Throne of Blood

On DVD.

I missed the showing of Throne of Blood, the movie I most wanted to see at Film Forum’s ongoing Kurosawa festival, which ticked me off royally until Sean pointed out that it wasn’t as though I had lost my one and only opportunity to see it. It is, after all, available on DVD and has been for years. Oh yeah. So I rented Throne from Netflix and watched it at home. Happy ending!

Throne of Blood interested me most because it’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and I love watching different people tell the same story. It could be any story—a fairy tale, a classic novel, a mythologized historical event—but Shakespeare’s plays are particularly rich for nuanced repetition. People from different generations and cultures and philosophies have returned to the plays again and again, creating countless Hamlets and Richards, countless Juliets and Portias, and the contrasts among them never stop intriguing me. (Kurosawa also adapted King Lear into the samurai epic Ran, which I hope to catch during its two-week Film Forum run in February.)

Kurosawa’s Macbeth is more fatalistic than most, and his protagonist, by extension, is marginally more sympathetic. That’s compelling on its own, but what really makes the movie work is how gloriously cinematic it is, with one perfectly orchestrated, evocative sequence after another—all the more impressive when you consider that the movie’s narrative roots are in seventeenth-century Elizabethan theater and its visual roots in fourteenth-century Japanese Noh theater. Yet there’s nothing stagy about the dynamic middle-distance shots of frantic horseback riding or the eerily fluid special effects of the witch’s entrance and exit or the agonizingly still, taut framing of Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth) as she waits for her husband to return from his regicidal mission. Throne of Blood works as a retelling of Macbeth because it works first and foremost as a movie.

Il mondo della luna

The Gotham Chamber Opera at the Hayden Planetarium on Wednesday, January 10.

Il mondo della luna—both the opera in general and this production in particular—is like one of Shakespeare’s fluffier comedies, the ones with identical twins and widespread cross-dressing and absurd misunderstandings. They’re interchangeable nonsense, as far as I’m concerned, so if you sit down to watch As You Like the Two Gentlemen of Errors expecting something dignified and august, the utter lunacy is disconcerting, even off-putting. But if you just go with it, embrace the mayhem, it’s endearing—not a masterpiece of Western civilization but sharper than you might expect. Plus, there’s something somehow comforting in the realization that people—even properly bewigged historical people—have always gotten a kick out of so-called low-brow pleasures we’re supposed to feel all high-brow guilty about.

Composer Franz Joseph Haydn came around about a century and half after Shakespeare, and Il mondo della luna doesn’t feature identical cross-dressing twins separated at birth (which is sad because who doesn’t love that plot device?), but the silly story of a con man who tricks a wealthy, overprotective father into believing he and his daughters have traveled to the moon is the kind of thing the Bard would have loved: broad farce with an improbable but adorable happy ending. As for the music, Haydn will always pale to his contemporary Mozart (as unfair a standard as there ever was), but at his best, he produced some of the greatest music of the Classical period, and for this production, the Gotham Chamber Opera have shamelessly trimmed more than three hours down to an hour and half of his best.

Carmen

The Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, January 16.

One thing I’ve come to love about opera is that the female characters generally are players in the action, to a far greater extent than many contemporary works in different media. I suspect the desire to show off the female voice superseded the inclination to shuffle all the women to the background as passive wives and mothers and girlfriends. True, the storylines opera provides those female characters are often ludicrous, even offensive, but at least they are storylines. I’ll take them.

Consider Carmen, Bizet’s masterpiece, first performed in 1875. The gypsy antihero not only drives the action; she’s the titular character—something of a sociopath and a parodic warning against the dangers of unbridled female sexuality but nonetheless an infinitely stronger, more compelling character than José, her pathetic boy toy, or Micaëla, the virgin to her whore. One can’t help but relish Carmen’s vivacity even as one recoils from her cruelty, which is, after all, returned in equal measure by many of those around her.

