The Sense of an Ending


Jim Broadbent may be stalking YOU.

(2017) Romance (CBS) Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter White, Hilton McRae, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Andrew Buckley, Karina Hernandez, Nick Mohammed, Charles Furness, Guy Paul, Alexa Davies, Dorothy Duffy, Kelly Price. Directed by Ritesh Batra

 

Our memories are in many ways what shape us; they are the filter of our experiences and our means of recalling the important things in our lives both positive and negative. As any police detective will tell you however memory is notoriously unreliable; we have a tendency to bury the unpleasant ones and often change facts to suit our world view. Confronted with the things that actually happened to us, our memories can turn out to be a fragile, ephemeral thing.

Tony Webster (Broadbent) is retired and spends his days running a used camera shop in London, one of those delightful niche shops that give London character. He is a bit of a curmudgeon who compared to most shopkeepers doesn’t really want to be bothered by actual customers; they tend to throw a monkey wrench into his carefully organized existence which he protects like a mama bear with her cubs. He has an existence largely removed from the world and that’s very much by choice.

He is essentially a jovial sort on the surface but a bit of a dodderer, enough to be the source of rolling eyes for his barrister ex-wife Margaret (Walter) and his pregnant lesbian daughter Susie (Dockery) who is preparing to embark on single motherhood. Both feel genuine affection for the man (Margaret keeping his last name even though they’re long divorced) but he can be exasperating at times.

Then he gets a letter from a solicitor announcing that the mother (Mortimer) of an ex-girlfriend has passed away, bequeathing to him a small sum of money and more important to Tony, the diary of his ex-friend Adrian (Alwyn). He is reminded of his college days when he (Howle) and Veronica (Mavor) were a thing and Adrian was his closest friend and a person he looked up to with almost a sense of hero-worship. However when Veronica ends up dumping Tony in favor of Adrian, the young Tony writes a poisoned pen letter to the both of them that ends up with tragic consequences.

Now the aged Veronica (Rampling) isn’t willing to part with the diary and Tony isn’t willing to let it lie on general principles (“She willed it to me. It belongs to me” he whines) and  so he pursues legal recourse but possession is nine tenths of the law and in any case no constable is going to force a grieving daughter to give up a diary that she doesn’t want to. Without other recourse, Tony decides to take matters into his own hands and starts stalking Veronica and discovers that what happened in his past isn’t exactly what he thought happened and his own role in events was not what he remembered.

Based on a novel by Julian Barnes, this is directed at a somewhat stately pace by Batra who has also helmed the excellent The Lunchbox. In some ways this has a Merchant-Ivory vibe to it, not necessarily because some of it is set in the past but more the literary feel to the film as well as content that appeals to a more mature, thinking person’s audience.

The smartest thing Batra did was casting Jim Broadbent. One of the most reliable actors of our time, Broadbent – who has an Oscar nomination on his resumé – is given a complex character to work with and to his credit gives that character further dimension. Tony has a heavy streak of self-deception in his nature and Broadbent humanizes that aspect of the part. When confronted with his behavior, I do believe Tony doesn’t realize he’s done anything wrong and he is surprised when others think so. He simply doesn’t understand why Veronica behaves towards him as she does. He may not even realize that he opened a second-hand camera shop due to her influence (she was a photographer when he met her and her love for Leica cameras stayed with him to this very day) although I suspect he does.

Rampling is fresh off an Oscar nomination of her own and while this is a much different role for her, she reminds us what a capable actress she always has been and continues to impress with roles that in lesser hands might have ended up being one-dimensional or at least possessed of less depth. Veronica has been visited by tragedy that Tony simply doesn’t understand and it has haunted her the remainder of her days.

The movie won’t appeal much to those looking for escape or for those who may lack the seasoning to appreciate the movies nuance. In my own taste I don’t think there is such a thing but I have to say that it may be too nuanced for some. While I generally recommend reading a book to watching a movie in most cases, this has a very literary feel that I find refreshing in a day and age when movies tend to rely more on CGI and star power.

