Why I LIke MR. SELFRIDGE Better Than DOWNTON ABBEY

May 31, 2013

Recently, I sat and watched all eight episodes of the PBS Masterpiece Classics series in a couple of days.  A little slow at first, soon the episodes emerged from my DVR like a treasure box with many new compartments to explore.  Or, perhaps the better metaphor is like a giant department store with new delights integrated among the necessities.

The storyline is simple.  A brash American played by Jeremy Piven arrives in staid London to turn cultured society on its ear with his big, new department store and relentless self-promotion.  All of this is set before WWI but during a time when class struggles are on the horizon and gender roles are starting to change.

I could say it is lines like these exchanged between two women employed by Harry Selfridge’s department store that draw me into the series: “That’s why I joined the Suffragettes.  It seems to me, it’s really about justice.  It’s also about women being there for one another.  That way, one doesn’t have to face whatever the future holds entirely on one’s own.”

But, it is more than that.

I love the complexity and messiness of the characters and the situations they put themselves in or find thrust upon them.  While I watch Downton Abbey and enjoy the frothy fantasy of it all (more at the beginning of the series than now), I think the grittiness and emotional juxtapositions the series constructs (less melodramatic than the more popular series) give me more to think about over time.

No need to choose.  You can have both series…


BEHIND THE CANDELABRA

May 30, 2013

Director Steven Soderbergh has been quoted as saying he’s retired from directing motion pictures.  Let’s hope he just means films intended for theatrical release.  Or, that he doesn’t mean it at all.

With the freedom he’s demonstrated to assemble top-notch actors and writers and to secure funding while maintaining control by shooting and editing the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, it’s easy to see that he may be making the right move for himself creatively to leave the studio fold with this film.  It’s not the type of creative risk studios seem willing to take anymore, and that is a pity. 

Behind the Candelabra is the story of the outrageous pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) told from the perspective of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) during the time they had an affair in the 1980s.  There are many elements in terms of scope, style, and pacing in this film that remind me a little of Soderbergh’s first feature film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which I loved when it burst on the scene in 1989.

In this case, I like the intimacy of the storytelling, foregrounding the ordinary moments in Liberace’s life off-stage with his preening presence onstage in outlandish costumes, jewelry, and wigs.  The story is based on Thorson’s 1988 memoir and adapted by Richard LaGravenese, who has notably adapted some popular books into better films (that is not a typo, and yes, I am talking about The Bridges of Madison County in particular).

What really makes this film work above all other elements, however, is watching Michael Douglas transform into Liberace and Matt Damon transform into a character unlike any I’ve seen him play before.  The actors have a kind of twisted but convincing chemistry.  We watch as the (much) older man spots his handsome prey, teases out his vulnerabilities, and exploits them to his own advantage all the while knowing this cannot end well.

Actually, we’ve seen the ending at the beginning; as Scott moves into Liberace’s house, his sullen predecessor is moving out.  But, Scott is sure that he is going to be different, and perhaps in some regards he is, at least, for a time.

If Michael Douglas owns the calculating moments, Matt Damon owns the painful moments, and together they are a marvel to watch. 

The film unfolds as two parts fascination and entertainment to one part morbid curiosity.  I simply could not look away, and the quietness of the visual style of the film provides the perfect complement to the flamboyance of what is happening within every frame.


LIVING IN THE OVERLAP — Sneak Preview

May 29, 2013

My colleague Cindy Hill and I have co-directed a new, half-hour documentary, Living in the Overlap, and you can check out the trailer for the film and webisodes at www.lennieandpearl.com.

Living in the Overlap is the improbably true story of two girls growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s, falling in love in the Midwest, and making a life together in North Carolina.  Lennie is an attorney focusing on LGBT issues, and Pearl is a retired professor working on various political issues. 

They are surprised to have reached icon status. 

The film includes public and private moments in Lennie and Pearl’s lives using interviews, archival material, and sequences shot during their efforts to defeat North Carolina’s anti-gay marriage amendment.  They offer wisdom about enduring relationships and think of themselves as two circles, often overlapping, who are both independent and interdependent. After 46-years of living in the overlap, Lennie and Pearl still have an indelible spark.

