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So begins another year and what better way to celebrate than a retrospective hodge-podge review of my most favorite recent versions of famous British stage and screen mainstays?

These revitalized pieces of modern film-making prove the idiom that “everything old is new again,” and their combined histories – a modern television show/series of films based on a late-19th century series of novels, a futuristic film adaptation of a play more than 400 years old, and the latest film in a 25-year-old franchise – are enough to make you feel like a well-known time-and-dimension-hopping-Doctor who will remain nameless as I have not yet been convinced of his preeminence.

British pop culture has never been irrelevant, but in the wake of the Harry Potter books and films, the Lord of the Rings films, and rebooted version of Dr. Who (I guess I lied), it has recently experienced a kind of renaissance abroad (especially in the United States) and for me, the three properties below embody that “return to form.” Modern producers have re-forged and re-invented many of England’s most precious cultural icons, building on their eclectic histories to produce arguably the most effective iterations of those properties yet.

My over-analytical ramblings aside though, these are some of the coolest film or film-like entities of British origin that I’ve seen in some time.

Sherlock

01 Sherlock

It took me a while to catch on to the quality of this short series, which so far consists of only six film-like “episodes” ranging in length from 1.5 to 2 hours, but once I did, I was hooked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a favorite character of mine when I was younger, and I’ve since idolized not only him, but essentially every brilliant detective character of whom I’ve been made aware and who resembles Holmes in intellectual prowess and courage.

Like Doyle’s original stories, each episode of the show is a different “case file,” in which Holmes – the eccentric, borderline-sociopathic deductive genius – and Dr. John Watson – his infinitely patient, practically-minded companion – are tasked with the unraveling of a complex mystery. As the two confront each conundrum, they encounter a variety of allies and enemies and do their best to thwart nefarious plots. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but their efforts are invariably captivating.

A big part of what makes this adaptation so good in comparison to other recent versions (I’m thinking specifically of the Robert Downey Jr. films) is that the principal actors, Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) aren’t just playing roles that have been carried forward through time, cob webs and all. This version is purposefully founded in the modern age and both actors wholly inhabit the roles, making the characters and the plots in which they are caught up feel genuine.

Furthermore, the series is laser-focused on a goal that I think is imminently invaluable and too often ignored in most television: The main character and the show as a whole strive to get you thinking. Intelligence is engaging and fascinating, and though there are plenty of foot chases through the streets of London, the mind is the principal battlefield on which Holmes and his adversaries are engaged.

Doyle’s stories always dealt with a morally grey world, but the modern setting of this series allows the writers to address relevant ethical questions that touch on a variety of issues, including government oversight, the dehumanizing effects of technology, sexual politics, and more. None of the episodes strictly adheres to the original book or story on which it is based and this willingness to do something new with the material makes it feel fresh and exciting.

Simply put, I don’t think Sherlock is for everyone, but I cannot say enough good things about this show. My only complaint is that I want more. Immediately.

Coriolanus

01 Coriolanus 2

How do you address and criticize a corrupt military-industrial complex on which much of the world’s stability depends? Well, if you’re Ralph Fiennes, you film a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s prescient and uber-relevant play, Coriolanus.

In his directorial debut, Fiennes stars as the severe-yet-effective Caius Martius, the most prestigious and lauded military commander in a time-shifted, modernized version of ancient Rome. During an especially brutal and decisive battle with the armies of Rome’s rival city-state, Volsci, Caius engages his military rival and commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), in mortal combat and emerges the victor, cementing a temporary peace. To celebrate his success, Caius is awarded by the Senate the honorary title “Coriolanus” as an additional moniker in remembrance of the pitched battle. Caius Martius Coriolanus is loved for his courage and becomes the darling of the military state, encouraged by those around him to pursue the powerful leadership position of “Consul” within the Senate.

But Coriolanus has no taste for politics, and staunchly refuses to pay homage to the teeming, non-military masses he sees as dishonorable parasites unworthy of his love. His elitist attitude is rejected by the egalitarian people who see his beliefs as a betrayal and Coriolanus’s tragic downfall is set in motion. A multitude of ethical and thematic questions arise as a result of Coriolanus’s steadfastness, and it is this complexity of thoughtful reflection that is one of the most appealing aspects of the film.

What allegiance do leaders owe to those they lead and vice versa? How does one balance the demands of popular power and personal beliefs? Are codes of ethics and public office at their core incompatible? What kind of leader should we admire and aspire to emulate? What does it mean to be a “good” man? These questions and many more are raised throughout and though Fiennes does not definitively answer any, they are all so incredibly relevant to our modern world of war, political scandal, and moral despair that I was taken aback these were all issues that were also relevant more than 400 years ago, when Shakespeare’s play was written. To quote another cliche: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The plot and thematic elements of this tragedy aside, I should also mention a few of the more technical aspects. The imagery is often bleak, but this film is shot beautifully, with an eye for framing human frailty within unforgiving industrial environments. Though this may be a turn-off for some, the script is composed of reorganized and mildly retouched passages of verse from the original play, all delivered by an extremely capable and excellent cast, including Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave. Every event in this story’s plot is emotionally charged, and the principal cast perfectly elucidates the unforgiving pressures of tenuous power.

