Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Queen of Versailles" shows human side of the one percent

Maggie Kane

“I’m not a stupid person,” says Jackie Siegel, the so-called “Queen of Versailles,” at the end of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of the same name.

A former Miss America winner, Jackie married a wealthy man almost 30 years her senior. She has dyed blond hair and breasts that seem to increase in size as the film progresses. When the documentary starts, she and her husband are in the process of building the biggest house in America.

Jackie is easy to stereotype, but Greenfield makes sure to stay away from this trope: the shallow golddigger concerned with appearances and not much else.

When Greenfield started her documentary, it was about the couple and their house. Luckily for her, the financial crisis hit partway through and the story became much richer.

Suddenly Jackie struggles with letting most of the housekeeping staff go, pulling the children out of private school and doing her own cooking.

But while Greenfield shows Jackie in these seemingly ridiculous moments, she weaves them in perfectly with less expected information.

Jackie worries about construction halting on the 90,000 square-foot, Versailles-themed home of her dreams. She also lends $5,000 to a high school friend in an attempt to help save this woman’s home.

She struggles to keep her husband, David’s, attention as he falls deeper into an economic pit. He seems to be more interested in flirting with young women than talking to his wife. Jackie seems delusional about their relationship.

Then we learn that she divorced her first husband, who was abusive.

Greenfield achieves a difficult goal: she makes viewers feel empathy toward a one-percenter downscaling to wealth that still exceeds what most of us can comprehend.

She portrays Jackie as a human being instead of a wealthy caricature. Sometimes her focus on the human side of the story detracts from the overall narrative—it was hard to follow the ins and outs of how the family arrived at financial destruction.

But maybe that is an intentional choice. After all, Jackie doesn’t know either. She only learns that the unfinished dream house is in foreclosure after overhearing her husband mention it while doing an interview.

Jackie embodies excess and careless wealth. But when she admits, at the end, that she doesn’t know the details of what’s going on with the family finances, it’s hard not to pity her. Greenfield sees to it that Jackie is not the villain.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hobbit Satire

While watching SNL this weekend, I was particularly amused by this sketch about "The Hobbit." It reminded of me of my main complaint about the film.

And another piece here.

The last and only thing I've posted on my blog before this was also an article from "The Onion." I really like satire as a form of critique. It's snarky, but I think comedy is a more lighthearted way to point out errors than writing a full on pan.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Does Bilbo have a lightsaber? [Final draft]

Maggie Kane

            After a fast-paced opening scene filled with low-quality explosions, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” comes to a grinding halt. The dwarves’ home has been taken over by a dragon and now, years later, the quest to take it back happens very, very slowly.

The meat of the film starts in the home of Bilbo Baggins, the film’s friendly hobbit protagonist. Martin Freeman’s accents his representation of the character with subtle tics, like hand wringing and nervous glances, which beautifully portray the character’s shyness and discomfort in the face of an adventure.

The character does not offer much depth, although this can be blamed on J.R.R. Tolkien as much as on Jackson. Baggins agrees to join in the adventure only after Gandalf boosts his ego for what seems like hours, until our hobbit finally feels he might be ready for more tangible excitement than what he can read in a book. He sprints off to join the group.

This is the fastest action that happens for the next third of the movie. Baggins and the dwarves slowly begin to battle the roadblocks between themselves and home.

Or rather, they battle myriad bands of identical beige monsters. Are they trolls? Orcs? Goblins? Are these species interchangeable? The jury is still out.

The graphics that supplement these confrontations leave something to be desired. Most of the cityscapes and action sequences look like they were designed in the early 2000s.

The one exception happens at the turning point of the movie, when Baggins discovers he possesses a sort of medieval lightsaber that leads the group into an underground lair.

It’s aesthetically part Tim Burton, part Hayao Miyazaki. Ominous, bulbous creatures shuffle around on dimly lit ledges connected by ziplines. The wide shots offer dizzying views of the cavern while close ups reveal artistic detail.

The scuffles that happen afterward come in rapid-fire succession. It’s hard to keep track of who is fighting who and why. Finally the adventurers spy their homeland in the distance. But they do not make it there at the end of the film.

No, no—they aren’t deterred by danger. They simply do not make it there. Jackson plans to stretch out the rest of the story into two additional films. If he succeeds, it will be as improbable as a band of dwarves defeating dangers far larger than themselves and reclaiming their castle.

NYT Defense [Maggie & Brittany]

Mike Hale presents a successful mixed review of “Ripper Street,” weaving back and forth between its high and low points. Since the show is produced in Britain, he offers a reference point—“Law & Order”—for an American audience reading the review. He also acknowledges this audience at the end when, after critiquing the less original points of the show relative to other British and Canadian television, he writes that it has a more unique feel for Americans.

Hale leads in with two themes of the show: violence and sex. The sensationalism draws the reader in and also serves to summarize the show. He examines performance and chemistry between actors, simultaneously giving small details about the series content.

While he talks about the negative points, he also offers up positives, allowing readers to weigh the pros and cons of tuning in. The way he bounces back and forth does not push them in one direction or the other. It pulls readers through the review, keeping them engaged as they learn about the show. This is a unique review since it presents a British show to American audiences. It is helpful to look at when considering how to critique foreign material. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Onion rips on the Golden Globes

My favorite post-Globes coverage by far is this satirical piece by The Onion. I watched the Globes, but to be honest I was multitasking and paying a lot more attention to my computer screen than the TV. I'm a cynic when it comes to celebrity "news" coverage, and this slideshow perfectly captures what I find ridiculous about it. Good work, Onion!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is that a lightsaber?

A Lord of the Rings novice watches The Hobbit.

Maggie Kane

A pale, balding creature stares through the screen with blue saucer eyes. He is trying to answer a riddle told by Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit attempting to escape an underground maze with a battle of wits. It’s the emotional high point of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” as this violent but somehow endearing character eventually realizes that Baggins stole his precious ring. He flies into a panicked rage, beating himself up emotionally and threatening the hobbit.
Unfortunately this captivating character is not the protagonist of the film. He does not appear until late in the movie, barely rousing me after nearly two hours of slow storytelling. I read “The Hobbit” as a young child, but remember little. Looking for a light film with rolling country scenery, I decided to journey into the shire once more and check out the movie.
Baggins, a shy homebody who decides to go on an adventure after an elderly wizard boosts his ego, is the story's main character. Martin Freeman plays him well, using subtle tics like wringing his hands to physically express discomfort and nerves.
Baggins joins a band of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home. On the way, they battle myriad roadblocks, or rather, myriad bands of identical beige monsters. Are they trolls? Orcs? Goblins? Are these species interchangeable? The jury is still out.
The plot gets interesting late in the game, when Baggins discovers he has acquired a sort of medieval lightsaber. It directs the group of adventurers into a cavern that is aesthetically part Tim Burton, part Hayao Miyazaki. Ominous, bulbous creatures shuffle around on dimly lit ledges connected by ziplines. It’s visually impeccable.
At this point, Baggins accidentally splits from the group and finds himself alone with the ring-guarding creature. Eventually triumphant at mind games, he escapes and rejoins the dwarves.
After another scuffle or two—it’s hard to keep count of the rapid-fire action scenes packed into the last third of the movie as if to make up for its lackluster start—Baggins and the dwarves spy home in the distance. Apparently it will take them two more movies to get there.  If I were better versed in Middle Earth, I might eagerly await the resolution to the story. Instead I wish Jackson luck with stretching the journey out for another six hours.