Monday, September 29, 2008

January 2008

     On the surface, Deborah Kerr, who died in October, represented the elegance and dignity of a proper Englishwoman. But in some of her best performances, she played off that image by portraying women whose simmering sensuality was cloistered behind their prim appearance. She made acting seem effortless and, in a film career that all but ended before she was 50, created a body of work that ranks her among the greatest of film actresses.

    Kerr became a full-fledged star with her performance as the adulterous wife in the Pearl Harbor drama “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and after that it was just one memorable role after another. She was an wartime adulteress again in the adaptation of Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” (1955); the love-struck teacher in “The King and I” (1956); a nun shipwrecked on a Pacific island with Marine Robert Mitchum in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957); the object of Cary Grant’s desire in the beloved romance “An Affair to Remember” (1957); the suppressed old-maid in “Separate Tables” (1958); the strong-willed wife of a sheep farmer in “The Sundowners” (1960); and the nervous nanny in the haunted-house classic “The Innocents” (1961).

“If Winter Comes” isn’t anything special---a British wartime morality tale---but Kerr glows as Nona, who returns to her small hometown after jilting her longtime love (Walter Pidgeon) and marrying a more dashing, less stable man. Pidgeon’s Mark has married the cold Mabel (Angela Lansbury) on the rebound and devotes himself to writing enlightened textbooks. But he’s clearly too free-minded for the narrow-minded attitudes of the town, especially when he starts spending time with his old love.

The scenes between Kerr and Pidgeon offer an intelligent and, for 1947, realistic depiction of a couple who realize they’ve made bad choices and must live with them. Unfortunately, the second half of the film goes in another direction.

Kerr’s best work in Britain, before her Hollywood stardom, was done with the great writing-directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In their comedy-drama chronicling the life of a career British solider, “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943), she plays three different women in his life, and then, in the filmmakers’ masterpiece, “Black Narcissus” (1947), she gives one of her signature performances, as a nun torn between her faith and her desire.

The Scottish born actress, who retired after co-starring with Kirk Douglas in Elia Kazan’s rare failure, “The Arrangement” (1969), only to return for a handful of TV appearances in the 1980s and one final film, “The Assam Garden” (1985), before quitting the business for good. Since 1960, she was married to screenwriter Peter Viertel---“Saboteur” (1942), “The African Queen” (1951)---who died just a few weeks after she did.

Early in the film, a panicked Wendy (Laura Linney) tells her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in a middle-of-the-night phone call, about the declining state of their father: “He’s somewhere out in the desert and we’re going to have to find him.” Jon, who teaches theater, dryly replies: “This is not a Sam Shepard play.”

In fact, writer-director Tamara Jenkins is humorously acknowledging her debt to the great playwright. “The Savages” is a very Shepard-like tale---call it Sam lite----as the pair is forced to deal with the plight of their ill father and their own complicated feelings about him. And as often happens in Shepherd plays, attending to the parent inevitably opens up the tensions between the siblings.

Wendy and Jon Savage aren’t close too one another and even less so with their father (an effectively confused and angry Philip Bosco), but they come together to place the father in a nursing home in Buffalo, where Jon teaches.

This razor-sharp character study gives Linney and Hoffman plenty of room to show why they are among the best actors in Hollywood. Both Wendy and Jon lead messy, somewhat aimless lives that they feel a constant need to defend but you find yourself rooting for them even as you cringe at some of their decisions. It takes subtle acting to show the humanity and barely visible affection between the siblings, well hidden under their arguments and insecurities.

Jenkins, whose only other feature was the amusing domestic comedy “Slums of Beverly Hills” (1998), finds both humor and sadness in the way different people respond to the difficult experience of managing the end of a loved one’s life.


One of the five Oscar nominees in the 2006 race for best foreign film (it lost to “The Lives of Others”) this Danish drama, released in the U.S. in March 2007, is an emotional rollercoaster as it examines a family facing a series of devastating crises.

When it begins, “After the Wedding” seems as if it’s going to be a very different film as we met Jacob, a Danish ex-patriot working with poor children in India. But when he returns to his homeland to arrange for funding for the school and orphanage, this taciturn, seemingly simple man meets a woman from his past, who is the wife of Jorgen, the rich philanthropist he’s seeking money from.