In all, if you want to watch a well-made film adaptation of a more-relevant-than-ever Shakespeare tragedy that touches on a multitude of issues facing the modern Western world, check out Coriolanus.

Skyfall

01 SkyfallSimilarly to Coriolanus, Skyfall – the most recent (and in my opinion most excellent) James Bond film – deals head-on with the decline of an empire’s founding ideals and those people working to pick up the pieces. I won’t go into the specific details of the plot because one of the pleasures of this film is watching the action set pieces unfold and morph into something different from moment to moment, but I do include below a brief review of the ideas and themes. There are no outright spoilers, but I touch on things that may influence a first-time viewer’s impressions.

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Bond myself, but I can assert with confidence one of the most appealing aspects of Skyfall is that, like any good movie, it is built of many varying and complex layers of plot, character, and theme. Each of three main characters constitutes a vital aspect of what the director Sam Mendes is trying to say with this entry in the series.

The most vital layer is of course focused on Bond. After a near-death experience, Bond (Daniel Craig) is forced to come to terms with his aging body’s limitations and his strained devotion to the country and organization that made him who he is. There is an overarching theme of “reflection across time” throughout the film and though Bond has been referred to as a “relic of the Cold War,” Skyfall attempts to make a legitimate case for the relevancy of old-school operatives like Bond and the role they must play in the security of contemporary society. As one character begrudgingly admits, no matter how many things you can do on a computer, “sometimes a trigger needs to be pulled.” The film lets you make of that moral indictment what you will, but it’s telling that many of Bond’s standard operating procedures in this film backfire. In response, he is forced to adapt; to evolve and become something more efficient.

Bond’s personal struggle for relevancy reflects the larger struggle of MI6’s leader, M (Judy Dench), to prove that an espionage organization and way of life is still relevant, despite the proliferation of technology, modern progress, and the decline of the greater British empire. She is under threat of replacement and is feeling the pressures of age and irrelevancy even more intensely than Bond. It’s important to note that though James Bond is a cultural icon for the country, this film is probably the only one in the series that is predominantly concerned with England itself. There are a few different exotic locales visited–Shanghai, Istanbul, a deserted island reminiscent of one in Japan–but the main action of the second half of the film all happens in London, and then in another part of Great Britain. It becomes clear that Mendes, a Londoner himself, is at his heart ambivalent about the history and future of the country he calls home.

To that point, there is security and danger in the past, and Bond and M are confronted by an antagonist who embodies this idea. Bent on revenge, Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 operative similar to Bond, utilizes the most cutting edge computer technology to wage war on the country, organization, and person (M) he feels left him for dead. Obsessed with the past, but employing modern methods to rectify it, Silva epitomizes the potential pitfalls of an individual’s misguided attempt at moving on without letting go. But Silva’s most important piece of the thematic puzzle is in proving that dangerous enemies still lurk in the shadows.

There are a ton more aspects of the film worth discussing–including the nature of home, one’s responsibility to legacy, the line between hero and villain, the loyalty of surrogate “sons” to their perceived “mother,” and more–but I think this “review” has gone on long enough.

If this sounds heavy, it definitely is at parts, and I would say this is perhaps the darkest of the Bond films. But luckily, the more serious tone is often balanced by fun quips, snappy exchanges of dialogue, and references and call-backs to elements of Bond’s days of yore. Moreover, the entire film is one of the most well-photographed in recent memory. Every single shot looks amazing and most importantly, often visually reflects the thematic elements of the film. It is easily the best-looking in the series, and this high quality also permeates the acting. Though the series is best known for silly camp, there is an earnest effort in Skyfall to make the world of Bond more real, and all of the actors turn in great performances to that end.

Sure, all of the above is wrapped up in an intense, action-packed franchise film, and some viewers may be skeptical of an action movie’s attempts at intelligence, but Skyfall proves that with the right script, emotional heart, and philosophical drive, an action film can have as much to say as a more austere drama. For that reason, I think Skyfall far exceeds the expectations of a genre too often dominated by mindless garbage to become something very special and definitely worth watching. Oh, and it has a pretty great theme song.

The Shoes, “Time To Dance”

On a completely different note, I picked this one up from my brother, Brendan, and have been meaning to post it for some time.

