Trumbo (2015)

mv5bmjm1mdc2otq3nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0njq1nje-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

When most younger Americans hear the phrase “Cold War,” it likely conjures vague impressions of backyard bomb shelters and spy vs. spy intrigue in far-flung corners of the world; but when confronted with the acronym “HUAC,” odds are good that many of them will be able to come up with nothing more than a blank stare.  That’s a pity, because in today’s political climate, the history of the House Un-American Activity Committee should be an essential cornerstone of our cultural knowledge.  For that reason alone, “Trumbo,” director Jay Roach’s new biopic about the most prominent member of the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” is a must-see.

I won’t go into detail about the anti-Communist hysteria in post-WWII America- after all, this is a film review, not a history lesson.  Suffice to say that Dalton Trumbo was a prominent Hollywood screenwriter, called before congress to answer questions about his affiliations to the American Communist Party.  Standing on his constitutional rights, he refused to cooperate; not only was he convicted of contempt, political pressure on the Hollywood establishment resulted in a blacklist which prevented the hiring of film artists who would not testify before the congressional committee, and he was left with no means to make a living despite being one of the most lauded scribes in the industry.  “Trumbo,” recounts this history, and goes on from there to detail the story of the writer’s determined climb out of the ashes.

John McNamara’s screenplay focuses its attention on the man himself, giving us a whirlwind tour of his 13-year struggle, and intertwining the political with the personal through an emphasis on private scenes- as well as some healthy dashes of humor along the way.  Through the periphery of Trumbo’s story, we are given glimpses of careers destroyed, lives ruined, and good people forced to betray their friends and their ideals.  The result is a film that delivers a timely socio-political warning about governmental overreach, disguised as a safe, middle-of-the-road narrative.

Some might argue that the story of this dark chapter in Hollywood history might be better told by a less “Hollywood” movie.  Even through its darkest moments, we know that the hero will triumph and the powers that oppress him will be vanquished.  Most were not so lucky; their careers were permanently derailed, and the few survivors still had to wait years after the blacklist fell before getting work.  In addition, though it strives to convey the complex ethics of the situation, it paints at least one character (notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) as a clear target for the audience’s moral outrage without offering any satisfactory insight into the motivations which may have driven her.  It should also be said that “Trumbo” “re-arranges” facts for smoother story-telling- standard movie-making procedure, perhaps, but regrettable, nonetheless.

Such quibbling aside, the film delivers a solid, honorable account of a determined man’s journey through darkness.  Contributing to that is a meticulous recreation of the mid-century period, achieved through set and costume designs that convey the passage of time by reflecting subtle changes in the prevailing styles.  More important, though, are the strong performances, provided by an ensemble ranging from familiar Oscar-winners to relative unknowns.  A few standouts: Michael Stuhlberg, portraying actor Edward G. Robinson through suggestion rather than impersonation; John Goodman, hilarious as the no-nonsense producer who employed Trumbo during the blacklist; and Helen Mirren as Hopper, who reveals the tough-as-nails power-player masquerading as a blowsy busybody while still managing to give us glimmers of her humanity- despite the script’s failure to do so.

The impressive cast, however, rightly takes a back seat to Bryan Cranston, who displays his astonishing range with every subtle shift of expression.  He completely inhabits the larger-than-life Trumbo with an authenticity that never makes him seem affected.  He’s a delight to watch- the image of him doggedly typing away in the bathtub is bound to become iconic- but never afraid to show us Trumbo’s ugly side; and despite his exceptional work throughout, he saves the best for his final, moving recreation of a late-in-life speech that and leaves us with a powerful impression of Trumbo’s integrity.

That integrity, of course, is a given from the beginning of the film; but “Trumbo” is not meant to surprise.  It is meant, rather, to retell of a story that should always be retold.  As its postscript reminds us, the Communist witch hunt affected people in all segments of the population, not just members of the Hollywood elite.  Though set in a time gone by, the film is chillingly contemporary; and if paranoia and political opportunism can combine to persecute a wealthy white man, then who is really safe?  It’s easy to point out that none of us are Trumbo- but his story serves as a reminder that he could be any one of us.