The film is a bit flawed in the sense that its twist is heavily telegraphed although to be fair the book this is based on is told chronologically so in a sense that follows the book as well although the movie relies on flashbacks more so than the book. What makes the movie worth seeing is the character study particularly of Tony; Broadbent gives us plenty of meat to chew on from that standpoint.

Definitely if you are in the mood for a mindless blockbuster this isn’t where you want to go but if you are in the mood to have something appeal to your intellect, if you want a slice of English life or if you just want to watch some fine acting this is a pretty good selection in that category. It’s definitely flawed but Broadbent and Rampling are both so wonderful that they make even a flawed movie seem like great art.

REASONS TO GO: Broadbent and Rampling deliver strong performances as you might expect.
REASONS TO STAY: This is probably not for younger audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as an image of violence, a bit of sexuality and mature thematic concerns.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer and Goode were previously featured together in Woody Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 45 Years
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Six Rounds

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Assassin’s Creed


Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

(2016) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, Matias Varela, Callum Turner, Carlos Bardem, Javier Gutiérrez, Hovik Keuchkerian, Crystal Clarke, Michelle H. Lin. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Is free will all it’s cracked up to be? What is free will, after all, if the decisions you make are uninformed? Is it better to have someone make our decisions for us for the greater good? Or is it better that we have our own free will even if our decisions tend to be rendered by self-interest and disregard for others?

Convicted murderer Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is about to be executed. Never mind that he witnessed his father (Brian Gleeson) murder his mother (Davis) in cold blood without explanation, he turned to crime on his own and for his crimes he will pay. Except that he wakes up – not in heaven, but in a strange corporate facility where Dr. Sofia Rikkim (Cotillard) informs him that he’s still alive and about to take part in a procedure that will tap his genetic memories. Memories of ancestors, or in this case of a specific ancestor – Aguilar (Fassbender) who was an assassin – excuse me, Assassin – who alone knows the location of an artifact called the Apple of Eden.

This is all a part of an ages-old feud between two warring factions, the Templars and the Assassins, each fighting for their philosophy of free will versus control. Think of the Assassins as Chaotic Good while the Templars are the Lawful Evil. In any case, the Apple of Eden contains the genetic DNA of free will; he who controls it can modify human behavior – eliminate violence altogether, says Dr. Rikkim. Oh boy!

The means of doing that is through a machine called the Animus in which Callum can inhabit the body of Aguilar, see what he sees and utilize his skills which, as it happens, he retains when he comes back into his own body. There’s also a robotic arm on the Animus which allows Callum/Aguilar to do all sorts of nifty parkour moves.

The problem is as it always seems to be is that not everything is what it appears to be. Dr. Rikkim seems to have the best intentions, but what of her industrialist father (Irons) and the haughty patrician lady Ellen Kaye (Rampling)? And when it turns out that Callum’s hated father (Brendan Gleeson) is in the facility, a reckoning is sure to follow.

Like many movies based on videogame franchises, the basic appeal is going to be to the gamers who are familiar with the game and know the mythology behind it. Those of us who aren’t familiar with the game are going to have a hard time navigating this movie which is convoluted and over-complicated. The latter two traits actually work in favor for a videogame; gamers want a complex game to navigate because that maintains their interest.

The visuals are compelling for the most part although there’s a tendency for the scenes set in the Inquisition to be overlighted and a bit washed out. Scenes that are set outdoors don’t look it and I have to think that’s because the CGI is insufficient to the task. Nothing takes you out of a movie faster than scenes that don’t look real. Also, I understand that the Eagle that appears several times in the movie is a game thing, it seemed overused to me and also looked badly animated.

The stunts however were mind-blowing, some of the best of the year. While I thought that the best one (involving a more than 100 foot free fall, a stunt not attempted for a Hollywood film for more than 30 years) should not have appeared in the trailer when it does show up in the film it’s no less breathtaking.

One doesn’t go to this kind of film for the acting, but given the pedigree of the cast including some of the finest actors in the world (i.e. Fassbender, Cotillard, Irons and Gleeson senior) the performances show that they were at least attempting to do their best. Stiff upper lips must have been needed given some of the things they had to do and say here, but one can’t fault the cast here for the film’s shortcomings.

