Tommy’s Honour


Father and son have a conversation.

(2016) Sports Biography (Roadside Attractions) Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Max Deacon, Peter Ferdinando, Kylie Hart, Benjamin Wainwright, Ian Pirie, James Smillie, Paul Reid, Seylan Baxter, Therese Bradley, Christopher Craig, Andy Gray, Colin MacDougall, Brett Alan Hart, Gareth Morrison, Paityn Hart, Jim Sweeney, Paul Tinto. Directed by Jason Connery

 

Golf wasn’t always the game it was today. It was developed over a long period of time, codified and eventually turned into a game which is played all over the world. It is, in many ways, a game that belongs to Scotland.

Old Tom Morris (Mullan) was one of the great names of golf in the mid-19th century. As the course greenkeeper at historic St. Andrew’s, he was a custodian for one of golf’s most hallowed institutions. As a caddie and a player of some renown, he helped set the standard for the game at 18 holes; he also designed a fair number of historic courses throughout the United Kingdom and was himself an Open Invitational champion, one of the first.

It was his son Tommy (Lowden), sometimes known as Young Tom, who was truly the shining light as a player. He became one of the first touring professionals and one of the first players who would be paid in advance rather than at the finish of his appearance. Young, handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first superstars of the game.

But Tommy chafed at the class distinctions that kept him from making something of himself. His father came from humble origins and remained so; Old Tom expected Tommy to do the same and be content with it. The arrogant Major Boothby (Neill) agrees with Old Tom and tells Tommy in no uncertain terms that he will never be a gentleman.

Tommy, not unsurprisingly, disagrees. What alienates him from his mother (Bradley) is that he’s fallen in love with Meg Drinnen (Lovibond) who has some skeletons in her closet and is somewhat older than he. Despite her own humble status, mom feels that Tommy could do much better when it comes to a marriage. She changes her mind however after a heart to heart with her daughter in law and finds out the circumstances of those skeletons. It is one of the most moving moments in the movie.

But Tommy and his dad unite for one more challenge match, one that will end up having a terrible impact when Old Tom makes an error in judgment. Thereafter, Old Tom will spend the rest of his days trying to reclaim his son’s honor.

This is a nice recreation of the early days of golf. The manicured links of today are much different than what golfers contended with back in the day. That much will be fascinating to students of the game which is where the primary appeal of the film will lie. However, the golf sequences themselves aren’t quite as convincing as athletic sequences in other films.

Mullan with his impressive beard jutting out makes for a kind of stereotypical Scot; aggressive and opinionated but deferential when needed. The red-headed Lowden gives Tommy a temperamental edge but is occasionally on the bland side. Lovibond as the fiery Meg nearly steals the movie out from under everybody.

The pace is pretty slow throughout but particularly during the middle portion of the film which may be okay with golf fans but perhaps not so much with film buffs, particularly the younger ones. More seasoned sorts will appreciate the attention to detail in the film. Looking up the lives of the Morris men, the movie appears to stick pretty close to the facts, another plus.

It is somewhat ironic that this film which is told from a poverty class point of view also celebrates a game that is a symbol of the elitist 1%. That might stick in a few progressive craws a bit. Still in all, the movie has some appeal, particularly to golfers (not all of whom are billionaires) and for those who can’t get out to the multiplex can enjoy the movie when it’s broadcast on the Golf Channel later this year.

REASONS TO GO: The mid-19th century environment is nicely recreated. There are some fine performances, particularly from Mullan and Lovibond.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow, particularly through the middle. The golf sequences are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are not for small children; there is also some profanity and a bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Connery is the son of Sean Connery and played the title role in the British TV series Robin of Sherwood for a season.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Bagger Vance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

(2016) Horror (Screen Gems) Lily James, Sam Reilly, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Emma Greenwell, Eva Bell, Aisling Loftus, Charlie Anson, Tom Lorcan, Robert Fyfe, Dan Cohen, Nicholas Murchie, Kate Doherty, Pippa Haywood, Bessie Cursons, Morfydd Clark. Directed by Burr Steers

Most of us have had our own encounters with Jane Austen’s masterpiece, either through high school or college lit classes, or through the multitudinous cinematic adaptations. Nothing you’ve ever seen before however will prepare you for this.