It’s a great role—iconic for a reason—and in the Met’s new production, Elina Garanca brings Carmen to fresh life. She’s impetuous but self-possessed, seductive but guarded, tenacious but fatalistic, and director Richard Eyre showcases her beautifully in his wonderfully dramatic, gritty-edged new production. Sweeping away caricature, Garanca and Eyre have created a fierce, raw Carmen to remember.

Eucalyptus

iPhone application produced by Things Made Out of Other Things.

I have a tendency to hibernate through January. The weather is miserable, and post-holiday lethargy sets it, and all my neuroses and fanatic streaks come out to play. Last year I spent an inordinate amount of time killing zombies in Fallout 3, and this year, well, this year I spent an inordinate amount of time killing darkspawn in Dragon Age: Origins (I’m not proud). But I’ve burnt out on that game and now I’m indulging in another realm of dorkiness: I’m obsessed with the Eucalyptus app on my iPhone.

Eucalyptus is not a game; it’s e-reader software that allows you to search and download from the vast archives of Project Gutenberg. Thousands upon thousands of books—virtually any title you can think of with an expired copyright—are available for free within seconds, and Eucalyptus keeps everything tidy, organizing by author or title and showing at a glance how far you’ve paged through the virtual books. The program is elegant and intuitive and, best of all, readable. The size of the text can be adjusted, the “pages” turn with fluid grace, and on a crowded train, it’s easier to pull out a palm-sized phone than a six-by-nine hardcover. I’ve become so attached to Eucalyptus that it’s no longer reserved for commutes and queues; I’ll curl up in bed to read from my phone, which is, I admit, kind of weird.

Sherlock Holmes

In theaters.

Have the purists who self-righteously reject the idea of Sherlock Holmes as an action hero actually read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, or are they just working off the pop-culture image of a wiry, effete man with a magnifying glass stuck to his face? And regardless, why must anyone treat Doyle’s stories as sacrosanct? They’re pulp (influential pulp, but pulp nonetheless) featuring a flat, static protagonist—a protagonist who is described, by the way, as an expert at boxing and fencing and who also ably dispatches his foes with a cane and riding crop. So I really don’t see why anyone should be annoyed by Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes getting into a few fistfights in between deductive reasoning.

If you want to bent out of shape about the movie’s lack of fidelity to its source material, the better target would be the affectionate, congenial relationship between Holmes and Watson. In Doyle’s stories, Holmes is perpetually rude and condescending, treating Watson less as a friend than as a tiresome lackey. When I read the stories as a kid, I never understood why Watson would put up with Holmes, but their friendly rapport is the best thing about director Guy Ritchie’s new movie. As Watson, Jude Law gives his most charming performance in a decade, and Downey is as charismatic as always. Together they have great chemistry, making the movie far funnier and more entertaining than it would be otherwise. Screw fidelity—the truly un-Doylian elements of Sherlock Holmes are the only things that make it worth watching.

The Princess and the Frog

In theaters.

It seems churlish to complain that The Princess and the Frog is rather preachy, considering that its sermon is remarkably similar to one I’ve been delivering since I was about twelve years old. I agree, of course, that aspiring to be a princess, passively wishing on stars and dreaming of princes sweeping in to save the day, warps a girl’s priorities and undermines her own resourcefulness and individuality, but to hear that from Disney—well, let’s just say the messenger warps the message. The movie cuttingly parodies princess culture, lampooning a spoiled little girl who laps up fairy tales and demands countless poufy dresses like those of her bejeweled idols, but the hypocrisy is hard to take. Have the filmmakers ever visited the Disney Store? Who do they think their audience is? They’re doing more than biting the hand that feeds; they’re spitting on it, in a way that often feels hypocritical and occasionally feels cruel.

Maybe that’s not fair, but the movie makes it hard to ignore the metatextual Disney themes when it goes so far as to directly evoke and reject elements of such classics as Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty. That kind of thing creates a sense of smugness that weighs down what is otherwise a charming, if slight, bit of fairy tale rehabilitation. Set in a sweetly romanticized Jazz Age New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog is beautiful in its way, with a few genuinely lovely moments, but its baggage weighs it down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a mediocrity—it’s better than that, and the traditional cel animation is worth celebrating—but this isn’t one for the pantheon.