The Royal Wedding

April 29, 2011

Don’t expect me to blog in any detailed way about the Royal Wedding.  I’ve avoided the coverage as much as possible (that’s not been easy) because I think it’s ridiculous in scope.

Today I did see some images of the dress and noted the hats from TV monitors while I was warming up on an elliptical at the Y, but I really don’t have a lot of interest in the event.  I’m no curmudgeon but certainly no fanatic either.  Call me neutral in the matter.  Besides, I have papers to grade.

About the hats, though, I do love them.  I have one of the big, boxy ones that I got at Fortnum & Mason a few years ago when in London (75% off).  I wouldn’t mind having several more lush and lovely hats in different shades and shapes.

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JANE EYRE

April 25, 2011

I’m not sure when I first read Jane Eyre.  Eleven?  Twelve?  Thirteen?  It was probably somewhere around that time.  I do remember how I felt about it, however.  Sigh.  The darkness and mystery heightened the emotional intensity of the romance, which – perhaps needless to say – was plenty intense.

Cary Fukunaga seems to have burst on the scene, but he’s definitely a director with a  promising future.  Most of his previous credits are for cinematography, mostly shorts, and I’d never seen any of his work before last night.

There are over twenty versions of Jane Eyre produced for television and the big screen, and I have to say that Fukunaga’s 2011 version in current release is among my favorites of those I’ve seen.

The story is familiar, as it should be, but Fukunaga makes it seem fresh with a film that is true to the tone of the novel but playful with sequencing.  The pacing is good, the visuals are terrific, and the script (from another newcomer, Moira Buffini) is a better adaptation than I remember in other versions.

Though I have seen the actors playing Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and Rochester (Michael Fassbender) before in films, I don’t have any special recollection of them, which adds, I think, to the appeal of this film.

The only familiar face is Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax, and while she is in her usual fine form, I wish the film had been populated with all unfamiliar faces to aid my willing suspension of disbelief.

Jane Eyre made my heart beat faster and, several times, I caught myself holding my breath because I was so involved in the moment.  The film made me feel like I did the first time I read the book, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.

This film is exquisite.


WATER FOR ELEPHANTS

April 24, 2011

I’m a little surprised Richard LaGravenese didn’t do a little more with his adaptation of the novel Water for Elephants for the screen.  I mean, after all, look what he did to improve the treacly Bridges of Madison County, which he turned into a pretty decent film.  LaGravenese is known for his skill with adaptations.

I read the novel, which was an entertaining page-turner, but the film lacks drama until the very end, which feels truncated.  The basic story centers around a student of veterinary medicine in 1931 who leaves school without completing his final exam after a family trauma and ends up joining a circus where he cares for the animals and falls in love with the cruel circus owner’s beautiful, young wife.

So far, so good, but for a story like this to work in the movies, the chemistry between the leads – played by Robert Pattinson (best known for the Twilight series) and Reese Witherspoon – needs to ignite the screen.  In Water for Elephants, it’s more fizzle than sizzle.

Too bad, because it’s clear Reese Witherspoon can smolder under the right circumstances.  Remember her opposite Joaquin Phoenix in the Johnny Cash biopic directed by James Mangold six years ago?  It was hotter than a pepper sprout.  No kidding.  In fact, just skip Water for Elephants and watch Walk the Line again.  That’s what I should have done.


WIN WIN

April 24, 2011

Speaking of Paul Giamatti (as I did regarding American Splendor below), I caught a matinee of Win Win yesterday.

Giamatti plays a lawyer/wrestling coach in a small town in New Jersey with a terrific wife (played by the also incredibly talented Amy Ryan), cute kids, slightly odd friends, and a moral dilemma.

Win Win is the type of intimate drama that I favor, but it doesn’t lend itself to plot description.  This little picture has comic overtones (think Little Miss Sunshine), but I still think of it as an intimate drama with an indie aesthetic.

Bottom line, though, I’d probably want to see anything that Thomas McCarthy writes and directs.  His other two directing credits are Station Agent and The Visitor.  They are both wonderful films, but The Visitor stands out as my favorite film of 2007.

If you haven’t seen The Visitor, do yourself a favor and check it out.  Be careful, though, because there are several films with this title.  Get the one directed by Thomas McCarthy and starring Richard Jenkins (in what you’ll no doubt consider a standout performance).

Note:  Yes, Thomas McCarthy and Amy Ryan both starred in The Wire, episode for episode the best television series ever.


CINEMA VERITE on HBO and AMERICAN SPLENDOR on DVD

April 24, 2011

There is a lot to recommend about the HBO original film Cinema Verite, and I’m not just saying that because I make documentaries!  This film, which runs at a brisk pace and comes in at under 1:30, is entertaining and a little provocative while making full use of an excellent cast.

Key among the cast are Diane Lane as Pat Loud, Tim Robbins as her husband Bill, and James Gandolfini as the producer who sells them on opening up their lives for a PBS crew to make a documentary about the American family in the early 1970s.