The initial encounter with his ex-lover happens at the wedding of Jorgen’s daughter, but it turns out to be just the beginning of Jacob’s involvement as he finds himself in the middle of one family melodrama after another. There’s a soap opera element to the story, but it’s elevated by the economical and involving direction by Susanne Bier, who makes extensive use of hand-held cameras and extreme close-ups, and the subtle, intelligence acting.

Mads Mikkelsen, best know in this country as the evil card player with teardrops of blood in “Casino Royale” (2006), is a compelling presence as Jacob, who is forced to face his past and his future in quick succession in a world he though he had left behind. More ferocious and emotional is Rolf Lassgard as the super-rich, alcoholic, self-indulgent Jorgen, who wants to control everything in his world.

Also superb is Stine Fischer Christensen, as the newly married daughter who displays a maturity beyond her age as she suddenly finds herself in the midst of a family controversy.

This well-mounted, superbly acted Masterpiece Theatre-like production tells the story of William Wilberforce, a longtime Member of Parliament (1784 to 1812) who led an equally long, uphill fight to end Britain’s participation in the slave trade. Even with friends in high places----his best friend was Prime Minister William Pitt----it took nearly all his life and legislative trickery to finally stop the inhuman practice.

Ioan Gruffudd, best know for playing as the title character on the TV series about Horatio Hornblower, wears his heart on his sleeve as Wilberforce, but comes off believable and somewhat human even though it’s a near-saintly role.

The strength of the film is the well-paced direction by veteran Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “49 Up” and president of the director’s guild) and first-rate supporting performances by Michael Gambon, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones as colorful lawmakers and Albert Finney, who plays Wilberforce’s religious mentor who also penned the famous hymn of the title.

In spite of all the jokes, mostly about the no-nonsense title, this is a surprisingly entertaining C-grade picture, in large part because of Samuel L. Jackson. This hard-working actor (more than 50 films since his 1991 breakthrough in “Jungle Fever”) brings an intensity and bombast that has defined his career whether he’s in a Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas or David R. Ellis film.

All that Ellis, who directed “Snakes on a Plane,” had to do was let hundreds of predatory snakes attack the passengers on a Hawaii-to-L.A. flight and put Jackson in charge of the rescue mission. There’s nothing about the plot (beyond the perfect title) worth mentioning and the rest of the cast does little except overplay all the traditional people-in-jeopardy roles.

Between zapping reptiles and co-piloting the plane to safety, Jackson even has time to spark some romance with a stewardess played by Julianna Margulies. Always calm and commanding and seemingly having a great time, Jackson can brighten even the dimmest movie.

JUNO (2007)

If I had seen this film when it opened, I would have dismissed it as a slight, occasionally amusing indie, punched up by a good cast. But since then filmgoers and critics have taken a hard-to-explain shine to the film and it’s now up for four Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

Clearly, the engaging performance of Ellen Page (also nominated) as the spunky, cynical, title character, along with the film’s nonstop doses of cute, clever and hip, has turned the movie into this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” I can forgive the movie for turning Juno into the smartest and quickest person in the room, but there are limits: At points I wondered what she was doing in high school instead of hosting a late-night talk show. While this witty teen can turn the trauma of telling her father and step mom (engaging turns by J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) she’s pregnant into a comedy act, she never explains why neither she nor her nerdy boyfriend (a Napoleon Dynamite-like Michael Cera) used birth control.

With the ease of downloading an iTune, Juno finds a sweet, well-off couple anxious to give a happy ending to her unwanted pregnancy and arrangements for adoption are made. While Juno bonds with the husband (Jason Bateman), a fellow rocker who is clinging to his youth, Jennifer Garner, as the wife, comes off as equally childish and immature. I guess the filmmakers want you to be shocked that this beautiful couple, with an incredible house in the suburbs, isn’t perfectly content.

It’s not surprising, considering its shallow insights, that the (Oscar-nominated) screenplay comes from a first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, who became a celeb writer after chronicling her time spent as a stripper. But I would have expected more from director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan), who previously applied his cynical wit to the much-better “Thank You for Smoking” (2005).

