Monday
Dec122016

MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA reviewed by Hadley Hury

MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA (2003, dir. Richard Loncraine)

Two weeks ago one of the great writers in the English language died at age 88 in Somerset. William Trevor’s novels and short stories afford unwavering gazes into all things human and, as is true of all fine stylists, his style is elegantly transparent. Writing with unsentimental empathy and wry humor of the extraordinariness of unremarkable lives, Trevor’s works are set in both England and his native Ireland, and he is considered by many to be in the company of Maupassant and Chekhov. Among those paying tribute, Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, “William Trevor is one of the great short story writers…beautifully composed, lyrical, understated prose”, and in a review years ago Graham Greene wrote of an early Trevor collection that it was “the best since Joyce’s Dubliners“. Trevor was shortlisted four times for the Man Booker Prize and won the O. Henry Award four times and the Whitbread three.

Perhaps because tone and nuance are so integral to his writing, translating Trevor’s work to film has proven a daunting task and only a few of his works have made it to the screen. In 1990 Trevor’s co-adaptation (with Michael Hirst) of his novel Fools of Fortune for a film directed by Pat O’Connor was an uneven exercise, and in 1999 he co-adapted his novel Felicia’s Journey with Atom Egoyan, whose direction produced more faithful results.

Arguably the most successful film version of a Trevor work is the 2003 treatment of his 1991 novella My House in Umbria. Directed by Richard Loncraine (Band of BrothersThe Gathering Storm) the production was an HBO original movie, and for it Maggie Smith deservedly won the Emmy for Best Actress.

After surviving a terrorist attack on an Italian train line, writer Emily Delahunty (Smith) opens up her home and solitary life in the Umbrian countryside to a trio of stranded survivors. She soon forms friendships with each, but develops a special attachment to the young orphan Aimee (Emmy Clarke). When Aimee’s distant American uncle (the fine Chris Cooper, miscast but not hopelessly)—a tightly-wound, emotionally aloof scientist—arrives to retrieve the girl, Emily strives to convince the man that Umbria is Aimee’s rightful home. Hugh Whitemore’s screenplay reflects the same dedication to original sources on view in his work with other challenging projects such as Stevie84 Charing Cross, and Breaking the Code, and the wondrous locations in Umbria—essential to this film’s success as a tale of spiritual renewal—are intoxicatingly rendered in Marco Pontecorvo’s cinematography. Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill in The King’s Speech, Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films, and Oscar-nominated for his title role in Mr. Turner) is superb as Quinty, Emily Delahunty’s property manager and longtime mainstay.

Mrs. Emily Delahunty (“…although strictly speaking, I have never been married”) gives Smith a role outside the trademark parameters that have tended to define her later career options, and the performance gleams with fierce intelligence, delicate grace notes, and a rich maturity of experience. Mrs. Delahunty exists both within the narrative and occasionally—as its narrative voice—outside it, a dynamic and evolving character with a mysteriously checkered past who believes both in digging toward the truest veins of any story and in the redemption of illusion and imagination. A woman of the world who has transmuted her early years of physical and mental abuse and a long series of abandonments into a remunerative career as a romance novelist, we initially find her as a catalyst for the recuperation of the survivors she takes in, but as the film progresses she too comes to understand and manage in a new way her own lost faith, lost love, and lost security.

As the backstory threads of Mrs. Delahunty’s life mesh with these relationships, Trevor’s story insists on a balanced view: sometimes there is survival without healing—there are certain losses and traumas and regrets that cannot be salved. Mrs. Delahunty knows how escapism has made her own life bearable. “Illusion came into it”, she says. “Of course it did. Illusion and mystery and pretence: dismiss that trinity of wonders and what’s left, after all?” But in opening her home and herself to helping the trio of inmates rehabilitate their lives she begins to insist less on illusion and more on a genuine miracle of healing, of love and security offered, taken, and shared. Few, if any, living actors can convey such complex, rueful irony, and win the viewer’s acceptance of this degree and quality of transformation, but when Smith voices Emily’s new hope and conviction we believe it: ”There had been a terrible evil…but in this little corner of Italy there was, again, a miracle…Three survivors out of all the world’s survivors had found a place in my house. One to another they were a source of strength…Dare we turn our backs on a miracle?”

In Trevor’s world human beings can be wounded and vulnerable and yet not weak, beaten but not vanquished. He never tries for specious sympathy or extends a promise that all will be well when it won’t be, but he always credibly and very beautifully demonstrates the dignity and  tenacity of the human will. As Emily Delahunty reflects, “Perhaps I will become old, perhaps not. Perhaps something else will happen in my life, but I doubt it. When the season’s over I walk among the shrubs myself, making the most of the colours while they last and the fountain while it flows.” My House in Umbria—synthesizing Trevor’s indelible novella and one of Maggie Smith’s most unforgettable performances—suggests that even if no world-altering miracle occurs at the house in Umbria, and no one is completely healed, the daily renewal of life through the mysterious power and grace of goodness can be miracle enough.

– Hadley Hury

(Available through Netflix DVD, Amazon, and select streaming sites)

Tuesday
Nov292016

Orson Welles' Othello, reviewed by Hadley Hury

Orson Welles made Othello—the first purely “cinematic” version of Shakespeare—between 1949 and 1952. The golden boy director of Citizen Kane (1941), Welles was, by age 34, in exile from Hollywood. Othello’s bizarre production history is like a microcosm of Welles’s career—an insistence on creative control which meant constant scrambles for financing that included acting gigs such as his memorable Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).

Othello’s reputation was championed quietly over the years by film buffs, in a book, and in countless dissertations. Welles himself considered it one of his best works. Now, after an extensive restoration, re-tracking of the score, redubbing and synchronization, the film has been re-released. The shoestring budget and fitful three-year shooting still show in this legendary effort. (Film was shot on random pieces of newsreel stock and leftover bits from other Welles films. There was even less money for audio concerns.) Still, the painstaking restoration is a fitting tribute to Welles’s genius and, even more, to his determination.

Othello (Welles), an admired Venetian general, is madly in love with his beautiful young aristocratic bride Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier). Iago (Michael MacLiammoir), his aide, secretly resents Othello’s rise to power and is angered further when Cassio (Michael Laurence), a fellow aide, is promoted to a rank Iago covets. Iago finds a willing accomplice in Roderigo (Robert Coote), who desires Desdemona, and he puts an evil scheme into motion.

Welles’s performance accrues power obliquely—his Othello is at once more forthright and more changeful than some grander interpretations, making his corruption through an Achilles heel of vanity all the more engaging and pitiable. Cloutier gives Desdemona’s unconditional love a wrenching strength. With his classical shot-reverse shot sequences, Welles cuts back and forth to each of them in their most dramatic scenes, each of the doomed lovers isolated in a frame. Welles effectively evinces the core truth of the play that Othello is caught in a man’s world, military and political, defined solely by male authority, male counsel, and ambition. Love, reason, and honor become the victims. With his choice of lenses and angles, lighting and editing, the spatial mise en scene of the actors, Welles suggests that these two characters who might share so much are reduced to crying out to one another across  a void created by a good-ole-boys’ jealous intrigue.

The weakest link in the production is the Iago—MacLiammoir is skilled and articulate, but his characterization finds merely the sourness in the role and only occasionally its seductive wickedness.

Unlike Olivier’s wartime film version of Henry V or his 1947 Hamlet—which held the plays’ theatricality pretty much intact and in frame—Welles’s film has the less composed texture of post-WWII neo-naturalism characteristic of films of the period by Roberto Rosselini (Stromboli), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo), and others who were searching for a harder-edged reality and more spontaneous energy on film.

The sun-shot Mediterranean locations afford viewers—who may be used to theatre and opera stagings designed in brooding, saturated colors—a fresh look at the text. More scenes than not are shot outdoors, and the harsh sunlight has a fine ironic effect. No dark colors declare Iago’s villainy, and Othello’s self-devouring doubt has no place to hide. The black-and-white photography picks out the human figures against the dazzling architecture, sea and landscape, and the wind-blown glare makes the eye insistent. The slightest shadows of a face and every inflection must be examined for nuances of character and motive. Welles recognized that Othello (not unlike Hamlet) is rife with challenges to classical storytelling, and is essentially a tale of shadings—of integrity turning on itself when infected with a virus of political hatred. The director doesn’t make anything easier for us. With a heightened sense of dread we lean into the story.

- Hadley Hury

(Available through Blu-ray, Amazon, and other select streaming sites)

 

Tuesday
Oct042016

"A Place in the Sun" Directed by George Stevens (1951) reviewed by Hadley Hury

As the election looms, a review of George Stevens’s classic meditation on “the American Dream” – A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)

One of the most tender and erotic kisses in film occurs in A Place in the Sun, director George Stevens’s 1951 adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. That this indelible moment transpires between Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in the heyday of their remarkable physical beauty doesn’t hurt. But it’s not for nothing that the young actors—each giving one of their career-best performances and extraordinarily magnetic together—are guided by Stevens and shot by cinematographer William C. Mellor, both multiple Academy Award nominees and both winning this time out. (The film received nine Oscar nominations and won six, including editing, costume design, and Franz Waxman’s score.) Stevens, along with William Wyler and George Cukor, is considered one of the foremost “actor’s directors” from the ‘30s through the ‘50s and his hand has rarely been seen to more expert effect than with the cast of this classic.

 

Dreiser is often more admired in the abstract than read with avid appreciation for his scrupulously observed chronicles of American life in the early 1900s. (His other most notable novels include Sister Carrie, The Titan, and Jennie Gerhardt.)  He is an important writer, not only for his naturalistic treatments of working people and the constraints of economic necessity but for his incisive explorations of the tensions inherent among desire, ambition, social mores—of what “the American Dream” actually could, if anything, mean. However, few will argue that his lengthy and sometimes turgid tales can be tough to navigate. Screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, who also won an Oscar here for their work, bring Dreiser's novel forward to the contemporary post-WWII era and successfully distill an essence of conflicting aspirations that is moving and memorable.

The plot, in short, focuses on George Eastman (Clift) a working-class young man, thoughtful, sensitive, and desperate to free himself from a dreary upbringing rooted in dour religiosity and near-poverty. His route for getting out and getting ahead is to hitchhike to another town and take a job as a factory working at his successful uncle’s company. Over time he proves himself, his newfound society family invite him—gradually and not without condescension—into their society, and he falls in love with the wealthy, beautiful debutante Angela Vickers (Taylor). Unfortunately, during his slow ascent he has been assuaging his loneliness by “seeing” the rather plain and similarly lonely Alice Tripp, a wistful, self-deprecating, clingy girl from the factory (Shelley Winters, who is excellent), and just as his professional and social prospects begin to improve Alice tells him she is pregnant. She asserts that he must do the proper thing by her and by society. A tragedy ensues through which everyone’s life is irrevocably changed.

Stevens’ filmography included a gamut of Americana, from Swing Time with Astaire and Rogers (1936) to Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier (1943), I Remember Mama with Irene Dunne (1948), and Alan Ladd in Shane (1953). For all the variety of subject matter in his career, key scenes from his films are chiefly remembered for one of two characteristics—either emotional immediacy or capacious scope. A master of sequential and often lingering close-ups that filled the screen with characters’ faces, and particularly focused on the eyes, he knew how to draw the viewer into the hearts and minds of his characters, and was particularly adept at evincing from actors very credible psychological and emotional complexity, the simultaneity of conflicted feelings and competing thoughts (I Remember Mama, and 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank). Alternatively, he sometimes displayed an almost Whitmanesque determination to portray his explorations of the American Dream against settings of epic scope (Shane, and his 1956 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Giant). A few critics have suggested that his use of the grand scale in establishing shots, scene set-ups, and vistas occasionally came at the expense of narrative pace, but with A Place in the Sun the coordination between Stevens’s "opened-up", even stately, shots and angles, and his brilliant use of close-ups for the actors' more psychologically subtle dramatic scenes takes on a fine sense of balance; he synthesizes his two signatures to more powerful effect than in any other film in his canon. From the opening scene of George thumbing a ride beside the highway, when the camera pans from a tight frame on his searching gaze to distance-shots of his figure with wide open spaces all around, we know immediately we’re in an American landscape where the sky’s the limit—but luck will get you there faster. And contrasted with the cramped quarters of his youth we soon come to see the protagonist framed in glossy long-shots in the drawing room of George’s well-to-do relatives’ home, in the country club, and at the airy lake houses of their smart set. George’s scenes with Angela radiate an aura of promise, while the scenes of the unraveling relationship with Alice have a bleak edge—they take on the dim fatedness of noir and exude the desperation of being pulled back, pulled down, of suffocating.

Interestingly, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was published in the 1925, the same year that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—a now far more widely read masterwork—also appeared on the scene to probe the kaleidoscopic values of the American Dream.  Stylistically the novels could scarcely be more different, but both are meditations on what can happen when any aspect of the supposedly shared ethos idealized in that Dream is misconstrued, perverted, or corrupted—when aspiration becomes delusion and social mobility a monomaniacal climb, economic opportunity turns to greed, individual liberty devolves into heedless license and self-invention into fraud.

Montgomery Clift has never been better. His performance is complex, layered, and superbly calibrated. He is an earnest but calculating young man caught in a vortex, at once ambitious enough to compromise on some moral decisions but too decent to opt for complete indifference and deceit. Everyone in the story wants something they do not possess, the haves as well as the have-nots, and George is the only character who is of both worlds but at home in neither. As with Clift’s portrayal of Catherine Sloper’s suitor, Morris Townsend, in Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) there’s an unknowability to his George. The viewer becomes involved in his dilemma in direct proportion to the uncertainty Clift progressively projects as to whether some vital part of him is missing or we just haven’t yet seen it. Torn between different codes of aspiration and ethics, self-determination and crassness, George struggles to negotiate his own delicate path—and Clift makes us feel how confounding it is to be the only character living three distinct narratives as they unfold at once.

Elizabeth Taylor’s long career proved that she was not the caliber of actor who embodies the axiom that, “There are no small parts, only small actors”. Left to her own devices her performances could be tinny, two-dimensional, and unconvincing—but when she worked in good material with the best directors and co-stars, she could rise to the occasion. Here, at only 18 through most of the filming, placing herself willingly in Stevens’ hands, and partnering Clift who had quickly become one of her dearest friends and remained so until his death, she does lovely, well-modulated work. Sharing kinship with Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan, her Angela is a dazzling, rich American girl, but fresher and without the fey jadedness. It is deeply moving to watch the disturbance of her complacent self-possession by George’s ingenuous hopes and passion.

Together, Clift and Taylor become a riveting sum even greater than their parts: George and Angela are an unforgettable screen duet, inhabiting the complex emotional colorings and psychological nuances of Stevens’ vision of Dreiser’s novel with flesh and blood and thwarted passion. Some film classics are appreciated chiefly within the context of their time and genre. A Place in the Sun invites repeated viewing because, with neither sentimentality nor cynicism, its timeless tragic romance—its pervasive sense of restless longing—embodies so many of the salient questions about what it means to be American.

(Available in Netflix, Amazon, and through TCM and various streaming sites)

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Sep082016

Howard's End (restoration) reviewed by Hadley Hury

THIS RESTORATION PROJECT IS CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION. 

Howards End (1992, dir. James Ivory)

Howards End has one of the most unforgettable openings in film history. Through a soft summer twilight a woman walks slowly, familiarly through an outer garden of bluebells. She is a beautiful woman of a certain age and palpable dignity. We can feel the freshening air stir against her skin, and we know that she belongs in the landscape, that she cherishes it. Soon she nears the open windows of a comfortably rambling country house and we know that it is hers, that the people we see through the casements in the lighted interiors are her family. She pauses, and looks in, ready to go in and join them, yet not quite. This moment in which a graceful, gentle woman is poised between oneness with the still solitude of the natural spirit of her place and the business of daily life and bustling demands of family  not only evokes the locale that will be the heart of the film, but the woman’s character as well. It also perfectly evinces the tone and central theme of one of the 20th Century’s greatest novels. We know the woman must soon go in and that a part of her is ready to do so—but that a part of her lingers, content to be outside, looking in. 

Howards End is arguably the best of the many superb works by the team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant who, between 1961 and Merchant's death in May 2005, made a series of films that can be described as "Merchant-Ivory" and everyone will know what you meant. Others in the top tier include Heat and Dust (1983), A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), and The Remains of the Day (1993)Merchant and Ivory, who were also life partners for almost 30 years, made gloriously intelligent and beautiful high-end films with low-end budgets, and this gave them independence from studio meddling. Working sometimes with novelist—and their friend—Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as screenwriter and sometimes with other adapters, they turned to the novels of E.M. Forster and Henry James, which in addition to being fine literature also had the advantage of being out of copyright. As their reputation steadily grew, leading actors reduced their fees to work with them, knowing that they were in the hands of experts and that Oscar and other award nominations were a given. 

For awhile there was a patronizing minority view that Merchant-Ivory films were rather airless, corset-bound, period costume dramas—sort of Laura Ashley coffee table-book versions of Forster and James. Most of this reactionary dissent has deservedly waned with the years. Yes, some of the characters may wear evening gowns and Norfolk jackets, and the plots may be guided by those dependable Edwardian mainstays of inheritance, social change and family conflict, hypocrisy, and real estate. And, yes, there are subtle and exacting explorations of the nuances of changing cultural norms and manners. However, these adaptations of great literary works have more psychological heft and incisiveness in their treatment of class, social change, love, and marriage than many more recent and purportedly edgier, films.

