Extra applause for the strolling jugglers!) But it never feels like three and a half hours; the pace is quick and the staging manipulated so you are never confused or lost in the language. It is the first Shakespeare production in the park that has tempted me to return again for another viewing, and that's with the mosquitoes.

I strongly recommend this summer's Shakespeare Festival production of Othello. This is not the year to miss out, and very well might be St. Louis' strongest theatrical production of the year. The festival runs every night except Tuesdays through June 17, and is free to all - but I suggest getting there early enough to score a good seat. You won't be disappointed.


Bread and Circuses, or, Why 'Hunger Games' Was Better Than 'Avengers'

I figured that would get everyone mad at me. Deal with it, guys: Avengers was great fun and a good reason to munch popcorn (though not at those prices).

But it wasn't the second coming of comic book movies and it wasn't vindication for Firefly (which was better on its worst day than Avengers). It wasn't in the top five for comic-book movies, in my opinion. In fact, if The Dark Knight Rises is anywhere near as good as its predecessor and if box office ever had anything to do with quality, I'd predict Batman is going to kick the Hulk's ass all the way across the multiplex. (And that would be the only time that would happen.)

I've seen them both, because I want to see all the big ones this summer. And I must tip my hat to The Hunger Games, which lived up to the post-release buzz as intelligent, frightening, thought-provoking, brilliantly acted, competently directed and most of all, has the best heroine to appear on film in a very long time.

Meet Katniss Everdeen, a girl who lives in an odd mix between a Depression-era coal-mining town and a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Apparently at some point in the past, outlying districts of a future North America rebelled against the wealthy, lazy Capitol. It's easy to see why: the districts are the worker bees, poor and starving on the best of days. They mine the raw materials, till the fields, providing for the luxury enjoyed by the Capitol folks.

But they lost, and I can't wait to read the books and find out how. I mean, they had all the raw materials, right? Try fighting a war without metal and coal - wait, you can just ask the Confederacy how that one goes. So the strategic geniuses who lost this war also signed the mother of all bad treaties: each year the districts must offer two children - yes, children - between the ages of 12 and 18 to go fight a gladiatorial battle before the television cameras. Only one is allowed to survive.

Katniss' little sister is chosen, and before you can say Shirley Jackson, Katniss volunteers to take scared little Primrose's place. I knew that much from the trailers, but Katniss had me from the moment she begged her maybe-boyfriend to make sure her frail sister and useless mother have food. "Don't let them starve," she says. She doesn't tell him she loves him (maybe she doesn't) and she doesn't fret about her danger or whether he loves her as she leaves for her probable death. She thinks first of her responsibilities to her family, that they will go hungry if she dies.

Already a better story than Twilight. Not that it would be hard.

There's a lot going on in The Hunger Games, multiple allegories that show it to be among the best of science fiction in the finest tradition.

On one level, it's a familiar indictment of the bread-and-circuses mentality brought to reality television. We've seen the concept of reality TV as a battle of life and death several times before, notably in Stephen King's The Long Walk and Running Man. But I challenge you to see the Capitol people (dressed in the worst fashion since Logan's Run; if that's the future, count me out) and not think of the fattening Romans, watching the Christians become lion fodder for their amusement. Add a sinister Donald Sutherland as the presumed leader of this nation, read between his lines, and you begin to see how he controls the people: give them bread and circuses. They have all they could ever want to eat, and the Hunger Games to watch for entertainment.

And the people on the outside, in the districts? They watch too. The giant screen is set up in the town square. Only they're watching their own children fight and die. And they're starving while they do. Early on a boy muses, "What if no one watched?" Katniss, ever the realist, says, "That'll never happen." We're stuck with American Idol forever... but at least the losers live.

But it's not just a treatise on reality television. It's the most extreme form of class warfare I've seen in years, even moreso than the similarly-themed In Time, an underrated science fiction/action flick that put the poor vs. the rich in quite literal terms. In In Time, the rich live virtually forever, and the poor must work constantly to win enough time to stay alive, because time is quite literally money.

Likewise, The Hunger Games shows the quintessential caste society. No one travels from district to district unless they are on their way to the slaughter of the Hunger Games. Katniss was born with the coal miners, and she'll stay there until she dies. The wealthy, weirdly-dressed Capitol people will never visit her village. But Sutherland gives us his hint, when he speaks to the Games coordinator: a little hope can be used to control. A lot of hope is dangerous.

