Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Hitchcock, the 2012 film exploring the relationship between legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife (and most trusted collaborator) Alma Reville during the process of creating his most famous film- the 1960 horror classic, Psycho.  Directed by Sacha Gervasi, and featuring tour-de-force performances by acclaimed Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, it was a project long in development and eagerly anticipated, stirring high interest and expectations among film literati over its portrayal of a true cinema icon at work.

Based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho,” a meticulously researched classic long considered a cornerstone in the literature of film studies, the movie’s screenplay, by John J. McLaughlin, takes a less documentary style than its source material, opting instead for a sort of mature Hollywood romance which focuses primarily on the complex dynamics between Hitchcock and his wife.  It opens in 1959 with the premiere of the director’s North by Northwest, a glamorous, wildly popular comic thriller which marked a triumphant return to familiar form after the box office disappointment of darker experiments like The Wrong Man and Vertigo; back at the top of the game, but unsettled by suggestions that he should now, at 60, settle back on his laurels and quit while he’s ahead (and by reviews which unfavorably compare the comfortable safety of his latest hit with the edgy freshness of his earlier work), Hitchcock begins to search for a new project unlike any he had done before.  Rejecting sure-fire hits and the solicitations of his wife to adapt her friend Whitfield Cook’s newest book into a film, he sets his sights instead on a sordid little novel by Robert Bloch, a gruesome tale of madness and murder inspired by the real-life case of 1940s serial killer Ed Gein.  Determined to make a film totally unlike anything he’s done before, he undertakes the project, even mortgaging his house for provide his own financing when his studio will not pay for the production.  Though initially skeptical, his beloved Alma throws herself into the project at his side, as always, providing her uncredited expertise in every aspect of the film- as she has done throughout their 30-plus years of marriage.  The pressures of working on such a risky endeavor, however, begin to take their toll, as Hitchcock’s personal obsessions begin to overwhelm him- his fixation on his icy, unattainable leading ladies in particular- and his overbearing demeanor pushes Alma to the limit of her patience, driving her to seek solace in the task of helping Cook- who may or may not have romantic designs on her, as well- to adapt his novel into a screenplay.  As jealousy on both sides threatens to drive a wedge between the Hitchcocks, both personally and professionally, the making of Psycho suffers from delays, personality conflicts, studio interference, and pressure from the censorship board, making the prospect of failure uncomfortably tangible.  Facing both financial ruin and the loss of his considerable reputation, Hitchcock must overcome his dysfunctional tendencies and restore the good faith of his most indispensable collaborator in order to salvage the film and avert disaster.  More importantly, however, he must suppress his massive ego and humble himself in order to repair the damage it has caused in his marriage and win back the only woman who has ever really mattered in his life.

Rebello’s book was written in 1990, and the exhaustive research the author undertook included access to Hitchcock’s personal notes and every available archival resource, as well as interviews with almost every individual who had worked on Psycho that was still living at the time, including stars Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.  The wealth of information he compiled resulted in an intricately detailed portrait of Hitchcock’s creative process, and inevitably yielded considerable insight into the personal factors that informed the director’s work at this particular time in his career.  The book is a scholarly work, albeit an entertaining one as well, which is intended to document the making of a seminal film which would go on to have far-reaching influence on the future of the movie industry and, indeed, on the art of cinema itself; the details and observations of the Hitchcocks’ relationship, while fascinating, are primarily important to show how essential Alma was to her husband’s work and how integral the couple’s teamwork was to the ultimate success of the movie.  McLaughlin’s screenplay reverses this emphasis, shifting the primary focus to the domestic life of this legendary power couple and using the making of Psycho as a means to reflect the personal issues threatening their relationship.  The reason for this may seem obvious; building an engaging story around the nuts-and-bolts construction of a film- or any work of art, for that matter- might easily result in a dry and unemotional narrative, intellectually stimulating, perhaps, but lacking the kind of human connection necessary to appeal to a typical movie-going audience.  Even so, in the process of transforming the documentary book into a fictional narrative, Hitchcock crosses over into the territory of Hollywood fantasy, offering up a sanitized and streamlined version of real-life events in its effort to make its two leading figures into an unlikely pair of romantic protagonists.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; though McLaughlin glosses up the facts with fancy and compresses complicated situations into neat little packages, he gets the gist of it right, and though purists may squirm over some of the more overtly sentimentalized indulgences or take exception to some of the artistic license that simplifies painstaking creative decisions into 30-second vignettes, these conceits serve the larger purpose of revealing the great director’s human side- an aspect he kept closely guarded behind his iconic public persona- and the true extent of his wife’s involvement and influence in his work.

Whether or not you prefer a subtler, more realistic approach to your bio-drama, if you are a fan of Hitchcock in general, or of Psycho in particular, you are sure to find a good deal of enjoyment in the film’s playful exploration of these almost mythic cultural touchstones.  Hitchcock adopts the drily comedic tone so readily associated with the Master of Suspense, particularly in connection to his classic television anthology series- a program that was current during the making of Psycho and which had transformed the already famous director into an instantly recognizable celebrity figure and a household name.  Indeed, the movie even frames its story with segments reminiscent of the ones that bookended every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in which the rotund host would provide wry commentary on the story being showcased; this conceit also serves to set up another device concocted by McLaughlin, in which Hitchcock engages in an ongoing fantasy dialogue with the aforementioned murderer, Ed Gein- a suitably macabre touch for a movie about an artist whose name is virtuously synonymous with the word.  Hitchcock maintains a close connection to the sensibilities of its central figure, using wit, intelligence, and a heavy dose of irony to tell its story and making sly observations about human nature as it entertains us with the surface details which are ostensibly its focus; and like any real Hitchcock film, it features the “McGuffin.”  For those that don’t know, of course, this is the term coined by the Master to describe a key plot device upon which the characters place great significance, providing an impetus for the story and seeming, on the surface, to be of the utmost importance, but which is, in fact, ultimately irrelevant to the real purpose of the movie.  In Psycho, for example, it takes the form of the $40,000 stolen by the movie’s ill-fated heroine; in Hitchcock, however, the McGuffin is Psycho itself.  It is the making of the movie that is the supposed center of the the plot, but in reality, it merely provides a lens through which is revealed the characters’ psychological and emotional traits, and serves as a catalyst for their personal transformations- the true subject at hand.

Entertaining as it may be, one can’t help feeling that there are a great many missed opportunities in Hitchcock.  To begin with, though the film’s overall ambiance bears a strong connection to Hitchcock’s ouvre, director Gervasi makes only a perfunctory attempt to emulate his visual style.  One longs for the kind of crazy tilted angles, overhead perspectives, stylized dream sequences, and other such dramatic elements that helped Hitch become one of the most influential and distinctive directors in cinema history.  Although I’m not one to criticize a movie for what it isn’t, it seems as if more of an effort could have been made to shape the film in homage to its subject; after all, the deliberate inclusion of the framing device sets us up for a Hitchcockian experience, and by the end of the movie, we are still waiting for it.  In addition, in its attempt to generate suspense (since history tells us that the Hitchcocks were more than successful in their efforts to turn Psycho into a game-changing hit), McLaughlin and Gervasi seem to be implying that Hitchcock himself is in danger of slipping into madness and indulging in a little murder and mayhem of his own- a patently ridiculous notion made even more pointless by the simple fact that no such occurance ever took place.  Their movie might have been better served by taking the time used up by this unnecessary digression to explore other interesting relationships, such as Hitchcock’s collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann (who is only represented in a single scene depicting the now-famous disagreement over the use of music in Psycho’s notorious shower scene) or the couple’s relationship with daughter Pat, who appeared in a small role in Psycho (and several other of her father’s films) but who is never even mentioned here.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in this reverent portrayal of Hollywood royalty, not the least of which is its sumptuous recreation of mid-century life through its costumes and decor, and its all-too-few-and-too-brief recreations of the filming of Psycho.  When all is said and done, however, what makes Hitchcock a treat to watch, for either the dedicated Hitch-o-phile or the uninitiated novice, are the stunning performances of its two leading players.  As Hitchcock, the great Anthony Hopkins reminds us once more that he is one of the best actors in the business, capturing every nuance of the familiar voice and demeanor with uncanny accuracy; though he is buried beneath layers of makeup, prosthetics, and body padding- all of which physically transform the star into a remarkable facsimile of the iconic director- he conveys a deep and multidimensional portrait of this troubled genius, giving us an impressive display of his ability to capture the inner truth of a character and not just a highly skilled piece of mimicry.  Superb as he is, however, it is co-star Helen Mirren who truly dazzles us, shining through with yet another marvelous portrayal.  As Alma Reville, she is sharp, grounded, warm, strong, loving, and confident, a consummate artist and a woman who needs no validation from the Hollywood circus which surrounds her- as long as she has the acknowledgment of her husband, whom she makes clear from her very first moments onscreen is the object of her undying love.  Simultaneously simple and complex, direct and reserved, ebullient and stoic, and- above all-  radiant, she is the undisputed center of attention in her every scene, and when she delivers the inevitable climactic speech in response to her husband’s paranoia-fueled confrontation, the credibility and good will she has earned throughout turns it into the emotional highlight of the film and keeps us from minding that it is, in essence, a predictably formulaic device to move the story into its final chapter.  She and Hopkins are an utter delight together, captivating us with the sheer effortlessness of two seasoned veterans still very much at the height of their powers, and they constitute far and away the most powerful reason to see this movie.

