She’s the Man at Hoyts, Broadway

She’s the Man, as all the publicity points out, follows the tradition of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You in translating a classic work into an American high-school setting. In this case, the classic work is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – my absolute favourite play, so, even though the trailer didn’t inspire me with confidence, I was determined to see this film. And ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised (at least relative to my expectations).

Twelfth Night is clearly the primary source for the plot, but there are a few other films/plays it calls to mind. It seems to owe a certain amount to Bend it Like Beckham: not only that soccer is the sport of choice, but also in the situation of an athletic daughter and a mother who wants her to be more feminine. The scene when they are learning to be debutantes is reminiscent of the opening of Mulan – and the film also shares with Mulan a distressing tendancy to find “humour” in having the heroine grossly overact when she is disguised as a boy (more about this later!) Finally, the scene in which Viola (disguised as Sebastian) is trying to show Duke how to talk to girls by “pretending” to be a girl for him to practise on, could be straight out of As You Like It.

The main thing I didn’t like about this film was the number of times Viola overdid it when she was pretending to be a boy (Viola the character, that is, not Amanda Bynes the actress). Productions of Twelfth Night have been known to show Viola having difficulties with the mannerisms and activites of masculinity, but this can only go so far, as it’s not specifically there in the text. But there are no holds barred in She’s the Man. Particuarly early on, Viola often speaks with an exaggeratedly deep, hearty voice, and stagey manner, and with lines that are so unconvincing it’s impossible that a halfway intelligent character could think they would make her fit in with the men. It’s the humour of embarrasment, which I loathe, and this was a particularly unsubtle and puerile version, and totally cringeworthy. At least in Mulan there were only two scenes involving this, but in She’s the Man it kept recurring throughout the entire film. She wasn’t like that all the time, but it was much, much too often for my taste.

The other thing I found repellent was the character of Eunice. Does anybody really wear that type of external mouth brace? And having made her as unattractive and awkward as possible, they then burdened her with a neurotic personality as well. I found it very tasteless – and from a plot point of view, there was absolutely no reason why Toby should be even vaguely interested in her. The other character I didn’t like was the principal, but he wasn’t actually offensive, just chronically unfunny: someone like Joss Whedon would have written a much better version (eg Principal Flutie in the first season of Buffy).

OK, now for the stuff I did like. I thought it was quite a clever adaptation of the plot. It didn’t match exactly point for point (e.g. Viola specifically disguised herself as Sebastian, rather than just as a random youth – though, contrary to the impression the trailer gives, he doesn’t know she’s doing it) and some of the characters were changed (I got a bit of a shock when Olivia went out with Duke to make “Sebastian” jealous). But in general the central triangle was nicely done. And there were a few fun jokes for people who know the play – e.g. Malcolm having a pet tarantula called Malvolio, and everyone going to “Cesario’s”. Plus the “some are born great” speech was included in full.

Even aside from the cringe-comedy, much of the humour was fairly broad. Some of this I didn’t like (e.g. the scene where Viola is trying not to let Monique see her too closely), but for the most part I was able to connect with my inner teenager and have a good time. So I enjoyed the not-appearing-in-Twelfth Night bit where Viola is trying to be both herself and Sebastian at the fair, the time when Viola and Duke leap onto the beds to escape the tarantula and then freak when they find themselves embracing, the inevitable men’s change room scenes and even the moment when Viola gets a soccer ball in the groin and takes a few seconds to realise what her reaction should be. And as well as the broad comedy, there were some funny one-liners, such as the deadpan delivery of “Is it me or does this soccer game have more nudity than most?”

But I think the main reason I enjoyed it was that the two leads were so charismatic. Some of the reviewers don’t seem to like Amanda Bynes, but for me she filled the screen with personality every time she appeared. She had a lovely smile, and was a nice combination of bounciness and determination and blind panic and (where appropriate) wistfulness. And (except in the cringe-making scenes) she was also very funny. Channing Tatum wasn’t as central, and didn’t have the same range, but he was very decorative, appealing in the scenes when he was showing his “sensitive” side, and good at the end when he thinks “Sebastian” has betrayed him, and then learns the truth about Viola. The scenes they had alone together, and the relationship they presented, were some of the best parts of the film.

The critics are somewhat divided over She’s the Man, but on average more seem to dislike it than like it – and while some absolutely loathe it, even the ones that like it don’t give it a complete rave. On At the Movies, David found it “jaw-droppingly awful” and only gave it half a star, while Margaret (somewhat to her surprise) enjoyed it and gave it three and a half. For me, it was definitely worth more than half a star, though I’m not sure I’d go quite as high as Margaret did: some parts were jaw-droppingly awful, and the stuff that I did like wasn’t enough to completely block this out.

But it’s a pity, because I think it did have the potential to be a really good adaptation – maybe up there with Clueless (though a higher suspension of disbelief would have been required). Much of the plot and character transposition was cleverly done, and most of the actors were very engaging. If only there had been less time spent on cringe-making slapstick comedy, and more on clever dialogue (of which there was some) and the relationships between the characters. After all, the relationships have plenty of comic as well as romantic potential: I’m not just talking about the main triangle, but also Viola and her mother, Monique, etc – the comedy here could range from subtle to extremely broad, without necessarily spending too much time on the humour of embarrassment.

A lot of reviews say that this film is aimed at younger-end teenagers: it’s notable that the parties and drug/alcohol references of Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are replaced with a fund-raiser fair and a debutante presentation. And I guess the younger demographic is supposed to really get into the slapstick, whereas the changes I want would have shifted the film to a higher-end teenager chick flick/date movie. So maybe it wasn’t what the filmmakers wanted to do – but with the material they had to work with, they could have done it, and it might have been really good.