Set in that overripe era of upheaving social currents just before WWI, the story seethes with passion, inhibitions, greed, anger, and psychic violence. As is usually the case with Forster, the tone is ironic but never condescending: it’s a matter of life and death and the characters are struggling to be free, to do the right—or at least the better—thing. The rapidly changing standards and aspirations of the classes, of women, of gender roles, and marriage are examined through the lens of the upper-middle-class, rather Continental, well-educated, somewhat bohemian Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter) and the family of the more prosperous and hide-bound Wilcoxes (Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins). On a visit to the Wilcoxes' country home the blithe Helen falls for the Wilcoxes' youngest son, an affair that ends badly. Later, when the Wilcoxes take a pied-a-terre opposite the Schlegels' London townhouse, sensible Margaret becomes a good friend to the ailing Mrs. Wilcox, who leaves her estate, Howards End, to Margaret—a bequest the Wilcoxes, callously closing ranks, choose to ignore. As fate would have it, though, Mr. Wilcox eventually becomes completely captivated by Margaret and to his children's horror, proposes to her—and to the chagrined surprise of the Schlegels, Margaret accepts.

It’s difficult not to feel that Howards End represents a kind of filmmaking that now seems too often missing—nuanced, well-written, and filled with complex roles, particularly for women. The film serves the essence of Forster by taking as its core the 1910 novel’s famous epigraph,"Only connect." Forster is one of the greatest writers of women; especially for his time he can be viewed as an extraordinary proto-feminist. He understood the trap that women were in—the difficulties they faced with having few choices, the external dynamics that could ensue from those choices, the social and economic risks of independence. Thompson’s Margaret is one of her greatest performances: she makes us feel how such a kind, intelligent, strong woman could feel almost like an outsider in the defining events of her life. Redgrave is luminous as Mrs. Wilcox and, with Hopkins, leads a cast which is—as is so often true of a Merchant-Ivory project—an exceptional and memorable ensemble.

Howards End received nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, director, cinematographer and acting nominations for Redgrave and Emma Thompson, who won along with Jhabvala’s script and Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker’s art direction and set decoration. It also won two BAFTAs and the 45th anniversary prize at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival.

In May, Vanessa Redgrave and director James Ivory, along with Charles S. Cohen, were on hand for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the release of Howards End, marked by a screening of the new 4K restoration of the film. Cohen acquired the Merchant Ivory Library, which includes 21 films and nine documentaries, with the intention to restore and re-release the collection as part of Cohen Film Collection. It is the first film from the Merchant Ivory Library acquisition to have been restored and re-released. This important work was done from the original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack held at the archive of the George Eastman Museum, with a 5.1 audio track restoration by Audio Mechanics, and color grading by Deluxe Restoration under the supervision of Ivory and cinematographer Tony Pierce‐Roberts. The digital restoration was completed by Cineric Portugal. Ivory, Thompson, and Redgrave are currently discussing the film in a number of interviews, film panels, and forums. Howards End opened at the Paris Theatre and Film Forum in New York on Aug. 26 and Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles on Sept. 2. Cohen Media Group plans to show the film at several of the original theaters that first screened the movie in 1992, before expanding distribution to other markets.

Friday
Aug262016

Women in Love (1969, directed by Ken Russell) reviewed by Hadley Hury

What better time than 1969 for an artistic convergence between the Bad Boy of early-20th Century literature, D.H. Lawrence, and the enfant terrible of late-20th Century film, Ken Russell? Though Lawrence’s reputation as a major writer long ago outpaced the early detractors of his day who called him a “pornographer” and Russell’s work as a director is wildly uneven—variously revered as ground-breaking and reviled as cheap and sensational—at least one of their meetings seems as fated and felicitous an encounter of artistic spirits as that of Merchant and Ivory with E.M. Forster. Lawrence lived in and wrote about an era of cataclysmic cultural change, and his rich 1920 novel Women in Love is regarded as one of his most ambitious works. In another time of societal upheaval and cultural sea-change, Russell made the novel into what many consider his most articulate and fully realized film.

Released in Britain in 1969 and the U.S. in ’70, Women in Love is a haunting, cinematically lush, adaptation of a challenging, multifaceted novel. Larry Kramer’s screenplay is faithful to the text and impressive in its distillation. As important as its adherence to the major narrative points and themes, is the film’s stylistic elan and pungency. The cinematography by Billy Williams (On Golden Pond, Gandhi, Sunday Bloody Sunday) infuses Lawrence’s emotional and intellectual argument with sensuous energy, and the production design—particularly Kenneth Jones’ art direction and Shirley Russell’s costumes—is spot on. This ripe visual flair evinces the conflicted passions, romantic subtlety, and complex sensuality that are the essence of the spirit of Lawrence’s work—as does the work of the generally excellent cast including unforgettable, pitch-perfect performances by Glenda Jackson, who won the Best Actress Oscar, Alan Bates, Jennie Linden, Eleanor Bron, Oliver Reed, Vladek Sheybal, and Catherine Willmer.

Adapting Lawrence for the screen is difficult, not least because the strength and import of his writing can also be its weakness. To explore the intersections of class and sexual politics, the fault lines between flesh and the spirit (both real and artificially enforced by Victorian mores), and the incursions of industrialization on the natural world and human spirit, Lawrence’s novels are at times polemical, his characters frequently used less to embody a story as to function as purveyors of earnest ideas. Even so, his novels from 1913 through the ‘20s are remarkable—he is recognized as a passionate observer, prophet, and provocateur. His work seethes with the contradictions of a far-seeing artist who welcomes the freedom of modernity but rails against humans becoming automatons estranged from the vital essence of their being. At the time of his death at only 45 in 1930, the great E.M. Forster described him as, “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation”.

The film's structure is episodic and fluid. In the Midlands mining town of Beldover, two sisters, Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula (Linden), are courted and won by Gerald (Reed), a wealthy young coal-mine owner, and Rupert (Bates), a school inspector and Gerald's best friend. Rupert and Ursula enter into a tender love affair, Gerald and Gudrun embark on a far stormier liaison. Both Rupert and Gerald despair over their need for some other sort of bond. Gerald is also disturbed by his apparent inability to develop any personal relationships outside the dominion of his mechanistic mining economy. The two couples go together to Switzerland on holiday, and there is the unforgiving glare of hyperborean clarity the various tensions, desires, and questions loom inescapably.

Russell, who died in 2011, is known for the sometimes intelligent, sometimes sophomoric, sexual audacity and religious iconoclasm of his movies (Valentino, The Devils) and the irreverence of his film biographies of Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Mahler. His outright musicals (Tommy, The Boy Friend) met with more critical approval, and his Altered States (1980) written for the screen by Paddy Chayefsky and starring William Hurt and Blair Brown garnered both decent critical appraisal and box office. In later interviews, Russell—always the contrarian—avowed that although he regarded Women in Love as creditable it was not his best work. Many film buffs and critics disagree. Vincent Canby, in his New York Times review in 1970 wrote that the movie “captures a feeling of nature and of physical contact between people, and between people and nature, that is about as sensuous as anything you've probably ever seen in a film”. (Despite—or perhaps because of—intervening decades of explicit sexuality and numbing physical and psychic violence in film this remains, in some significant degrees and qualities, true of Women in Love 46 years later.)

The late 1960s and 1970s are now viewed as one of the most memorable heydays of cinema—an era of inventiveness and daring, of narrative, aesthetic, and technical experimentation. A vital part of the cultural upheaval of the times, films across the genres reflected new perspectives: societal issues came to the fore, comedies evoked a different kind of laughter, suspense became more edgily psychological, dramas rawer, sexuality less suppressed and romance less formulaic. Whether the more memorable films of this time variously gave voice and vision to a zeitgeist, emboldened, inspired, shocked, or merely goaded with a sort of glorious discomfort or exhilaration, they were films that were difficult to get out of your system. Even some viewers who’ve never found Lawrence their cup of tea are willing to say this of the eidetic, strangely absorbing Women in Love.

(Just released on Blu-ray. Also available through TCM and Amazon.)

Thursday
Aug182016

Cousin Bette (1998, directed by Des McAnuff) reviewed by Hadley Hury

 

Cousin Bette was the film debut of Des McAnuff, the theatre and opera director (and artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario) noted for brash theatricality, and his flamboyant treatment of Honore de Balzac’s classic novel is a feverish exercise in gilding a lily. Balzac’s rich canvases of la comedie humaine neither require nor invite the sort of overheated cinematic flourishes and over-italicized archness with which McAnuff has chosen to goose up his interpretation. (The necessarily stripped-down, but serviceable, screenplay is by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr.) The result comes close at times to subverting an authoritatively low-key, and wickedly sly, performance by Jessica Lange in the title role of an embittered spinster, appearing waxenly pale but steely in a black wig of late-19th century sausage curls.

Lange, who recently won the 2016 Best Actress Tony for her current appearance on Broadway as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is the chief reason to see this version of the classic tale of a poor relation who quietly sets about getting back at the self-involved Parisian relatives who have treated her with arrogant dismissiveness all her life. The film’s dissonance might have been avoided had McAnuff trusted this already lusty potboil of great material from one of the world’s greatest novelists as self-effacingly as Lange does her title character. The director seems to have difficulty in adapting for the camera the sense of scale that serves his stage productions so well. The film as a whole is entertaining enough, just too eager; it simply doesn’t jibe with the integrity of its source or of its central performance.  

We’re off on a juicily foreboding note when Lange, at the deathbed of her rich sister (Geraldine Chaplin), promises to fulfill the last wish of the vain woman who has forever treated Bette with thoughtless disdain—that she take care of her family. With a setting of lips and a curdlingly controlled tone not heard since Faye Dunaway scratched the ice of Joan Crawford, Lange purrs: “I’ll take care of them all.” Her long-fused revenge is then tweaked yet again when her brother-in-law offers her the job of housekeeper instead of a proposal of marriage which she had expected.

Lange does a fine job of tracing the threadbare fabric of Bette’s lonely existence as a talented seamstress in the theatre district. The woman has pride, strength, and a measure of dignity despite the callousness with which life has treated her. And she has no illusions until, heartbreakingly, she takes up an impoverished Polish sculptor (Aden Young) who lives in the next garret and whom she perceives as a sort of last possibility for real human connection. With her superb capacity for portraying people who are risking a final gamble out on the margins, and her sinewy physicality and vocal technique, Lange suggests that Bette at first tries to believe that she is nurturing the sculptor for reasons of art and the spirit, but layer by layer she reveals that this tightly coiled, undeluded observer of the worst of human nature, is actually exposed—out, quite humanly, for love. When this last chance is whisked out from under her by her spoiled niece, the long-banked fires roar into a conflagration of revenge.

Given Bette’s demeanor and long-tested will, even this plot to get back at the pack of them is assiduously machinated; the seamstress becomes a black widow of sorts, stitching her plot quietly, with an attention to detail that aids her scheme of bringing about the downfall of all who have abused her. She plays the sculptor’s vanity off against the individual foibles and collective, effete self-absorption of the relatives. And she involves the services of Bob Hoskins (delightful in a small role as the rich mayor and ladies’ man manque) and Elisabeth Shue as a deliciously vulgar follies star. It’s malicious fun, and would have been more so had McAnuff not felt compelled to frame it all with such punched-up, cutesy fervor. Fortunately, as he goes into overdrive for the final stretch Lange seems to take on extra gravity and manages, in the end, to leave us with a quietly memorable portrait of Balzac’s sorely put-upon woman, severe and drawn very near to breaking, who decides she will no longer be overlooked by life. Finding love unreachable, she turns to making–like her costumes for the follies–the only magic she can from the materials at hand.

 

 

 

Thursday
Jul282016

A Stolen Life (1946) Directed by Curtis Bernhardt 

Why call it a “guilty pleasure”? A Stolen Life is an uneven but enormously watchable entertainment that many viewers return to for a variety of satisfactions which many of those viewers themselves might find it challenging to articulate. If you have a propensity for well-tailored black-and-white films (particularly of the ‘40s), or for tastefully quaint cottages on small islands off the New England coast, contemporary art-opening soirees in post-WWII Manhattan studios, lighthouses shrouded in fog, colorful character actors, moon-dappled seas, the perennial cinematic theme of good-twin/evil-twin, or Bette Davis, this nifty melodrama has your name written on it at least legibly enough to give it a try.

It’s noteworthy that Davis herself produced the film. For years she had been trying to wrangle a better contract with Warner Brothers. Though when studio head Jack Warner finally gave in it was at best a grudging compromise (and other self-producing projects didn’t pan-out), A Stolen Life retains the distinction of being one of very few movies of the era produced by a female star. Based on a best-selling novel by Czech writer Karel J. Benes, the property was first filmed in Britain in 1939, with Michael Redgrave and Elisabeth Bergner. 

It is the story of an artist who is honorable, good-humored, sensible, and lonely (Davis as Kate Bosworth) who meets a lighthouse manager on Martha’s Vineyard who is a strong, good-hearted loner of few words (Glenn Ford) and falls in love with him. Her self-involved, flirtatious, irresponsibly amoral twin (Davis as Patricia) connives to snatch him away and marry him. When a few months later the sisters, sailing alone off the island, are wrecked in a sudden storm one is drowned and the other, in recovering after the rescue, decides to become her twin—she steals her life. To tell more would descend to that most egregious fault in film reviewing, plot summary, but suffice it to say that it thickens to a fare-thee-well.

It’s Davis’ movie, and she acts the dual role with shrewd delicacy. She portrays Kate and Pat as identical twins who have shared a world intimately but are radically disparate in how they perceive and function in it, and she does a fine job of evincing their differences with subtle but telling gestures, and vocal inflection, pace, and tone. The film showcases the two personae that were Davis’ signatures—the smart but sociopathic schemer and the dignified, self-determining heroine. The ever laconic Ford doesn’t bring much spark but works well enough as the romantic lead. Dane Clark plays a second male love-interest who is also an artist, and it’s nearly impossible not to notice that this snarling, pretentious, vaguely-on-the-barricades, bohemian cliché could’ve been brought to more vivid life by John Garfield, who was unavailable. Most notably there are two excellent supporting performances—Charles Ruggles as the twins’ kind, fun-loving, urbane Uncle Freddie, who owns the house on the island and in the end helps sort out all the deceptions and misguided good intentions, and Walter Brennan as Ford’s curmudgeonly comrade at the lighthouse.

 

Director Curtis Bernhardt (Possessed, Miss Sadie Thompson, Sirocco) and cinematographer Sol Polito (Now, Voyager, Arsenic and Old Lace) wrangle the film’s various moods and settings with a confidence that lends a more-or-less integrated mis-en-scene and some admirable spunk. The film is not without its goofiness: some scenes (especially those involving Clark’s angry artiste) become a little stagey, and the narrative momentum wanders for a while around the midpoint. Hard-nosed credibility is not the movie's long suit, but in the tradition of juicy tales it manages more often than not to earn our willing suspension of disbelief. Even with the script’s sometimes sketchy logic, A Stolen Life is a classy diversion and a well-observed tour of several late-‘40s social venues—it manages to be both cozy and sophisticated, at moments even a tad intellectually curious around the edges. Despite some psychological frisson it’s not a thoroughgoing noir nor despite its sentiment and strong female focus is it strictly an example of the decade’s “woman’s picture”. It has intermittent ambitions toward ideas about post-war modernism, economics, socio-politics, feminism, and art, but on the whole the melodrama charts an independent course and has its own quirky stylistic shine. For 1946 the intricate use of matte shots and an occasional double are imaginatively done, and the film received an Academy Award nomination for Special Effects. The incomparable Max Steiner composed the score for A Stolen Life and it’s an essential aspect of its texture and tone—in the collage of intriguing elements that comprise this odd, interesting film Steiner’s central motif has an urgent potency that lingers.

- Hadley Hury

 

(Available through TCM, Amazon Prime, select online streaming outlets)

Wednesday
Jun152016

The Man Who Bought Mustique (2000, dir. Joseph Bullman)

 

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron Glenconner, purchased the tiny Caribbean island of Mustique for £45,000 in 1958 and transformed from it from a barren cay into a glamorous playground for the rich.  Here he entertained the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger, David Bowie, John Cleese and Sir David Frost, future Conservative cabinet minister Paul Channon, and Princess Margaret. Photographs—including some by Robert Mapplethorpe and Lord Lichfield—from the heyday of jet-set partying on this private reserve show Princess Margaret in a turban, dancing with Lord Glenconner, and Mick Jagger, chatting with Lord Glenconner's mother, Pamela, Lady Glenconner, at a fancy dress party in 1976.