The rest of the cast also performs admirably, with the lovely Scarlett Johansson, as Janet Leigh, standing out as she negotiates the difficult task of providing the director with his latest “Hitchcock blond” with grace, charm, and genuine sweetness.  Toni Collette is memorable as Hitchcock’s trusted and invaluable personal assistant, Peggy Robertson; James D’Arcy captures the twitchy, nervous persona of troubled boy-next-door actor Anthony Perkins; Kurtwood Smith is appropriately severe and amusingly officious as powerful censorship chieftain Geoffery Shurlock; and Ralph Macchio makes a quirky surprise cameo as screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who wins the job of penning Psycho by revealing the issues that he discusses with his own psychotherapist.

I am, as some of you may have guessed, a passionate fan of Alfred Hitchcock and his work.  Like most others who share my enthusiasm for him, I have been eagerly anticipating the release of this film, though I confess to having felt some trepidation when it was announced that the title was shortened from Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of “Psycho” to simply Hitchcock.  That change says it all; it reveals the shift in focus that turned the project from a dramatization of a historical event into a biopic trying to convey the man’s entire persona in less than two hours- though in truth, a better choice in title might have been The Hitchcocks.  For me, film biographies work best when they approach their subject within a slice-of-life setting, revealing aspects of their character through the examination of a specific, limited episode- Frost/Nixon comes to mind, or last year’s My Week With Marilyn, a film which bears a good deal of similarity to this one.  Hitchcock does take this more narrow approach, to an extent, but within its finite framework it tackles the ambitious agenda of encapsulating the director’s complicated personality- with all its obsessions, foibles, and dysfunctions- into a definitive portrait, a sort of Cliff’s Notes dossier that sums up, explains, and resolves the myriad questions and observations about this enigmatic man and shapes them all with a particular point of view.  It offers us a conflict and a resolution and gives us the obligatory happy ending, and while these things are not altogether untrue- Mr. and Mrs. Hitchcock did indeed remain a deeply devoted couple until his death in 1980, and he did publicly acknowledge her contribution to his work on many occasions- the way they are presented here seems far too pat, too simplistic to be completely believed.  It’s not that anything in the movie is a lie, exactly, but the need to turn their story into a plot with a beginning, middle, and ending somehow makes it feel like one.  Was I disappointed in Hitchcock?  The answer, obviously, is yes.  I do not, however, think it is a bad film; on the contrary, it is exceptionally well-made and phenomenally well-acted, an intelligent and entertaining piece that is more than worthy of its subject.  I recommend it to almost any audience- a knowledge of Hitchcock himself or even of Psycho is not necessary to enjoy the movie’s many pleasures- and I am confident that the upcoming awards season will be ripe with many well-deserved accolades for its stars.  My only caveat is this: Hitchcock is a film about the making of a masterpiece, but it is not a masterpiece itself.   Understand this going in, and you will undoubtedly have a good time- though if you’re anything like me, you may find yourself watching Psycho (for the 217th-or-so time) at home later that evening.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0975645/

Lincoln (2012)

 

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Lincoln, the long-awaited feature by director Steven Spielberg about the efforts of Abraham Lincoln (and his cabinet) to ensure the passage of a constitutional amendment making slavery illegal in the United States.  Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th American president, with a host of high caliber actors in supporting roles and a screenplay by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, it was the culmination of more than ten years of development and production; released in the wake of a divisive election in a polarized nation, its timing has no doubt contributed significantly to the general acclaim it has so far received from both the critics and the public, helping to make it Spielberg’s best-received film in over a decade.

Inspired by and partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film’s plot confines itself to the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when he undertook to force the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives before the end of the Civil War.  With the opposition party firmly against the proposed law, and his own side sharply divided, it’s a seemingly uphill battle, and his cabinet, staff, and advisors urge him to wait until the start of the new term, when the congressional numbers will be in his favor; but the savvy Lincoln knows that once the war is ended, support for the cause will diminish.  Therefore he sets his administration to the task of securing the necessary votes- by whatever political means necessary- to approve the amendment in congress before the window of opportunity is closed.  With his attention focused on this objective, he must also cope with pressures in his private life- the ongoing grief over the death of his middle son, his strained relationship with his eldest son Robert, and the emotional fragility and possible mental instability of his wife Mary.  These various situations play out against the backdrop of a volatile and still-rustic Washington D.C., where murky back-room deals, political maneuvering, and ethical compromises are clearly seen to have been as much a daily routine as they are in the modern world.  It won’t be giving anything away to say that the amendment passes, in the end; but the road to that political victory is a fascinating and enlightening one, and thanks to Spielberg’s masterful direction and Kushner’s highly intelligent script, the journey keeps us as engaged and invested as if we didn’t know where it was taking us.  The film ends, predictably enough, with the death of the president on the morning after he is shot at Ford’s Theatre, but it serves more as a tragic coda than as the culmination of the story- which is less about the man himself than it is about the road to what is arguably his greatest achievement.

The fact that Lincoln is an important American film is self-evident (if you’ll pardon the expression).  It is the first serious big screen attempt to focus on any part of the great man’s life in over 70 years (since Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s biographical Broadway play of the same name, with Raymond Massey reprising his stage role), and therefore the first film to address the key subject of his abolition of slavery from a post-Civil-Rights-Era perspective; additionally, it focuses on political and social issues with distinct reverberations in the modern U.S., in particular evoking parallels with contemporary congressional partisanship as well as with the currently ongoing struggle towards recognition of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.  The brilliance of Tony Kushner’s screenplay lies in its ability to strike these chords without forcing them on the viewer; he devotes himself entirely to the factual circumstances of his subject, focusing on the historical battle over the passage of abolition and allowing the material to raise present-day associations on its own.  He never loses sight of his primary objective, to present a fictionalized representation of historical events, but through the choices he makes about which themes to highlight and which concerns to bring to the forefront, he makes clear the connections between those events and their modern-day counterparts, as well as inviting reflection on the modern state of race relations in America- both how far we’ve come, and how far we have still to go.  Likewise, he brings his dramatist’s sense of practical storytelling to the daunting task of painting a portrait of the title character, a towering and near-mythic figure not just in American political history but in the cultural imagination of the entire world; working from contemporaneous accounts of Lincoln, the man, Kushner endeavors to give us a human being instead of a larger-than-life icon, avoiding the temptation to include recreations of famous speeches or historic moments and offering a vision of a man striving to measure up to his role in a larger history of which he is all too aware.  We see Lincoln’s confidence, determination, and ethical fiber, but we also see his self-doubt, his insecurity, and his difficulty overcoming the strains on his relationship with his family; if at times he seems idealized, or too good to be true, it is perhaps because our jaded modern sensibilities place his real-life actions outside of our capacity to believe in a man whose motivations seem so noble- but Kushner places strategic curtains over Lincoln’s private feelings, leaving us to speculate whether there is a gap between his personal beliefs and his political convictions, and to ponder his possible struggle to reconcile such differences.  In the end, whether idealized or not, the movie’s vision of Lincoln feels like flesh and blood, and if there is any trace of the super-human about him, it lies in his ability to see beyond the personal and short-term needs of the present in order to exert the sheer force of will needed to push the world forward towards a greater ideal.