It is ironic that the theme here champions free will and yet the medium is a movie, which is essentially a passive enterprise in which the audience simply accepts the vision and viewpoint of the filmmaker as opposed to the videogame in which the player makes choices. The audience here makes none other than whether or not to walk out halfway through. What we have here is another failed attempt by Hollywood to make a hugely popular videogame into a movie franchise; perhaps they should stop trying.

I’m not against videogames or videogame adaptations – far from it. I’m just against bad adaptations. I would love to see a film adaptation that actually does justice to a game and I know it can be done. It just hasn’t really been up to now for any franchise not called Resident Evil. Hopefully at some point we will see one – just not today.

REASONS TO GO: The stunts are incredible. The cast at least take the material seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly complex and convoluted. All of the outdoor scenes look like they were filmed indoors in a simulation of late afternoon.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect with a videogame adaptation there is a ton of violence, some adult thematic elements and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was given a completely unique plot rather than bringing one of the videogames to the screen (there are nine of them in the Assassin’s Creed franchise) and Ubisoft has stated that all of their big screen films will have separate storylines from their games.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tomb Raider
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Fences

45 Years


Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are up next on Dancing With the Stars.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are up next on Dancing With the Stars.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley, Sam Alexander, Richard Cunningham, Hannah Chalmers, Camille Ucan, Rufus Wright, Max Rudd, Kevin Matadeen, Paul Goldsmith, Peter Dean Jackson, Martin Atkinson, Alexandra Riddleston-Barrett, Rachel Banham, Michelle Finch. Directed by Andrew Haigh

There are things in a marriage, events of one’s past that our spouse isn’t aware of. Not because we want to keep it from them, but simply because it hasn’t come up. However, there are things we keep from our husband or wife intentionally, perhaps because we’re ashamed of it or because we want to keep that part of ourselves to ourselves. However, one thing is clear; without transparency, pain beckons.

Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary and they’re throwing a big party at a banquet hall in their native Norfolk. The misty grey mystery of that part of England makes for cozy cuddle weather and although the two are getting on in years, they haven’t lost the desire for one another. They don’t have any children but they do have plenty of close friends so all in all one has to say they lead a good life.

Then word comes of a discovery that directly involves Geoff’s past, before he’d even met Kate. The ripple effect is like a tsunami hitting their relationship; Kate discovers that her husband had kept things from her, things that have affected their relationship

As the days count down towards the big party, subtle changes begin to occur in their relationship. Geoff takes up smoking again, something he promised Kate he’d stopped forever. He becomes sullen, withdrawn and obsesses over the pictures he has found of an old girlfriend in the attic. She starts to snoop into his past and the hurt slowly changes her view as to how stable the relationship really is. As the party starts, Kate is beginning to wonder who the man she married truly is – and whether or not she wants to stay married to him at all.

Let me take the suspense out of this review – this movie is extraordinary and is truly a must-see for any lover of the cinematic arts. Rampling delivers a performance that is simply sensational. She does so much of her acting here with her facial expressions and her eyes and less with the dialogue. Sometimes a whole range of emotions plays over her expressive face in a matter of moments, expressing Kate’s thoughts far more effectively than dialogue. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved and while she didn’t win the statuette, she more than deserved to.

Courtenay is equally sensational. He spends much of the movie hunched over, drawn into himself and slowly he unwinds during the course of the film, becoming less hunched and more straight as if the revelation of his secret is slowly freeing his soul. In many ways, he’s reverting to a younger self in the movie with all the ridiculousness that implies. Geoff is not a bad man but he is a flawed man.

Haigh is a gifted director and really flowers here, the movie seemingly capturing a plethora of seasons during the course of the four days that the movie takes place over. He utilizes bad weather, a common occurrence in Norfolk, to great effect, the wind and the rain becoming part of the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, he peppers it with some wonderfully-chosen tunes from the 60s and 70s.

The movie, which is based on a short story by David Constantine, benefits from a beautifully written script. The dialogue is realistic; Kate and Geoff talk like a married couple that has been together for 45 years and their friends talk like real people as well. This feels like an unflinching look inside a real marriage. It’s occasionally uncomfortable – neither of the protagonists are perfect and neither one does the right thing all the time. But as the movie comes to an end, you sense a turning point has been reached and hard questions remain to be asked. What the answers will be are not necessarily the ones that either of the main characters – or those of us following them – wants to hear.