Tennant, heir to his family’s ancestral estate The Glen in the Scottish Borders, was born in 1926, attended Eton, served in the last days of WWII, went to Oxford, and travelled widely in Asia and the Caribbean. In 1956 he married Lady Anne Coke, by whom he later had three sons and twin daughters. Lady Anne was the daughter of Thomas Coke, 5th Earl of Leicester. Lady Anne had been one of Queen Elizabeth II’s Maids of Honour at the 1953 coronation, and was also a friend of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. It was as a guest at their wedding that Princess Margaret met Tony Armstrong Jones (later her husband) who had been hired to take wedding pictures. After purchasing Mustique in 1958, Tennant built a new village for its inhabitants, planted coconut palms, vegetables and fruit, and developed the fisheries. In 1960 the British royal yacht Britannica carried Princess Margaret and her new husband, now Lord Snowdon, on a honeymoon cruise around the Caribbean. The royal couple visited Mustique to accept a wedding gift from Tennant, a plot of land on which the Princess was to build her holiday retreat, Les Jolies Eaux.

Glenconner and his wife increasingly spent time apart, and after his death in 2010 the estate was embroiled in highly contentious litigation. Their lives were also colored by tragedy. Their eldest son Charlie, a heroin addict, died of hepatitis in 1996. Their second son Henry died of AIDS in 1990, and his third and youngest son, Christopher, was disabled in a motorcycle accident in 1987. The twin daughters are now in their mid-forties.

The cost of running Mustique depleted Glenconner's family fortune, and he was obliged to take on a consortium of business partners headed by Hans Neumann, a Venezuelan paint manufacture. By most accounts Glenconner’s autocractic caprices were not compatible with the more practical partners and their strategic business plans. Eventually, in the early 1980s, he went into exile in a charming house on nearby St. Lucia, where for many years he ran the "Bang Between the Pitons” restaurant (now sold to the adjacent Jalousie Plantation hotel). The Man Who Bought Mustique chronicles Glenconner's first visit to Mustique since his exile, and includes a brief luncheon visit from Princess Margaret, then in fragile health not long before her death.

Both fictive films and documentaries require a director who understands the subject and can articulate why we should find it interesting, entertaining, provocative, or moving; and both types rely on good writing and compelling visuality. With documentaries, however, instead of actors we get one or more individual subjects, narrators, and/or interviewees, a mosaic of people sharing actual experiences in their own words. And instead of an original or adapted screenplay the script is woven from facts, salient if sometimes conflicting opinions, impromptu footage, and material from primary source material.  The Man Who Bought Mustique was made on an exceptionally low budget, and it has neither a profoundly important subject nor a powerful message. Colin Tennant, the 3rd Baron Glenconner, is not a man of significant accomplishments, his circumstances are not desperate or dramatically urgent, and he is very far from being an especially sympathetic human being. Why then does this documentary strike us as such an interesting, even fascinating, snippet of history? And given the subject’s rarefied eccentricity and tyrannical arrogance, why do we find The Man Who Bought Mustique an engaging and at times moving human portrait?

Director Joseph Bullman—The Seven Sins of England (2007), Dynamiters, Assassins, Fiends (2008)—manages to fashion a canny, balanced look at this man, a psychodrama both bizarre and curiously elegant, without comment or criticism. As documentary it has an ironic, poised, tongue-in-cheek subtlety, wherein Bullman and Glenconner perform a cautious and intricate pas-de-deux alternately allowing one another to dictate what will be seen and what will not, what can be said, who and what shall appear and in what context. Bullman seems to have gotten his subject’s number—he plays to his vanity—and yet there is little condescension in the project. He gives Glenconner his head and if in some instances that means more rope to hang himself by his foibles that’s as may be, but he also takes care to create spaces and breathing room for the man’s moments of generosity, dignity, humor, and remarkable aesthetic sense. The Man Who Bought Mustique is a scrupulous look at a profligate aristocrat, artist manqué, an intolerant, eccentric, ego-centric, controlling man who bought a tiny (1,400 acres) Caribbean island, made it a post-Colonial private preserve with himself as imperial arbiter and a guest-list of assorted aristocracy, artists, rock stars, and other celebrities—then lost control of his fantasy.

 

There are moments when King Lear comes to mind, but in Shakespeare’s tragedy the old monarch achieves moments of grandeur and pathos, and though there are scenes here in which we feel fleeting sympathies for Glenconner, grandeur and pathos are thin on the ground: his solipsism is impenetrably seamless, he is petulant and petty, a bitchy neurotic, at times delusional and, at times, viciously cruel. This documentary about his extraordinary tastes and his failed folly is, however, absorbing and in the end curiously humane.

 

Thursday
May192016

Cousin Bette (1998, dir. Des McAnuff) reviewed by Hadley Hury

Cousin Bette was the film debut of Des McAnuff, the theatre and opera director (and artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario) noted for brash theatricality, and his flamboyant treatment of Honore de Balzac’s classic novel is a feverish exercise in gilding a lily. Balzac’s rich canvases of la comedie humaine neither require nor invite the sort of overheated cinematic flourishes and over-italicized archness with which McAnuff has chosen to goose up his interpretation. (The necessarily stripped-down, but serviceable, screenplay is by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr.) The result comes close at times to subverting an authoritatively low-key, and wickedly sly, performance by Jessica Lange in the title role of an embittered spinster, appearing waxenly pale but steely in a black wig of late-19th century sausage curls.

Lange (who has just been nominated for a 2016 Best Actress Tony for her current appearance on Broadway as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night) is the chief reason to see this version of the classic tale of a poor relation who quietly sets about getting back at the self-involved Parisian relatives who have treated her with arrogant dismissiveness all her life. The film’s dissonance might have been avoided had McAnuff trusted this already lusty potboil of great material from one of the world’s greatest novelists as self-effacingly as Lange does her title character. The director seems to have difficulty in adapting for the camera the sense of scale that serves his stage productions so well. The film as a whole is entertaining enough, just too eager; it simply doesn’t jibe with the integrity of its source or of its central performance.

We’re off on a juicily foreboding note when Lange, at the deathbed of her rich sister (Geraldine Chaplin), promises to fulfill the last wish of the vain woman who has forever treated Bette with thoughtless disdain—that she take care of her family. With a setting of lips and a curdlingly controlled tone not heard since Faye Dunaway scratched the ice of Joan Crawford, Lange purrs: “I’ll take care of them all.” Her long-fused revenge is then tweaked yet again when her brother-in-law offers her the job of housekeeper instead of a proposal of marriage which she had expected.

Lange does a fine job of tracing the emotionally threadbare fabric of Bette’s lonely existence as a talented seamstress in the theatre district. The woman has pride, strength, and a measure of dignity despite the callousness with which life has treated her. And she has no illusions until, heartbreakingly, she takes up  with an impoverished Polish sculptor (Aden Young) who lives in the next garret and whom she perceives as a sort of last possibility for real human connection. With her superb capacity for portraying people who are risking a final gamble out on the margins, and her sinewy physicality and vocal technique, Lange suggests that Bette at first tries to believe that she is nurturing the sculptor for reasons of art and the spirit, but layer by layer she reveals that this tightly coiled, undeluded observer of the worst of human nature, is actually exposed—out, quite humanly, for love. When this last chance is whisked out from under her by her spoiled niece, the long-banked fires roar into a conflagration of revenge.

Given Bette’s demeanor and long-tested will, even this plot to get back at the pack of them is assiduously machinated; the seamstress becomes a black widow of sorts, stitching her plot quietly, with an attention to detail that aids her scheme of bringing about the downfall of all who have abused her. She plays the sculptor’s vanity off against the individual foibles and collective, effete self-absorption of the relatives. And she involves the services of Bob Hoskins (delightful in a small role as the rich mayor and ladies’ man manque) and Elisabeth Shue as a deliciously vulgar follies star. It’s malicious fun, and would have been more so had McAnuff not felt compelled to frame it all with such punched-up, cutesy fervor. Fortunately, as he goes into overdrive for the final stretch, Lange seems to take on extra gravity and manages, in the end, to leave us with a quietly memorable portrait of Balzac’s sorely put-upon woman, severe and drawn very near to breaking, who decides she will no longer be overlooked by life. Finding love unreachable, she turns to making–like her costumes for the follies–the only magic she can from the materials at hand.

Friday
May062016

Much Ado About Nothing reviewed by Hadley Hury

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1993)

 

Twenty-three years after its release this film can still lay claim to one of the most rhapsodic opening sequences in film history. To the sweeping, passionate overture of Patrick Doyle’s score, Don Pedro and his men charge homeward from the wars on their steeds across the fields of Tuscany. As they arrive at Leonato’s villa, they splash through the fountains in progressive states of undress to wash away the dust while the gleeful women, dressed all in summer white, watch and laugh with unconstrained delight.

“Man is a giddy thing”, observes Benedick near the benedictory  ending of Shakespeare’s play, and the bemused smile on the face of Kenneth Branagh, who directs and stars in this excellent adaptation, perfectly evokes the spirit of the playwright’s answer to the human predicament: there is nothing for it but to love. For 100 rapturous minutes that is what we see on the screen and what draws us into its emotionally charged bear-hug embrace—love. This Much Ado About Nothing is both faithful to the text and great-hearted. The film is a sumptuous visual feast. There are the hills of northern Italy with their upland Mediterranean greenery, the undulating geometries of burnished vineyards, a paradisical villa, robin’s-egg-blue skies, and blooming myrtle, laurel and geraniums everywhere. In Branagh’s hands the text comes to life with vibrating intelligence and palpable energy.

Throughout the film the characters, sun-bronzed and sensuous in white cotton and soft leather, frequently touch one another. The fond feeling and physical expression are not reserved for the story’s leads and lovers; everyone touches—young, old, servants, princes, friends. As he has proven both on stage and in film Branagh is a shrewd purveyor of Shakespeare, and here there is an emotional warmth that gives full dimension to the play and which is too often missing. Man is, indeed, a giddy thing, and every day brings fresh news and ancient reminders of our capacities for goodness, brutality, spirit, and ignorance. This production of Much Ado doesn’t avoid the shadows of Shakespeare’s play but it doesn’t dwell there—the director embraces the work’s greater potential, that of satisfying our occasional need for a bit of unadulterated joy.

Keeping the two parallel plot lines moving with deft speed, Branagh also succeeds in making much of the play clearer than do many theatre productions. The film focuses our attention not merely on the verbal sparring of Benedick and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as their mutual antagonism finds itself ambushed by love, but on love’s essential power to find a way, to make good, to put things right. Much Ado affirms that few of us are worthy of love—we abuse it, and yet somehow, in spite of us it survives. Shakespeare is writing here of young love, cautious love, trust vs. treachery, eros and agape, mistaken identity and misprised honor. The film evinces that essence. It reveals our feeble efforts at getting at the truth of one another and the horrible waste that can attend our failure. Rarely have the converging story lines of Beatrice and Benedick, and  the younger lovers, Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) been balanced so effectively. Like Austen’s couples two hundred years later in Pride and Prejudice—another eidetic work of art concerned with realities and appearances and the perils of social mediation—Branagh’s and Thompson’s worldly-wise characters must cut through society’s, and their own, misperceptions about who each genuinely is before they can discover their love, while the first-timers come even more tragically close to missing the truth.

Thompson’s Beatrice embodies the production’s intelligence, exuberance, and warmth. Often actors sacrifice Beatrice’s “merriness” of heart to her quick tongue. As she has shown over and again, Thompson can give us a strong woman’s complexity, a capacity for wise feeling. In her Beatrice we can believe equally the seriousness of purpose, the wry wit, and the fact that when she was born “there was a star danced”. The supporting cast is good, and helpfully attractive. Only Keanu Reeves is not quite up to par; his performance as Don Juan is monotonic. Although his dark good looks work, and though admittedly his is the piece’s thankless role, he manages little with Don Juan’s misanthropic melancholy except a sneer. Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro and Leonard’s Claudio, as well as the Leonato of Richard Briers and Phyllida Law’s luminous Ursula, reflect the glow of the director’s vision. Michael Keaton does a highly stylized turn as the local constable Dogberry. It’s a surreal, outsized performance, outrageous but efficient—limning unforgettably everyone’s worst idea of any official entrusted with the law who is egotistical, deluded, and stupid.

Roger Lanser’s cinematography is exquisite, framing important speeches and exposition in close-up and enhancing lyrical passages with an appropriate dance-like fluidity. Doyle’s score is by turns thrilling, tender, lush, impassioned—it’s the breath of this film and never less than inspired and inspiring.

 

Friday
Apr292016

The Subtly Persuasive Politics of The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper’s new film is an elegant construction, and it is one of the most emotion-charged and intelligently searching love stories of the past year. A portrayal of one person’s quest for authentic identity, it is every bit as much the compelling portrait of a marriage, an exceptional one but one which nevertheless speaks in profoundly universal terms. It can leave one with a sense of something not frequently evoked in contemporary films—catharsis. For though The Danish Girl haunts with an unsparing sadness, it is also an unsparingly beautiful work of art.

Some critics and viewers, perhaps expecting something rawer or more political, have found the film tasteful and reserved to a fault. Without presuming to patronize or condescend I can’t help but wonder if that perspective isn’t perhaps colored by preconceived notions of what place the film should assume in our cultural conversation about transgender identity and issues. I would argue that the film requires only that we bring to it an openness, and that if we do it can take us along with the characters on a journey of discovery. Hooper’s direction is limpid, quietly rhapsodic. It is also a deeply moving study in subtlety of tone and delicacy of balance—there is a mesmerizing conflation of aesthetic and dramatic tensions in the film: the classical storytelling and sumptuous production values pulse with the urgency of Eddie Redmayne’s and Alicia Vikander’s memorable performances.

It was Hooper who just barely wrestled the galumphing Les Miserables to an honorable onscreen draw, did a fine job with HBO’s “John Adams”, and won an Oscar for his adroit actor-centric The King’s Speech in 2010. Here he directs a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same title, The Danish Girl, a fictionalized biography of Lili Elbe (as successful Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener came to be known), one of the first people to attempt sex reassignment surgery. Lili’s encounters with prevailing medical wisdom and her bravery makes this film a tribute to a heroic forerunner of the current movement for transgender rights. Given that there was scarcely even a vocabulary (either technical or, much less, psychological) for questions of gender identity at the time—the film is set largely in Copenhagen between 1926 and 1931—it’s impossible not to be moved by Lili’s baffled but determined quest for self-recognition and by her need to be recognized by those who care about her, most crucially and world-changingly his beloved and loving portrait-painter wife of six years, Gerda.

In the early days of Einar’s transformation, Redmayne conveys the degree to which gender is, for all of us, a skill acquired through observation and imitation. Observing a pretty girl through the glass at a Paris peep show, Einar longs not to possess her but to be her, and the reverberating moment of recognition they share when she sees him emulating her gestures makes for one of the movie’s most eidetic scenes. Another (also wordless) occurs long after Einar has begun to allow Lili freer rein, dressing almost always in female attire, using make-up, wearing a wig, growing-out his hair. In one last attempt at regaining Einar—if only to signal a symbolic embodiment of his great love for Gerda—the camera approaches Redmayne sitting on a sofa waiting for her to come home. Though he has dressed in pants, shirt, and jacket, his attitude and posture evince one of his most wholly feminine moments in the film. A legitimate criticism may be made that Lili’s characterization stalls ever so slightly in the denouement—we want more—but that is a weakness in the screenplay, not in Redmayne’s interpretation. Throughout the course of Einar’s making way for Lili, it is a daring performance shrewdly built of shifting nuances—without an overreliance on bravura technique and in its patience and vulnerability, the actor’s transformation is revelatory.

But The Danish Girl does not belong solely to Redmayne. As Gerda, whose unconditional love provides an essential context for Lili’s birth, Alicia Vikander is the soul of the film, and she deservedly won this year’s Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance. It is a bracingly vibrant and truthful performance. Early in the film Einar muses that, "Marriage creates someone else, more than just the two of you." Vikander makes Gerda a fiercely independent artist and a human being with the courage to be fiercely brave and constant. She refuses to let love die, to let the “more” that has been created be completely lost—even when her husband discovers that he must become a woman. After harrowing encounters with various doctors and psychiatrists of the day, Lili reports, accompanied by Gerda, for a last-chance appointment at a women’s clinic to see a physician who may perform the pioneering and still hush-hush surgery. With now fatigued determination and a slightly awkward falter, Lili tells the assistant at the desk, “I believe that I am a woman—inside.” Only a second elapses before Gerda speaks up, holding back tears and with force that surprises even herself, “And I believe it, too.” Vikander is a beautiful woman, and even more she is an eminently generous, open, and commanding screen actor. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in this role and difficult to imagine the film becoming what it is without her.

Danny Cohen’s cinematography, Eve Stewart’s production design, and the art direction by Grant Armstrong are exquisite. Alternating with the stark landscapes of coastal salt marshes and spellbinding calligraphies of bare winter trees against opalescent northern skies that evoke Wegener’s work, many of the Copenhagen interiors—art nouveau, jugendstil, and art deco—are modelled with fidelity on the paintings of the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi. The very able supporting cast includes Sebastian Koch as the compassionate surgeon who eventually performs Lili’s surgery, and Matthias Schoenarts as a gallery owner and former childhood friend of Einar’s who persists in offering Gerda support even when she feels unable to accept it.

It probably shouldn’t surprise that there are sharply varying responses to The Danish Girl. The film arrives at the end of a year in which a president of the United States for the first time mentioned transgender people in his State of The Union address; the nation confirmed a timetable for transgender soldiers to serve openly in the military; award-winning TV shows “Transparent” and “Orange Is The New Black” evoked groundbreaking conversations about transgender activism; and reality star Caitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair (and elsewhere with Kardashianesque ubiquity) sparking a remarkably fine-pointed debate as to whether designer clothes make the woman and what should constitute the most salient concerns of transgenderism.