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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/

Gosford Park (2001)

Today’s cinema adventure: Gosford Park, the 2001 period mystery-comedy directed by Robert Altman and featuring an all-star ensemble cast in a screenplay by future Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes.  Set on an English country estate in the early 1930s, it uses the familiar premise of an Agatha-Christie-style whodunnit as a pretense to explore the complex social structure and interrelationships among the wealthy landed gentry and the servant class that runs their households, exposing the busy undercurrent of secrets and scandals that flows beneath the genteel and proper surface of upper class British society.  One of Altman’s most successful films, it was popular at the box office as well as with most critics, and it received a number of awards and nominations, including an Oscar for Fellowes’ screenplay, Best Film at the BAFTAs and Best Ensemble Cast (the rough equivalent of Best Picture) from the SAG Awards.

The film takes its title from the name of the estate on which it is set, owned by Sir William McCordle, where a number of guests gather for a weekend hunting party.  Most are relatives or family associates- Lady McCordle’s sisters and their husbands, daughter Isobel’s suitor, a dowager cousin- but among their midst are also a few strangers, including a Hollywood producer named Weissman and noted film star Ivor Novello.  This elite crowd, however, constitutes a minority of the population here in Gosford Park; the household is crowded with an army of servants, bustling around the clock to serve their masters, and their number is increased by the influx of personal valets and maids who attend the estate’s guests.  As the weekend progresses, rigorous adherence to decorum and tradition dominates the outward appearance of this gathering and its festivities, despite the myriad personal agendas, hidden relationships, false pretenses, secret histories, private resentments, and unseen tragedies that exist behind the scenes.  These underlying dramas are unexpectedly brought to the surface when a murder takes place, prompting the intrusion of the local police inspector whose investigation lays bare many of the dirty little secrets on both sides of the class divide- as well as some which cross that inflexible boundary.  The solution to the mystery, masked beneath layers of assumption, convention, and privilege, may be a simple crime of passion or a calculated act motivated by financial gain- or it may ultimately hinge on the conflict between an unjust social system and the most basic impulses of humanity.

Director Altman was known for his explorations of different subcultures (the military in M*A*S*H, the country music community in Nashville, the Hollywood film industry in The Player), using an interwoven tapestry of characters and events to offer social observation and commentary through the prism of these microcosmic settings; by the time of Gosford Park, his reputation was such that he had no trouble securing the impressive collection of collaborators necessary to bring to life this meticulous recreation of Edwardian country life between the wars.  Screenwriter Fellowes, an actor who had (at the time) never previously authored a screenplay, was approached by the director due to his extensive knowledge of the complex workings of the domestic management of the era and the culture of the serving class upon which it all depended; he wrote a script, and served as the film’s technical advisor as well, allowing him to rewrite and hone portions of his work on the set.  As with most of Altman’s films, some of the dialogue was also improvised during filming, particularly in the scenes involving a large group of actors, lending an authenticity to the sound of the conversations and contributing to the overall feel that we, the audience, are eavesdropping upon the characters’ private lives; even so, under Fellowes’ guidance, the entire, sprawling saga is united with a cohesive singularity of purpose and consistency of style, providing the master director a solid structure upon which to build his own vision.

Altman’s signature format, in which a focused perspective is imposed upon an almost documentary approach to the narrative, at first might seem a bit ill-suited to a costume piece like Gosford Park; we are conditioned by experience to expect a more theatrical presentation in films such as this.  However, the Altman treatment works brilliantly here, particularly given the director’s purpose; like all of his films, Gosford Park is less concerned with plot (though the story is intricately woven and ultimately, very compelling) than it is with its characters and its observations of human behavior.  Like a fly on the wall, we are privy to the public and private interactions of the denizens of this estate and their guests, but these exchanges seem part of a bigger landscape, as if they were individual trees or a babbling brook in a painting of a countryside; in other words, the concerns of the characters are details which contribute to the more significant whole, a complete portrait of a way of life.  The details of a nobleman’s financial schemes or backstairs dalliances are granted no more importance than the polishing of the silver for dinner service; indeed, the mundane details of this rarefied lifestyle are far more interesting to Altman than the various worldly concerns of the characters, and, thanks to his careful choices in focus, he makes them so for us, too.