Put it more bluntly: you can only piss on the people so long before they fight back. Absent the bread and forced to die in the circuses, the people must eventually rebel. This has happened a thousand times over in history. And forcing a vanquished people to pay for their rebellion over and over again has never worked. Ask the Germans after World War I, who were angry and starving and ripe for a Hitler to lead them. Ask the South after the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln extended a hand of reconciliation, even ordering the band after Appomattox to play "Dixie," but after his assassination the Reconstruction was changed to punish the South, leading to 150 years of north vs. south nonsense that is still being argued in some places today.

That's the fun thing about science fiction: it tells us more about the reality of our own lives and our history, past and present, than it does about fancy devices and bizarre aliens. You could spend all day reading into the allegories of The Hunger Games.

But what it really comes down to is Katniss herself. I've often said I write my heroines because they're the women I like to read and I can't find books like that, so I have to write them myself. Katniss is a wonderful exception. She isn't weak; you'd never find her sniveling about some boy leaving her (ahem Bella Swan). She hunts to feed her family; she will kill if she must to survive. She volunteers for the Hunger Games not because she wants the fame and attention (with makeover!), but to save her sister's life.

She isn't perfect, either; in a position requiring charm, she has none, and her bluntness and calculating dispassion are both benefits and liabilities. In evaluating Katniss, I find myself turning to the definitions in Susan Isaacs' Brave Dames and Wimpettes, one of the more fun pop-culture feminist books I've read. To paraphrase, since my copy is still in a box somewhere: The brave dame is passionate about something besides passion. She is motivated by something besides a man. She stands up for something important, she does right by other women and refuses to get sucked into backstabbing bitchery. Her identity is not derived from roles others would choose for her, but from herself. She may be afraid, but she does not let her fear rule her.

I have no complaints about Katniss, and that's been a long time coming. She is strong without being cold; she feels pain, guilt and grief. She is intelligent and uses her brain and skills to make the best of her situation. She is not above using the tropes of her time to her advantage, but is never cruel.

SPOILERS!!! Better yet, the story may be about Katniss, but we never get the sense that she is safe. In most movies of this ilk, we know that certain people are "safe" because movie tropes declare they will survive. Some moviemakers delight in defying those expectations; Joss Whedon has done it so much that now we expect that defiance from him, which in itself becomes an expectation. The screenwriter and director do an excellent job in The Hunger Games of creating Katniss' fatalism with that tiny thread of hope, so we find ourselves imagining a YA story in which the heroine dies. I saw the twist coming, unfortunately, but not its exact resolution.

SPOILERS!!! I know there were more books, and I hope the unexpected success of The Hunger Games means we get to see them made into movies as well. I am already hunting them down, because I have waited many years to read a character like Katniss and I want more of her. I want to know why the districts' leaders signed such a bloodthirsty treaty. I want to know who thought that makeup was a good idea. I want to know if/when the districts will rebel against this ritual sacrifice. I want to watch a top-heavy culture collapse under the weight of its own injustice.

I want to see the movie again.

And... Avengers? Hey, it was fun. Glad to see Whedon can fill a theater at last. I absolutely want a Hawkeye/Black Widow movie yesterday. But although I think they're a little harsh on what was essentially mindless fun, Cracked.com said everything I wanted to say about Avengers and did it with more funny. Go read that. And yeah, see the movie. It was fun. It just wasn't the best.


Summer Movie Kickoff!

Welcome back from CultureGeek's hiatus! And what a way to start the summer - you've seen Avengers, yes? Apparently everyone has, or plans to this weekend. So much for the lackluster movie industry - let's see what Hollywood has in store for us this summer!

As per usual: I do not cover every movie, because Entertainment Weekly exists. These are the major geek films, with extra notice for "stuff other people would watch" and "movies you could not pay me enough to watch."


MAY

The Avengers: My thoughts on Avengers probably deserve their own review, but since the movie's already out, everyone who wanted to see it already has… and probably will again. The short version: it was delightful popcorn fare, a real ensemble flick capably directed with only a few glaring plot holes and convenient plot devices. Predictable, but fun. The best comic book movie ever? Not even in the top five. But by all means, enjoy the hell out of it. Anything's better than suffering through Wolverine again. Also: I was not bothered by Loki's slur against Black Widow. Why? Because that's how bad guys act toward women who threaten them. In real life.