This is an amazing movie that I recommend highly for everyone. Yes, kids are not going to get the dynamics here and find the pacing slow and the grey landscape of Norfolk dreary. However those of us who love movies that give us insight into the human condition will find this to be an absolute jewel of a movie. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s real. And that makes for great cinema.

REASONS TO GO: Relationship of the leads is very realistic and natural. Emotional and raw in places. The dialogue sounds like real people talking to each other. Terrific soundtrack. Rampling and Courtenay do fantastic work, doing a lot of their acting with their faces.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too honest for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, a scene of brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rampling and Courtenay last appeared together in The Mysteries of Lisbon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Late Bloomers
FINAL RATING; 10/10
NEXT: King Georges

New Releases for the Week of March 4, 2016


ZootopiaZOOTOPIA

(Disney) Starring the voices of Jason Bateman, Ginnfer Goodwin, Idris Elba, Bonnie Hunt, J.K Simmons, Shakira, Alan Tudyk, Octavia Spencer. Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush

In a city populated by anthropomorphic mammals, a determined bunny means to prove herself on a police force of tougher, stronger animals. Her partner, a fast-talking scam artist who wants nothing more than to fly under the radar, is not amused by her ambitions. When she takes on a high-profile case, she drags her reluctant partner into the seedier side of Zootopia.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard, 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements, rude humor and action)

45 Years

(Sundance Selects) Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells. An English couple planning a big celebration for their 45th wedding anniversary is devastated when a secret from the husband’s past resurfaces. The revelation opens up old wounds that have been festering over time and creates a new dynamic within the couple that threaten the harmony they’ve worked all their lives to build. Rampling was nominated for an Oscar for her performance here; read the review for this tomorrow.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

The Boy and the Beast

(FUNimation) Starring the voices of Eric Vale, John Swasey, Monica Rial, Bryn Apprill. A young orphan discovers an entire world of sentient beasts whose world co-exists next to ours. He is discovered by the enigmatic and somewhat eccentric Kumatetsu, who takes the young human child on as an apprentice. The unlikely pair grow to respect each other, learn from each other and eventually become friends. However when an evil threatens both worlds, the two will have to fight side by side to save both of their worlds…or die side by side.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Anime
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and language)

Boy and the World

(GKIDS) Starring the voices of Vinicius Garcia, Felipe Zilse, Alé Abreu, Lu Horta. A young boy in rural Brazil finds his life shattered when his father leaves for the big city. Determined to find him and reunite his family, the boy sets out into a world much bigger than the one he’s known all his life. This Brazilian film was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs

Rating: PG (for thematic material and images)

London Has Fallen

(Focus) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett. In London for the funeral of the Prime Minister, the leaders of the western world are ambushed by a well-coordinated, well-financed terrorist group which aims to bring the West to its knees, particularly the United States. However, they didn’t reckon on a Secret Service agent who knows how to protect the president when the odds are against them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout)

The Mermaid

(Sony/Momentum) Chao Deng, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang. When a developer’s project threatens to destroy the civilization of mermaids and incidentally all marine life, one of the mermaids is dispatched to kill him. In fine Chinese film fashion, she falls in love with him instead which exposes a secret organization dedicating to destroying all mermaids. The two lovers will have to unite to save the day. The latest from Stephen Chow broke all Chinese box office records last year.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts Fantasy
Now Playing: Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: R (for some violence)

The Other Side of the Door

(20th Century Fox) Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Sofia Rosinsky, Javier Botet. A grief-stricken young mother mourns the loss of her son in a tragic accident on an idyllic Greek island. However, when she learns of a temple which may be a place where life and the afterlife meet, she goes there and against the warnings of others opens the door, releasing things into our world which shouldn’t be here and threatening the balance between life and death.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for some bloody violence)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

(Paramount) Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina. Kim Barker is a woman trying to make it in journalism, which remains in many ways a man’s world. So when the opportunity to go to Afghanistan to cover the war comes up, she takes it despite being advised not to. This true story shows what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world doing a job that most men would be terrified to do.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images)

Never Let Me Go


Never Let Me Go

Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield await word of who won the contest of being the most beautiful.

