Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Something Old Something New

There was no outcome of the election that could have made me happy. So, with only enough peeks at the news to keep apprised of events, I diverted myself through much of the evening with two spins in my trusty DVD player.
**** ****

As You Like It (1936)
My choice to watch this film was prompted by the Asimov guide to Shakespeare, which I reviewed a few blogs ago.

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s airier comedies, most remembered for the “All the world’s a stage” speech. The plot is convoluted, which is why (re)reading the play or consulting a guide like Asimov’s is recommended, especially before viewing this particular production of it. The ‘36 version is notable for starring a young Laurence Olivier as Orlando and Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner as Rosalind, though Bergner’s Viennese lilt is not an asset here.

The rightful duke has been overthrown by his evil brother and now inhabits the forest of Arden with his merry men. The rightful duke's daughter, Rosalind, is still back at the castle and retains the friendship of her cousin, the usurper’s daughter Celia. Rosalind meets and falls for Orlando, who has brother issues of his own. Orlando joins up with the rightful duke in the forest. Rosalind, fearing the usurper, disguises herself as a man and also heads off to the forest with Celia acting as her servant. The disguised Rosalind goes by the name Ganymede (Jupiter’s boy toy in classical mythology). There is much homosexual playfulness when “Ganymede,” unrecognized by Orlando, convinces Orlando to practice wooing Rosalind by pretending “he” is Rosalind. As another complication, a shepherdess named Phebe falls in love with Ganymede. There are other subplots involving rustics, lovers, brothers, and fools.

Crossdressing characters require a delicate balance to achieve comic effect, at least on film. (We are more forgiving of stage performances for a variety of reasons.) They have to be credible enough plausibly to fool the other characters, but not so credible that the audience itself doesn’t recognize them. There is a story, which may or may not be true, that Tony Randall didn’t get the part that went to Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot because he was too convincing as Daphne; even a smidgeon less convincing than either Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon wouldn’t have worked either, however. In the ’36 As You Like It, Elisabeth Bergner isn’t remotely plausible as a man. She never looks like anything other than a very beautiful woman in a tunic, and the slightly lower pitch she gives her voice is still feminine: nowhere near as deep as, say, Marlene Dietrich. This undermines the intended nature of the wooing scenes with Orlando and gives the scene with Phebe an entirely different flavor.

I can’t complain about the writing, of course. As in most film versions of Will’s plays, there are cuts, but nothing crucial. Olivier is fine as Orlando. The sets, locations, and camerawork are good. Yet I can’t quite give this version a recommendation. Too many casting, staging, directing, and acting decisions are misguided and distracting. A reluctant Thumbs Down.
**** ****

Nerve (2016)
It’s long been known that actively discouraging bad behavior works only up to a certain point. After that it is counterproductive. In the US, Prohibition was a particularly disastrous example. A few years ago a study by Jessup and Wade at the University of Sussex concluded that people drink more after seeing ads that warn them of the dangers of drinking. The obsession with political correctness among youth has led to popularity of games such as Cards Against Humanity in which being outrageously offensive is the whole point.  In recent decades most kids in first world countries have grown up absurdly overprotected: helmeted, padded, and supervised to the extreme. It is no surprise then that, in response, extreme sports are all the rage – also, the extreme selfie. Every now and then a fatality makes the news when someone tries to take a selfie on a cliff, or on a subway track, or in a lion’s enclosure, or some such place, and it doesn’t end well.

In Nerve, Vee (Emma Roberts) is a high school senior introduced to the game Nerve. Nerve is a kind of online Truth or Dare accessible on a smart phone. The game has “watchers” and “players”; the watchers challenge the players to do embarrassing or hazardous things – including extreme selfies – in exchange for money. The stunt must be captured by phone. The cash rewards can be a few dollars for a mild prank or a huge jackpot for something truly insane. Vee is seduced by the early rewards but the challenges grow increasingly sinister. The one rule to the game, however, is never to go to the police; it is a rule that is enforced.

There are major flaws in this movie. For one thing, none of the characters is very likable and they endanger more people than just themselves, so it is easier to be annoyed at them than to fear for them. For another, the ending is contrived to put it gently. Nonetheless, the premise is clever enough, and the danger builds as it should.

This was a very close call, but I’ll give the film an ever-so-slight Thumbs Up. That may seem odd after the Thumbs Down above, but I hold Shakespeare to a higher standard.

An earlier heyday of extreme sports


  1. When I'm feeling a little blue, indifferent or needing a laugh I'll put on some Marx Brother, Laurel & Hardy, or something like that. I guess it's why they refer to them as classic. They always achieve a smile for me. Sometimes Woody Allen pictures among others have that sort of comfort food effect. So I can see why you might have turned to Shakespeare. Wondered how you feel about the old conspiracy theory that Will did not write all those stories. I had a friend try and sell me on that prospect, but I had a counter argument. Doesn't matter really as they are still classic.

    I had not heard of Nerve.

    1. I appreciate the Marx Brothers more now than when I was a kid. Back then they were too chaotic for my taste. Nowadays I’m on better terms with chaos.

      I never bought the ghost writer theories. However they originated, they seem to have the most life among those defensive of their own expensive educations: i.e. “No one could write that well who didn’t go to college as I did.” But, of course, prior to the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of great writers never went to college. Many never attended formal schools of any kind. As Shaw noted, all education is self-education. If one is motivated to be literate, one will seek out literacy on one’s own. If not … well, attending college won’t help much.