Dark Shadows: If you were a fan of the vampy soap, circa 1960s or 1990s, you should be ashamed of yourself for watching this. Tim Burton is becoming a caricature of himself, remaking other people's visions into his own weird subgenre forever starring Johnny Depp. While we're at it, let's make fun of the '70s, because that's hard. Burton has always been hit or miss for me, and he seems to do his best when he's not remaking other people's work (Planet of the Apes, anyone?). Nothing I saw in the promos made me think "fun" or "scary."

Battleship: Dumb premise for a summer action flick? Maybe, maybe not. From the trailers, it seems like someone had an awesome idea for an alien-invasion megafilm, and then the marketing people said, "Hey, let's tag it after a popular board game! That'll really put butts in the seats!" Apparently it's impossible to get a movie on the docket that isn't a) a sequel, b) based on a comic book, game or toy, or c) about sparkly vampires. Still, we'll check out Battleship, on the off chance someone wrote a good script before marketing got hold of it.

Men in Black 3: After the dullness that was MIB2, I was willing to let this one go. I heard it was a time-travel flick, and yawns ensued. But that was before I saw Josh Brolin in full makeup as a young Tommy Lee Jones, and I must say… good job, makeup people. And good job to Brolin, managing to perfectly capture Jones as K in about 10 seconds of film. Will Smith is always fun, so I'll pick up the Noisy Cricket one more time.

Other People: What to Expect When You're Expecting. The promo looks decidedly unfunny, with an emphasis on "men can't handle babies" that stopped being funny after Three Men and a Baby. Named after the single most useful pregnancy book in the English language, coupled with plenty of Stupid Man Says Stupid Things and poop jokes, I expect it'll do quite well.

Hell No: The Dictator. I am allergic to Sasha Baron Cohen on the best of days. This, however, is so far beyond the pale I am amazed it isn't being protested, except that would give it too much attention. I am annoyed by humor that exists not to be funny, but to shock and horrify people into embarrassed titters - Cohen's primary art form. Cohen has tried the whole "furriner explores New Yawk" thing before, and then turned his sights on flaming gay men. Now we're supposed to laugh at jokes about terrorism? Dear Mr. Cohen: Too. Soon. It's been too soon for ten years and it isn't going away. It will always be Too Soon for jokes about terrorist attacks on New York.

JUNE

Snow White and the Huntsman. Try to forget that Twilight alum Kristen Stewart's blank face stars in this movie. Charlize Theron as the wickedest of wicked queens looks to be awesome, with hunky Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman searching for her through a forest to rival Narnia. Magic, intrigue, swordfights and critters… Mirror says give it a shot.

Madagascar 3. I realize I am the only human that didn't like the first Seinfeld in the Zoo movie, and nothing about the promos for the second or third has made me change my mind. Perhaps I'm simply beyond the phase for CGI-animated talking animals.

Prometheus. Ridley Scott returns to the Alien universe with a prequel explaining (maybe) where the aliens came from and what happened on LB427 before Ripley et al got all chest-bursty. If anyone but Scott had directed it, I'd dismiss it as a knockoff destined to die like Alien vs. Predator. With Scott at the helm, however, I am unreasonably excited. Then again, I did pay to see AvP… and AvP2. In the theater. Full price. I am shamed before you.

Safety Not Guaranteed: This is one of those movies listed even though nobody is talking about it. Alleged journalists contact a guy who wants to travel in time. It was a Sundance winner and looks to be about faith and imagination… or it'll be dull. I think it looks like a solid Netflixer.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Every ounce of the history buff in me is opposed to the very premise of this movie, that Lincoln's mother died by vampire and he was a secret Slayer ever after. Lincoln as action hero, plus my allergy to Tim Burton (producing this time), all say that it should be a horrible train wreck of a movie. And yet… the promo strangely compelling. I am ashamed to say my curiosity may overcome my scruples.

Brave. It only took 12 movies for Pixar to get around to making one about a girl. Brava to a princess who fights against the preconception that she should be a delicate flower that needs to be rescued, with bonus archery skills. I've watched the evolution of Disney heroines with great interest, and while I've never been as fond of the Pixar movies as traditional Disney (flying in the face of, oh, every other reviewer out there), I am hopeful that Brave will put a new face on the Disney Princess. It's not like they truly need it: Mulan, Pocahontas, Tiana and Belle each brought new levels of intelligence, strength and character to the pink genre, for which Disney never gets credit - mired down in Snow White's shadow. But girls always can use a new heroine.