(2010) Science Fiction (Fox Searchlight) Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins, Nathalie Richard, Andrea Riseborough, Isobel Meikle-Small, Charlie Rowe, Ella Purnell, Domhnall Gleeson, Kate Bowes Renna, David Sterne. Directed by Mark Romanek

 

Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese writer of extraordinary delicacy. Best known for Remains of the Day, he creates landscapes of melancholy and fleeting joy that remain with the reader not so much in the mind but as an ache in the heart. The novel on which this film is based was called by Time Magazine the novel of the Decade for the decade just past; it may be his best work to date.

But it is also fiendishly difficult to sum up the plot without giving too much away about the nature of the story and the ending, both of which are to the benefit of the viewer if left unsaid. There are elements of alternate world science fiction that make it even more relatable to our world, so it gets the sci-fi classification but trust me there are no bug-eyed aliens here. This is an all-too-human story that begins with a what-if postulation and ends with an examination of destiny and mortality. It is a stunning work that doesn’t always translate well to the screen, although it does have some moments of grace and heartbreak.

Kathy (Meikle-Small), Ruth (Purnell) and Tommy (Rowe) are students at the Hailsham Boarding School in an era that is both by-gone and modern. Rather than being taught history, English and mathematics, they are taught instead courtesy, duty and warned never to leave the beautifully bucolic but ultimately restrictive confines of the school. Being children, they are curious about what lies beyond the gates although such curiosity is discouraged by the school’s ramrod-stiff headmistress (Rampling).

The artistic Tommy’s paintings are collected by the mysterious Madame (Richard) for apparent exhibition elsewhere. Tommy is the object of delicious affection by Kathy who yearns for him in a way that is as sweet and pure as only an adolescent girl can yearn. However, Ruth horns her way in and winds up becoming a couple with Tommy which wounds Kathy deeply but she is the sort who simply turns her cheek and gets on with things. However, it creates a wedge between the three friends.

As an adult, Kathy (Mulligan) has taken a caretaker role in her life. Ruth (Knightley), realizing that she has come between a genuine love between her friends, is anxious to make amends while Tommy (Garfield) looks for a way out of a desperate situation.

Once again, I’m being deliberately vague so as not to spoil the movie although Romanek manages to do that himself – the tragedy hanging over the novel and the film is revealed far too early on (the novel waits until about halfway through before it is revealed; the movie, like a child unable to keep a secret, waits all of ten minutes). Still, he does one thing that is noteworthy; he manages to create screen images as beautiful as Ishiguri’s words.

Knightley, Mulligan and Garfield are three of the best young actors in movies today with Oscar nominations and acclaimed performances between them that would create an impressive enough list for any threesome. Garfield, whose lopsided grin is appealing to those who find young men’s lopsided grins attractive, hides so much pain and suffering behind that grin that it may make you weep, shows enough of that background pain in his eyes. Mulligan’s kindness is heroic in the face of her own pain, both within her life situation but at the betrayal of her love by Ruth and Tommy, although her capacity to forgive is spectacular to say the least.

It should also be noted that the juvenile actors who play Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as young boarding school students give heroically advanced performances for actors of their tender years. Particularly Meikle-Small, who holds up impressively well with her adult counterpart Mulligan who is no slouch. There is one scene in which Meikle-Small listens to a romantic pop song alone in her bedroom and shows that sweet adolescent yearning for love and romance that young girls wish for, to be swept up off their feet by dashing young princes who are cute and oh so amazing! and often never live up to those sweet expectations. It is a marvelous moment that I do believe every woman who has ever been there can relate to.

Those of you who have read the novel will know that it may not be possible for a movie to live up to the original source material and that’s okay. This movie does a pretty fine job of bringing what may well turn out to be Ishiguro’s masterwork to the screen, which is really all you can ask. If only Romanek had resisted the temptation to tip the novel’s hand too early.