In keeping with his detached observational technique, the director similarly places emphasis on the intricacies of his characters’ behavior and personalities.  Each individual is seen in relation to the others, illuminating their social roles and the subtleties of the relationships between the various subdivisions, even within the two primary groups.  Money, status, seniority, tradition, convention- all these and more play a part in determining the “pecking order,” and the rules of this rigid structure far outweigh any considerations based on emotion or concern for humanity; there is no tolerance for those who forget or disguise their rightful place in the order of things, and the public display of passion, particularly when it crosses the sacred class boundaries by which the entire cultural system is governed, is a greater transgression of decency and decorum than a discreetly-executed murder.  It is this obsession with maintaining appearances, of keeping all the warts and wrinkles of being human out of sight at all cost, that ultimately emerges as the over-reaching theme of Gosford Park; it is also seen, by microcosmic implication, as the mechanism for the looming downfall of this ponderous, antiquated way of life- for in the deeply buried untidiness of past scandal lies the seed of the consequence which rises from the well-hidden, forgotten depths to strike a blow against the entrenched injustice of the entire system.  In this way, despite its almost reverent depiction of an ultra-conservative world in which even the most downtrodden are contemptuous of change, Gosford Park manages to echo the anti-establishment sentiment usually associated with Altman’s work.

Such socio-political conclusions are left, however, to be drawn (or not) by the viewer; Altman adopts an objective eye, almost like a field researcher doing an anthropological study.  He records the events of the weekend with a slowly moving camera, lingering here or there to pick up an interesting detail or reveal a fact which might not be apparent to the passing eye, and trusting Fellowes’ words to carry the narrative, along with any thematic elements that may be present.  Of course, it falls to the cast to bring life to the script and give the director the behaviors with which to fill his lens; and the collection of superb actors on display in Gosford Park does so magnificently, capturing every subtle nuance of their roles and deftly providing an ocean of subtext without ever disturbing the naturalistic atmosphere that is Altman’s milieu.  Most of these players are experienced in theatre, which serves them well as Altman allows his focus to move freely amongst the characters the way the eye travels around the stage at a live performance; as they conduct their conversations, steal their glances at each other, clear the table, pour the sherry, and all the other living activities on display at a dinner party, the audience may or may not be watching- they must be “on” at all times, regardless.  They speak realistically, often overlapping dialogue and talking simultaneously, as Altman shrewdly hovers just long enough to permit us to hear the crucial bits; and in the smaller scenes, depicting the private moments spent alone or in pairs, though the emphasis is often on what is seen and what is left unsaid rather than what is spoken, the vital information is communicated, nevertheless, through the minutest of gestures and expressions.  It’s an impressive collection of performances, one of the finest examples of true ensemble screen acting in recent memory.

This incomparable cast includes a mix of actors, from the legendary to the unknown, all of whom deliver exemplary performances; a few stand out, deserving special nods, not so much because they are superior but because their roles give them the chance to shine individually. Most noticeable, perhaps, is the always delicious Maggie Smith as a snobbish and acid-tongued dowager countess (foreshadowing her Emmy-winning role in Fellowes’ wildly successful Downton Abbey series a decade later); Helen Mirren exudes the anonymous perfectionism and the crisp, selfless honor of a lifetime in service, and late in the film releases an unforgettable flood of repressed humanity that drives home everything Gosford Park is about; Michael Gambon, as the misanthropic lord of the manor, and Kristin Scott-Thomas, as his icy and discontented wife, personify the insulated ennui of the inconceivably wealthy-and-powerful upper class; Stephen Fry has a remarkable turn as the police inspector, turning the familiar stock character of this genre on its ear by being dull and sycophantic instead of brilliant and unflappable; Emily Watson gives us a portrait of youth and good nature being bent by servitude towards frustration, bitterness and cynicism, putting a human face on the socially-sanctioned exploitation of the serving class; and relative newcomer Kelly Macdonald is charming and likable as the deceptively naive young ladies’ maid who provides our window of access into the austere and intimidating world of the film.  Also lending the weight of their presence are such thespian luminaries as Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, and Charles Dance; a newer generation asserts itself through the work of Clive Owen and Jeremy Northam, and representing the American contingent are the stalwart Bob Balaban and the handsome Ryan Phillippe, as the film producer and his valet, respectively, present for the purpose of researching an upcoming movie project and concealing a number of secrets in their own right.