If Kushner’s vision of Lincoln works- and it does- an equal share of credit must go to the actor whose intimidating task it is to play him.  There could be no better choice than Daniel Day-Lewis, unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation, whose ability to completely immerse himself in a role is legendary and whose unwavering dedication to finding the human truth of a character is the one absolutely necessary quality to personifying Lincoln.  With it, he is able to maneuver past the pitfalls inherent in playing such a revered figure, concentrating on the immediacy of each moment and capturing the emotional realities that help us reach across a century and a half to connect with a man who exists for most if us only as an exalted image in our cultural consciousness.  Day-Lewis plays Lincoln close to the chest, governing his emotions the way a president must, even in his intimate domestic exchanges, but still letting us see the flickers of true feeling as they rise and fall; he inhabits the character so completely that we cannot help but feel we are watching the man himself, even capturing an uncanny physical resemblance to Lincoln seemingly without the use of elaborate make-up.  Perhaps best of all, he avoids the trap of dwelling in the iconic leader’s somber aspects, instead making him a charming and delightful personality, undercutting his seriousness with an obvious fondness for spinning yarns and making jokes- even off-color ones.  This trait, well-documented and deliberately written into the film, becomes Day-Lewis’ avenue into finding the lightness and the joy in his character, and allows us to like this national hero as much as we respect him.  It is a breathtakingly good performance, so much so that we almost forget it is a performance, and the actor himself disappears into the lifelike authenticity if his creation; rest assured, though, Day-Lewis is there, fully invested in yet another consummate performance that is fully worthy of the subject he portrays and making himself a strong contender for a record-breaking third Oscar for Best Leading Actor.

Though the film belongs (as it should) squarely to its star, the ensemble cast provides uniformly excellent support; every player breathes absolute life into his or her role, no matter how small, giving the entire film an authenticity as rich as the one provided by the performance at its center, and all deserve equal praise- but there are, of course, a few standouts.  Most obviously, by virtue of placement, is Sally Field, another consummate and fiercely honest performer, who is no less fully invested than her co-star, as Mary Todd Lincoln; Field is heartbreakingly real in her portrayal of the high-strung First Lady, still consumed by grief and guilt over the loss of her child, frustrated at the loss of connection in her marriage, and painfully aware- and terrified- of her own precarious mental health.   Her scenes with Day-Lewis exude both a desperate tenderness and a palpable ache, heightening the awareness of inevitable tragedy, both past and yet-to-come, that pervades the relationship, but we never get the sense the two have anything less than undying love for each other, no matter what recriminations or conflicts may arise, for better or for worse.  The film’s other primary co-star is perhaps more of a surprise; as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican congressman whose extreme stance on abolition makes him both its greatest champion and its greatest obstacle, Tommy Lee Jones is so eminently watchable he threatens to steal the movie from its star.  Bristling with intelligence, humor and passion, armed with a barbed wit and a ready vocabulary, and exuding the masterful, confident presence of a weathered veteran of the political circus, he commands his every scene and catches us unexpectedly at every turn with his thorny blend of effortless bravado and deft understatement; it is Jones, ultimately, that provides the true heart of the film, giving contemporary audiences an access point through his character’s sensibly modern moral viewpoint- which permits him to give voice to some of the movie’s most satisfying dialogue- and thereby bringing home its most emotionally resonant moments through the personal identification we make with him.  It’s a sublime performance, every bit as impressive in its way as Day-Lewis’ work, and proof once more that this solid, likable actor deserves perhaps more recognition than he has traditionally received- Academy Award notwithstanding.

There are others: David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State- and close friend- William Seward, James Spader as rough-edged proto-lobbyist William Bilbo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Lee Pace as flamboyant pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President- and peace emissary- Alexander Stevens, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, and a fine child performance by Gulliver McGrath as the precocious 12-year-old Tad Lincoln.  The list goes on and on, but special mention should be reserved for the great Hal Holbrook (who won an Emmy for playing Lincoln himself, back in the ’70s), adding his own particular brand of dignity to the role of Francis Preston Blair, an elderly and influential statesman- one of the founders of the Republican Party- who agrees to help Lincoln by endorsing the amendment in exchange for being allowed to attempt the brokering of a peace deal with the Confederacy.

Aside from its stellar cast, Lincoln benefits from all the blessings that come with being a first-string prestige project.  The period costumes and sets are exquisitely executed, with the patina of genuine, lived-in use that makes every frame look like a real historical photo from 1865.  This effect is aided by the extensive use of location shooting in several key areas of Virginia, where many historical buildings have been preserved and maintained, and by the muted tones achieved by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a long-time Spielberg collaborator; watching the film, one can almost smell the mustiness and imbedded cigar smoke pervading the air.  Another familiar Spielberg associate, veteran composer John Williams, provides an appropriately majestic Copland-esque score which conjures an aura of deep-rooted Americana, adding to the sense that we are watching a definitive vision of this chapter of national history.  In short, Lincoln is an example of top-notch, A-list production, containing all the exemplary elements necessary to make a fine film, contributed by seasoned professionals and awaiting the sure hand of a master director to assemble them into a finished product.

That director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, the one-time wunderkind who is now one of the most powerful and influential filmmakers in the industry, the head of his own entertainment empire, and perhaps the most publicly recognizable face of the Hollywood establishment to which he once seemed to represent the fresh alternative.  He has earned that place, without question, with several genuine classics under his belt, from the career-and-genre-defining visceral thrills of Jaws to the iconic adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the haunting humanity of Schindler’s List.  No one would deny his supreme gift as a technical filmmaker; he has molded the textbook styles of influences like Ford, Lean and Kurosawa together with the up-to-the-minute edgy techniques of modern cinema to create his own distinctive brand of visual storytelling, and his best work stands with that of the masters from whom he has drawn so much inspiration.  However, since his 1982 sci-fi/family film mash-up, E.T., The Extraterrestrial,” there have been many critics and audiences that have noted a tendency towards heavy-handed sentimentality in his work, not to mention a penchant for shaping his films around a personal, socio-political agenda.  To be sure, using cinematic trickery to manipulate an audience’s hearts and minds is nothing to be criticized- after all, it is the foundation upon which the art form is based- but it’s a delicate process, and when handled without careful restraint the results can be characterized as disingenuous at best, and as outright propaganda at their worst.  It can’t be denied that Spielberg sometimes gives in to the urge to turn the dial one notch too high in his effort to make an emotional point in his films, and from time to time his methods could be described as “a sledgehammer approach.”  Even his best films have been occasionally marred by this quality, though in his earlier work, admittedly, it is a tactic that served him well; in his more “serious” projects, however, it has the effect, for some, of undermining the feeling of sincerity.  Such a criticism is a matter of taste, of course, but with only a few exceptions, it applies to most of Spielberg’s post-1982 work.

Lincoln, happily, is one of those exceptions.  As if the deep integrity of his subject demanded the use of restraint, Spielberg pulls back on the emotional throttle, allowing the honest power of the script and the actors to take us where he wants us to go, and using his considerable skills to reinforce rather than to assert.  He fills the screen with a rich display of light and shadow, contrasting the somber weight of the 19th-Century environment with delicate and luminous infusions of sunshine and candlelight, using the windows with their lacy curtains to great advantage during interior scenes which evoke the powerful silent film images of such directors as Murnau and Griffith.  There are a minimum of scenes depicting the brutal horrors of the Civil War, but these brief episodes are more than sufficient to convey the nightmare that raged beneath Lincoln’s fatal presidency, constructed with the same unflinching, terrifying realism with which the director filled his WWII drama, Saving Private Ryan; and though the majority of the story unfolds through dialogue, he creates a sense of action throughout with his constantly mobile camera, and- with the help of editor Michael Kahn, yet another frequent collaborator- he keeps a tight pace which drives the movie forward and makes it feel shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour running time.  Most cinematic of all, he conveys volumes of subtext and a wealth of vital plot information through his masterful visual sense, composing eloquent shots and creating powerful montages that fill in the blanks without the need for gratuitous exposition or unwieldy language.  There are a few- just a few- moments when the “Spielberg touch” threatens to emerge; but for the most part, Lincoln is the work of a mature and self-assured director with nothing to prove- a subtle, layered, and thoughtful meditation on history, politics, and morality that never insults its audience by forcing a perspective.