We’ve had some great local coverage of an upcoming “Sneak Preview” of the film:

“Greensboro Couple Star in Documentary,” May 20, 2013, News & Record

http://www.news-record.com/life/article_46d285d2-bf2c-11e2-87f6-001a4bcf6878.html

“Under the Chuppah:  High Point Women to Tie the Knot,” May 29, 2013, High Point Enterprise

http://www.hpe.com/news/x1592163615/Under-the-chuppah-High-Point-women-to-tie-the-knot#.UaXiCNi1quI.facebook

“Sneak Preview of Local Filmmaker’s Project Saturday,” May 29, 2013, Jamestown News

http://www.jamestownnews.com/news/features/article_57f5b822-c7c2-11e2-b95e-001a4bcf887a.html

The preview screening is free and open to the public.  If you want to check it out for yourself, here are some event details:

https://www.facebook.com/events/529606507095463/

Hope to see you at the screening on Saturday evening at 6:30 at UNCG’s Elliott University Center Auditorium!


ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT

May 29, 2013

Are you one of the Arrested Development followers diving into the new season on Netflix?  The new release patterns for these series viewed online intrigue me:

http://www.azcentral.com/thingstodo/movies/articles/20130510-arrested-development-netflix.html

As quoted in the article, I’m quite interested in how this mode of distribution makes viewers producers of their own viewing experience. 

It’s liberating, which is wonderful.  Unfortunately, some shows are so captivating (don’t you love the competing impulses – liberating and captivating at once) that I can’t get anything else done until I’ve watched all available episodes. 

Admit it!   You know exactly what I’m talking about!


More to Come…

May 28, 2013

Coming soon…thoughts on Mud (I’ve seen it twice), Behind the Candelabra, and Mr. Selfridge.


A Contrarian View on THE GREAT GATSBY

May 28, 2013

While I don’t feel strongly about the film (this is no Moulin Rouge), I do not share the common view that Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby celebrates wealth for its own sake.

When I read the novel in my youth and watched other versions of the film, I lamented the fact that the Jay and Daisy’s great love could not withstand the obstacles Fitzgerald put before them.  I wanted them to be together and, despite myself, to enjoy a gilded sort of happily ever after.

The film strikes all of my girlish notions from years ago and replaces them with a steely sense of just how much this film suits the present time — and I’m talking about the increasing division of wealth in this country and a deepening sense of social class more than the contemporary music juxtaposed with some period visuals.

The impossibly lavish party scenes, for example, have an emptiness to them beneath the shimmering surface that is stultifying, and I like to believe this is by design to show the impending decay of all the eye can see.

With Luhrmann’s film, I have a clarity that eluded me before in other versions of the story, and the end to this narrative seems fitting and even kind rather than tragic.  The parties cannot go on forever, and when the music and spirits and moonlight madness all wind down, the players find that they really don’t have much to say to one another.  

All that yearning is for naught because, in the end, nothing of value is sought.

But the ending is fitting and not in the least sad.  Spoiler alert:  After all, Jay never has to see, fully, his folly or understand the utter vacuousness of his beloved.  He is a twisted man who cannot come to terms with what is right before him, and Daisy has neither the brain power nor the will to do much of anything at all.

Perhaps that is a problem for some viewers who want to be pushed or pulled into caring about these characters, but it’s not a problem for me.  

Maybe I am a bit like Daisy in this one way:  I went, I watched, I engaged in the moment, then I promptly forgot (mostly) about this film that didn’t seem to have too much to do with me.


The Biggest Summer Movies Thus Far

May 28, 2013

Iron Man 3 — the pacing felt off to me.  I liked the opening and the part set in Tennessee but points between seemed to drag a bit at least from time-to-time.  Of course, if you like this sort of thing, it may have been thrilling.

Star Trek Into Darkness — held my attention.  Enjoyable even fun.  Spoiler alert:  Khan is a great villain!

Fast & Furious 6 — may be the first in the franchise I’ve seen since the first one, but it’s hard for me to resist the timbre of Vin Diesel’s voice when there’s not a lot else competing at the moment.  Even with his voice and smoldering gaze, I found the film tedious at times.