What came of that extended shoot, a 12-part series called An American Family has divided critics ever since, much as it divided critics and viewers when it aired in 1973 (disclaimer here that I’ve never seen the series, which has not been available on DVD).

Many people have linked An American Family to the reality TV genre – and this HBO film engages in a bit of connecting those dots – but I’m not sold on this because there are as many differences between the forms as there are shared conventions.  But, that’s a topic for another day.

Cinema Verite interests me on three levels:  it is engaging on its own merits, the issues addressed about documentary ethics are compelling to me, and the filmmaking team also made American Splendor.

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini popped on my radar in 2003 when I saw American Splendor in theatrical release.  I don’t use the b-word often, but this film is brilliant.

Timing is a funny thing.  Coincidentally, I showed American Splendor in class last week and had occasion to watch it again a couple of times in preparation, including one viewing with the commentary track (which can be an exercise in tedium or quite illuminating, and this time it was generally illuminating).

American Splendor is a bold tale about an everyman, Harvey Pekar, who becomes a comic hero.

Because different artists have drawn Harvey differently in the books he has written about his daily life and job as a file clerk at a Cleveland, Ohio VA Hospital, the different representations that the filmmakers have chosen to give him in the film work while also speaking to the postmodern fragmentation of identity that scholars and critics have addressed over the last couple of decades.

I know that sounded a little academic (if not pedantic), but it’s true.  What’s also true is that American Splendor was an immensely liberating film for me in terms of how I think about film genres from the moment I first saw it.

The film is part documentary (with interviews, narration, and archival footage), part narrative (with the amazing Paul Giamatti as Harvey and terrific Hope Davis as his wife Joyce), and part comic strip, sometimes from the original books and sometimes animated or otherwise drawn for the film.  The amazing thing is that this pastiche not only works but it works beautifully.

If you want something original, check out American Splendor.


THE CONSPIRATOR

April 23, 2011

Robert Redford’s new film, The Conspirator, feels like an old movie.  I don’t mean period piece; surely it is that.  No, I mean the sort of episodic historical drama of the studio era that meanders along with a few emotional high points but not much structure or emotional authenticity.

Not the best of those films – the ones that can inspire and engage a viewer despite the limitations of the form – but the middle of the road set, the movies with stars and high production values and, sometimes, noble ideas but without the magic that makes the film something more than the sum of its parts.

In essence, this is the story of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the owner of a boarding house when John Wilkes Booth and others conspired to kill Lincoln and others in his administration and the lawyer (played by James McAvoy) who defends her at first unwillingly then zealously and at personal cost.  Though, the film is really much more about the principles than the personal.

I don’t know enough to speak to the historical accuracy of The Conspirator, but the issues of governance in the wake of national catastrophe (in this film after the assassination of President Lincoln) are relevant in current questions arising over whether or not military courts are the proper venue for certain types of trials.

All of that is well and good, but the film itself fails to deliver much drama until the end.  This is a problem beyond principles and politics.  For the most part, it seems like a play about important events instead of a story that draws the viewer into the lives of the characters and the situations they encounter.  It is talky instead of cinematic.  Sometimes talky can work on the screen but that requires a certain transformation of the actors and incredibly good “talk, “ while these actors seem like performers in roles instead of people encountering dramatic and traumatic situations.

Also, the context is murky.  A.O. Scott wrote a thoughtful review in the New York Times that addresses this point well: http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/movies/the-conspirator-directed-by-robert-redford-review.html?scp=4&sq=The%20Conspirator&st=cse

There is something curious about a film that turns on events related to the Civil War but doesn’t mention slavery.  There is something disappointing about a high-minded work (and this is) that fails to deliver emotionally.

Should you see it?  Sure.  It’s a lot better than most of the bland titles at the multiplex (though I do plan to see Jane Eyre and Win-Win this weekend myself and don’t expect either one to be bland!).  I was just hoping for a little bit more with The Conspirator.

As an additional note:  I couldn’t help but think that the cinematography (Newton Thomas Sigel was DP here) was inspired a bit by a film I love The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but that Director of Photography Roger Deakins is a master (if you look at his credits, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005683/, you’ll see what I mean).  Although I think the look of one film may have inspired the other, the cinematography in The Conspirator did not enhance my experience of the film as it did so greatly in The Assassination of Jesse James…


BODY OF PROOF

April 23, 2011

I’ve watched a few episodes of Body of Proof (ABC Tuesdays 10 p.m.) and like Dana Delaney and the supporting actors (though why is it that the women cast always look so much better than the men?), but the show is pretty conventional.

Delaney plays an ambitious, socially inept surgeon who has lost her job because of an accident and taken up a post as a medical examiner.  For longtime readers of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta mysteries (I am one), the main character and one detective she works with frequently seem like refreshed and somewhat sanitized (for TV) versions of these Dr. Scarpetta and Pete Marino.

Already, though, Delaney’s character is softening, and the scripts are as formulaic as they come.  If you like procedurals without too much violence and find comfort in predictability, then this should be a viewing pleasure.  For me, I think it’s time to tune out…