There are those, undoubtedly, that will object to Lincoln for reasons of their own- personal politics, a revisionist view of history, an iconoclastic desire to deconstruct this mythic hero and expose his less attractive qualities.  If you are looking for a film that treats Abe Lincoln as anything less than a national saint, you will not find it in Spielberg’s opus.  Such a film might well have its place, and personally, I would be very interested in seeing it, but Lincoln, ultimately, is as respectful a portrait of the man as you are likely to find, despite its concerted- and largely successful- effort to humanize him.  This does not, however, mean it is somehow sugar-coated, or less than truthful; nor is it one of those “Important” Hollywood epics that reeks of smug self-satisfaction in its pious pretentiousness.  I must confess, this latter quality is what I fully expected, though I also anticipated a transcendent performance from Daniel Day-Lewis; instead, I got the pleasant surprise of experiencing a piece of elegant filmmaking that is as honest and heartfelt as it is significant- a rarity in today’s high-stakes movie industry, to say the least.  Though it may not be the greatest film ever made about American history, or even be Spielberg’s greatest film, it is a far better film than most people likely expected it to be; more importantly, it offers a cultural touchstone, a sort of celluloid monument at which we may pause to reflect upon our national identity- to which this president certainly contributed an enormous share in shaping- and connect with each other through its portrayal of a man whose achievements stand to validate our belief in the very best qualities within us all.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443272/

 

Gods and Monsters (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gods and Monsters, the 1998 drama by Bill Condon about the final days of legendary film director James Whale- the man responsible for, among other things, the iconic 1931 Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Based on a novel, Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, it offers a speculative scenario about the events surrounding Whale’s mysterious death in his own swimming pool at 67, years after his retirement from Hollywood, and enjoyed much critical acclaim- particularly for the performances of Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave, and for Condon’s Oscar-winning adapted screenplay- as well as achieving a relatively impressive amount of popular success (for an independently-produced, non-blockbuster feature, that is) due to the appeal of its subject matter for fans of the classic horror genre, its exploration of one of Old Hollywood’s most notorious and enduring mysteries, and- undoubtedly- the presence of then-heartthrob Brendan Fraser in the co-starring role.

Whale’s 1957 drowning took place a decade after his departure from active filmmaking, a choice taken after studio interference made it increasingly difficult for him to realize his edgy and slyly subversive vision in his work; though he maintained his Hollywood residence and was still well-known by his friends and former colleagues in the industry, his name had slipped into obscurity within the larger public consciousness. After a series of strokes left him weakened both physically and mentally, plagued by excruciating, near-constant headaches and prone to blackouts and periods of disorientation, he became a near recluse in his home; Gods and Monsters uses this period as a springboard into its narrative, blending fact with fiction to present an imagined reconstruction of the director’s last few weeks.  Isolated in his Hollywood home, Whale fills his time drawing and painting, tended by his German housekeeper, Hanna, who is fiercely devoted to her employer despite her vehement- and vocal- disapproval of his open homosexuality. Bored, fighting depression, and haunted by memories of his youth and his Hollywood heyday, his interest is piqued by the arrival of a new gardener- Clayton Boone, a young, virile and handsome ex-marine. Though Clayton is reluctant at first, he is persuaded by Whale to sit for him, posing for sketches and reminiscing about the director’s past experiences; despite the derision of his blue collar friends and his own homophobic insecurities, he is drawn into an uneasy friendship, partly by his employer’s former fame and glory, but also increasingly by the connection that develops between them. Whale’s condition, however, continues to deteriorate, and his new relationship with Clayton triggers more and more painful memories- of his poverty-stricken childhood, of the tragic loss of his first love in the trenches of WWI, and of his former days as a filmmaker; in his torment, he attempts to manipulate the young man into providing relief for his suffering- but the results of this scheme take a different form than either of them might foresee.

Bram’s novel- and therefore, Condon’s screenplay- takes several flights of fancy from the real story surrounding Whale’s demise, most significantly in the creation of Clayton, an entirely fictitious character (though he may have parallels with a chauffeur brought back by Whale from one of his trips to Europe, several years before the events depicted here). In real life, when the director’s body was found floating in his swimming pool, a suicide note was also found; it was, however, kept undisclosed by Whale’s longtime partner, producer David Lewis, until shortly before his own death 30 years later. Whale’s grieving lover made this decision out of respect, wishing to avoid the scandal and stigma that so often accompanies celebrity suicide- especially in the 1950s- but the absence of a note fueled years of whispered speculation about what had really happened.  Although the drowning had been ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play continued to emerge until the revelation of the note put an end, at last, to the mystery. By the time of Bram’s novel, the truth had long been out, but enough unanswered questions remained to warrant ongoing interest in this morbid Hollywood legend, and the fabricated (but plausible) relationship between Whale and Clayton provided a means of reconciling the facts of the case with the kind of salacious gossip which grew around it.

Condon’s movie, however, is no mere piece of sensationalistic pseudo-biographical fluff; though he takes a rather straightforward approach to telling his story, he infuses it along the way with subtle but thought-provoking explorations of larger themes and social issues- attitudes towards class and sexuality, the long-term damage of war on those who fight in it, and the isolation that results from striving to be extraordinary in an ordinary world.  Layered into the mix are also some observational parallels between Whale’s life and his most famous creations, with his own isolation and status as an outcast reflecting that of the misbegotten monster of Frankenstein as well as the famous Dr. Pretorius of Bride, and his relationship with Clayton echoing both Pretorius and Dr. Frankenstein himself.  All these and more provide fodder for Condon’s character-driven psychodrama, and though it comes in the guise of a Hollywood tell-all, Gods and Monsters cleverly rides a deeper undercurrent, emerging through dialogue and the well-placed interpolation of Whale’s brief-but-vivid flashbacks, which we scarcely even notice until its cumulative power hits us in the bittersweet final scenes. It’s the kind of unassuming filmmaking that is often overlooked, but it makes the difference between a genuinely affecting movie and just another pretentious, self-important “prestige picture.”

These thematic conceits may be an important factor in Gods and Monsters, but it’s a film that works splendidly on the more immediate level of storytelling as well; it’s not big on action- the plot reveals itself more through the development of the characters and their relationships than through events- but it nevertheless captivates us and keeps us engaged as it unfolds what is ultimately a sweetly sad portrait of an unorthodox and unlikely relationship between two misfits, and the unexpected gifts it bestows upon them both. One of the primary reasons it sustains our interest, of course, is the work of its fine cast, led by the brilliant Ian McKellen as Whale. Long one of the foremost thespians on the English- and, sometimes, New York- stage, at the time of Gods and Monsters he had yet to achieve the international screen stardom that would come with his portrayal of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his performance here deservedly garnered him universal acclaim and numerous award nominations; his own natural elegance and charm, as well as his wickedly sly sensibilities, blend into the persona of the troubled director and infuse him with the air of a genteel and lovably eccentric (if somehow vaguely dangerous) man of depth and humor, but he also captures the inner turmoil and confusion that allows this stately veneer to transform suddenly into ugliness and rage.  Providing a rougher, more youthful energy is Brendan Fraser, who also brings his natural personality to the role of Clayton, making it clear from early on that his brutish facade conceals a more sensitive nature than he wishes to reveal. The chemistry he displays with McKellen is palpable and infectious- the two actors became close offscreen, as well- and if his acting skills are not quite the equal of his co-star’s (few can lay claim to that level of ability), he more than makes up for it in heart, and together they are well up to the task of carrying the film.  Rounding out the principal trio is Lynn Redgrave, another English veteran, as the hard-working and hard-edged Hanna, who accomplishes the remarkable feat of embodying what amounts to an over-the-top caricature- an earthier, more modern version, perhaps, of Una O’Connor’s shrilly opinionated housekeeper in Bride of Frankenstein– while still finding the deep humanity that makes her a compelling and viable participant in the story rather than simple comic relief.  Spouting admonishments in a harsh German accent, her expressive face oozes unconcealed disapproval all along the way, but she exudes compassion behind every grotesque grimace; it was, sadly, to be one of her final screen appearances, but for many it was her crowning performance, and it provides a necessary grounding force to the drama.