It is 1813 and the Regency period in Britain is in full flower. So is an invasion of the living dead as zombies have essentially overrun London which has a gigantic 100 foot wall and moat ringing it, with the environs between the moat and wall known as “The In-Between.” The redoubtable British army patrols the area but it is essentially deserted. Of the living, at any rate.

Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters Jane (Heathcote), Lydia (Bamber), Mary (Brady) and Kitty (Waterhouse) have been raised by their father (Dance) as warriors, able defenders of the family home with sword and gun and dagger. Their mother (Phillips) still is stuck in a mindset where there are no zombies, hoping to marry off the girls to wealthy suitors. Jane already has one in the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Booth). However it is Mr. Darcy (Riley) who catches Elizabeth’s eye and not in a good way when he callously insults her at a party, then “saves” her from a zombie that accosts her outside the mansion trying to warn her about something. Elizabeth is far from grateful.

As the wealthy Darcy looks down his nose at the less fortunate Bennet family, the zombie problem is getting more acute as the London wall will soon be overrun and the one bridge over the moat will soon be dynamited. The dashing Lt. Wickham (Huston) arrives on the scene, not only to catch Elizabeth’s eye but also to map out a daring plan to make peace with the zombies. Darcy’s aunt, the Lady de Bourgh (Headey) listens to the plan with a saucy eye-patch covering her battle wound, but as Britain’s most acclaimed zombie killer and owner of the most fortified home in the land, she ultimately rejects any attempt at peace as does her nephew.

But the walls are falling and a crisis with Lydia Bennet leads Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham into the no-man’s land to rescue her (although one has different motives) and bring her back to safety before the bridge is blown up at dawn. Can the plucky Elizabeth rescue her sister and escape the hordes?

This is based on a bestselling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith which is in turn based on the Jane Austen classic. While the title sounds more like a comedy than it really is not played for laughs; rather it is pretty much done straight with the horror elements emphasized. I think that’s the right move, quite frankly; there have been plenty of zombie spoofs and the bar is fairly high for those to begin with. However, it must be said that it also makes for an often discomfiting mash-up of styles.

The cast is solid, although unspectacular. The best-faring is James, who uses her Downton Abbey experience nicely. I’ve seen it said elsewhere but I’ll echo the sentiment; she’d make a fine Elizabeth Bennet in a straight-up production of the Austen novel. She is strong-willed and looks stunning in the dresses of the period. She also handles the physical work of the fighting gracefully.

Riley, one of the more underrated actors today, delivers a performance that is curiously flat. I suppose it might be said that Darcy is a character who doesn’t do emotion well, but even so Riley seems like he’s in a fog most of the time. There is also the odd wardrobe decision of putting the character in a leather greatcoat as if he’s some kind of Regency biker. It’s distracting to hear the leather creaking and crackling every time Riley’s onscreen.

Most of the humor here springs from Matt Smith’s portrayal of the dandified Parson Collins, who is an unwelcome suitor (and cousin to) Elizabeth. The former Doctor Who actor at times seems like he’s in a different movie than the rest of the cast, but his is in many ways more fun. As I mentioned, most of the cast plays this straight. It’s more the situation from where the humor is derived, other than through Collins and let’s face it, he’s also comic relief in the book as well.

The gore here is mainly of the CGI kind, but there is plenty of it – so much so that I was frankly surprised the movie didn’t rate an “R” but the MPAA has never shown a lot of consistency when it comes to rating films. Not all the CGI is of the top of the line variety, so expect to see a few images that will just scream computer generated. That’s never a good thing in any film.