The three-way combination of director, screenwriter, and cast is supported by a top-notch assembly of technical and visual elements; filmed on location at several authentic English country houses and a painstakingly constructed soundstage set at Shepperton Studios, the atmosphere of Gosford Park is so completely realized that we are wholly transported to this bygone place and time.  The sumptuous production design executed under the supervision of the director’s son, Stephen Altman, and the dazzling array of costumes, designed by Jenny Beavan, all captured by the rich cinematography of Andrew Dunn- these contributions help to make the movie a total immersion in the period it portrays.  Completing the effect is the wistfully nostalgic score by Patrick Doyle, evoking the sadness of a dying age, and rounded out by the inclusion of several songs by the real-life Ivor Novello, performed exquisitely by actor Northam, both on camera and off.

With the popularity of the aforementioned Downton Abbey, many will no doubt be drawn to this previous work by its author; it should be noted that, though the intricacies of English country life are depicted with the same painstaking accuracy as in Gosford Park, the tone here is much different than in the hit series.  Altman’s style and purpose are far removed from the tone of fond admiration which pervades Downton, and his characters are less likely to incur our affections and loyalties than those to be found on Lord Grantham’s estate.  As with all of the director’s work, Gosford Park is not for every taste- the cool detachment, the oddly stylized naturalism, the oblique and almost passive-aggressive social criticism, the ironic and oh-so-dry humor, and- perhaps most of all- the constantly roving focus that makes it difficult to anchor one’s emotional perspective in the story; these are all common obstacles for many viewers who dislike Robert Altman films, and they are certainly present here.  Conversely, fans of the director’s work may be turned off by the movie’s cloistered atmosphere, a far cry from the more free-wheeling, overtly colorful setting of his usual, decidedly American subjects.  Nevertheless, Gosford Park is one of Altman’s most accessible pictures, appealing to a wide range of audiences that might not otherwise be appreciative of his sometimes obtuse approach.  In some ways his most atypical project, and in others a quintessentially Altman creation, it cannot be termed his masterpiece, by any means, but it must be ranked highly in his canon as one of his most successful films in terms of overall accomplishment of its intended goals.  Taken independently from Altman’s other work, it certainly stands as a prime example of what can happen when style, content, and execution come together so coherently that the end result is as polished and nearly perfect as a film can be.  For my part, Gosford Park is the kind of movie that makes me remember why I love movies; even if it’s not your cup of tea (to use an apt expression), it’s worth a look just to see what happens when genuine cinematic teamwork makes all the pieces fit as neatly as a good butler’s tuxedo.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0280707/

Excalibur (1981)

Today’s cinema adventure: Excalibur, John Boorman’s 1981 filmic retelling of the mythic life of King Arthur, rendered against a lush backdrop of Irish locations and featuring a host of future stars before they became familiar faces.  It was a moderate hit at the box office, despite the mixed reviews of critics who praised its visual style but expressed bewilderment over its handling of the Arthurian legends; subsequent reviewers have gained an appreciation for its unique style, however, and not only has it grown in popularity among fans of the fantasy genre (over which it has exerted considerable influence), it is considered by many literary scholars and mythological experts to be the most faithful and definitive screen representation of its subject to date.