Those who express disappointment that in terms of trans activism the film is only a baby step, or somehow not “real” enough, may or may not be right in terms of pure politics, but human frontiers have always been most effectively reached by multiple approaches—along with polemics, satire is necessary, as is personal persuasion. And, always, art. Hooper’s film is likely to score some significant and substantive points. By framing the search for authentic identity with the universal markers of a tender and compelling love story to guide the way—and relating it in a classical style, with aesthetic integrity and name actors in a bankable wide-release project—The Danish Girl will undoubtedly move more people, heretofore untouched, to consider and begin to understand the complexities of transgender experience.

Monday
Apr252016

A Delicate Balance

A DELICATE BALANCE  (dir. Tony Richardson, 1973)

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

 

With Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and August Wilson, Edward Albee is most likely to sustain a position in history as one of the five greatest American playwrights of the 20th Century. A Delicate Balance (which shows more cousinage with some of Beckett’s and Pinter’s works than with those of his American confreres) is considered by many theatregoers and critics to be his masterpiece. It premiered on Broadway in 1966 and over the past 50 years has been revived in stellar productions in London and New York and around the world. A superb 1973 production—directed by Tony Richardson and starring Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Kate Reid, Lee Remick, Joseph Cotten, and Betsy Blair—is one of 14 major plays filmed by the American Film Institute between 1970 and 1975 and available now in a DVD box set and through several streaming options.

Albee’s elliptical yet densely packed examination of loss and fear was set in the present, but it’s a present that after five decades continues to feel both immediate and yet at some slight remove from any time we know. The play exists in a sort of unsettling timelessness of existentialist absurdism, despite the fact that the physical setting is the large, elegantly wood-paneled library and living room of a grand old house in some upscale exurb of New York City (or, just as easily, London). There are flashes of scathingly ironic humor—even real funniness—but just beneath the tasteful well-ordered surface of this household, there are histories of lost children, lifelong friendships that provoke rather than nurture, icy marriages, infidelities, festering secrets. Life-and-death battles are being waged that on this particular weekend erupt into the open. Even as it operates as a satire of all those taut drawing-room comedies of the 1920s and ’30 by Maugham and Barry, A Delicate Balance is also a nightmarish horror story.

As Agnes (Hepburn) and Tobias (Scofield) settle in for a post-prandial drink, we know that this Friday evening is one of a long-years tradition of such evenings. Agnes is handsome, well-dressed, dignified, and articulate. Her first lines are long, Wildean or Jamesian; her sentences become paragraphs, discursive and at times oblique, but never wholly off-topic. Her initial topic unfolds as a gently musing and bemused aria in which she considers the possibility of whether or not she may someday go mad—nothing dramatic, more a slipping away, an unmooring. Tobias is handsome, also elegantly dressed. He listens rather impassively and makes occasional, low-key responses.

More concrete problems arise in the form of Claire, Agnes's sister (Reid) who lives with them. A brashly self-proclaimed "drunk" who disparages the term alcoholic, Claire’s only idea of a good time seems to be to redirect occasionally her self-hatred into embarrassing Agnes and commiserating with Tobias. Then Julia (Remick), Agnes and Tobias's only surviving child, fortyish, returns home after the collapse of her fourth marriage. The final ingredient in Albee’s mixture of desperate humanity and brutal comedy is the arrival of Agnes and Tobias's best friends Edna (Blair) and Harry (Cotten). Occupied with quiet pursuits—hers needlepoint, his French lessons—after dinner in their home nearby, they were suddenly overcome by an ill-defined terror so potent that they dropped everything and, without calling, arrive on their friends’ doorstep seeking refuge. Agnes and Tobias find such behavior odd, perhaps even peculiar, but after all, it's only for one night; they welcome Edna and Harry who, from the moment of their appearance, begin oddly to act as if they belonged there. The next day they announce that they're moving in permanently.

The terror is never explained but, as with good poetry, the ambiguity in A Delicate Balance is the result of neither fuzzy thinking nor contrivance. Albee creates an imperiled sense of civilization that has variously but persistently gotten under the skins of audiences. The dialogue crackles with an arch grotesqueness, small-talk on the surface and disorienting philosophical probings underneath. Yet the challenged sense of self-determination and privacy, the fragile bonds of intimacy, and even the occasional insularity of these characters grant them a curiously spellbinding power.

Albee wrote, in a 1996 preface to the play, “(it) concerns . . . the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.”

Whether it is the incursion of increasingly pervasive anomie, free-floating anxiety, or a loss of direction and purpose, the characters and—through the powerfully involving dramatic bond Albee establishes—the audience confront together an unnamable but inescapable sense of dread. Agnes recognizes it as a kind of plague, Claire feels that on the battlefield of her life she has earned a right of immunity, Tobias worries what his responsibility in aiding the two victims should be, and Julia is merely enraged that Harry and Edna have taken her old room. (Audience members will likely be filling-in their own blank canvases, at once individuated yet perhaps not unrecognizably dissimilar to their neighbors.)

The play has likewise offered some of our finest actors latitude for interesting choices about when to play up the black comedy, when and how to reveal the despair—and there have been some uniquely superior productions of this modern classic over the years. Jessica Tandy originated the role of Agnes, and she has been followed memorably by Rosemary Harris, Eileen Atkins, Penelope Wilton, and Glenn Close. George Grizzard, Tim Piggott-Smith, and John Lithgow have played Tobias, and Maggie Smith and Imelda Staunton and Elaine Stritch, Claire.  

Director Richardson evokes Hepburn at her best in this filmed version. Her Agnes is simultaneously a strong and self-possessed patrician and a wife and mother who is clinging by her white-knuckled wits to her sanity and existence. Hepburn inhabits the playwright’s stillnesses with eloquent emotional reserve and enlivens Agnes’s fear with the incisive humor of a survivor. Scofield takes Tobias from a rather laconic man carapaced in effete weltschmerz to a deeply sympathetic human struggling to find meaning, if not in redemptive action at least in intentional commitment. Reid’s Claire is etched in acidic blood-and-guts: it’s a ferocious performance that manages to sustain a touching vulnerability. Remick gives Julia’s spoiled-rotten immaturity a surprisingly wistful tenderness—we understand her need to harbor away from the storms in defiant shallowness. Blair, and especially Cotten (in one of the best performances of his career), as the bizarrely fearful suburban refugees, are at once pitiable and sinister.

Richardson avoids the most common hazard of many filmed stage productions: he knows when to give needed space to an ensemble scene and when an exchange or monologue needs tighter framing. He has a discerning eye for the prismatic power of Albee’s tragicomedy and an ear fine-tuned to its mythic rhythms.

 

 

Sunday
Jan102016

Three for Your Consideration

Three for your consideration

Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor

 

CAROL

Much has been written about director Todd Haynes’ affinity for films of the 1950s—and particularly about his affinity for that decade’s most emblematic filmmaker of florid melodramas, Douglas Sirk (Magnificent ObsessionAll That Heaven AllowsWritten On The WindImitation of Life). Haynes himself, in frequent interviews, has discussed at length his passionate regard for Sirk, and in 2002 he directed Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven, which was a loose adaptation of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson).

Haynes is not alone in his admiration of these lush, gutsy soaps: most knowledgeable film buffs and a solid majority of critics relish their cinematic energy and prescient probings of the era’s social hypocrisies. He also demonstrated his rapt tropism toward period pieces with his take on the world of 1970s glam-rock (The Velvet Goldmine, 1998) and in his fine direction of HBO’s five-part miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet, in 2011. With Carol, his new ‘50s homage featuring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, Haynes may have gone about as far as he can go with his Sirkian obsession.

Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film is set in 1952-53 and tells the story of two women who fall in love with one another against a scrupulously evoked backdrop of pop hits by Eddie Fisher, Billie Holiday, and Jo Stafford, ladies having tea at The Ritz in hats and gloves, svelte Packards nosing through midtown Manhattan traffic, and news of Ike’s first election airing on small television screens. Judy Becker’s production design and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction give Carol an appropriate glossiness, and Edward Lachman—who was Haynes’ cinematographer on both Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce—once again serves with deliberate adoration as acolyte to Haynes’ vision. The team’s entire mise-en-scene—the use of proscenium-like framing, faces seen through rain-dropped windows, the saturated color palette of aquas, coral, olive, and rich browns shading into chiaroscuro—is so expert in its meta-evocation of the era’s cinema that some viewers may actually feel that they are watching a 1950s film within a 1950s film.

The film’s greatest attribute is its seamless pictorial authenticity. Its problem is that it has a curiously sluggish and airless quality and only infrequently comes to full-bodied life.

Blanchett plays the title character, a well-to-do Connecticut woman who is divorcing her husband of 10 years and grappling with him over the custody of their young daughter. She meets Terese (Mara) a department store clerk and budding photographer and—tentatively at first and in the face of fiercely prevailing social mores—they embark on a relationship. (With early awards-season buzz, and the film-opening clout of the great Blanchett, the cast and creative team are wisely adhering to the social-issue line in interviews but, sadly, even on that front Carol fails to satisfy. The love story-against-societal-odds that should propel the narrative and draw the viewer into the women’s sense of discovery is lost in the self-conscious period correctness.) Ironically, Carol suffers from Haynes’ and his team’s hyper-attentiveness to visual detail. Every peripheral action, physical setting, costume design (perfect, by Sandy Powell), every appliance, canned good, radio dial, cigarette lighter, and watch face receives the same lingering, reverential gaze, and is given equal value to the dramatic development—and too often that creates a sense of narrative inertia and, even for such fine actors, a diminution of opportunities for characterization. As usual Blanchett is glamorous and more than capable of holding our attention with her watchful, inward stillness, and Mara countervails with an alert earnestness. Carol’s and Terese’s exploration, however, feels rather stifled—and it has less to do  with our being able to feel the social strictures that confound them and more to do with the director’s heavy indications and prescriptive style. A certain muted delicacy might be argued as appropriate for both the era and the material, but when the care and mastery in evoking a period outweighs the drama, our appreciation is left too frequently to dwell on contextual detail rather than the human focus.

Haynes has an acute sense of texture and tone, but since he has so frequently drawn  comparisons with his and Sirk’s films it’s difficult for us not to do the same. The dire trials of the female protagonists in Sirk's melodramas may be nearly over-the-top, but they are full-blooded sagas that viewers can sink their teeth into. Even more, their narrative insistence and Technicolor vibrancy sink their teeth into the viewer—and don't let go. His movies have a subversive power, seething up like lava beneath the suppressive order of ‘50s society and bursting from the screen. Even with their sometimes overripe high-voltage garishness (which consigned them largely to the camp category for 20-30 years) Sirk’s melodramas are undeniably watchable. Carol lacks this emotional immediacy: though Blanchett and Mara have a few subtly moving scenes, much of the film remains flat, static, and distant. A few ravishing images may resonate, but the viewer too often is stranded at a remove.

Haynes is an intelligent filmmaker. His passionate regard for film history as well as for source material and craft are more worthy than much of the sophomoric slapdash that unmemorably fills cineplex screens. We can have every reason to hope that, now fifty-five, he may yet make  a more robust and invigorating film, one proving that even his Mannerist art can give us more than a pastiche of painstakingly curated images and take on—as Douglas Sirk himself might have titled a piece—a life of its own.

 

TRUMBO

Trumbo is an important film because it succeeds in both educating and entertaining. It throws into sharp relief and lends urgent voice to issues in our socio-political landscape today. Set primarily between 1947 and 1960 the film focuses on the Hollywood blacklist and its ramifications for one of filmdom’s most adroit screenwriters. It examines, through a film industry lens, the toxic Red Menace hysteria brewed during the dark and disgraceful days of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. In 21st-Century politics, increasingly degraded by right-wing politicians and media outlets using fear and bullying in their strategy to divide and conquer at any cost, the cautionary tale of Trumbo has a reeking freshness.

Bryan Cranston, multiple Emmy Award winner for “Breaking Bad”, is superb as Dalton Trumbo, whose scripts for box-office hits like A Guy Named Joe and Kitty Foyle—and later works as diverse as Spartacus, The Fixer, and Papillon—placed him in the upper ranks of Hollywood wordsmiths. Like many American artists, intellectuals, and labor leaders, Trumbo became a Communist during the days of Fascism’s ascendancy between the World Wars. Once World War II ended and the Cold War began in earnest, Trumbo and other “sympathizers” were soon targeted by the HUAC. In the perversion of constitutional rights and our body politic that ensued—and which most heinously came to be personified by Sen. Joe McCarthy—even some liberal Democrats like Edward G. Robinson (played convincingly here by Michael Stuhlbarg) are thrown to the zealous demagogues. Some, including Trumbo, are jailed, others crack and willingly give names, and many lose their careers, their families, and a few even their lives. But Trumbo fights to survive, writing scripts pseudonymously. The necessary deception ironically garners him two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday and The Brave One), neither of which he could claim.

Jay Roach’s direction, though lacking in verve and cinematic imagination, is respectfully thoughtful. Its deliberateness succeeds in making the story’s most salient points clear, and for an important story that is an asset that needs no apology. Occasional lapses of energy seem more attributable to John McNamara’s workmanlike adaptation of Bruce Cook’s 1977 book Dalton Trumbo. That said, Trumbo never succumbs to the belabored pomposity of some bio-pics. It has an integrity and inner logic of construction and pace—and some vivid supporting performances—that keep it both watchable and engrossing.

Helen Mirren as Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper is wonderful. It’s another of the film’s assets that many viewers will learn for the first time that Hopper was not merely the sometimes cleverly bitchy troublemaker with the signature hats or, more latterly, a talk-show guest regular who sought to disarm with a feigned scattiness. She held a very influential bully pulpit and, most treacherously in this era, was a vicious red-baiter who wrecked careers and lives. Rather than go for broke, Mirren uses her scenes judiciously to limn this harridan’s bitter, hard-won, calculating knowledge of Hollywood values, her steely, monomaniacal determination for revenge, and the cold, rather exhausted amorality from which to distract she employed the colorful chapeaux, fluty grande-dame voice, and straight-razor smiles. It is a brilliantly considered performance and Mirren executes it with surgical incisiveness.

Cranston’s performance is quietly riveting: his portrayal of Trumbo’s tenacity in adhering to principles never grandstands—it’s pragmatic and worldly-wise—and he evinces the writer’s felicity of language and dry wit more as survival techniques than as a flaunting of epigrams. Diane Lane, as his strong and steadfast wife Cleo, has an almost impassive solidity that works well here. The role gives her little to do but she manages to evoke an essence of bemused patience and common sense that, by all historical accounts, were essential to her own survival as well as that of her husband and family. And the careful progress of the film is enlivened by the hijinks of John Goodman as a low-rent producer for whom Trumbo grinds out schlock during the direst days of his blacklisting, and the canny cameos of Stuhlbarg as Robinson and Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas.

 

SPOTLIGHT

Spotlight is a solid piece of good old-fashioned moviemaking, and it proves that there can be some aspects of old-fashioned moviemaking that need no apology. Almost austere in its refusal to wow audiences with cinematic bells, whistles, and flourishes, it earns its suspense through the carefully calibrated teamwork of a fine ensemble of actors and an uncluttered focus, and is a potent reminder that investigative journalism can be capable of eschewing the self-regard and sensationalism it is often heir to and can even at times attain a significant level of moral gravity.

Early in the film, which is set in Boston largely in 2001, the central conflict is established in a conversation between Cardinal Bernard Law and the new editor at The Boston Globe, Martin Baron (recently arrived from Miami). “The city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” says the cardinal to the newspaper editor during a get-acquainted chat in the rectory. Len Cariou plays the Cardinal with the expansive bonhomie of a man used to having his way, and we detect that he must artfully conceal his surprise when the editor—Liev Schreiber in an elegantly restrained performance—demurs from this cozy vision of civic harmony and politely but firmly posits that the paper must stand alone.

A small group of reporters at The Globe then spends several months digging into the Boston archdiocese’s role in covering up the sexual abuse of dozens of children by priests. It’s a somber but engaging investigation, and it is testament to the success of the film’s tone and pace that director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer are able to infuse office work such as keyboarding, examining old files and records, and answering telephones, with emotion, suspense, and narrative verve. Based closely on actual events, Spotlight—which takes its name from the Globe’s investigative team, headed by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton in an intelligently lean, crisply delineated performance)—becomes a riveting detective story, a realistic newsroom drama, and a finely detailed procedural focusing on both the human particulars of institutional immorality and the seismic socio-political ramifications of the scandal and its uncovering.

Raised in the largely Roman Catholic establishment of Boston, Robby is an old acquaintance of an unctuous p-r man for the church (Paul Guilfoyle) and plays golf with an attorney who handled some of the archdiocese’s unsavory business (James Sheridan). The reporters working with Robby—Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—also come from Catholic backgrounds, and have their own conflicted feelings about the investigation. The actors’ self-effacement and delicate sense of partnering  lend a sense of lived-in dailiness and believability to their work as the Spotlight team. There’s never the least hint of grandstanding in any of the performances, yet each character is distinct, subtly evinced, true—and the cast is further enhanced by expert work from Stanley Tucci (as the pragmatically worldly-wise but deeply humane attorney for some of the abuse survivors), Billy Crudup, and John Slattery.