For those seeking an exposé of Old Hollywood’s dirty secrets or an extensive recreation of its environment, Gods and Monsters is likely to be a disappointment; most of its action takes place within the confines of Whale’s timelessly elegant household, and though the costume and scenic designers have done a fine job of appointing it with the appropriate trappings of the period, these elements take a back seat to the emotional and psychological landscape that is Condon’s main focus.  Even so, there is a short but meticulously realized flashback to the set of Bride of Frankenstein, in which we see Whale in his creative prime, staging the iconic scene of the female monster’s unmasking; and late in the film there is an extended excursion to a garden party honoring the visiting Princess Margaret, hosted by Whale’s fellow gay filmmaker, George Cukor.  In this sequence we are given a brief-but-potent glimpse at the politics of gay Hollywood, where the famously open Whale is treated with wary discomfort by his former colleagues- who, while not exactly closeted, are careful to maintain the semblance of proprietary conformism- and the once respected director is only of interest as a curiosity of the past, posing with his former “monsters” for photos of an uncomfortable and unwanted reunion.  It is at once a nostalgic look at a bygone era and a pointed reminder of Hollywood’s shallow and eternal fickleness.

For obvious reasons, Gods and Monsters has a strong appeal for gay audiences, centered as it is on one of classic cinema’s most well-known homosexual figures; but while Whale’s sexuality is decidedly germane to the plot, and plays a major part in the psychic makeup of his character and the journey he takes, it is not, ultimately, the main concern of Condon’s film.  Rather, like the period accoutrements which establish the movie’s backdrop of time and place, the issue serves as a factor to inform and color the proceedings, which are finally about the universal human need for connection- to the past, to the future, to other human beings, and to one’s own true self.  In a world which relentlessly strives to define us according to the lingering standards of a rigid status quo, those who are different- and we are all different, at heart- face the isolation and shame that comes with the stigma of not fitting in; in this way, at least, Gods and Monsters has much in common with Whale’s aforementioned cinematic masterpieces, which derived much of their power from the outcast monster’s search for acceptance and companionship.  As Condon attempts to make clear, however, Whale is no monster, no matter how much he feels like one, and neither is Clayton; rather, they are misunderstood, great-hearted men, trapped by the conditions of their lives into a cage from which they yearn to be released.  Through their strange communion, they each find the strength they need to free themselves- not from each other, but from within.  It’s a surprisingly spiritual message for a film about an unrepentantly irreligious and iconoclastic artist, but it is the kind of humanistic spirituality that springs from real life experience rather than the esoteric dogma of religious orthodoxy, and it gives the movie an all-encompassing appeal and makes it an accessible, moving experience for any audience- gay or straight, believer or atheist, intellectual or Average Joe.

It’s impossible to say whether James Whale himself would be pleased with Gods and Monsters; though it makes no effort (beypnd a few deliberately constructed fantasy and dream sequences) to emulate his own directorial style- which was full of expressionistic light and shadow, dramatic angles and editing, and a rapid, restlessly fluid camera- it does share his macabre wit and dark sense of irony, and its sympathy most definitely lies- as did his- with those outside the norm, for whom the inhabitants of the everyday world appear hypocritical and cruel.  However, just as Condon’s movie is not really about Hollywood, sexuality, or the 1950s, it is not about James Whale the artist, either; though it uses him as its central character, and uses thematic ties to his work to help tell its story, it could be about any one of us, facing the end alone and desperate for a kindred spirit to help make sense of the fears, the regrets, the doubts and the sorrows that make up the history of our lives.  It doesn’t sound very cheerful, but it offers up some food for thought and reminds us all of the importance of making contact- and thanks to Bill Condon and his magnificent cast, it’s also a lot more fun than you might think.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120684/

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 epic about the controversial military hero who led a successful rebellion by the Arabs as part of the British campaign against their Turkish occupiers during WWI. It’s a film that won 7 Academy Awards, made a star of Peter O’Toole, and is widely proclaimed as the masterwork of its director, David Lean. It’s also my favorite movie. Indeed, my love for it is so deeply rooted that it would be laughable for me to attempt anything like an objective review. However, it would also be unthinkable for me to have a blog dedicated to my passion for movies and not to write about my all-time favorite film; so today’s cinema adventure will be a list of the five reasons why Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest movie ever made. Forgive me in advance: I may gush.

1. The cinematography. The process of making Lawrence of Arabia took place over a grueling three-year period on location in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain. The conditions were punishing, with the cast and crew enduring the extremity of the elements for a longer period than was taken by the historical events depicted in the film. Nevertheless, cinematographer Freddie Young, using the massive and unwieldy cameras required for the film’s 70mm CinemaScope presentation, was able to capture the beauty and majesty of the desert setting to an extent unequalled before or since. The full character of the land is here to see: from the intricate rivulets of blowing sand that make the pristine dunes into a tapestry of constantly changing patterns, to the vast scope of a landscape that seemingly transforms an army of mounted warriors to the size and significance of ants, to the myriad of colors and textures that exist within the deceptively monotonous veneer. By transferring all these subtle details to the screen, Young successfully allows the desert to serve as far more than the mere backdrop it might have been in a lesser film; it plays a full-fledged role in the drama, with the constant assertion of its presence and its ever-shifting mood exerting a continual influence on the actions and the fate of the characters. In a way, Lawrence of Arabia could be characterized as a love story between its eponymous hero and the desert itself; thanks to Freddie Young, the chemistry between them is palpable.

2. The music. French composer Maurice Jarre was not the first choice for the task of creating musical accompaniment for Lean’s epic; he was virtually unknown at the time and was only approached when William Walton (elder statesman of British film composers) and Malcolm Arnold (who had worked with Lean on the highly successful Bridge on the River Kwai) were unavailable. To say he rose to the challenge is an understatement. His sweeping symphonic score is haunting and multi-faceted, from the magisterial strains of the now-familiar main theme to the rousing military marches interpolated throughout, providing the perfect complement to the enigmatic figure at the center of the story and the diverse, turbulent situation that surrounds him. Jarre’s accomplishment was made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only given two weeks to write the entire score; he also reportedly took over leading the orchestra for most of the recording sessions when credited conductor Adrian Boult was unable to coordinate his timing with the cues required by the film’s editing. It was not only the beginning of a long and prolific career as a prominent film composer, but also of a continuing work relationship with Lean that lasted for the rest of the director’s life.

3. The screenplay. Producer Sam Spiegel talked Lawrence’s younger brother into selling him the rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s own published memoir, to use as the basis for the film. A screenplay was written by Michael Wilson that centered on the political and military aspects of the story, but Lean was unhappy with that focus. Playwright Robert Bolt was brought in to rewrite the script instead as an examination of Lawrence himself. The result is a layered and intelligent portrait of one of the century’s most controversial heroes, presenting him as a contradictory figure- an egotist plagued by self-doubt, torn between loyalty to his country and love for the Arab cause, uncomfortable with his own people, haunted by his ignoble origins, and determined to write his own destiny. Bold for its time, the script overtly implies his homosexuality, depicts his torture and presumptive rape at the hands of a sadistic Turkish commander, portrays his sadomasochistic tendencies and includes his eager participation in the bloody massacre of a retreating enemy column. Yet despite this in-depth treatment, and though he is described variously by other characters throughout as everything from a “monster” to a “genius,” he remains as much a mystery at the end as he is at the beginning- and the film’s most urgent question, as voiced to Lawrence across the Suez Canal by a stranger in black near the end of its first act, remains unanswered- “Who are you?” Don’t assume, however, that this microscopic attention to its central character means that Lawrence of Arabia avoids the other subjects that factor into his story; not content to take a simple us-against-them perspective about war, the film presents a shrewdly cynical picture of the complicated agendas being shaped by both the British and their Arabian allies-of-convenience, offering insight on a historical period that laid the foundation for a complex and volatile Middle Eastern political arena that still exists today. Its treatment of the realities of warfare reveals the horror and tragedy that lie beneath the illusion of excitement and glory. Within its sweeping scope, it explores the larger theme of destiny vs. self-determination, not with lofty philosophical discourse, but through the course of events that arise in its story- calling into question whether history is shaped by men whose actions determine it, or whether the men are in fact shaped by the events which determine their actions, indeed whether they ultimately have any more significance or influence than pawns on a cosmic chessboard. In short, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic of the largest stature, encompassing important ideas, momentous events and literally thousands of people- but it is also the intimate, personal story of a single man and his journey of self-discovery. Thanks to the brilliantly literate and insightful work of Mr. Bolt, it works on both levels.