I find it interesting that She’s the Man was much more about issues of masculinity and femininity than Twelfth Night. Not that I’m saying gender is irrelevant in Twelfth Night, but it seems to me that it is much more driven by individual personality. You have two completely self-absorbed, self-deluded people, who get a complete shake-up when a self-aware, empathic and intelligent outsider enters their lives (I’m reminded of an expression used in Grosse Pointe Blank: “Shakabuku … a swift, spiritual kick to the head that alters your reality forever”). In spite of the gender differentiation, Orsino and Olivia are very similar in personality; and Viola’s gender is only one part of what makes her what she is.

But the driving force behind She’s the Man is less Viola’s individual personality than the fact that because she is a woman she is more in touch with her emotions, and more able to talk about them. This is what attracts Olivia to her, and is also why Duke is able to open up and express his own “sensitive” side in a way that he can’t to his actual male friends. The counterpart of this is that a lot of the embarrasment-comedy (the stuff I objected to above) arises from Viola’s difficulties with finding an acceptable form of masculinity. Much of the “humour” occurs when she shows a feminine response, and then, in an attempt to recover from this, overreacts with what she thinks is masculine response, but which is so exaggerated as to be just as much at odds with Duke and the others: “What does your heart tell you? … I mean, which one would you rather see naked?”

I’m not sure that these ideas about gender actually go anywhere, but I found it an interesting line of thought …

Inside Man at Hoyts, Broadway

I enjoyed Inside Man.

I thought all the cast were very strong – major and minor players. It’s arguable that Jodie Foster was a bit wasted in a smallish part, but I think you really needed someone with a strong screen presence for the role to work. And Denzel Washington and Clive Owen played off each other well. (Early on it seemed like Clive Owen was going to spend most of the film in a mask, which would have been a bit of a waste, but fortunately he did take it off after a while.) And I liked the fact that all the cops were basically working together well, rather than having a situation where one of them (normally one who doesn’t get on with the main character, and doesn’t agree with his/her methods) comes close to messing the whole thing up for everyone. Initially it seemed like there was going to be this type of conflict between Captain Darius (Willem Dafoe) and Detective Frazier (Washington), but that was actually resolved quite early on.

I liked a lot of the small vignettes, such as the Sikh man who doesn’t want to answer questions until they give him back his turban. I gather this is quite typical of Spike Lee films (I’ve not seen any others), and most of them did come back to the same themes of racism/violence in modern society, but I still thought they gave the film a kind of richness and detail you don’t often get in action movies.

The plot was convoluted, and I liked the way some of it was shown out of sequence (e.g. interspersing the siege with bits from witness interviews). It seemed to be emulating films like The Usual Suspects, although it didn’t achieve the same level of complexity, and the key point was, ultimately, guessable.

Also, it was a bit disappointing that there was once crucial piece of information that was never provided, and at least one massive great plot hole.

Warning: SPOILERS

In the end, I wasn’t actually all that fussed that we were never told how Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) knew about Arthur Case’s past, and the existence of the document in the safe deposit box. It would have been better if we had known, since it was a pretty staggering amount of information he seemed to have at his fingertips, but it didn’t actually spoil things for me. I guess maybe you’re meant to assume that the Jewish person on Russell’s team had some past connection with the events.

The plot hole did rather annoy me. Even if you allow that the police missed all signs of digging in the store room, how come the next bank staff member to go down looking for photocopy paper didn’t think “This room used to be bigger. There used to be an extra section of shelf before the back wall”? If you use a room on a regular basis – particularly if it’s a small one – then you will notice if it changes in size – particularly if you’ve got a week to do so, and you know there have been a bunch of bank robbers inside for hours. I’m not sure how – or if – the filmmakers could have gotten around this problem, but I ended up with a sense that they simply hadn’t bothered. Which was a pity.

Tristan + Isolde at Hoyts, Broadway

Tristan + Isolde had at least as many anachronisms as Troy, and possibly more. My personal favourite was the quote from John Donne, though I was also rather fond of the fancy roll-down map, with removable boundary lines. And in my reading of Rosemary Sutcliff, I seem to have missed the part of the Dark Ages where Ireland conquered England.

But I think the main problem with the film was the two central characters. I’ll admit, I do tend to start out with a basic lack of sympathy for Tristan and Isolde (like Lancelot and Guenevere) – the whole “you can’t help what you feel but you can help what you do about it” principle. Which isn’t to say there aren’t times I find them sympathetic, since the whole duty-versus-desire struggle can be a very powerful driving force. But this film wasn’t one of those times. Having made the decision to give up Isolde, Tristan then started behaving like a jealous and sulky teenager. And then once he was over that, the presentation of Isolde shifted into the whole “tempting the hero from the paths of honour and righteousness” mould, which I find particularly annoying (and more than a little offensive). Given the way the part was written, I think Sophia Myles did a reasonably good job of it; but possibly an actor other than James Franco could have made Tristan seem a bit more of an adult.

Spoiler follows: I was pleased to see they had the guts to kill Tristan off at the end (unlike Paris in Troy – maybe this says something about James Franco’s value versus Orlando Bloom’s) but I thought it was a cop out to have Isolde just disappear. With the whole duty thing, plus the fact that she did actually like and respect Marke, I’d have been happier if she had stayed with him and they had achieved what he wanted, even though she could never truly love him. Or something like that.