This is solidly entertaining fare, surprisingly so considering the source. I won’t say that this is a new franchise for Screen Gems because it really doesn’t have that feel, unless the producers want to move on to other Austen novels or the Bronte sisters. However, if you don’t mind a little gruesome – okay, a lot of gruesome – in your classic literature, this might make for some interesting viewing for you.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting mash-up. James makes an excellent Elizabeth Bennet.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may be put off by the gore or the period. CGI is a little bit rough around the edges.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and zombie gore. There’s also some brief sexual suggestion.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Natalie Portman was cast as Elizabeth but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; she remained on board as a producer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Deadpool

The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)


Mother knows best.

Mother knows best.

(2015) Dramedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenҫo Mutarelli, Helena Albergaria, Bete Dorgam, Luis Miranda, Theo Werneck, Luci Pereira, Anapaula Csernik, Hugo Villavicenzio, Roberto Camargo, Alex Huszar, Audrey Lima Lopes, Thaise Reis, Nilcéia Vicente. Directed by Anna Muylaert

There are the servants and there are the served. The distinctions between the two have made up society throughout the planet essentially since humans started walking upright. Throughout history, there have been changes, perhaps never more than now but we all belong to one class or another.

Val (Casé) belongs to the latter caste. A domestic working in the home of Dr. Carlos (Mutarelli) – whose doctorate is never explained as we never see him working mainly because, we learn later, he inherited wealth – and his wife Barbara (Teles), she has also raised their son Fabinho (Joelsas) as if he were her own. She in fact has her own – a daughter – whom she hasn’t seen in ten years nor spoken to in three. Val lives in a tiny, cramped room but is content, with a fan, a TV set, a tiny bed and the family she serves nearby.

Then she gets a call from her daughter Jessica (Márdila) out of the blue. It turns out that Jessica is studying for the entrance exam at a prestigious university there in Sao Paolo. She asks Barbara if it would be all right if Jessica stayed with them while going through the application process and Barbara agrees, magnanimously insisting on buying a mattress that Jessica can sleep on while staying in Val’s cramped room.

Val, who is very conscious of her place and what is expected of her (after more than a decade of service to the same family, you’d expect that), is grateful for the kindness and is absolutely over the moon at the chance to spend some time with her daughter.

Jessica, for her part, has grown up with Val’s estranged husband and has a bit of a bone to pick with her mother who seems to have chosen the family that employs her over her own family. She also has no patience for social niceties, looking at Val’s attitudes as archaic and incomprehensible. For Val’s part, Jessica’s self-confidence that borders on arrogance is like a creature from another world. She doesn’t understand why Jessica can’t show deference to the people who pay for Val’s service.

Before long, Jessica has wheedled her way out of Val’s cramped quarters and into the more luxuriant guest bedroom suite and is eating at table with Dr. Carlos and his family, putting her mother in the humiliating position of serving her own daughter. Fabinho also clearly notices the new girl in the house as does, somewhat creepily, his dad.

Fabinho is closer in many ways to Val than to his own mother who is somewhat cold to him and doesn’t express her feelings to him as much as the more outgoing Val, and Barbara in turn is more than a little bothered that her son isn’t willing to hug her but freely gives hugs to Val. Still, Val is a part of the family and she’s willing to put up with a little bit of inconvenience for a short time…until Jessica’s attitudes begin to unravel the carefully woven fabric of the family’s relationship with Val – and each other.

Class distinction comedies are nothing new, nor are they limited to Latin America. This isn’t strictly speaking a comedy but it isn’t a drama by any means. Muylaert tries to keep things light as much as possible, although occasionally her point about class consciousness is made with leaden hands. What Muylaert excels at here is developing the various relationships in the film which drive it, from the distinct employer/employee relationship between Barbara and Val to the loving mother/son relationship between Val and Fabinho. American audiences may react differently to Val’s affections towards Fabinho but using domestics as nannies who actually end up spending more time with the children than their biological parents is not unusual in Latin America.