4. The performances. For the leading role, Lean’s first choice was Albert Finney, then a relatively unknown actor, and producer Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando. Both declined, and another unknown actor was eventually chosen- Peter O’Toole. It was the perfect match of actor and role. O’Toole completely owns Lawrence, commanding the screen with his flamboyant charisma and his piercing intensity. He conveys all the complexities discussed above without softening any of it for the sake of audience sympathy, and yet by virtue of his sheer honesty and commitment, his deliciously ironic humor, and- perhaps most of all- his underlying humanity, he makes this maddening, difficult, arrogant man into someone we can admire, pity, identify with, and yes, even like. He is surrounded by a superb all-star cast of international actors, all delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Alec Guinness, one of Lean’s favorite collaborators, plays Prince Feisal, leader of the Arab rebel forces and heir presumptive to their throne, who transitions from warrior to diplomat over the course of the film, and shows us the qualities of both in each. Every word he utters is laden with significance and layered with multiple meanings, and not one of them seems contrived or forced. Anthony Quinn embodies a lion of the desert as Auda abu Tayi, a shrewd and ferocious chieftain who initially allies himself with Lawrence’s rebel army primarily for personal profit, but whose loyalty and support are unwavering. He, too, captures the multiple facets of a potentially despicable character and makes them beautiful, turning Auda into both a lovable rogue and a force to be reckoned with. Omar Sharif, also then an unknown, at least outside of his native Egypt, is magnetic as Sherif Ali, another tribal leader, who clashes with Lawrence early on only to become his trusted comrade and closest friend- and perhaps more. Sleekly handsome, his intelligence and sensitivity make Ali an ideal counterpoint to the earthiness of Auda, and the chemistry he displays with O’Toole is tangible, clearly establishing the subtext that makes their characters’ relationship feel unmistakably like the film’s romantic subplot. Jack Hawkins is deceptively straightforward as General Allenby, the chief commander of British forces in the Arabian campaign, making his bemused, stiff-upper-lip demeanor an effective mask for the calculated, strategic thinking with which he manipulates Lawrence- as well as a shield against the uncomfortable moral implications of his Machiavellian tactics. Veteran character actor Claude Rains delivers one of the film’s most delightful and memorable performances as Mr. Dryden, a composite figure designed to represent the diplomatic forces at work behind the scenes and to serve as a sort of mentor to the younger Lawrence; oozing with mischievous charm, he wears the obvious duplicity of his role in the proceedings like a comfortable shroud, providing contrast with Allenby, and giving the impression of an expert puppet-master proudly enjoying his handiwork. As Col. Brighton, the liaison between the British military authority and the Arab forces, Anthony Quayle gives us the stolid presence of a career soldier, honorable, loyal, brave and more than a little dull- though not unintelligent; he makes an excellent foil for Lawrence’s dazzling shine, and provides a necessary and refreshing flavor of the ordinary. Arthur Kennedy brings a distinctively American perspective to the tale as Jackson Bentley, a cynical Chicago news reporter who documents Lawrence’s campaigns and makes him an international hero- and also serves as a kind of Greek chorus, providing a more objective viewpoint to the action and giving voice to the outrage evoked by the perspective of an outsider. Jose Ferrer makes a brief but unforgettable contribution as the sadistic Turkish Bey who interrogates and tortures Lawrence, exuding an oily, jaded dissipation as he gradually makes it clear that his intentions are not military but sexual in nature; somehow, even this dark character elicits a glimmer of sympathetic humanity as Ferrer embodies him with the full weight of his circumstance, making us feel the frustration and dehumanizing detachment that arise from his duties and his isolation. I could continue down the list of actors, all the way to the extras who provide stunning impressions in their few seconds of screen time, but you get the idea.

5. The direction. By the time he made Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean was already respected for both his technical skill and his aesthetic vision, but this film would elevate him to the ranks of a genuine master, eventually to be held in the same esteem as auteurs like Hitchcock, Fellini and Kurosawa. It’s easy to understand why. Lean constructs his film with a keen instinct for visual storytelling, establishing complicated situations, relationships, and thematic elements, packing an entire scene’s worth of exposition into a single, elegantly composed shot. He makes every location an integral part of the action, whether it is the powerful, ever-changing desert landscape, the interior of a tent swaying uneasily in the breeze, or the austere and museum-like halls of the military headquarters. His command of the imagery is not just limited to artful composition; with the abilities derived from working as an editor throughout his early film career (a role which he continued to personally undertake when he moved into the director’s chair), he meticulously pieces together all of his remarkable footage to create this epic true-life adventure in a way that conveys all the subtleties of both the global and personal levels of the story even when he is painting in broad strokes, and never feels slow for a second, despite the film’s notorious running time of nearly 4 hours. It’s no wonder, then, that Lawrence of Arabia has provided an inspirational blueprint for directors ranging from Stephen Spielberg to David Lynch; Lean’s perfectionism is obvious in every frame, and with it he crafts a movie of dazzling complexity out of simple, economical building blocks put together in just the right way. It’s a textbook example of great filmmaking, and even if Lawrence had been Lean’s only great film (which it certainly was not) it would be enough to ensure his place on the short list of the greatest directors of the 20th Century.

It’s only fair to point out that the movie has had its detractors over the years. Lawrence’s brother deeply regretted selling the rights to the story after seeing the film, protesting that the man portrayed in Lean’s vision bore no resemblance to the one he knew in life (though others who knew Lawrence said the film’s depiction was accurate, if somewhat exaggerated); in addition, the family of chieftain Auda abu Tayi pursued legal action against Columbia Studios over the movie’s representation of him as driven by a desire for personal gain, and the family of General Allenby also lodged formal complaints. Newsman Lowell Thomas (whose coverage of Lawrence and his desert campaign were responsible for making him and his exploits famous) called the movie “pretentious and false,” disparaging its accuracy, and many historians have taken exception to its mixture of fact and fiction; real people are mixed together with fictional composites, events are chronologically rearranged for dramatic purposes, some important occurrences are omitted entirely while complete fabrications are given pivotal significance, and some of the true politics surrounding this important chapter in world history have been significantly altered in order to facilitate Lean’s storytelling agenda. These criticisms are all undeniably valid, from a certain perspective- after all, a movie which purports to offer a true presentation of historical facts would do well to stick to those facts with a minimum of artistic license. However, Lawrence of Arabia is not such a movie. It’s not a documentary, nor is it really even a biographical drama; it is a work of fiction, based on a true story, yes, but not merely a regurgitation of documented information. Lean and screenwriter Bolt are more interested in exploring the personal and political facets of human experience than in offering a retrospective of facts, and they follow in the footsteps of many other artists- Shakespeare among them- by altering the historical truth in order to get at the more intangible truths inside it. It may not offer up a fair portrait of its hero- or any of its other characters, real or imagined, and it may not be a reliable document of what really happened on the Arabian Peninsula in 1917-18, but it is a compelling study of human strength and frailty, an insightful commentary on political and social interaction, and a gripping saga of high adventure in an exotic time and place. Criticizing it for being inaccurate is the equivalent of criticizing a painting for not being a photograph.

Of course, there are those who dislike Lawrence of Arabia for reasons other than its historical inaccuracies. Those too young to remember when movies were shown with an intermission may quail at its length- even theater owners of its time protested, prompting the unfortunate cutting of several scenes, only some of which have since been able to be restored. Others have criticized it as male-centric, citing its lack of feminine presence (no women have speaking roles, and indeed, few females appear onscreen at all); and many have protested, variously, its perceived negative portrayal of native Arabs and its use of western actors in most of the major Arab roles- even Omar Sharif, an Egyptian, was an objectionable choice in many parts of the Middle East. Some have called the film “shallow” (an unbelievable criticism, in my view) or “Imperialist” (equally ludicrous), and still others have simply dismissed it as the outdated product of a bygone era. To these opinions, I can only say that everyone is entitled to their personal tastes, though for those who see the film as having an anti-Arab bias I would have to point out that its portrayal of westerners is hardly complementary, either. For those of us who love Lawrence of Arabia, however, its heartening to know we are in good company- its a film that consistently places in the top ten of most lists of the greatest movies of all time, and the contributions of almost all of its participants is widely considered among the finest work in their respective careers.