Boorman had wanted to make an Arthurian film since before his success with the thriller Deliverance in 1972, albeit focusing more specifically on Arthur’s mentor, Merlin; he presented his ideas to United Artists, who instead offered him the job of making a film version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings.  Agreeing to the challenge, he collaborated with Rospo Pallenberg on a screenplay for a three-hour adaptation of the classic, as well as creating extensive preliminary designs for the film.  The studio, however, passed on it, having decided the project was too costly. Boorman attempted to sell other studios on the film, but to no avail; however, he was able to secure sufficient interest from backers to revive his Merlin idea. With Pallenberg as co-writer once more, he fashioned the screenplay for Excalibur, and eventually incorporated many of the design concepts from the aborted Rings project to bring his Arthurian vision to life.  Drawing mostly from Thomas Malory’s epic 16th-Century romance, Le Morte d’Arthur, with some elements added from other early versions of the tale- as well as a few original twists of their own- their script is a stripped-down narrative of the archaic British legend, focusing on the key themes of its mythology- the transition from the brutality of the Dark Ages to a more enlightened time of justice and chivalry, the passing of old pagan beliefs with the rise of the Christian faith, the connection between the well-being of the land and its king, and the legend’s parallels with the Christ story.

The film chronicles the Arthurian tale from before its hero’s birth, depicting the rise and fall of his father, Uther, who, with the help of the mysterious necromancer, Merlin, unites the divided land and becomes its king, only to be defeated and overthrown as a result of his selfishness and lust; the sword of power, Excalibur, is driven into a stone, able to be removed only by his rightful successor, and Merlin spirits away his only child to be humbly and anonymously raised in secret.  When the boy grows to maturity, his destiny unfolds; he draws the sword from the stone, becoming the unlikely king, and is tutored in the ways of rulership by Merlin, who has reappeared to continue his shepherding of mankind into a more enlightened future.  In time, Arthur re-unites and brings peace to the land, establishing justice and a code of chivalry, and creating a fellowship of champions to represent these ideals- the Knights of the Round Table; along the way he wins the love of Guenevere, who becomes his queen, and Lancelot, who becomes his best friend and greatest knight- but therein lies the seed of doom for the utopia he has built, for their eventual betrayal of their king will tear the land apart, leaving it vulnerable to the dark ambitions of the sorceress Morgana, Arthur’s jealous half-sister.  The saga ultimately leads to the redemption of Arthur’s dream, through the quest for the Holy Grail, and his final battle with the forces of his bastard son, Mordred, and reaches its bittersweet conclusion with the heroic king’s final mystic voyage to the Isle of Avalon, where he will wait until the world is ready once more to welcome his vision of peace.

This epic tale has found expression in countless works of fiction throughout the centuries, but a comparatively small number of films have dealt with it, and even fewer have attempted to tackle the story in its entirety.  It’s easy to understand why: though it is full of possibilities for adventure, romance, and drama, it is highly esoteric at its core, rich with symbolic content that makes a literal screen depiction somewhat problematic.  To be sure, there are many possible approaches to the material which can bypass these elements; but when stripped of deeper meaning, the stories seem, well, pretty cheesy.  Boorman, however, takes the opposite approach with Excalibur– far from downplaying or obscuring the archetypal connections of the myth, he places his focus squarely on them.  The pageant of the story’s familiar events moves by quickly, depicted with indelible imagery and loaded with the kind of clanging medieval action that we expect from such a movie, but infused throughout with a deliberate awareness of its thematic essence; each episode plays like a ritual, enacted for the purpose of illuminating the spiritual and psychological experience it represents.  The “Dark Ages” in which the story takes place are clearly not based in a factual period, but are rather a manifestation of the collective unconscious, a dream-world in which the artistic imagination is unfettered by concerns of historical accuracy or temporal logic.  Boorman’s vision incorporates both the realistic and the fantastical, blending authenticity of detail with wild stylization in his depiction of costumes and armor, weaponry and technology, architecture, and even geography.  All these factors are represented by a mix of designs that spans some 500-odd years of period style, a deliberately anachronistic conceit intended to remind us that we are witness to an idealize fantasy and not a recreation of a specific era.  He further elaborates this meta-reality by enhancing it with his trademark emphasis on the primal power of nature, as well as with an extensive use of back-lighting and reflected colors to evoke a surreal, other-worldly aura; and as he moves the narrative towards its climax, he progressively blurs the line between reality and dreams, so that by the end, the two have become one and the same.