WHY RENT THIS: Bittersweet and beautiful. Strong performances from its young and juvenile casts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too bleak for some. Film’s twist and ending spoiled too early on.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sexuality and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan had to learn how to drive for the film. She took a two-week crash course and failed the driving test. Her driving scenes were therefore filmed on private roads, the only places she was allowed to drive.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are collections of Romanek’s on-set photography, Tommy’s artwork and the graphics extolling Hailsham and the program it represents.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on a $15M production budget; didn’t earn back it’s production costs during its theatrical run..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Island

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Sleepwalk With Me

The Duchess


The Duchess

Burning the candle at both ends.

(2008) Historical Biography (Paramount Vantage) Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell, Simon McBurney, Aidan McArdle, John Shrapnel, Alistair Petrie, Patrick Godfrey, Georgia King, Richard McCabe. Directed by Saul Dibb

 

We are fascinated with the lives of the rich and famous; add royalty to the mix and we have a real hard time looking away. Look at how we reacted to the recent royal wedding, or its predecessor of Charles and Diana – we couldn’t get enough. This isn’t a new phenomenon; it has existed for a very long time, including in the 18th Century when a woman who was a direct ancestor of Princess Diana captivated England.

Georgiana Spencer (Knightley) is a vivacious young girl when she is promised in marriage by her mother (Rampling) to the Duke of Devonshire (Fiennes). Georgiana at first is thrilled by the arrangement; she is to be a Duchess! However, things don’t turn out to be quite the fairy tale that she imagined.

For one thing, the Duke is as taciturn and colorless as she is colorful and lively. He could make a rock look like a positively sparkling conversationalist whereas she is witty and opinionated. He is more interested in producing an heir and doesn’t really have any feelings towards her whatsoever; she is naive and a bit starry-eyed. Their lives come into a collision course.

Dissatisfied that she is unable to provide him anything but daughters, he starts seeking other women out. She has flings with politics and politicians (including future Prime Minister Charles Grey) as well as with men and women both. She becomes an icon of fashion (much like her descendent) and a voice in politics but her antics would land her in a good deal of hot water…and cause her much grief and sorrow.

As costume dramas go this is pretty nifty. They have a tendency to be ponderous and slow, and so this one is in places, but Knightley and Fiennes elevate it beyond the average petticoat soap opera. Fiennes goes the understated route and that works very well here. Devonshire is a bit of a jerk, but he is also a product of his times. His priorities lay in preserving his lineage (which Georgiana was eventually able to help him do) and in living a fairly scandal-free life, which as not possible as long as Georgiana was politically active. Their marriage was tumultuous at best; he took up an affair with her best friend and moved her into the house.

Knightley has generally done pretty face roles generally in period dramas or action films but she shows off her potential as an actress here. She has the charisma and charm to pull off a character as complex as the Duchess but she also manages to portray her anguish, her frustration and her doubts. It is a well-rounded performance that puts lie to the reputation that Knightley can’t act – not only can she but she has the potential to be extraordinary.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design which it richly deserve and frankly had to have, in order to maintain the real Georgiana’s spectacular fashion sense. It was also nominated for Art Design. In short, this is a beautiful film to look at from the authentic locations, the elaborate costumes to the scenery and the sets.

By all accounts Georgiana Spencer was an incredible woman who has largely been forgotten except by those who study the minutiae of history and by her own family. That’s largely a shame; though her life wasn’t always a happy one, she did nonetheless pave the way for women to become more of a force in politics more than 200 years later. She deserves better than to be a mere footnote in history.

WHY RENT THIS: An interesting look at a figure in history rarely remarked upon in modern times. Knightley does some of her best work ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves ponderously slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexual content and a little bit of nudity. Some of the dialogue and situations might go over the heads of the innocent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the costumes worn by Knightley in the film were based on dresses seen in actual portraits of Georgiana as well as political cartoons depicting her from the time.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with Georgiana Spencer’s biographer who discussed letters written by the real Duchess to her mother that gave her insight into the character of the historical figure..

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie more than likely broke even at least, but probably made a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Inside Job

Melancholia


 

Melancholia

Kirsten Dunst is sinking fast.

(2011) Science Fiction (Magnolia) Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Alexander Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Brady Corbet, Jesper Christensen, Udo Kier, Cameron Spurr. Directed by Lars von Trier

It is not often you root for the end of the world at a movie.