Critic Richard Brody, writing in newyorker.com (November 10, 2015) voices what seems the most legitimate potential dissent from the general acclamation Spotlight has received. Brody insists that by adhering solely to the newsroom team and its exacting procedures for breaking an accurate and complete story the film misses the opportunity to look more deeply into the personal stories of the survivors of abuse, the psychology of priests who perpetrated it, and the deep-rooted systemic corruption of the hierarchy that refused to deal with it—including not only the higher church officials who covered it up but their complicit attorneys as well as other civic leaders who turned blind eyes. There is one brief scene in which one of the team questions a former priest at the door of his house about his fondling of children. With wide-eyed ingenuousness the man declares that, yes, he did that, but that he “derived no pleasure from it himself”. It’s stunningly clear that in his mind, ergo, no real crime occurred. The kind of long-bred institutional sophistry, self-protection, and arrogance that can breed this degree of delusion would certainly make for an interesting film, but in two hours even an intelligently ambitious film cannot do everything. One can understand precisely what Brody means when he says that Spotlight left him wanting more—but that is because there is so much more to examine, not because McCarthy and Singer did not handle well the manageable focus they chose.

Indeed, Spotlight is defined and succeeds as much by what it chooses to leave out as by what it includes. Journalists in film are often portrayed as crusading idealists or amoral, egocentric leeches. Here we see them as human beings who, without succumbing to either a sense of self-aggrandizement or wary cynicism, do the job of trying to confront evil—as a team of conscientious professionals who take on the dangerous hydra of an entrenched system of power operating without accountability.

Friday
Oct162015

Five Not to be Overlooked by Hadley Hury

Five Not to be Overlooked

Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor

 

 

Of Clouds Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2014)

 

Clouds of Sils Maria, released in Europe early last winter and in the U.S. in April, is invigorating—and not only because the film’s locations primarily include a cozy chalet and the mountains, forested valleys, and high meadow vistas of the Alps in southeastern Switzerland. Lead actors Juliet Binoche and Kristen Stewart give intelligent, layered performances, and Olivier Assayas directs his own screenplay with shrewd grace. Assayas’ 2008 film, L’Heure d’Ete (or Summer Hours), won the New York, Boston, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and National Society of Film Critics Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Among other works he also directed 1996’s Irma Vep. Clouds of Sils Maria is his best work to date. How often do we see films that are psychologically engaging and emotionally affecting, that unfold like dreams with our never knowing—at any step of the way— what will happen next, and that rigorously refuse to insult our intelligence?

The film picks up with Maria Enders (Binoche), a celebrated screen and stage actor, on a train to Zurich to deliver a tribute to a playwright named Wilhelm Melchior. Accompanied by a canny personal assistant, Valentine (Stewart), she receives news enroute that Melchior has died. The tribute goes ahead, and afterward the two women meet with his widow at her house in the Swiss mountains. Years before, Melchior wrote a play, “Maloja Snake,” about a female corporate boss who has an affair with a young woman in her office—originally played by Maria. Now she has been asked to revisit the work, on the London stage, in the role of the older woman. And so—staying at the Melchior chalet while the widow is away—Maria runs lines with Valentine reading Maria’s former part in Melchior’s home.

The viewer is invited to explore the indistinct and porous borders of art and life—and the unique artfulness of those actors who live even closer to those fault lines than others of their peers—but Assayas, Bincohe, and Stewart refrain from allowing the “meta” framing to become precious, archly intrusive, or self-conscious. The viewer is pleasurably seduced into a mystery that is heady, unpredictable, slightly disorienting, and provocative. Clouds of Sils Maria is both rich and fresh, and even an unresolved development near the end proves to be neither careless nor contrived but stimulating and, in retrospect, expansive.

As Maria confronts her insecurities about playing the older character in the play—and eventually meets the young Hollywood celebrity (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will take her former, career-making role as the manipulative 20-something seductress—the interplay between life and art burgeons with more force in Maria and Val’s relationship. As they take long hikes and bathe in alpine tarns, we are drawn even more deeply into the film by the necessity of trying to discern line rehearsals from personal exchanges. Binoche (who appeared onstage in London earlier this year in “Antigone”) gives one of her most raw-boned and arresting screen performances to date, evincing Maria’s vulnerability and talent as well as her self-involvement, and Stewart meets her more than halfway—she need not worry about her career lingering in the penumbra of Twilight. (Both won France’s Cesar Awards for their performances this year, as did Assayas for his screenplay.)

The house and its pristine yet ethereal setting offer the film’s meditations an added redolence. Now a museum and study center, it was home to Friedrich Nietzsche during several productive summers. He wrote of it, “Here one can live well, in this strong, bright atmosphere, here where nature is amazingly mild and solemn and mysterious all at once.” Assayas powerfully evokes this atmosphere for his film. Here is the true high life, one that calls into question the media-frenzied model in which both celebrities and even more mundane folk are so often consumed.

Not only does Clouds of Sils Maria invite repeat viewings, I anticipate that it will reward them.

 

 

Ricki And The Flash (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2015)

 

To get one fairly minor cavil out of the way first: one or two scenes in Ricki and The Flash are unartfully staged—not mangled but, given the overarching appeal of the film, annoying—and there are one or two others in which the contextual tone is miscalculated. This is surprising with Jonathan Demme at the helm. His resume includes A Master Builder, Rachel Getting Married, Silence of the Lambs, and riveting concert films (most memorable, Stop Making Sense with the Talking Heads), but there you have it. The mistakes, if puzzling, are relatively small, and the more important news is that they do not seriously impede Ricki's overall dynamic and impact. It's a very pleasing entertainment, Meryl Streep proves yet again that she's not only a rare and astonishing talent but arguably the gutsiest screen actor in history, and many viewers are likely to find—more than may seem apparent at the time— that the film leaves them with a provocative welter of thoughts and emotions.

We all know how some family members will, from time to time, say, "You're all grown up!" Other family members—the really wise and wonderful ones, and for all their indulgence—are more likely to say, "You're so grown up!" They have learned enough about living to know that pronouncements of ultimate maturity are neither inspiring nor true. Ricki and The Flash reminds us that growing up is a lifelong process, that in those lives most fully lived it never ends.

Written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Ricki and The Flash features Streep as Ricki Randazzo, who in her former life was Linda Brummell of Indianapolis, wife of Pete (Kevin Kline) and mother to three children she left behind when she set out for the coast with stars in her eyes. The stars did not materialize. Ricki works hard but her day job as a check-out person, ringing up expensive organic groceries, just manages to keep real poverty at bay. But five nights a week at a Tarzana dive called The Salt Well, Ricki fronts her band, The Flash, on the scuzzy stage and they rock out as if their lives depend on it. Her fellow guitarist and would-be soulmate Greg (Rick Springfield) quips, “She thinks this is Madison Square Garden”.  Out of the blue her ex-husband Pete calls her and asks for help with daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s own daughter)—because stepmother Maureen (Audra McDonald) is away looking after her ailing father. Pete is desperate. Julie has been blindsided by the discovery of her husband’s unfaithfulness and his abrupt and recent exit and is suffering from severe, nearly paralyzing depression, and Pete asks Ricki/Linda to come home and try to act like Julie’s mother again, if only for a couple of days. The prodigal mother isn’t warmly welcomed by her now-grown children (Julie has two brothers, Adam and Josh). Though some thawing begins, there are missteps, Maureen returns, and thus the tale unfolds.

Even among those who carp about her vaunted technique and cerebration, it will have to be acknowledged that this is one of Streep’s most naturalistic performances.  Ricki has somewhat limited intelligence but she has sharp animal instincts, a measure of bravery, and the soul and commitment of an impassioned musician. Streep learned to play electric guitar, quite impressively, for the role, and anyone who’s been paying attention knows she has the vocal chops. (Her voice here is husky but assured, with traces of Raitt and Ronstadt and perhaps the Mother Earth days of Tracy Nelson, but it is indelibly her own.) Streep’s vocals, stalwart and vulnerable, are the visceral grounding of both her characterization and, in the end, of the film itself.  Ricki can be at times unsympathetic, and though she can occasionally be savvy she’s no brain-trust and she is without deep powers of imagination. Lacking both physical and social grace, it is only when she plays guitar and sings that she achieves confidence, ease in her skin, a rugged handsomeness. This is no party trick—and there’s not a whit of patronization in Streep’s performance: it’s real and it’s credible. And Demme's direction is at its most certain in evincing this transformative aspect of the film's mis en scene.

If you've seen Mamie Gummer's running character gig on CBS’ "The Good Wife" you may be prepared for her turn here as Julie—but probably not quite. Let's put it this way: if you were a young actor called to a showdown competition in demonstrating concentration and force you wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley. Gummer gives Julie's post-break-up shock and disoriented anger an unnerving ferocity. It's a cauterizing performance.

Kline does his always intelligent and deftly elegant work. His Pete has just the right mixture of strength, gentleness, and the slightly distracted self-effacement of a man who is at peace with having few delusions about his place in the scheme of things. We can see why Ricki must at once have attracted and confounded him and why he and the calmly efficient Roberta would have chosen one another for sanctuary. (The great Audra McDonald has little screen time but she gives us what we most need to know of Maureen.) And Springfield is just fine as Ricki's cool, steady, good-hearted singer-bandmate. When in his most demanding, emotionally naked scene, in which he professes his love, Ricki finally recognizes Greg’s full measure as a man. It's a genuine and moving epiphany and a vital key to the ongoing redemption of the film's other relationships.

Round Two brings Ricki—this time with Greg—back to Indianapolis for son Josh’s wedding, and the film moves toward an ending that may feel simultaneously a bit contrived but not unearned. (Many viewers are likely to perceive multiple dynamics of generosity palpably at work in this project and that no doubt evokes our own generosity in wanting to embrace it.)

Some criticism of the Ricki and The Flash may suggest that the psychological impacts the three young adults have sustained because of their parents’ divorce and Ricki's leaving to pursue her career are not fully explored. The focus of the film, however, is not on them—that would have been a wholly other film.  We see enough of their rocky rapprochement with their mother to understand that their maturity forces them to acknowledge what their earlier emotions have not: there is always more than one side to a story.

The focus of the film is Ricki—it’s an exploration of whoever and whatever she is at the core—whatever she is and is not, and what her newly recalibrated relationships with her adult children and with Greg may help her realize about life.

After the mixed-to-poor results of the initial familial visit, Ricki tells Greg that her children don't love her. Rather than dispute this—and speaking of his own adult children and the mistakes he made with them early on—he judiciously advises, "It's not their job to love you, but it's your job to love them". Though this seems indisputable, the strength of the film, and the wisdom of it keeping its sights on Ricki, is that these children are no longer children and it is indeed now a part of their job to continue growing as adults.

That’s what Ricki is learning as the credits roll. An unexceptional human being of average intelligence who has been directed by her own insecurities, strengths only partially understood and inconsistently tapped, and some degree of talent—she learns to offer her children, as well as Greg, only what she has and who she is. No longer driven by a fear of not being perfect at anything, she will try to be as whole as possible with what she is, and she is beginning to understand that just fully showing up—in whatever degree and quality the new normal with Greg and her children may be—is the only way to play it.

Whether with the young, partners, or anyone else in our proximity, the struggle toward honest self-awareness may be one of the most useful models any of us can share.

 

Woman In Gold (dir. Simon Curtis, 2015)

 

Woman in Gold received largely tepid reviews and, in some cases, actual savaging. Some of us may have gone to see it for Helen Mirren, hoping with some reason that she would be enough to raise it at least to the level of “a decent small film”. After seeing it, many viewers might agree that the word "small" doesn't really come to mind.

In scale and tone, Woman in Gold operates on something of a par with 2013’s Philomena in which Judi Dench gave a superbly graceful performance. Neither is a large canvas and in each a great actor chooses to etch character with very fine— almost inward rather than vivid—strokes, yet both films manage to leave us with a sense of capaciousness.

Is it not all it might have been? Yes. Is it at times a bit formulaic? Yes. However, it manages to accrue a subtle power and—if you’ve read only the majority-opinion reviews—you may be, as I was, surprised at being so engaged by it. The Woman in Gold has no memorable originality or sense of verve in its construction. It is rather workmanlike and quiet, but it is grounded in Helen Mirren’s deceptively restrained and delicately absorbing performance, and it is certainly something more than the sum of its parts.

Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) with a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, the film is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jewish woman who escaped the Nazis and found a home in the US, where, fifty years later, she began a sensational legal campaign to reclaim from the Austrian government several paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis—chiefly Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the dazzling woman in gold of the title. She did so not just to regain this portrait of her beloved aunt which was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis. When Altmann’s last surviving sister dies, she finds letters linked to the Nazi theft, and hires a young lawyer (an appealing Ryan Reynolds) to seek art restitution.

The film is an intimate weaving of two stories—the contemporary development of the case eventually struggling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with its odd-couple pairing of Altmann and her callow attorney, and the collapse of the young Maria’s well-to-do and highly cultured family under the horror of Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria in 1938. The younger Maria is played beautifully by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian, who is riveting. The production design by Jack Clay and art direction by Dominic Masters (particularly for the 1938 scenes) are wonderfully evocative in both texture and palette. Mirren plays Altmann with understated but kaleidoscopic shrewdness: this is a woman who in her long life has known, simultaneously in any moment, joy, horror, depravity, humor, courage. Her strength can sometimes manifest itself with peremptory saltiness—she can be edgy and difficult—but often she evinces generous compassion and enlivening humor. (Her influence in helping her young attorney achieve new realizations about his own sense of purpose and family history lends added dimension to the narrative.) At every moment Mirren’s gently multifaceted portrayal of Altmann has an ineffable dignity.

After one stage early in the public hearings in Vienna, Altmann leaves the building and starts down the steps. She is momentarily accosted by a man enraged by her efforts to gain restitution for the famed Klimt painting that has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”. He sneers at her: “You people. You know—EVERYTHING isn’t about The Holocaust!”

In a very real sense, Woman in Gold becomes more than a film about international art restitution precisely because—in its quiet thoughtfulness and personal framing— it disproves that statement: actually, everything IS about the Holocaust. In its refusal to take us beyond the scope of its modest cinematic ambitions, this film drills deep with a sharp focus and, in the end, resonant strength. It is the story of Maria Altmann, but it could be the story of any one of us, in any place, on any day of any year. The film moves and provokes us with some fundamental truths about the ongoing necessity of facing personal and cultural histories at their most unimaginably inhumane if we are ever to imagine, or resolve to live, anything like our better selves.

 

The Scapegoat (dir. Charles Sturridge, 2012)

 

The Scapegoat is not great cinema, but it is far more entertaining than the inert version of 1959 which, despite featuring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis, managed to be memorably torpid and sank like a stone even at art houses. This 2012 version, starring Matthew Rhys, with Eileen Atkins in the small but vital role of the mother, is adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel and directed by Charles Sturridge (A Handful of Dust, Where Angels Fear to Tread). It, too, has gained little notice, but it has a slow fuse of elegant edginess and proves to be a rather nifty and engagingly watchable suspense piece.

Set in 1952-53 during the coronation season of Elizabeth II, The Scapegoat opens with teacher John Standing (Rhys), who has just lost his job and is at loose ends, meeting his doppelganger Johnny Spence (also Rhys), a patrician roue and failed businessman, in a hotel. Standing is encouraged by Spence to get drunk and finds himself the next morning without his clothes and wallet and with Spence gone. Collected by George, the chauffeur to the Spence family, he has difficulty explaining himself and is taken to the family's country house. He is quickly drawn into family and business affairs and is forced to deal with Spence's business problems and the women in his life: his wife (Alice Orr-Ewing), mother (Atkins), sister (Jodhi May), young daughter, and two mistresses.

The premise is, of course, completely absurd. Is it really possible that any two unrelated strangers could look so much alike that not even a mistress, wife, or mother could spot the difference? Well, no. But the feeling here is not of absurdity, but rather whimsy. (Du Maurier’s 1957 novel mines a more tragic vein.) The story maintains a pose of realism even as it verges into the fantastic, but is ultimately a story about wish-fulfillment and the freedom of discovering in yourself a whole new set of possibilities. It's also about thinking of your life as it might look from the outside.

Where Du Maurier left her story open-ended, Sturridge opts for a more sanguine tidying-up, ending with a vision of a restored happiness, as everyone settles down to watch the coronation on the telly. The Scapegoat is built on a fantasy that may have a grain of truth to it–that it's easier to mend the messes other people make of their lives than the mess you make of your own.

Matthew Rhys’ graceful performance(s) strikes just the right tone to help bridge the gap between the story’s rather outlandish conceit and a kind of seductively engaging plausibility. Eileen Atkins does one of the things she does best—weary deprecation gleaming with mordant humor; she may not have much screen time but her performance is vivid and incisive.

 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (dir. John Madden, 2014)

 

Contrary to the condescension of some reviews it is entirely possible and really quite safe to see and enjoy The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel without having to abjure all your more discerning sensibilities and critical faculties.