Although Boorman’s film is designed to elucidate the inner mechanics of its source material, his intention is not to provide an academic experience; his purpose goes far beyond a desire to illustrate the coded significance of a classic myth for an audience already familiar with its meaning.  Instead, Excalibur is an attempt to translate this antiquated story for modern consumption, to stimulate a kind of communion in which contemporary viewers can share the revelations within and experience them as relevant to their own lives.  To this end, the director uses all his cinematic skills to convey the universally understandable human element of the tale even as he unmasks the hidden principles underpinning it; he removes all but the most important episodes of the epic saga, distilling it into a document of the emotional arc experienced by the characters as they progress through its momentous events.  Consequently, the film creates a delicate balance between its larger-than-life atmosphere and the intimacy with which its key figures are portrayed.  It’s a disconcerting effect, to be sure- Arthur and his comrades converse in an odd combination of lofty speech and familiar banality, seeming at once to be both elevated and de-mystified versions of the archetypes they personify, and the visual interpretation of the tale evokes both the romanticized pageantry of an illuminated manuscript and the garish gore of a Hammer horror movie.  Doubtless this odd approach, which makes for a film that seems reverent and iconoclastic at the same time, accounts for the initial confusion of critics who saw Boorman’s film as a stylistic mess; but on a visceral level, it works exactly as the director intended, allowing audiences to access the story on both a metaphoric and a personal level.  In some ways, Boorman’s film is reminiscent of the work of Kurosawa and other masters of the Japanese cinema, presenting his epic of a mythic realm with a stunning visual approach that captures both the timelessness of its powerful symbolism and the immediacy of its underlying human story with equal power. For some, it may be disconcerting to see this legendary tale- perhaps the most seminal story in modern western culture- being presented in the milieu of a Samurai film, and the jarring contrasts inherent in the movie’s dual purpose may strike certain viewers as vaguely ridiculous, as if there had been a sudden invasion by members of the Monty Python troupe; but for those who can get themselves in tune with Boorman’s somewhat unorthodox vibe here, his vision yields remarkable riches.

Excalibur’s visual realization of the Arthurian world is, of course, the film’s most universally acclaimed feature. Boorman has drawn inspiration from the classic chivalric paintings of the Romantic era, as well as from his obvious passion for technical accuracy in his depiction of medieval warfare; the result is another level of contrast which infuses his movie with both ethereal beauty and barbaric cruelty. The striking and imaginative costumes merge prehistoric, pagan, courtly and even space-age styles for a highly distinctive and fantastical look, while the settings are a splendid mix of the highly theatrical and the naturalistic. Much of the film was shot on location at various real-life castles and ruins, and for the interior scenes, elaborate soundstage sets were built, using highly theatrical designs, as well as mirrors and matte paintings to create an even more expansive feel. The extensive forest scenery, most of which was located within a mile of Boorman’s home in Ireland, is all genuine; lush and verdant, it has a preternatural beauty that goes a long way towards making “the Land” into a viable character in the film. Extensive rain during production helped keep the locations vibrant, and the natural magic of the setting was enhanced by being back-lit with green to bring even more color into the scene. As captured by the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Alex Thompson, the entire package is a breathtakingly gorgeous feast for the eyes, full of unforgettable imagery.

As for Boorman’s cast, it was comprised by mostly unknown or little known actors- at least, they were at the time. Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciarán Hinds all made early appearances is supporting roles, and each of them stands out in their few minutes (or less) onscreen.  The beautiful Cherie Lunghi brings a disarming contemporary charm to Guenevere, making this complex feminine icon into a believable, understandable human being- no small feat, considering the multitude of differing feminine attributes she must represent in the story.  Nicholas Clay is stiff but sincere (and supremely handsome) as Lancelot, embodying the character’s soon-to-be-tarnished moral purity and suitably conveying the strength- if not the depth- of his passion for both his lover and his friend.  In the crucial role of Arthur is Nigel Terry, whose most prominent big screen performance prior to this was as one of the scheming princes of The Lion in Winter over a decade before; he has an Everyman simplicity that makes him an ideal stand-in for this common man’s king, bringing candor and humility to the role while also rising to the task of conveying the hero’s substantial nobility and determination, and though at times his delivery borders on being a bit awkward, the honesty of his performance shines through his expressive eyes throughout, accomplishing one of the film’s primary purposes by making this towering mythological figure touchingly and accessibly human.