If you are among those who have yet to see Lawrence of Arabia, there couldn’t be a better time than now. In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, a painstaking digital restoration has been prepared, returning it to a level of beauty that reportedly even surpasses its pristine, original magnificence. This new version has been screened at several major film festivals and will enjoy a one-day-only theatrical release today (October 4, 2012). If you are lucky enough to be able to get to one of these big-screen presentations, I guarantee you will enjoy an unforgettable cinematic experience. If you can’t make it, though, take heart; it will be released on BluRay for home viewing soon (its already available in the UK), and given the film’s enduring popularity and reputation, you can be assured it will make frequent returns to the big screen- where it was truly meant to be seen and where its full power reveals itself in ways unimaginable in your living room, no matter how sophisticated your equipment may be- for many years to come. If you are anything like me (and if you are reading this, odds are good that you probably are) you will jump at the chance to see it this way, whenever possible. If nothing else, it will remind you that movies, which all too often serve as mere distractions for us in this era of easy access and rapid downloads, are at their best when they are an event- and there are few films more deserving to be treated as an event than Lawrence of Arabia.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056172/

 

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored

For its 50th Anniversary, David Lean’s Oscar-wining masterpiece has been restored to better than its original glory and is being screened for one day only at theaters across the U.S.  This stunningly beautiful movie can only be fully appreciated on the big screen, so if you are free this Thursday (Oct. 4, 2012) and you are reasonably close to one of the locations, I strongly advise you to jump on this rare opportunity to see it the way it was meant to be seen.  You can get tickets at the website below!  Maybe I’ll see you there!

Lawrence of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored.

Bronson (2008)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bronson, the 2008 biopic about England’s most notorious prison inmate, Michael Peterson (who changed his name to Charles Bronson during his brief career as a boxer), whose reputation for violence and trouble-making has led to his having spent the majority of his adult life behind bars- and most of that in solitary confinement.  Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and starring Tom Hardy in the title role, the film takes Peterson’s real-life story and presents it in a highly stylized, theatrical manner, focusing on fictionalized vignettes and incorporating some real-life footage to depict some of the most infamous incidents from his long history.  Rather than a straightforward biography, the movie is more a meditation on the enigmatic nature that causes such antisocial behavior, ultimately leaving its subject’s motivations a mystery and offering no concrete explanation for the impulse towards violence.

Bronson frames its story with a narrative conceit in which Peterson presents his own story, to an unseen but appreciative audience, on a bare stage; in various stages of theatrical make-up, and with a considerable amount of flourish, he gleefully relates his life story, beginning with his childhood as the son of typical middle-class parents in the London suburb of Luton.  Intercutting portrayals of real events with his “performance” in the theater, the film proceeds to relate the general outline of his life.  We see his early marriage to a co-worker who witnesses his first crime (the theft of money from a cash drawer in their shop), his subsequent arrest and incarceration for the armed robbery of a post office, and the continual extension of his 7-year sentence due to his repeated assaults on his guards and fellow inmates.  When frequent transfers to different facilities throughout the penal system fail to curb his violent tendencies, he is declared insane and moved to a mental institution, where despite heavy sedation he nevertheless attempts to murder another patient.  Further transfers lead to further incidents, so he is declared sane and set free.  His return to the outside world is short-lived, however.  After a short career as a fighter in the illegal sport of bare-knuckle boxing (for which, at the suggestion of his promoter, he adopts his new name), a jewelry store robbery lands him back in prison after only 69 days, where he promptly resumes his  escalating cycle of violence, despite showing an interest- and some talent- in art, leading to an ongoing campaign of riots, beatings, and  hostage-taking that continues not only up to the making of the film, but to this day.

The challenge for a filmmaker trying to tell this story is to find a way to avoid making it seem repetitive; Peterson’s life is one brutal fight after another, almost all of which happen in prison cells.  In the screenplay for Bronson, co-written by director Refn with Brock Norman Brock, an elegant solution is found with the bold and decidedly stylized narrative device in which the film’s subject presents his own vision of his life in the “theater of the mind.”  Besides providing a unique means of breaking up the action and offering pithy commentary, this technique creates an almost Brechtian detachment in which, constantly alienated from the story by the obvious artificiality of this conceit, we are encouraged to examine Peterson’s tale with our intellect instead of our emotions; yet, at the same time, by allowing the darkly charismatic criminal to speak for himself, Refn and Brock also make it possible for us to make a connection with him that would be impossible in a more standard approach to his tale.  He is permitted to be polished and eloquent in the spotlight of his fantasy, a stark contrast to the brutish, inarticulate beast we see in the scenes of his real life, and the self-satisfied irony of his performance persona confronts us with a defiantly mocking challenge to our attempts to find reason or logic behind his ferocious nature.  In short, the interstitial theatrics convert the proceedings from a straightforward- if stylish- biographical drama to a somewhat surreal cinematic exploration of the violent mind and its disquieting opposition to the standards of civilized normalcy we take for granted.

Despite this artistic spin, Bronson still struggles with the issue of redundancy; the film’s more concrete depiction of events returns, by necessity, to scenes of its anti-hero beating his handlers to a pulp, making it feel like something of a one-note symphony.  Director Refn, however, a Danish-born wunderkind whose later film, Drive, has firmly established him as an auteur on the rise, manages to find a number of creative stylistic tweaks which prevents the movie from seeming like it is stuck in a loop.  Even when we are not within the clearly marked boundaries of the theatrical framing device, Refn maintains a dreamlike sensibility that keeps us unsure of where we stand in the continuum of reality and illusion; he creates a visually arresting and mentally stimulating atmosphere through his use of bold primary colors, odd lenses and camera angles, and an absurdist perspective in his approach to the mundane aspects of the institutionalized settings.  He varies the environment as much as possible, choosing a number of distinctively different backdrops for Peterson’s myriad brawls and acts of terror (particularly memorable is the re-purposed ballroom that serves as a Fellini-esque purgatory for the scenes in the mental institution) and utilizing a surprisingly diverse assortment of jail cells and common rooms- which has the added effect of underscoring just how many times responsibility for “England’s most violent prisoner” is passed from one facility to another.  Most importantly- and more to Refn’s purpose- the ever-changing backdrops and the hallucinatory sense of heightened reality yield a disorientation that keeps us from anchoring ourselves as we experience Peterson’s journey and, ultimately, reminds us that everything we see here is filtered through the skewed perspective of his mind.

In the center, standing in for the larger-than-life figure himself, is Tom Hardy, making a substantial breakthrough in a career which has since led him to participation in blockbusters such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises.  Given his powerful, commanding performance, it’s no surprise that he has become one of the industry’s most promising stars; his vision of Peterson- with whom he met in person before filming began- is an impressive creation, full of raw, animalistic power (his massive, rock-solid physique contributes greatly in this department) and yet with the spark of considerable native intelligence that makes it impossible to explain away his brutal tendencies as the product of ignorance.  This is a man who knows exactly what he is doing- his violence is a conscious choice, even a calling, and Hardy makes it clear how much pride he takes in it.  What makes his portrayal most effective, perhaps, and in precise tune with Refn’s approach, is the humor he brings to it; ironic, dark and unsettling humor, but effective in helping us into the mind of this flamboyant character.  We may not understand what we find there, but in Hardy’s performance at least, we are captivated by it.  The rest of the performances- small roles, for the most part, reflecting the peripheral nature of others in Peterson’s personal universe- are effective as well, though no one gets much opportunity to shine, save for Matt King as the convict’s fey and seedy former-prison-acquaintance-turned-boxing-promoter and Juliet Oldfield as the young call girl with whom he has a dalliance during his brief taste of freedom.  It’s not meant to be an ensemble piece, however; Bronson is, for all intents and purposes, a one-man show for Hardy, who certainly proves himself up to the challenge.