If you saw the first installment your expectations of John Madden's sequel will be reasonable, and some are likely to find that the material here—though again tracking more toward the mediocre than the bracing—even has the edge. Most important, returnees Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton, Tina Desai, and Celia Imrie constantly prove that there are no small parts, only small actors: they simply are not capable of phoning it in and characteristically inform the busy, sometimes glancing, script with the flesh of specific humanity. Dev Patel's feverish performance might perhaps have used a bit of directorial shaping and calibration, but his essential charm remains intact. Newcomers include Richard Gere in a sveltely modest turn and, in what amounts to a cameo, the always effective David Straithairn.

Yes, there are a few forced plot contrivances and too-cute drolleries, and senior romance is pretty thick on the ground, but the film is never embarrassing, frequently enjoyable, and has an undeniable warmth. The colors are giddy, and Thomas Newman's score is not redundant to his previous outing but builds upon and transcends it. Interwoven with traditional instrumentations and Bollywood bounce, his music makes it difficult not to leap up and join the dance sequences.

If you're inclined to go see it, don't be deterred by the snarkier reviews. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not only neither sappy nor shallow, it has—in the hands of some of our greatest actors—moments you will savor, remember, and reconsider.

 

 



Thursday
Jul162015

Learning to Watch Black and White Films

Learning to Watch Black & White Films

Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor

 

Fifty years after his death, I still see my paternal grandfather very clearly.  I see him in black and white. 

A handsome gentleman with a ready smile, he rejects unkindness to anyone in any circumstance as a viable option, he dresses nattily and never leaves home without wearing a hat. Although I was only fourteen when we lost him in 1963, he imbued me with one of the most constant currents in my life. Perhaps I would have gotten there on my own, but I think he had a lot to do with my becoming a passionate moviegoer.

He was in the movie business. He wasn’t a famous actor, successful director or screenwriter, or wealthy mogul, but he had an unmistakable touch of glamor about him. He owned a few theatres in Birmingham and New Orleans.  Though by the late ‘30s they had become solely movie houses, in the ‘20s they doubled as vaudeville venues and cinemas. My grandfather’s were among the few theatres that booked both white acts and African-American vaudeville circuits. I was too young to know enough before he died to ask about those days, but my father later passed along some of the more indelible images and events of his childhood. Though he may not have been allowed to go and see Bessie Smith’s show,  he recalled watching with his younger brother through the banister late one night as Ethel Waters, then in her early days as “The Jazz Baby” sipped bathtub gin and sang along with some of her band members in my grandparents’ kitchen after a show; a teenaged Ginger Rogers being closely shepherded by her mother backstage; and Bill (“Bo Jangles”) Robinson laughing and telling my twelve-year-old father  during a rehearsal break that he was, ”the slowest white boy I ever tried to teach how to dance”.

My grandfather lost almost everything in The Crash. In 1929, there was a large house on Red Mountain with terraced azalea gardens overlooking Birmingham, an urban-chic apartment upstairs in back of the theatre, a Cadillac and a Pierce-Arrow, and a cabin with a sleek boat on the Warrior River. My father, a high school senior, and his younger brother had their own red damask-and-gilt box—first up, stage-left—at the theatre and were apparently “rounders” of the first order. (My father remembered having his school ring and two fraternity pins in circulation at the same time.) Within months my grandfather had lost his ownership and most of his investments and was reduced to managing two theatres for his former partner. The rest of his career was a slow—and never completely recuperative—rebuilding. He probably had many reasons to be a bitter, or at least severely disappointed, human being.

By the time I came to knew him there was only the perennial kindness, the easy smile and cheerfulness, and the five-dollar tips for the servers who carried our Sunday lunch trays to our table at the grand downtown Britlings cafeteria.

He had a constant, apparently unquenchable, sense of wonder.

Perhaps he saw something in my eyes. I only know he talked with me not as if I were six or ten, but as a person, a person capable of seeing, hearing, thinking, appreciating, making distinctions.  Whenever I spoke of the last films I’d seen in Memphis he listened with intensity and asked engaging questions. Better yet were our family visits. Then I would be taken to one of his theatres where I was not only treated to anything I wanted in the glowing concession counters but was greeted by his staff as though I were a little prince. Later, he would listen to my reactions to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, To Catch a Thief, or Damn Yankees and—with both great fun and seriousness—compare and contrast them with other films, or books I might be reading, or films of the past. He always urged me to be open to different ways of seeing and appreciating film. Most important, he taught a child of the 1950s that anything in life—including films—might be new and interesting and exciting without always necessarily being better. He helped me sense even at my early age that that black and white films are not relics of the past, an understanding many of my peers came to grasp much later and which, sadly, some people never do.

Of course I was avid for color.  It would have been impossible for anyone whose earliest movie memories included those Technicolor spectacles of the ‘50s not to have an appreciation of color in film. When Gordon MacRae lopes into the frame on horseback singing that the corn around him is as high as an elephant’s eye our disbelief doesn’t have to be willingly suspended—we pop it with wanton insouciance like a gum bubble. And when Grace Kelley and Cary Grant tear along The Corniche in that convertible we feel her pink scarf streaming back from that swan neck and see, far below, The Mediterranean as a coruscation of teal.

But Grandpa bequeathed to me an openness for a breadth of experience, and that’s when I began to learn that film was not solely “the latest thing” showing at my neighborhood theatre or at the last of the great palaces downtown; it was a fascinating and utterly absorbing continuity of life. Before I could intellectually grasp the concept, he gave me my first intimation that out of the entirety of human history we were privileged to live in the very first century in which human beings could witness themselves “alive” on the screen, and that this was a tremendously significant new way of experiencing social history.

He made sure I knew about “The Late Show”—and inveighed upon my parents to let me stay up on weekend nights to watch. I was drawn and drawn again to these other films, the ones that were becoming sparser by then, the black and white ones shown on that local television station, and which I had all to myself late on weekend nights, as I sprawled on the den floor or sofa, engorging them, giddy with the pale flickering. It was a densely inhabited solitude.

Sometimes I have a need to watch black and white films, and it’s not a precious whim or retrogression—it’s a recognition, a hunger, and the spur is not always the same: it can be a desire to celebrate as easily as it may be a case of the blues in need of reconfiguring. I may feel my soul in a confined space gasping for expansion or my brain looking for an off-ramp when it becomes trapped like a mouse on a wheel. It has nothing to do with pining for unreality or an escape from our human world. If anything it’s an escape into the human world, a place the seventh franchise of a cartoon action hero can’t take me or computer enhancement digitally fix—it’s a way of facing life.

There are several good reasons why some of our best contemporary directors occasionally make black and white films (to name just a few—Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Kenneth Branagh, David Lynch, Tim Burton, the Coen brothers, Pawel Pawlikowski who won the best Foreign Film Oscar this year for Ida) and why others express the desire to.

When you’ve watched Atticus Finch at work in that courtroom you have no need of remembering the various tints of small-town suits or shirtwaists, complexion or hair—you’ve felt the tension and the seething creep of sweat, and you never forget sticking to those wooden benches, waiting for justice to break.

And once you’re introduced to Edward G. Robinson as Rocco in Key Largo, smoking that cigar in the bathtub, you do not have to know the colors of his henchman’s tie as he stands at the door to know that it is garish—and you will always recognize the uneasy cruelty of thugs when you see it and remember that soap suds can be the slime of pure evil. When in The Best Years of Our Lives your breath catches along with hers as Myrna Loy knows for a split second before she knows and turns from the kitchen to see Fredric March at the end of that hall, it’s because an entire universe comprised of them and you, and complete in itself, is catching itsbreath.

Color is seductive and color is life and who would want a world devoid of daffodils and undistracted by the fathomless blue of October skies? But at times we need recalibrating, and black and white takes us somewhere outside our kaleidoscopic slice of life, this crowded hour on the rushing cusp of which we live. It takes us outside time, to those places in which our life is largely made—light and shadow—the architecture of images stripped bare, a truer artifice, the most eidetic reality. It takes the quickened eye, unfettered by pigment and hue, deeper;  its tonalities speak directly to our heart. It’s the stuff, I remember my grandfather telling me, “of memory and of dreams”. Once seen, these films cannot be unseen.

My father told me that in 1910, when my grandfather was twenty, his first job in the fabulous and brave new art and industry of film was as a projectionist in a rough Southern small-town building where the short reels were interspersed with various live acts. When a pert five-foot-two Canadian emigre came to town (billed as “The Little Girl with the Big Voice”) and played piano for the silent movies and sang in the intermissions, my grandfather liked what he saw and heard. Not unlike a young organist and composer named Bach—who, two hundred years before him, was once reprimanded for “letting an unauthorized maiden into the choir loft”—my grandfather asked the young woman if she would like to see how the machinery in the booth operated. Once he enticed her there, he refused to let her out until she gave him a kiss. They were married for 53 years.

When I watch a black and white film I often feel my grandfather close at hand. I now understand that it is not always mutually exclusive to be a Romantic and to face harshly delineated exactitudes.

When my wife and I watch that last scene of Now, Voyager, and Charlotte tells Jerry not to ask for the moon when they have the stars, we don’t have to wonder about the shade of Davis’s lipstick or of Henreid’s  jacket, or what color the drapes may be—there is nothing but the final swell of Steiner’s theme, the two glowing cigarettes lit from one, their one small strip of territory they must protect, that window opened to the night, and those eyes fixed on one another forever.

 

 

The Uninvited (1944, dir. Lewis Allen)

 

 

On holiday, a music critic and sometime composer, Roderick Fitzgerald, and his sister Pamela (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey), discover a lonely house on the rocky coast of Cornwall.  Entranced with its romantic charm and seeking a change from London, the urbane sophisticates buy it from a curmudgeonly neighbor (Donald Crisp), and befriend his twenty-year-old granddaughter, Stella (Gail Russell).

Rod and Pam soon learn that Windward House is determined to exact more than the purchase price from them and their new young friend. The three are drawn into a bizarre romantic triangle from beyond the grave. Set in 1937, The Uninvited is a perennial favorite mystery film among viewers as well as among directors as varied as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack, and its quietly rich atmosphere is the perfect antidote to loud hyper-action, monsters, and mayhem. It’s a classy and potent reminder of how far we can be taken with a mysteriously locked room, a complex family secret, cold stirrings of air, the odd sound in the night, and an occasional wafting scent of mimosa.

It’s a refreshing reminder, too, of why many directors today say they wish they could shoot a film in black and white, and why others such as Scorsese, Woody Allen, Alexander Payne, and Tim Burton have done so. Charles Lang received a well-deserved best cinematography Oscar nomination for The Uninvited; it is 1940s black and white at its sharpest, lushest, and most expert, evincing psychological shadings not possible with color.

English-born director Lewis Allen’s credits would eventually include the classic gaslight noir So Evil My Love(1948), and Suddenly (1954). Neither gothic nor noir, violent nor melodramatic, it is striking how often The Uninvited defies the conventions of the haunted-house genre. The screenplay, by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith, has glints of humor, two developing love interests, and sunlight to balance both the shudders of the Cornish seaside evenings and the emotional frissons of the resonantly emerging backstory.

The supporting cast also includes author-actor Cornelia Otis Skinner in an arch but fascinating tour-de-force as a sanitorium director and girlhood friend of Stella’s deceased mother. Skinner laces her character’s chill villainy with suggested undertones of madness and repressed homoeroticism.

Milland won the best actor Oscar a year later for his performance in Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend. Here his knack for light, worldly-wise humor and skeptical intelligence is deployed early on, but his doubting Roderick enables our own suspension of disbelief as increasingly he is able to take less assurance in irony and empirical proofs.  Ruth Hussey, one of the most likable actors of the ‘40s and ‘50s—witty, chic, but always down-to-earth—was often cast as a wisecracker (as in her Oscar-nominated reporter role in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story). Pamela is a more rounded character, approaching the arcane phenomena with practicality and Stella’s family history with an open heart. As siblings, Milland and Hussey are companionable foils, and they infuse the various moods of the film with a credible consistency.

The Uninvited remains an elegant and eerie experience, featuring a classic score by Victor Young (including the popular theme “Stella by Starlight”). Turn the lights down, silence your phones, open a bottle of something good, and cozy in.

 

 

 

DARK PASSAGE (1947, dir. Delmer Daves)

 

Some film fans are surprised when reminded that over the course of their much-publicized 11-year marriage, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made only four films together: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Other than to die-hard fans of the famous couple, Dark Passage is the least known.

For those who relish film settings so rich in their sense of place, so redolent of the unique atmosphere of their locales, that they seem a central character in the piece, Dark Passage—like the Joan Crawford suspenser Sudden Fear (1952) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—is a highly enjoyable immersion in San Francisco. Writer-director Delmer Daves, working from David Goodis’s novel, exploits its picturesque post-War streets, its capricious weather and moody fogs, and the stunning panoramas from the hills to provide sensuous context for the film’s rather outlandish plot.

Sidney Hickox’s crisp black and white cinematography heightens the noir elements and includes some interesting point-of-view and montage sequences, the most engaging of which is that the camera-eye view for the first third of the film is from the perspective of the protagonist, Vincent Parry (Bogart), a cruelly wronged man who escapes from San Quentin prison and is befriended by young artist Irene Jansen (Bacall) who harbors him in her bohemianly stylish apartment. Her generous concern for him stems from the fact that her father, too, was wrongly jailed. The subjective camera in the opening scenes—a technique which Hitchcock and others had tested sparingly for several years and which Robert Montgomery also more fully employed in 1947, directing and starring as Philip Marlowe in Lady in the Lake—puts the viewer in the place of the fugitive; later, as the inevitable love story between Vincent and Irene develops the camera perspective becomes more conventional to take in the raveling of the backstory and corollary subplots.

Another dimension of Dark Passage that shores up viewer involvement even when the storyline feels farfetched or overstretched is the uniformly superb supporting cast. There are vivid performances by Agnes Moorehead as a meddlesome shrew, Houseley Stevenson as an extremely shady plastic surgeon, Clifton Young as a hapless petty crook, and Tom D’Andrea as a philosophical cabby. Moorehead and Stevenson, especially, give their characters an almost operatic intensity, finely etched and electric, that nonetheless manages also to imbue them—and the texture of the film—with a wonderfully gritty noir realism.

 

 

Friday
Apr102015

Five for Summer

Five For Summer

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

 

Our film coverage in this Spring Issue offers our readers an opportunity to consider some recent films they may not have seen and to reconsider some older films. In hopes of piquing a variety of interests the five films have been selected to represent a range of social history and aesthetic styles. They include: a documentary focusing on the recent discovery of the work of a major 20th Century street photographer; the second, and less frequently seen, of the Astaire-Rogers films;  the first English language film by a celebrated South Korean filmmaker whose work is attracting worldwide attention; a small film set in Paris and featuring two of the finest mature actors working in film today; and the mystery/legal drama—based on a famous trial for attempted murder involving Newport socialites—for which Jeremy Irons won the 1990 Academy Award for Best Actor.

 

 

LE WEEKEND (2014, Directed by Roger Michell)

 

The evenhanded comments of some thoughtful film critics last year regarding Le Weekend were popularly reduced to a meme along the lines of “dispiritingly prickly” or “a bitter pill”.  For those of you who may yet be wondering if perhaps whatever rankled or seemed wanting about Roger Michell’s film might not be offset by Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent, wonder no more: you have the right idea.

It’s a small film, but its tight focus on a long-married British couple’s pivotal getaway to Paris has nuanced intelligence and wit. Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson, Notting Hill) uses a deft, unobtrusive hand in directing Hanef Kureishi’s quicksilver screenplay, and Duncan and Broadbent bring their characters to such idiosyncratic life that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the roles.

Meg, a schoolteacher, and Nick, a philosophy professor at a provincial university, return on their thirtieth anniversary to the quaint hotel in Paris where they once enjoyed a romantic interlude. When they find that the hotel has not aged well and Meg books them into tony accommodations far beyond their means, grumpy discontents and deep veins of antagonism begin to seethe.

In the Montparnasse Cemetery Nick visits his heroes: “That was fun!” he says after paying his respects at Beckett’s grave. “Let’s go see Sartre!” Later, as they savor supper in a fine restaurant, he enthusiastically brings up a subject he feels is important to both of them—the new tiles for the bathroom back home. Meg wants to discuss the possibility of divorce.

The old fault lines crack open, new secrets emerge, and the world of a marriage hangs by a thread.

Whatever universal recognitions and connections may be forged will depend on the individual viewer’s experience. When it tries to generalize Le Weekend makes a few missteps, but they are mercifully brief. The film is on its surest, most emotionally valid, footing when it trusts these two superb actors with illuminating the delicacies and ellipses of a particular marriage—not all marriages—and when it succeeds, there is hard-earned humor and a wistful, wry authenticity.

Jeff Goldblum (who is very good) enters the scene as an old college friend of Nick’s—a smoothly self-aware economics pundit who now lives in Paris. He invites the couple to a celebratory soiree, and it is at the dinner table that the critical and defining moment occurs for them.

It’s a subtle epiphany, the kind that might take thirty years to distill and evoke.

 

FINDING VIVIAN MAIER   (2013, Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)   

 

            The Work  of photographer Vivian Maier is on a fast-track to critical respect and widespread popularity as a social media sensation, but almost no one knew of it until seven years ago, and the few people who knew the artist herself were acquainted with the elusive and enigmatic woman only very minimally, very obliquely. Finding Vivian Maier opens with some of these people being asked to offer a one-word description of her; clearly the assignment does not come easily. After prolonged pauses of perplexed, searching consideration, each interviewee speaks: private, bold, mysterious, eccentric, paradoxical.