The center ring in Excalibur, however, is occupied by two electrifying performers who, although they technically play supporting roles, are definitely the star attraction.  Helen Mirren, already a renowned stage actress, with a few notable roles onscreen, was nevertheless mostly unknown to film audiences in 1981; but as Morgana- the duplicitous sorceress who engages in a duel of wits and a battle of wills with the powerful Merlin as she plots to usurp her half-brother’s kingdom through witchcraft, incest, and deceit- she took a major step forward in becoming a recognizable force to be reckoned with.  She gives a deliciously theatrical performance, brimming with raw sexuality, barely concealed contempt, and an almost child-like transparency, and if at times she seems over-the-top, she is positively subtle in comparison to her co-star.  That position is occupied by Nicol Williamson, at the time the film’s biggest star, with whom Mirren exhibits a palpable antipathy; the pair had developed a strained relationship while starring together in a stage production of Macbeth and were not on speaking terms, but each accepted their roles without knowing the other had been cast- and the resultant fireworks give their screen time together an intensity that would be impossible to fake.  As electric as they are together, though, it’s still Williamson’s show.  As Merlin, he is magnificently outrageous; sporting a chrome skull-cap that makes him look as much like Ming the Merciless as the archetypal wizard he portrays, he chews the scenery with gusto, careening madly between blatant comedy and deadly serious intensity, declaiming his dialogue with a clipped, eccentric panache that helps to burn his numerous memorable lines instantaneously into the brain.  Off-kilter and alien, he seems like the product of another reality- which of course, he is- but underneath his potentially off-putting manic demeanor he is so endearing, so compassionate, so loving, that we cannot help but like him.  Somehow, he makes Merlin the most human character in the film; and though Boorman’s original plan to center his Arthurian epic on this mystical personage evolved into a more all-encompassing view of the tale, Williamson makes certain that he is still the most distinctive and memorable figure onscreen.

There are so many things I could go on about in this discussion of Excalibur: the battle choreography, the willingness to explore such esoterica as the concept of the Holy Grail, the brilliant and stirring use of classical music by Wagner and Orff alongside the original score of Trevor Jones.  Ultimately though, these things are best discovered through a viewing of this odd and underappreciated classic, not by reading about them here.  It’s probably clear by now that Excalibur is one of my personal favorites; this admission, however, should not stand as a disclaimer against my personal bias, but rather as a testimony to the greatness of the film.  Quibbling about stylistic issues is perfectly understandable, but in the long run, if you take Excalibur on its own terms, you cannot help but find that it is moving, exciting, funny, sad, and spectacular, and that not only does it stick in your brain for a long time afterwards, it holds up well and reveals new surprises on repeated viewings. That’s a pretty powerful recommendation in itself, but if you need more incentive, consider this: the story of Arthur and his knights is one of the most important influences there is on our culture.  Many of the underlying tenets of our modern world view are derived from it, the kind of concepts we take so completely for granted that we don’t even think about questioning their validity or where they came from; yet a majority of contemporary people have merely a passing knowledge of this landmark tale, derived from such popular culture manifestations as Disney’s The Sword in the Stone or the musical Camelot, which may have certain charms in their own right but do little towards encapsulating the majestic scope of their original source.  John Boorman has given us a worthy rendition of the story here, preserving the integrity of its core significance while setting it in a form which allows it to live for an audience of today.  at could be wrong with taking a glimpse at this shared cultural dream of our past, perhaps to gain a little understanding of where we have come from, and why we have made the journey?  After all, a myth is like a road map, allowing us enrich our lives today with the knowledge gained by those who came before us.  It can only be beneficial to revisit Arthur and his once-and-future kingdom of Camelot, especially in a form as vital and exhilarating as this film; there are lessons worth remembering here, and in the words of the king’s wise and trusted teacher, “it is the doom of men that they forget.”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/