With such a strong performance to recommend it, showcased in a stylish and visually exciting vehicle by its exceptionally talented director, Bronson succeeds in providing an engaging look at its notorious subject, albeit a highly fictionalized one- numerous facts are significantly altered and others are omitted or made up entirely to suit the purpose of Refn’s vision, which is more along the lines of an expressionist horror film.  The director casts his real-life subject as a sort of monster, though the story is seen from his point of view; Peterson is depicted as a force of chaos, a willful representative of the uncontrollable nature that lurks behind our civilized veneer, and much in the way that Godzilla represented the nuclear demons that lurked in the post-war Japanese zeitgeist, so does this destructive beast stem from our own uneasiness about the wild, untamed impulses surging beneath the surface of our blandly dehumanized society.  Though we struggle to understand the deeper motivations for Peterson’s deranged behavior, he himself offers the simple explanation that he wants to be famous; and in a world where fame and celebrity are the only way to rise above the dull existence of the common throng, it is discomfortingly reasonable to assume that this may, in fact, be the truth.  If he is a monster, he is a monster we have created, and the irony which permeates Hardy’s performance and the film itself aptly underlines this.

Thought-provoking and compelling though this thematic perspective may be, Bronson never really shakes us up in the way other films with a similar take on society have done.  Refn crafts his movie carefully, giving it a distinctive flavor of its own while evoking the memory of such iconic works as Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Lindsay Anderson’s If…, but despite- or perhaps because of- the clear calculation of his vision, in the end the film feels more like an exercise in style than an expression of truth.  Still, that style has considerable appeal, and Bronson, while it may not be gripping, is never boring to watch.  This in itself would earn the film a recommendation, but when Hardy’s deeply committed tour-de-force performance is added into the mix, it’s an irresistible combination.  It may not be a great film, but it offers an exciting early glimpse at the prodigious talent of its two driving forces; both Refn and Hardy are still relatively new in the game, but they seem poised on the brink of long and significant careers, and based on the potential they reveal here, it’s easy to see why.

It should be mentioned that Bronson features a considerable amount of full-frontal nudity, all of it provided by Tom Hardy, thanks to the title character’s penchant for stripping down and covering his body with “war paint” before a brawl.  Depending on your viewpoint regarding such content- and your feelings about Mr. Hardy- this could provide further incentive to schedule a viewing, ASAP.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1172570/

An Englishman in New York (2009)

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Today’s cinema adventure: An Englishman in New York, the 2009 British telefilm which marked the return of John Hurt to the role of noted real-life author/performer/raconteur/gay icon Quentin Crisp. A follow-up to the acclaimed1975 telefilm based on Crisp’s landmark memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, which made Hurt into a star and won him a BAFTA for Best Actor, this modest biopic covers the later years of the famous eccentric’s life, when he became a celebrated resident of Manhattan and a polarizing figure in the continuing struggle for gay rights. While Hurt maintains his customary brilliance in revisiting and expanding his legendary performance, this outing lacks the strong, central drive of the original film, which had the benefit of focusing on Crisp’s early struggle and triumph in asserting his homosexuality and his individuality in the repressive England of early 20th century. Part of the reason is likely that the first outing was built upon the solid ground of Crisp’s superb book, which portrayed his early life and experiences as a personal journey culminating in his courtroom victory blow against the antiquated morality laws which kept most English homosexuals fearfully cringing in the closet; but here, writer Brian Fillis attempts to encapsulate the remarkable life which followed those events into a 90 minute whirlwind, consolidating characters and contriving scenes in order to address key issues and events. To be sure, he has a cohesive purpose- the main focus here is Crisp’s fiercely guarded individuality, which put him at odds with the ongoing gay rights movement and often made him the object of exclusion within his own community (particularly after an infamous remark that AIDS was “a fad”)- and he does an admirable job of creating a portrait of a man who is forced into continuing growth in spite of himself; but the end result is considerably less satisfying than Civil Servant and leaves us wondering about many of the blank spots in between. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to admire this belated sequel, not the least of which is the rich background of late-century New York scenery lending an authentic documentary feel to the proceedings. By far, however, the greatest joy here is the magnificent performance of John Hurt, who once again captures to perfection the physical and vocal character of this legendary figure while simultaneously conveying the depth of emotion and experience which lies beneath that flamboyant exterior; in Hurt’s hands, the affectations of dress and manner become (as they were in real life) an expression of Crisp’s true self rather than a costume proclaiming his refusal to conform. Nevertheless, in spite of the more obvious success of his characterization, it is in the more intimate moments when Hurt’s brilliance as an actor really shines through- his weathered face and soulful eyes wordlessly express volumes, whether he is confronting the thoughtless prejudice of younger gay men or his own mortality. Supporting him are an array of established character actors- Dennis O’Hare, Swoosie Kurtz, Cynthia Nixon- who are never quite allowed to rise above the constraints of the condensed format, although Jonathan Tucker has some nice moments as artist Patrick Angus, whose work was championed into success by Crisp. Overall, though its hard to call An Englishman in New York a worthy successor to the still-lauded Civil Servant, it offers many rewards in its own right; and though it may ultimately contain less insight into Quentin Crisp than the Sting-penned song from which it takes its title, it is still a fitting and necessary epilogue to the story of a man who changed the world by refusing to change himself.

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http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0997057/

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My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: My Week With Marilyn, the wistful 2011 biopic based on Colin Clark’s memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, which detailed the author’s brief relationship with iconic starlet Marilyn Monroe during the turbulent filming of The Prince and the Showgirl with actor/director Sir Laurence Olivier.  Whereas many film biographies attempt to shed light on their subjects by presenting their life in its entirety, this charming true-life romance focuses instead on a short episode, using it as prism to cast insight into the legendary actress and her contemporaries.  As a result, the film has an intimacy and an authenticity lacking in most Hollywood bios, and the narrowing of focus allows the performers to explore the nuances of their real-life characters with much greater depth and detail, heightening the illusion that we are watching real people instead of the larger-than-life caricatures to which we are so often subjected.  Those performers, without exception, rise to the occasion: the entire ensemble clearly relishes its chance to embody this slice of mid-century mythology.  The much-lauded Michelle Williams is largely successful in capturing the enigmatic persona that made Marilyn the biggest star in the world; she gives us the contrasting blend of sensuality and insecurity we expect but infuses it with a humanity that allows us to perceive the underlying causes of her fragility and need for validation, as well as the irresistible charm that won the hearts of so many.  To be sure, her transformation is less than total- her physical attributes are not quite right, and her bearing sometimes seems mote timid than self-assured- but, of course, she is ultimately an actress interpreting a role, not a reincarnation, and as such she deserves much praise for conveying the essence of an oft-imitated woman who was, in fact, inimitable.   Less glamorous, but perhaps even more impressive, is Kenneth Branagh’s work as Olivier which likewise captures the great actor’s outward persona with remarkable accuracy while showing the inner landscape of a man struggling to keep his place at the top in the face of changing standards in the art he has mastered for so long; Olivier was not only an early mentor for Branagh but an actor with whom his own career has often been compared, so he seems well-suited to the daunting task of personifying the legendary thespian- a task which he clearly relishes, recreating Olivier’s physicality and vocal patterns with intimate familiarity with0ut resorting to out-and-out mimicry, and treating his subject with obvious respect even when portraying some of his less attractive facets.   As these two enact their clash of titans, they are surrounded by a host of worthy supporting performances, including Julia Ormond’s brief but canny portrayal of Vivien Leigh, Emma Watson’s decidedly non-Hermoine-esque turn as a wardrobe girl, and the always magisterial Dame Judi Dench as the always magisterial Dame Sybil Thorndike; but special praise should be reserved for Eddie Redmayne, who, stuck with the potentially thankless role of providing a foil for his co-stars, manages also to provide a solid ground for the proceedings by giving a quietly convincing performance as the young film crewman coming of age in the shadow of giants, and never lets us quite forget that this is, after all, his story.  With all this great acting going on, it’s easy to overlook the film’s other pleasures- the meticulous costume and scene design; the rich, golden-hued cinematography by Ben Smithard; the understated archness of the screenplay by Adrian Hodges- all overseen by the steady hand of first-time director Simon Curtis, whose wise approach here is to step back and let all these elements leave their marks without the unnecessary assistance of showy cinematic trickery.  The end result is a movie which, like the famous figure at its center, is lovely, effervescent, and hauntingly sad.  It does not promise nor does it try to present the final word on Marilyn- or Olivier, for that matter- and for that very reason, probably comes closer to giving us a truthful, fair vision of these two legends than any scandal-raking exposé could hope to deliver.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1655420/