GI Joe: Retaliation. Okay, I'm the mother of a teenage boy. I was dragged to the first movie kicking and screaming. I was pleasantly surprised with a fun action flick, albeit one that rather ignored the laws of physics (ice doesn't sink, boys). The sequel looks to have twice the action and plot-what-plot centers on … being framed as bad guys? Oh, who cares? Big booms, fight scenes, The Rock and Bruce Willis. The end.

Other People: To Rome With Love. Some people love Woody Allen. I am not one of them.

Hell no: That's My Boy. It's a "comedy" about a young man who was the product of a female teacher raping a student. He grows up, his juvenile father moves in with him and is no more mature than he was in junior high. Because that's funny. Someone tell me why Adam Sandler is still allowed to make movies?

JULY

The Amazing Spider-Man. Let's get this out of the way: Toby McGuire was a great Peter Parker and an awesome Spider-man, there was no reason in the world to fire him and the reboot was unnecessary, even if it let us get Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben. (Whew.) However, two things make me rethink my opposition: a quip from Spidey to a thief that tells me the writer might have read a comic or two, and the apparent placement of Gwen Stacy as Peter's girlfriend. The mangling of Gwen's storyline in the first movie was my biggest single complaint, deserving of its own column. Will they finally do justice by Gwen Stacy, or once again bow to the sanitized, neutered comic-book movie form to which we've been relegated? Stay tuned...

Ice Age: Continental Drift. I freely admit I haven't seen any of these movies, and I'm ignoring the fact that continental drift happened over millennia, not in one cataclysm. I'm sure if you enjoyed the previous movies, you (or your kids) will like this one.

The Dark Knight Rises. I am trying to be cautious about my enthusiasm, just because The Dark Knight was the best comic book movie of the new era and one of the all-time best movies of the century thus far. This Bane looks a whole lot more like the terror of the comics, not the mindless beast of the Movie That Shall Not Be Named. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt joins the cast and it sounds like Christian Bale has finally mastered the Gravel Voice as the trilogy sadly ends. Bonus: Batplane!

Other People: Savages. Oliver Stone returns with a movie about pot dealers whose girlfriend is kidnapped by rival dealers. It comes off like a charming comedy until bad things start happening. I'm not sure what Stone is up to in this movie; the trailer is practically bipolar in its mood shifts. But anything he does automatically gets some attention.

Hell No: Ted. Creepy-ass teddy bear wakes up and starts talking, and he sticks around to smoke a bowl with Mark Wahlberg. A grown man who can't kick the teddy bear to the curb even to get laid> Seth McFarlane thinks it's funny to watch Wahlberg fight with a teddy bear. May his career survive. (Wahlberg's, not McFarlane's.)

AUGUST

The Bourne Legacy. Okay, I love Jeremy Renner, but somebody explain what happened. This series was about Jason Bourne as played by Matt Damon, right? Apparently not anymore...

Total Recall. Remakes R Us cranks out another one, with a completely different premise beyond the existence of Rekall, the company that implants memories. They're playing with Colin Farrell instead of Arnold Schwarzenegger this time, and Farrell is capable of acting. It's possible this one might edge closer to the mindfucking intent, if not the plot, that Phillip K. Dick wrote. But... no Mars??

The Expendables 2. I hate to disappoint Chuck Norris fans, but this movie was almost downgraded to PG-13 because Norris refused to participate unless they cut the swearing. So much for the tough guy. Besides him, there's plenty to enjoy: expanded roles for Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who only cameoed in the first film; Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain (who gets to fight Sylvester Stallone at last); and while they ignored my loud suggestion that Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton needed to be in the sequel, I can report a sighting of at least one woman capable of using a firearm in this movie. Also: Charisma Carpenter returns, and maybe this time they'll remember that she's had martial arts training and let her do something besides whinge. Bonus: more Jet Li! Minus: no Mickey Rourke.

Other People: Hope Springs. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones seek intense marriage counseling after 30 years together. Someone's bucking for acting Oscars. Netflix.

Hell No: The Campaign. Because what I really want to do with my summer vacation is watch Will Farrell and Zach Galifianakis pretend to out-asshole each other as presidential candidates. I can watch that on C-SPAN, thanks.

 

And there you have it: a summer with potential! See you next week, while I start my letter-writing campaign to Marvel for a Black Widow-Hawkeye movie.