Lars von Trier is a Danish director of some renown who is known for movies with remarkable imagery and an artistic aesthetic. His films sharply divide audiences; some proclaim that he is a genius, others a charlatan. Critics tends to moon over him like a lovesick teenager.

I try to take each film as it comes to me, and not review the filmmaker so much as his work. I will say this; I’m not the sort of person Lars von Trier makes movies for. It’s not that I have a problem with trying to make something that is art; I respect any attempt to do so and encourage it. There is room in the world for all sorts of palettes.

But then there is Art. The kind of thing that is created by people who think Art is above everything, who deliberately try to shock and disturb not so much to make a point or even force the viewer to confront their own viewpoints but simply to grab attention. I view this with the same affection I have for a child screaming at the top of their lungs in an inappropriate setting; the message that is being sent is “Look at me! Look at me!”

The film here is divided into two parts, preceded by a prologue of images that essentially tell you the story in a series of slow-moving interactive pictures many of which appear on the trailer. The first part is entitled Justine and is about the character of the same name. Justine (Dunst) is a brand new bride who is at her wedding reception at the home of her super-wealthy brother-in-law John (Sutherland) who is married to her sister Claire (Gainsbourg).

Among the wedding guests are Justine’s parents, Dexter (Hurt) and Gaby (Rampling) – who along with Claire have British accents, something Justine doesn’t have – and who don’t get along at all. Dexter is a bit of a womanizer and Gaby somewhat bitchy. Also there is Justine’s boss Jack (Stellan Skarsgard) who is also her husband Michael’s (Alexander Skarsgard) best man. Jack is tightly focused on getting a tag-line for an advertisement Justine has been working on and sends Tim (Corbet) to get it.

It turns out Justine has some psychological problems, ranging from clinical depression to possibly bipolar disorder and like her mom she’s also a bit of a bitch. She manages to alienate nearly everyone at the wedding. For the viewer, it’s like being at a party that gets more and more awkward to attend. Da Queen was urging me to leave the party but like witnessing a train wreck, I felt compelled to see what the damage would wind up being.

The second part is entitled Claire and shows her, John and their son Leo (Spurr) coping with the sudden appearance of Justine some time after the wedding. She is pale, nearly inert and looked for all the world like an addict coming down from a major bender. The atmosphere is tense with John fed up with Justine’s antics and Claire trying to appeal to her sister in some way.

Hanging over all of this, literally, is planet Melancholia, a gigantic rock that suddenly appeared from behind the sun and is threatening to collide with Earth. While John insists that Melancholia will merely pass by, Justine seems convinced that the Earth is doomed. She knows things, after all.

Having a character “know things” is a bit of a cop out. It’s lazy writing. I will grant you that Dunst, who won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her work here, gives a brave performance, having to urinate in her bridal gown on a golf course, portray a character who isn’t very likable at times and turns up stark naked and sexually aroused at the sight of the approaching planet.

I suppose there are metaphors here and I suppose that I’m not getting them. For me, this was an excruciating two hours that seemed a pointless exercise in making pretty images, which I grant you were in some cases breathtaking, gallery worthy. However, the movie did nothing for me but leave me with an angry wife who demanded an explanation as to why I’d dragged her to the Enzian to see this.

Again, I don’t have a beef with trying to create a work of art. But there’s art and then there’s Art. The difference is that the former is a communication between the artist and the audience, a point that is being made or some insight imparted. The latter is an exercise in self-indulgence.

I have written a review that could easily have been condensed to two words, but I’m making a point. All of these words I’m putting to page are extraneous and ultimately superfluous. They are unnecessary wastes of time for you, the reader for which I apologize. All of the review you need to read is this: Fuck Art.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty images and Dunst makes a brave effort.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Pretentious, overbearing, badly written, aggravating, awkward – it’s just a mess masquerading as art.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, sex and implied masturbation, as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The above image, used in the movie’s poster and briefly seen in the prologue, is based on John Everett Millais’s 1852 painting Ophelia.

HOME OR THEATER: Don’t do it. For the love of God, don’t do it.

FINAL RATING: 1/10

TOMORROW: Winnie the Pooh