There isn’t much to say about this excellent music video that wouldn’t ruin the dark, disturbing, strangely enjoyable experience. It is one of my all-time personal favorites, the song is awesome, and I think it is some of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best work. It’s nothing too brutal, but there’s a little bit of Patrick Bateman in his performance, so be prepared for that. This thing’s more of an extremely danceable short film than a music video, so get comfortable; it doesn’t actually get to “Time to Dance” until about 1.5 minutes in. Once things get moving though, it’s off like a rocket with some killer (ha!) sights and sounds, as well as a bizarrely inspiring message. Behold, the healing power of music and dance!

Just be sure to keep dancing, or Jake Gyllenhaal will murder you.

The Atlantic, James Fallows, “False-Equivalence Watch: Nice Work by the Times and Post!”

I wish I could start a political movement to protest “Representation without substantiation!” This brief article focuses on how subtle changes in copy-writing can alter public perception of a story, with regard to the Senate debate over the “Buffett Rule” proposed by President Obama. The writer compares two different headlines about the state of the debate in the Senate and each addresses (one accurately, one inaccurately) why the proposed legislation will not move beyond the Senate.

In short: despite the fact that the legislation won majority support (51-45), Republicans threatened to filibuster to delay and argue against it. The Republicans have not followed through on their threats in modern times, but because the Democrats were not able to secure a “super majority” to override the threatened filibuster, and a tremendous amount of time would be wasted on a filibuster, the fight was abandoned.

The New York Times accurately represented the situation, their headline read, “Republicans Block Debate on ‘Buffet Rule’ in Senate.” Though NYT is regarded as a more liberal, left-leaning publication, the headline indicates the factual reality that Republicans are responsible for ending debate on the Buffet Rule.

Forbes, however, ran a headline which read, “Buffet Rule Fails in Senate, 51-45.” This is a blatantly inaccurate, intentionally vague representation of what happened. If one were to speculate where Forbes’s political loyalties lie, it’d be easy to infer from this headline, which is sort of, you know, wrong, when it comes to the field of journalism.

I thought this article was effective in demonstrating exactly the kind of thing I personally think is wrong with political debate in this country: disingenuous representation. The Forbes headline gives the inaccurate impression that the Senate outright rejected the Buffet Rule, putting the onus on the entire governing body, when in actuality, it was because the Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster the legislation that the Buffet Rule was stopped in its tracks. And I don’t even want to get into the problem with the filibuster as a governing practice. Suffice it to say that I think the only way it could ever work is if you actually make the person or group threatening to filibuster follow through with their threat. Good work, Senate Democrats…

Anyway, anyone with only a moment to glance over headlines would read the Forbes version, misunderstand the situation without knowing any better, and go on to cultivate ill-informed opinions. This sort of problem is endemic and, to me, indicative of a larger problem with how we currently function as a society. Though we pride ourselves on freedom, that does not mean we should allow “free” incorrect and untrue assertions to have any place in political debate.

This has been a problem for as long as man has tried to govern, but shouldn’t we at least TRY to negotiate obstacle at some point? The issues with which our country is grappling are far too significant to muddle around in petty misrepresentations. Real people live and die by the laws of this land and deserve to be accurately informed as to what goes into creating them.

SlashFilm, Russ Fischer, “Meet Michael Fassbender’s Robotic Alter-Ego in ‘Prometheus’

UPDATE: The video originally featured at the link above and the main reason for my posting has since been removed due to copyright violations, but you can view the video here: Happy Birthday, David.

It is difficult to express how excited I am for Ridley Scott’s upcoming return to the science fiction genre with his newest film, Prometheus. I have been thoroughly obsessed with Scott’s Blade Runner since my father introduced me to it when I was young, and Alien, to which Prometheus is a prequel, is another one of my favorite films of all time. Scott knows how to do science fiction right, putting the people front-and-center and the science fiction in the world around those people. He has a knack for making characters extremely relatable regardless of the bizarre circumstances in which they are embroiled. This short film exploring the android character of “David” in Prometheus is a perfect testament to Scott’s prowess.

Michael Fassbender (fulfilling a role similar to the one played by John Hurt in the original Alien) is excellent as he manages to embody our worst fears about the future of artificial intelligence and robotics (he can replace humanity, blend in with the workforce) while simultaneously engendering intense emotional attachment (the tear is amazing). And of course all of this is undercut by the tension of uncertainty regarding whether David’s words are genuine or programmed for effect (which, in a “meta” sense, they are). Fassbender is such a good actor that despite the fact that David seems to be saying all the right things, there is a vague menace beneath the glossy presentation, especially when he explains “I can carry out directives my human counterparts might find distressing… or unethical.” This is emphasized by the creepy skulls over either of his shoulders in the interview shots. That kind of ambiguity is exactly why I love science fiction. Within a realm of unlimited possibilities, even the most simple pieces of dialogue can become fascinating mysteries.