I’m not sure what to make of this over-cooked but under-written tale of a single-minded oilman who becomes filthy rich in the oil boom of the early 20th Century. Daniel Plainview (a scenery-chewing Daniel Day-Lewis) trusts no one and will say or do nearly anything to improve his chances to make more money and I guess I should hate him as he underpays naïve Westerners to the rights to their land. But he never emerges as a real person, with understandable emotions and motivations, or even a history that could explain his actions. And the story, cribbed from Sinclair Lewis’ novel “Oil!” and landmark films “Greed” (1924), “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), fails to jell into a narrative with any dramatic arc; one set piece, often brilliantly staged, after another doesn’t add up to anything recognizably dramatic.

Paul Thomas Anderson, a visually gifted filmmaker whose second movie, “Boogie Nights” (1997), established him as one of the country’s most interesting directors, has been a disappointment since. “There Will Be Blood” follows the inconsistent, hyper “Magnolia” (1999) and the bland, goofy “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) as Anderson’s third straight film whose chief attribute is that it’s nothing like the rest of the films playing at the multiplex. His new film offers much to admire (chief among them, the dark cinematography of Robert Elswit) and features some thrilling moments (the oil well fire scene is stupendous), but between the enormous plot holes and its one-note characters I’m simply dumbfounded over the unending critical kudos and eight Oscar nominations.

Day-Lewis, looking like a young Charlton Heston and sounding exactly like director/actor John Huston (it’s such a blatant imitation Huston’s heirs should consider suing) spews out his lines as if he’s declaring war with each sentence. There’s little modulation in his performance: he’s either quietly intense or boisterously intense. But the central problem with the performance is that the character has no where to go in Anderson’s screenplay. Plainview doesn’t have friends or interests or lovers or even family (he uses his adopted son H.W. as a sweet-faced prop, but has no genuine feelings) and he seems to have little use for all the money he’s making. His only pleasure seems to be denying others a chance for success as he builds his empire.

The film creates a symbolic rival to Plainview’s unyielding capitalism in the demanding, egotistical evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, who played the disengaged teen from “Little Miss Sunshine”), who butts head with the oilman at every turn. Both have set up shop in the small California town of Little Boston and Sunday sees the oil profits as a way to enlarge his church and following. Plainview hates him simply because he’s selling a different product. Like schoolboys on a playground, they find better ways to humiliated one another, culminating in a final, outlandish scene in which any sense of seriousness and drama the film possessed is tossed aside for pointless, clownish brutality.

I rarely pay much attention to a film’s score, but in “There Will Be Blood,” the harsh, avant-garde electronic music, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is not only intrusive but irritating and seemingly unconnected to the action it should be supporting. But as unpleasant as the music is, that’s the least of this films problems.

Off putting in its structure, but serious and literary to its core, this story of a doom romance and ruined lives benefits greatly from an emotionally powerful, and surprising, final act. Set in pre-war England, the movie follows the lives of well-to-do sisters and the son of the estate’s cook, an educated and good looking, but lower-class young man.

A series of somewhat unbelievable events lead to a passionate encounter between Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and Robbie (James McAvoy), which in turn unleashes the overactive imagination of a jealous younger sister Briony (Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan), ending in false accusations.

Director Joe Wright, who previously helmed the Knightly-starring “Pride & Prejudice (2005), in showing how Briony views events differently than those involved, repeats scenes from different points of view and makes liberal use of flashbacks. The structure of the film demanded some of them, but too often the editing of those scenes looked clumsy, knocking the movie out of its rhythm.

The story jumps ahead to the war years and we’re reintroduced to the three characters and learn how the events of the past have altered, in fact, dominated, their lives. I think the movie would have been better served if the filmmakers had included something of Robbie’s, Cecilia’s and Briony’s lives just before World War II takes over. You won’t read this from me often, but this is a movie that could have benefitted from an extra 30 minutes.

Based on the novel by Ian McEwan (and adapted by Christopher Hampton), “Atonement” doesn’t deserve a spot among the year’s top five films and, I think, will disappoint anyone going in expecting a great romance, but it’s a fascinating, well-acted study of three sad lives.

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