Maier was a willfully private person who took more than 100,000 pictures, very few of which were seen by anyone in her lifetime. Biographical research has turned-up few details of her early life. She was born in New York in 1926; lived with her mother in her native village in the French Alps in the ‘30s; took up work in 1951 as a nanny and soon settled in Chicago. In her free time, or even with her wards in tow, she roamed the city with a Rolleiflex camera, taking shots of people, situations, scapes, and events. The archive of her work that has come to come to light— totally by chance—is now considered by many to be among the best street photography of the 20th century.

Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary that pulls us in with a charged current of discovery; even the fact that it leaves the viewer wanting more is to its advantage—it’s a tantalizing introduction to both the artist and her canon. Many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her impactful images were the children for whom she cared. Later, when Maier was virtually destitute, some of those children took care of her, paying first for an apartment and later a nursing home, where she died at 83, in 2009, on the verge of being discovered.

For whatever reasons a loner, at once emancipated and in service, she seemed unknowable even to her upper-middle-class employers in Chicago suburbs such as Highland Park. (Class distinctions may have played a role. Her former employers presumed that so private a person would not have wanted anyone to see her photos; not one of them says that he or she ever asked Maier, with interest or encouragement, if they actually might.) Those interviewed state that she was firm but caring with their children; those children, now in late middle life, give reports of a sort of Mary Poppins with a French accent who took them on grand adventures, interspersed with one or two darker reminiscences that sharply contrast not only with the majority but with the film’s generally whimsical tone and music.

The mystery began to unfold through the efforts of John Maloof who, with Charlie Siskel, co-directs the documentary. In 2007, he bought—for $380—a box of negatives at a Chicago auction; he knew only that it included street shots, a few of which he hoped might prove useful for a book he was writing. The auction house gave him Vivian Maier’s name but he found not one entry for her in Google.

He later issued an appeal in Flickr; a few articles about his find appeared; and in 2011 the Chicago Cultural center mounted an exhibit, “Finding Vivian Maier: Chicago Street Photographer”. Maloof, obsessed with the trove he had stumbled upon and the enigmatic artist behind it, scanned more of her work, bought more of her negatives, and went in search of anyone with whom she had crossed paths. He discovered Vivian Maier, but the Internet has made her a star.

A few of the assertions in the documentary are worrisome and a bit leering.  A word of admonition, perhaps from an art historian, about our tendency to mythologize artists, particularly women artists, would have offered some helpfully balancing context. And Maloof and Siskel don’t look deeply enough into what is perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence of Maier's life—the remarkable, diverse, and revealing work itself.

Nonetheless, Finding Vivian Maier is, from many perspectives, a must-see film; it’s an engaging way to begin a journey and a shrewd consideration of the rapidly changing ways and means of assigning artistic value. It remains to be seen whether professional opinion eventually confers upon Vivian Maier’s work an imprimatur that places her alongside Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Robert Frank, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. What has already occurred—and the excitement in watching this film—is that however those considerations pan out, we’ve already been admitted to the virtual museum to judge these eidetic images for ourselves.

 

 

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE (1990, Directed by Barbet Schroeder)

 

Director Barbet Schroeder brings a European sensibility to Reversal of Fortune that affords the subject the perspective it probably deserves.

 His Oscar-nominated treatment urges us to take neither the bleak marital arrangements of Claus and Sunny von Bulow nor the legalistic grandstanding of attorney Alan Dershowitz too seriously. His focus is on gamesmanship. The rules—of both society and personal conduct—are examined dispassionately. And it’s a level playing field: no cheap shots at the rich are allowed, and there is only a cool respect, not righteous reverence, for the law.  

Schroeder and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, working from actual transcripts of the notorious trial and Dershowitz’s own account of the proceedings (his book of the same title was published in 1986), clearly know that what they have on their hands is a superb mystery. Eschewing both tabloid luridness and moral presumption, they fashion the mixed motives, circumstantial evidence, and inherent grotesqueries of the case into a mordantly humorous entertainment.

Irons.jpg As Claus von Bulow, the mysterious opportunist married to Newport heiress Sunny and convicted of twice trying to kill her by insulin injection, Jeremy Irons is the film’s richest treat. His von Bulow is robustly chill. This was Irons’ most complex performance to date (he won the Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe)—a reach that was large both physically and vocally, yet managed with intricate subtlety. Perhaps his most impressive feat is modulating his characteristically sensitive intelligence into something radically different—something shrewd and inscrutable, more blockish and literal. The voice is also transformed: it’s deeper, rounder, and has the stolid cadence of a world-weary but socially correct Teutonic sensualist.

Irons is particularly funny when his von Bulow tries for a sort of hail-fellow, Gary Cooperish delivery in his talks with Dershowitz (Ron Silver). We begin to look forward to his would-be expansiveness and his occasional jokes that are surprisingly touching in their wry innocence. It is Irons who largely drives the movie, providing its essential mystery, humor, and unpredictability. He nails the overweening self-possession of von Bulow—the central enigma that is fundamental to the story.

Somewhat similarly, Glenn Close dulls her usual spark in rendering Sunny von Bulow as an alcoholic money-puppet. It’s an unsympathetic portrait of a woman whose marked indifference to life, her children, and the opportunities of wealth and privilege is numbing in its vacuous self-destructiveness. Close does manage to eke some colorings of human feelings for her character in a couple of scenes where we sense that she may indeed have been victimized (beyond her own missteps) by her fortune. She creates an absorbing portrayal of the society beauty, now aging, retreating from her millions and her misalliances—in a frumpy Wasp cardigan and a drunken stumble—to her last resort, a closely guarded bathroom stocked with pills.

Barbet Schroeder, Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close 

Ron Silver as Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity Harvard law professor who represented Klaus, has a feverish energy that provides the counterbalance for hanging the tale. His scenes with the stable of star law students he hastily assembles to prepare for the second trial have the slick, suspenseful pace of a good documentary. Silver’s may be a larger role than that of Irons or Close, but his manic lawyering feels more like a foil for their showier turns. He is always a reliably realistic actor, and director Schroeder enriches the interplay here by dramatically juxtaposing Silver’s naturalistic common man against Irons’ and Close’s beautifully stylized rendition of the von Bulows.

Schroeder and Kazan successfully blend some fictional assumptions with multifaceted source materials. The cast, all at the top of their game, deliver performances sharpened by intuition and technical virtuosity. The cinematography of Luciano Totvolo has an old-money sheen and Mark Isham’s score a glacial elegance. The film’s sophisticated sang-froid creeps up on you like a hard frost in the night.

 

 

SNOWPIERCER (2014, Directed by Joon-ho Bong)

 

Snowpiercer was positioned in last summer’s market as more intellectual and stylish than competing futuristic and/or blunt-force action thrillers. This comparison is not completely earned, despite the sometimes interesting work of hot director Joon-ho Bong who also did the screenplay adaptation from a 1982 graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. The source material plays right into Bong's vaunted dedication to careful composition and capacious framing. Though the film is perversely overlong and its palette wearyingly dark, there is a meticulousness (if not always clarity) in the narrative that outstrips the chaotic overload of many films taken from comic books.

A dystopian moral parable, Snowpiercer picks up 17 years after a misbegotten attempt to reverse the final throes of global warming—a chemical was released into the atmosphere and overcorrects: a second ice age has ensued and wiped out all life on the planet. As luck would have it, an eccentric trillionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) had already completed work on a long and uncannily efficient self-sustaining train. He allows the world’s few hundred survivors to board his ark-like vehicle—which travels the world on an endless loop—so long as they stay in their “preordained places”.

A cruel apartheid is sustained by the authoritarian regime: the decadent one-percenters live in luxury in the front cars, and the poor and dispossessed are crammed into the rear. Thereby hangs the Darwinian/Orwellian allegory about political inequality and wealth disparity; until Curtis, played by Chris Evans (“Captain America”, “The Avengers”) decides it’s time to lead a revolt. His comrades in strategy and arms include the ever estimable John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and “Billy Elliot’s” Jamie Bell, an interesting and versatile actor who’s overdue for more challenging roles.

The film’s only vitality and wit emanate from Tilda Swinton’s sly performance as Mason, a bureaucratic functionary who shuttles between the mysterious and unseen Wilford, in the inner sanctum of the “sacred engine” at the front of the train, and her periodic speeches to the hoi polloi. Her admonitions to the underlings are the only unadulterated jewels of black comedy admitted to the film’s prevailing gloom. The surety of tone and rhetoric—quite obviously patterned on Margaret Thatcher’s—has a fey hilarity. Her condescension is wedded to her belief in the absolute necessity of everyone being kept in his appropriate and “divinely designated” place; it is a seamless ideology, unwittingly despicable and robustly forthright. In one of these ghoulish homilies she reminds the huddled masses, using one of the unfortunates as a model for the lesson, that, “We are the head. You are the foot. You would not put a shoe on your head, would you? Would you!”

Only near the end of the film do we see any scenes of the life in the forward cars—and it seems a missed opportunity for opening things up, not only for the thematic contrast but for a bit more visual and emotional breath. Snowpiercer is aggressively bleak, the only action that occurs is violent, and the film’s unrelieved dimness begins to work against its apparent aim:  rather than steadily accruing sympathy for the horribly treated underclasses, viewers are more likely to become impatient and inured.

Bong’s penchant for storyboarding every frame of his films is nowhere more evident than in the scenes of violent brutality. Along with an assortment of tortures and mistreatments along the way, there are three excruciatingly protracted set-pieces of battle as, car by car, the rebelling back-of-the-trainers make their way forward and engage with their oppressors. The camera leers lustfully as—often in close-up—a highly orchestrated maelstrom of bodies is variously axed, speared, gouged, and otherwise sliced and diced.

That these overlong (sometimes slow-motion) scenes are among the most reverentially staged is indicative of what’s most wrongheaded and disagreeable about Bong’s film. He has some flair for treating timely and provocative themes with serious thought and a rich cinematic sense comprising pictorial vividness with narrative verve and velocity; unfortunately, here both the central metaphor and the filmic scope and storytelling are beaten to a very slow death. We might look forward to Bong taking a good idea, drilling deeper and with more economy, and focusing his talents to more compelling effect.  The problem with Snowpiercer is that its apocalyptic take on humanity at its basest is too long, too underdeveloped, and too unrelentingly grim. The film suffers from the very vision it depicts—life bereft of all but its most depraved instinct for survival, with no remaining vestige of animating spirit, and even sensation jaded beyond numbness.

 

 

THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934, Directed by Mark Sandrich)

 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were initially teamed in Flying Down to Rio in 1933, but this feature was their first effort together as stars—and it’s tremendous fun. Based on Dwight Taylor and Cole Porter's play of the same name, The Gay Divorcee centers on Mimi (Rogers), a woman seeking a divorce from her husband. She travels to an English seaside resort, pursued by the love-stricken Guy (Astaire), whom she mistakes for the hired correspondent in her divorce case. Among the many musical numbers are Porter’s gorgeous "Night and Day," the only song from the original Broadway musical included in the film, and Con Conrad and Herb Magidson’s "The Continental," which won the first ever Academy Award for Best Song.

Like most of the Fred and Ginger films the plot of The Gay Divorcee is as evanescent as champagne froth; as usual the mistaken identities and motives, cross-purposes, and romantic banter whimsically concoct the merest pretext for the real feast—the dancing, Van Nest Polglase’s late art deco scenic design, and the delectable performances of the supporting cast. The work of the character actors here is so expert and so rich it’s as essential to the film’s charm as that of the leads. Indeed, when characters have names such as Hortense Ditherwell—Mimi’s aunt, played by Alice Brady—and Egbert “Pinky” Fitzgerald (the distinctively hilarious Edward Everett Horton, who appeared in two other Fred and Ginger movies), we might think we’ve wandered into a Restoration comedy—and we wouldn’t be far wrong. There’s even an Italian singing lothario named Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes, who has an archetypal perfection). The laughs in The Gay Divorcee derive at times from arch silliness, at others from innuendo so sly as to seem almost subliminal.

In his long career Horton almost always played in droll counterpoint to the male lead, most often as a supercilious personal secretary or valet or, as here, an effete gentleman. (His particular talent and the persona of his roles of the '30s and '40s prefigure some of the superb Tony Randall's performances with Doris Day and Rock Hudson/James Garner in the late '50s and '60s.) Horton has scenes in The Gay Divorcee which actors still study as mini-classes in the difficult art of comedy: his timing and subtlety are breathtaking and he was a master of the necessity in comedy for absolutely serious sincerity. His scene with a head waiter played by the brilliant Eric Blore—who also appears in three other Fred and Ginger vehicles—is a joy forever for film buffs and one from which many can quote at length.

(see—http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9fHz8fOIPQ)

The Gay Divorcee was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1935. Other highlights include another swell Magidson-Conrad tune for Astaire, “Needle in a Haystack”, and a poolside Horton—togged-out in Edwardian bathing costume—with a featured 17-year-old Betty Grable in a camp dance number, “Let’s K-Knock K-Knees”.

What’s not to like?

 

Tuesday
Jan132015

Film Reviews: Birdman and Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Birdman

 (2014, Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

 

  

Michael Keaton being followed

 

With Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Mexican-born director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu continues an arc of filmmaking guaranteed to evoke wildly disparate views among viewers and critics but which is unarguably one of the most noteworthy trajectories in film in recent years. Even some who find his earlier works—including Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006)—visually and emotionally stunning have questioned whether Inarritu has sometimes confused a sense of dread, calamity, and fatal contingency with dramatic tension and asked audiences to suffer without revelation or catharsis or even a coherent provocation of tragicomic questions.

A closely related charge sometimes leveled at Inarritu’s explorations is humorlessness. Whatever else one may think about his new venture it should put that criticism to rest. The humor of Birdman is bleak but bracing; like shards of anthracite under a cold moon it crackles and gleams with a sharp buoyancy that feels both real and necessary underfoot. Birdman will no doubt vex those who have not previously found it enlivening (or worth the effort) to be seduced by Inarritu, but this time out a significantly larger audience will likely accept some vexations as a legitimate price of admission and follow him down the rabbit hole of the human condition.

This will be, in no small measure, due to superb casting—most particularly, Michael Keaton in the lead role of Riggan Thomson. Inarritu has always been an actor’s director and the actors here, bringing their best, include Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone. All of the performances in Birdman are compelling. Keaton’s picks you up and doesn’t put you down.

Michael Keaton being followed

Twenty years before, Riggan was a Hollywood icon in three boffo box-office installments as Birdman, an avian superhero. To the chagrin of his fans and accountants, he turned down Birdman 4 because he harbored more serious ambitions as an actor. Having had plenty of time to wonder about that decision, and taunted by the internal alter-ego voice of a Birdman presence (“You were a movie star, remember?”), Riggan now seeks redemption, both for his art and his life, by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway production based on Raymond Carver’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

A man trying desperately to wake from a long sleep choked with nightmares of misspent talent and opportunity, Riggan has decided to draw a line in the sand: he’s determined to put all his chips on the table and—for whatever it may be worth and because he’s almost certain no one else cares—live fully in the present moment as his own existential hero. He has apparently learned to cope with the profanely jeering Birdman in his head, at times more effectively than he copes with those of others, and has been trying to make more resolute attempts to be there for his daughter (Stone) who is freshly if querulously out of rehab, his manager (Zach Galifianakis), his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and his needy lead actress (Watts). Just before previews Riggan brings in a replacement actor named Mike Shiner (Norton, excellent in his richest role in years). Shiner is a difficult but critically respected actor who Riggan hopes will lend an additional patina of serious theatre to his all-or-nothing Broadway gamble. Unfortunately, Mike is also a nearly maniacal egotist, one of those actors who thinks provoking his fellow actors, however irresponsibly or even dangerously, is his truest artistic mission. And thus the intersecting dramas of Riggan Thomson’s life—off-stage, onstage, and internal—ignite.

The film's ambitious embrace of various elements and tones will accommodate some viewers more satisfyingly than others. In a broad spectrum of social gatherings conversations have been teeming with divergent opinions about “What Did You Make of That? …and Why?” Whether they are abstract discussions conducted with earnest assiduousness over martinis about the reflexive comparisons Birdman raises between theatre and film and between life and art, or more raucous “WTFs” among pals over beers, this is a film destined to leave few viewers unexercised. We can only hope no glasses or friendships are broken. The chief variable in receptivity may be a viewer's tolerance for questions that go unanswered—and whether one attributes that to a lack of artistic integrity or to differences in our expectations of what art is capable of giving us even when life does not.

Aside from the vox populi, a few critics appear to be finding their fodder for discussions of Birdman in deconstructionist examinations of his cinematic vocabulary and his experimentations in bending dramatic unities and categorical genres. Attention has been given to the film’s varied palette (gritty naturalism, magic realism, ironic black comedy), the fact that the extraordinarily long camera takes create a sense of uninterrupted real time, and the inside jokes and self-references of the casting. (Keaton famously played in two of the Batman films and turned-down a third, and Norton starred in The Incredible Hulk). While all of these may be valid facets for consideration, films that require something other than an academic response—and Birdman is one—tend to confound at least some precepts of conventional criticism.