This video reminds me a great deal of the malevolent humor of Portal and if this short is any indication of the quality of the final product, I have little doubt Prometheus will easily take a place among my most beloved films. I can’t wait.

TED, Chip Kidd, “Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.”

First, let me get this out of the way: Kidd’s one-armed glasses are ridiculous. I understand that he is an eccentric personality and I love what he has to say, but come on. The distracting, awkward way they sit on his head seems completely antithetical to his preoccupation with efficient design.

Anyway. This TED talk is similar in it’s purpose to the one I posted a couple of weeks ago in March in that the speakers are both concerned with how the design of objects influences a person’s interactions with those objects and shapes their experience of the world. In Kidd’s case, he is dealing with an object that once held a sacred place of cultural reverence, but has stumbled in the past decade: the book.

Let it be known that although I own a Kindle of my own, I share some of his bitter feelings about the book’s recent fall from grace in favor of digital distribution of written works. I still buy most of my written material in hardcopy, stubbornly eschewing the portability of hundred-kilobyte versions. I dream of owning a house that comes equipped with, or in which I can build, a library. As it is, stacks and boxes of books still fill the corners and closets of the apartment, waiting for Ikea shelves of their own.

Through his various examples of how the tactile experience of a book can inform or affect the reader’s enjoyment of the text within, Kidd makes a great case for the value of visual design and why the physicality of books still matters. Seeing the story behind one of the most well-known logos of all time – the Jurassic Park emblem – is especially interesting.

TED, Kelli Anderson, “Design to Challenge Reality”

Another excellent TED talk, this one about how clever and creative design can influence the “reality” of the world. Anderson manages to infuse even the most mundane projects with uniqueness and fun. Some of the things featured in this are really remarkable, especially the sunny, optimistic version of The New York Times. I couldn’t find the actual website featuring the doppelganger newspaper, but I did manage to find a Reuters article about it.

As Anderson describes it, she is preoccupied with “the hidden talents of everyday things.” This is not an original idea, but one that deserves more prevalence in our culture. Check out her work in this video to see for yourself exactly what she means. I’m willing to bet that if unique perspectives like Anderson’s carried more weight in establishing popular viewpoints, humanity may encounter a multitude of problems, but they may very well be better equipped to negotiate those problems in a more open-minded, thoughtful manner than we do right now.

At the very least, we’d all likely be a lot less stressed.

Kelli Anderson: “The world is full of order that doesn’t necessarily deserve our respect. Sometimes there is meaning, justice, and logic present in the way things are, but sometimes there just isn’t. And I think that the moment we realize this is the moment we become creative people because it prompts us to mess things up and do something better with the basic pieces of experience.”

Lisa Hanawalt, “Drive”

There isn’t much to be said about this endearing graphic review of the film Drive beyond the obvious: You should check it out. Hanawalt has a great sense of humor and touches on some of the things I, too, found strange about this movie. Though it was an interesting film and right up my alley thematically, it felt disingenuous to me. The violence seemed unnecessarily brutal while the rest of the film’s world didn’t reflect that same grittiness, robbing those scenes of their credibility.

It also doesn’t help that I think the movie closes with what is possibly the most hilarious theme song ever put to film: College’s “A Real Hero.”  It’s like some kind of anesthetized riff on Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero,  and THAT just makes me think of 1) Footloose and 2) Short Circuit. I guess all three of those films focus on the same character archetype: social outcast with a propensity to unique heroics and taking the law into their own hands. I just wish that Gosling’s heroics weren’t forcibly accompanied by bizarre pregnant pauses and unsettling-yet-humorous vapid-or-deep-who-knows? sloth-smiles (see above). Seriously, it looks like he’s perpetually cracking up at a joke that is simply too funny to share with anyone around him, even the weepy Carey Mulligan. Maybe that’s the point? That he sees everything around him as a big joke, a game? I’m usually pretty good at figuring this kind of thing out and I don’t have a clue on this one. Hence my feelings of disingenuousness.

I hope this doesn’t imply I dislike the movie. I actually liked it quite a lot. I appreciate what the director, Nicolas Winding Refn – whose other works I’ve enjoyed (especially Valhalla) – was going for with this. It has great production values, a stylish aesthetic, excellent cinematography, and a minimalist, but interesting story. I like films that let the viewer do some work. Refn obviously intended to create a film that hearkened back to “the good old days” when the stoic, take-charge hero set an example to be emulated and admired.

Some may cringe with regards to the violence, but this character is an heroic update appropriate for an arguably more brutal (at least desensitized) modern age. Drive especially reminded me of Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen (both of whom I love) and that’s never a bad thing. I just wish it had a little more driving and a lot less film school pretentiousness.

At the very least I am thankful the film exists to give birth to the creative review above. Enjoy!