Certainly, not all of the daring pays off. Some elements of the film may not work for some viewers, but my guess would be that fewer moviegoers will find these distractions impossible to overcome while many more will find that their cavils can either be cerebrally or imaginatively condoned or subsumed in the overall experience. In either case, there’s a good argument that well-articulated gut-level reactions to Birdman may be more edifying than disquisitions—though undoubtedly somebody has to do it—about “meta” framings, borrowings of Godardian tropes, and whether or not the fluidity of the cinematography (see Hitchcock’s Rope, 1948, or Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, 2002) is really anything new.

Whatever its minor missteps or occasional loose threads, Birdman’s intelligence and audacity will bring Inarritu a wider audience. The quality of its success in galvanizing formal and stylistic elements and its capacity for engaging us is, though not faultless, quite remarkable. Michael Keaton gives an arresting, deeply felt performance—focused, naked, searching, and fearless—and it’s hard to imagine that many viewers will be rummaging around in their response to make room for comparisons with his earlier work, even if that may afford a few afterthoughts on art and life imitating one another. This is a performance far more likely to pique one’s interest in what lies ahead for the actor. (If not—like Riggan, the stage—film versions of lead roles in Chekhov, Williams, and Miller come to mind. Lear comes to mind.)

It’s not often that a film demands a suspension of disbelief—or more accurately here, a reconsideration of what that even means—even as it grips us from moment to moment with insistent realism. Whatever clever film a clef concepts or transmogrified genre conceits may have littered the project’s initial conference tables, Birdman emerges as, at once, rarefied and lyrical rhapsody and scrupulously grounded, visceral drama.

Inarritu, his three co-writers, Ernesto Luzbecki’s breathtaking cinematography, the fine actors—and most memorably Michael Keaton, give this film a universality that transcends its backstage-story genre. Fierce, sensuous, and touching, Birdman moves with alert sympathy to the human reach sadly and sweetly exceeding its grasp. For those it doesn’t wear out it will prove an exhilarating film.

 

THE LIONESS IN WINTER 

By Hadley Hury, Film Review Editor

 

 

 

Elaine Stritch  1925-2014

 

 

Elaine Stritch died last July at the age of 89.

My wife and I were fortunate enough to see her in New York in the 1997 Tony Award-winning revival of Edward Albee’s classic A Delicate Balance. And of course there are filmed performances to savor, such as Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Avery Fisher Hall (2010), Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (2002), Woody Allen’s September (1987), and others. Last year’s wonderfully engaging documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me makes me wish I had been able to witness her stage presence far more often throughout her remarkable career. I would have needed to begin five years before my birth.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a deeply entertaining, provocative, and enthralling documentary, an 82-minute synthesis of cinema verite, archival footage and performance clips, and interviews—both with the gifted, funny, irascible, whip-smart Broadway legend and those who knew and worked with her. The film was completed early in 2013, and Stritch has never seemed more indelibly the unique incandescence that audiences have come to know over six decades in musical theatre, drama, comedy, film, television, concert and cabaret, than she is here, discussing—with her trademark candor and wit, matched by an intimate vulnerability—the art of performance itself, its exhilarations, its exacting demands and harsh necessities.  There is a breathless, edge-of-seat sense of dramatic tension and thrill as the viewer becomes absorbed in Stritch’s stringent insights, her fierceness and her fears, the camera following her through preparations for her 2010 all-Sondheim cabaret act at the Hotel Carlyle.

In her directorial debut, award-winning documentarian and former script supervisor Chiemi Karasawa weaves a taut and emotionally complex montage of the camera-as-observer footage, sequences from the cabaret acts, the interviews with other actors, writers, friends, and producers, giving play to the subject’s famously tart language and her perfectionism while framing with a tender nakedness Stritch’s musings about love and loss, need, age, illness, and death. The synthesis is never less than moving, shrewd, unflinching—and it is often riveting.

Elaine Stritch is the toughest of the tough broads and she would’ve been the first to tell you, in no uncertain four letter-word terms. She was also known, both onstage and before the camera and in life, for her ferocious insistence on veracity. Her vigilance in sniffing out the faintest traces of hypocrisy, dissemblance, evasion, or disingenuousness—in herself, colleagues, performances—has prompted many who knew her and worked with her to allow that she could be “difficult”. They are also quick to say she was always more than worth it. That same propensity was paired with another signature trait: her capacity onstage or on film for revealing genuine emotion and for wielding a particularly ironic scalpel in exposing that which is not. It earned her the title of “legend” in the musical theatre. (Noel Coward had her in mind when he created Sail Away. George Furth wrote a character and Stephen Sondheim the music and lyrics of “The Ladies Who Lunch” specifically for her in their Company. The list goes on.) She was also a hoot of extremely sly and outlandish proportions.

Interlaced with footage from performances and the apercus of colleagues and friends, the cinema verite approach—the camera tagging along through the dailiness of Stritch’s life (at home, walking around Manhattan, rehearsing, lunching and dining with friends)—allows for a surprising degree of intimacy. There is never an aura of staginess or contrivance. The title of the film itself carries a characteristic tone of imperiousness. No doubt Stritch had a good deal of input into how the film would unfold and, of course, she is in the strictest sense of the word “on”. However, she is doing what she actually does, and clearly—from the occasional confessional tone—wants, as she says, and has been her habit throughout her career, to “keep it real”.  Though there are glimpses of the narcissism to which the flesh of some actors, especially stars, may inevitably be heir to, we never think that this is a heightened, contrived, or glamorized version of her life. And there is always her unrelenting, objective self-awareness. At the only point in which she breaks the “unseen” relationship—admonishing one of the cameramen to reshoot an innocuous scene in her kitchen by taking a few more steps actually to watch her set an empty muffin box in a recycling bin outside the service door of her apartment—it is purely because, as she tells him, ‘It’s part of my little routine”.

In Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me we hear insights from an array of those who have known her well—including Hal Prince, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, George C. Wolfe, John Turturro, and the late James Gandolfini—and who all point out that behind the brassy boldness was a simple sweetness and generosity, need, and vulnerability. It is, they suggest, the heady and human combination of her courageous determination and her refusal to wear a “protective shell” that made her such an astonishing force onstage. Her cabaret work has a cerebral and visceral charge, an emotional immediacy, like Garland at her best. Actor George Grizzard, with whom she appeared in A Delicate Balance, said on opening night of her Tony Award-winning one-woman At Liberty in 2002: “It is perfect that someone has created a vehicle that allows no other performer to interrupt the audience’s unabashed love affair with Elaine Stritch”.

As a performer she left few personal stones unturned, and expected no less of those who watched her. It could be fatiguing; it could also be the transcendent art of theatre. For more than 30 years Stritch talked openly—even in concerts and cabarets—about the greatest threat to her professionalism and her life: “I am a recovering alcoholic. I decided to do something about it when I realized that I’d gotten to a point at which I often thought I was being brilliant and witty, when I was actually being only loud and boring. And I hurt some friends. That’s not me. So I stopped. Discovering I was diabetic sharpened my motivation.” Utterly sober for more than 26 years, Stritch began scrupulously allowing herself to enjoy one drink per day in her last few years. The almost religious discipline of this rite suited her Catholic upbringing and daily nurtured her belief that, “Fear can be exciting”.

The film concludes with Stritch girding her loins finally to retire. We go with her to suburban Detroit to scout property, to “go home”. (She was raised in affluent Bloomington Hills.) After the documentary was wrapped and a farewell cabaret gig at The Carlyle in 2013, she indeed  made her home in nearby Birmingham, Michigan. Early last year her 89th birthday drew throngs of friends, theatrical and otherwise. In a scene near the end of the film Stritch recalls a childhood memory of a summer day when she was seven. Her mother was busy with something and insisted that Elaine stay outside and occupy herself. “I didn’t want to play outside alone. I finally killed enough flies to spell out my name and called her to see. I wanted her attention. My name on the walk in dead flies. How’s that for a first billing?”

In one of the last segments of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, the star says she must think now of, “as my mother put it, the picture one will leave behind”. This film is a very rich and substantial treat—and what a touching, gritty, enthralling swan song to “leave behind”. 

Stritch was, both simply and complicatedly, a formidable human being; and here she encourages us, with characteristic aggressiveness and raw humility, to consider life ablaze at the verge. When asked her greatest fear at this point of her life—“Pre-shows nerves? Death?”—she immediately answers. “Oh, no. Drinking. It’s such a beautiful escape…so warm and inviting.”

Her testimony in this remarkable film lends credence to the old axiom that those who do serious comedy most wrenchingly are those who have looked hard at demons and known the darkness. As Hal Prince observes, “Everyone knows Elaine as such a force, and she is; but you can never forget that she is also that sweet, innocent, nineteen-year-old Catholic girl who graduated from a convent school and came to New York. There is always the insecurity. Constantly.” Stritch was kicked out of one of her first New York plays because, as she puts it bluntly, “I didn’t know what I was doing”; but she had a prodigious talent, she worked as hard as anybody in the business, and quite evidently made demands of herself that far exceeded those she placed on others. She accepted her need for attention and love as a contractual obligation, fine-tuned over six decades, to give back.  It was a rare relationship. This film makes us aware how lucky it is for us that for a very long time Elaine Stritch kept putting herself out of her misery.

Thursday
Nov202014

Film Review: Laura 

 

 

Laura

 (1944, Directed by Otto Preminger)

Reviewed by Hadley Hury

The whole of this glossy semi-noir classic, adapted from a Vera Caspary novel, is even more intriguing than the sum of its parts, but one of the chief factors for its continuing esteem is the casting.

Gene Tierney, who plays the title role, is among that small coterie of actresses with faces for whom black-and-white cinematography would, if for no other reason, have to have been invented—and those dramatic angles, limpid eyes, and lustrous hair were never seen to better advantage than here in Joseph LaShelle’s elegant (and Oscar-winning) lighting and camerawork. 

Even Dana Andrews’ customarily laconic mode works well here in the role of Mark McPherson, a hard-boiled, tight-lipped police gumshoe. He’s assigned to the apparent murder of Laura Hunt, an ambitious young woman whose meteoric rise in the advertising world has been due in part to her considerable talent and even more to her having become the protégé of influential newspaper columnist, dandy, and Manhattan social arbiter Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb in the most indelible role of his long career.

After the initial credits—accompanied by David Raksin’s memorably lush “Laura’s Theme”—the film opens with one of cinema’s most famously effective establishing shots. As we listen to his voiceover, the camera panning around his posh apartment, we begin to know Lydecker even before we see him; the tone and word choice suggest arrogance, and there is something effete about the voice. “I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass…the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York…I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her…”

The viewer immediately becomes embroiled in a puzzle-collage of past and present action as the background storyline and the mysteries surrounding the night in question emerge and interlock. Lydecker, the imperious snob, and McPherson, the tough-guy police detective, inevitably clash. Along the circuitous way we meet Vincent Price as a slippery playboy named Shelby Carpenter from Kentucky (yes) and his chic and slightly older paramour Ann Treadwell, played with tremendous savoir-faire by the great Judith Anderson. Shelby, long on pedigree but short of funds, is so endlessly unctuous it’s difficult to take him seriously; but that’s the character, and Price’s portrayal is a florid study in smarminess. Anderson—a celebrated stage actor best known in film as “Rebecca’s” Mrs. Danvers—brilliantly underplays her jaded society matron who has plenty of money and no delusions.

As the decadent and egomaniacal Lydecker, Webb is riveting; the performance earned him one of his three Oscar nominations (two supporting, one lead) and most film buffs and critics consider it one of the Academy’s more unfathomable mistakes that he did not win.

“Laura” defies exact genre classification. Though it has elements of noir—the detective, flashbacks, a missing person, mistaken identity, high contrast light and shadows, and buckets of rain—“Laura” is also at times a more traditional mystery, a romance with an eerie touch of fantasy, a showcase for glamorous mid-‘40s art direction, and even in some scenes a mordant comedy spiked with caustic drawing-room banter. Preminger’s svelte direction was Oscar-nominated, and for all its improbabilities “Laura” achieves its status as a classic because it has a unique unity; it is precisely the film’s contrivances and mannered artificiality that manage to alchemize a fairly standard potboiler into a fascinating balance of sordidness and high style.

 

Sunday
May182014

Film/Television Review

Why Burn Notice Was a Successful Television Series.

By Warren Bull

 

Now that the television series Burn Notice has concluded after seven seasons, some stations are replaying the entire series, episode by episode. Watching the second time around I’m able to focus on the how and why the series succeeded. My observations apply to writing a series of books as much as they apply to a television series.

 Matt Nix created the series. He was the writer and the show’s executive producer. One of the strengths of the program was Nix’s strong premise. An experienced government spy is “burned,” i.e. disowned when he is suspected of being a double agent. The spy wants to find out who “burned” him, of what he was accused and why, so he can disprove whatever was said against him and resume his career. No longer having access to government resources, he has to recruit and use people from his past to help. 

Played by Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Weston, the protagonist has a wide range of skills that include expertise with hand-to-hand combat, explosives, weapons and wiretapping. He has the skill set needed to sustain a protagonist in a series.

The show is very well acted with Gabrielle Anwar playing Fiona Glenanne, mistress of explosives and weaponry. Her supposedly Irish accent kept slipping in the earliest episodes, but she did a wonderful job of conveying intimidation despite her relatively small frame. Fionna was a participant in “the troubles” in Ireland, which is a credible reason for her to have deadly abilities. Bruce Campbell, veteran of B grade horror and action movies, as Sam Axe provides a great foil for Fionna. Sam is a retired military officer with a taste for women and booze and a history of combat. He, too, can believably shoot and blow things up. Sharon Gless, an experienced actress, portrays Michael’s mother, Madeline. Starting in the fourth season, Coby Bell joined the ensemble as a spy whom Michael “burns” in an effort to clear his own reputation. Bell is a skilled actor who adds another set of relationships to the cast. He also has a physique that suggests athletic abilities.

Michael has a complicated history with each of the other characters. Examining the complicated and changing relationships within the comedic and action storylines gives Burn Notice a depth and complexity that kept the audience interested beyond what an average comedic action series could achieve. The characters grow, regress and develop over time. That sequence keeps the series fresh and possibilities open for the actors and the writer.

Over seven seasons, Michael’s search for the truth leads him through encounters with dangerous members of his own and other intelligence agencies. He tries to help people who are threatened by spies or criminals whom he meets along the way. He is a sometimes reluctant hero who has to pursue his personal crusade but also has to interrupt his efforts in order to save innocent people. The skills that helped him as a spy—isolation from others, lying and keeping an emotional distance from everyone—hinder him in his relationships with friends and family. Villains from his past appear and re-appear. From time to time he is offered work,  using his spy skills for illegal purposes. If he refuses, his family and friends may be threatened in order to force his cooperation. Throughout the seasons,  Michael is under pressure in each episode.

As a writer, I would love to use a technique limited to visual presentation. When a character is first introduced, the camera freezes on the actor’s face and a brief description of the character appears in letters underneath. For example, a person might be described as, “Michael’s Client,” “Psychopathic Killer” or “Scumbag Drug Dealer” so the audience is immediately aware of who the character is.

 

The end of the series was carefully considered and well written. It was logical and satisfying, but, even though I had seen many episodes, I was not able to predict the outcome. It fulfilled the old burlesque adage: Leave them wanting more. 

 

Thursday
Jan302014

Film/TV Review

Why “The Closer” is a Classic Television Series.

By Warren Bull

 

One reason I believe The Closer is already a classic is the strong introduction. Paraphrasing the leading actress, Kyra Sedgwick, the opening episode was nearly perfect.  The lead character, Brenda (AKA as “The Closer” for her ability to get confessions that close murder investigations) appeared a fully developed character with an interesting backstory presented in brief bits of dialog that did not interrupt the flow of the story.

 

Over the course of seven years the actors and writers have developed their continuing characters until each person has become unique with strengths and shortcomings.  Each character has also changed and developed over the years but always in ways consistent with their underlying personalities.  The ensemble has made each member a better actor.

 

The acting has been excellent.  The photography has been outstanding. The music underscored what was being shown.  A television show, like a movie, is the product of many talented individuals, most of whom operate out of sight of the audience.

 

Brenda’s character, who started with roughly the self-awareness of a fire hydrant, has been forced to confront some of her personal demons. From the beginning, Brenda has been an admirable character, even lovable but not likeable. She has often skirted and sometimes boldly marched across ethical and legal boundaries in her efforts to solve murders and elicit confessions to close cases.

 

The episodes include unpredictable elements, humor and moving moments.  I was rarely able to guess how an episode would end.  There were many victories and a few losses. Watching Brenda deal with women as driven and oblivious as she was has provided some memorable material.

 

Brenda’s willingness to break rules and offend important people has earned her respect and enemies within and outside of the police department.  Anyone who has to deal with bureaucracies can identify with her defiance and her creative rule breaking. 

 

While each episode was a complete story within itself, there were themes and ideas that continued in story arcs over time.  Episodes that showed Brenda breaking the spirit of the law to get a confession were followed by shows that demonstrated the consequences of her decisions.  Her relationship with Fritz showed Brenda’s willingness of ignore the needs of others in pursuit of her job goals and her personal growth by learning to care for others. 

 

I appreciate that the end of the series was planned and believable. Some series fade away from the lack of an audience.  The Closer adheres to an old piece of acting advice.  “Leave them wanting more.”