One of the things I really like about the movie is the relationship between Jessica and Val. The two couldn’t be more different; the mother is squat, self-effacing, and the antithesis of glamorous (unlike her employer who is an arbiter of style for Sao Paolo). Jessica is thin, pretty and something of a know-it-all. The two have had little connection over the years but both have a strong work ethic and as the movie unspools, they begin to develop an understanding and eventually a respect for each other. At the end of the day, Val is still Jessica’s mom and Jessica is still Val’s daughter and that forgives a lot of sins. Not all of them, but a lot.

One thing I wish the movie had explored more was the dynamic between Barbara, Fabinho and Val. There is certainly some tension there and it isn’t really explored; I’m guessing that Brazilian audiences are more used to the concept than American audiences so there is a bit of cinematic shorthand involved; it’s a given that these types of arrangements work out. I would have liked to have seen more of what the two women thought of the other’s relationship with Fabinho, but again, I imagine it is understood by locals. There is a nice moment between Fabinho and Barbara near the end; part of the overall sweet feeling of the film.

Critics have praised the movie pretty much universally (see scores below) but I have to say I’m a little bit less enthusiastic. It’s a good film to be sure and there are certainly a lot of undercurrents worth exploring, but they really don’t get explored much. At the end of the day, this is more like a soft drink than a Caipirinha. Lots of bubbles, lots of fizz but not as much substance perhaps as one might wish.

REASONS TO GO: Frothy. Captures mother-daughter relationship nicely. Tender-hearted.
REASONS TO STAY: A little creepy in places. Hits one over the head with its point. Could have developed Fabinho a bit better and especially his relationship with Val and Barbara.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brazil’s official submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spanglish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Very Murray Christmas

Pretty Woman


Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

(1990) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Ralph Bellamy, Jason Alexander, Alex Hyde-White, Hector Elizondo, Laura San Giacomo, Amy Yasbeck, Elinor Donahue, Judith Baldwin, Jason Randall, Bill Applebaum, Tracy Bjork, Gary Greene, William Gallo, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Hank Azaria, Larry Hankin, Jacqueline Woolsey. Directed by Garry Marshall

Cinema of the Heart 2015

In my day, most little girls dreamed of being princesses swept away by a handsome prince and taken to a life of wealth and pampering. Little girls still have those dreams but sometimes the definition of “princess” and “prince” change a little.

Vivian Ward (Roberts) is a lady of the evening. Not her first choice in professions, but a necessity that will help her earn the cash she needs. Her best friend and roommate Kit De Luca (San Giacomo) is also a hooker. The two work the red light district of Hollywood.

Edward Lewis (Gere) is a ruthless corporate raider from New York, in Los Angeles for meetings to purchase a shipping company from James Morse (Bellamy). Lewis, not familiar with Los Angeles, gets hopelessly lost on his way to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and ends up on Vivian’s corner. He asks her for directions; she asks for money. Edward, having trouble driving the stick shift on the Lotus Esprit, agrees to pay her to drive him to the hotel.

Once there, intrigued by her wit and her intelligence, he decides to hire her for the profession she has chosen for $300. They have strawberries and champagne (when she flosses the seeds out of her teeth he is amused) and watch reruns of I Love Lucy until they end up having sex.

Edward needs a date to several social events during the week and having hit it off with her, hires her to be with him for the entire week for $3,000. He also gives her a credit card and tells her to purchase some elegant dresses to wear. She goes to a shop on Rodeo Drive and is humiliated by snooty salesgirls who make fun at her overtly sexual appearance and her apparent non-sophistication.

She returns to the hotel completely devastated and snooty manager Barney Thompson (Elizondo) who at first felt disdain at the prostitute, sees her as a human being and a young girl. He helps her purchase a dress, then coaches her on etiquette. Edward returns from work and is amazed at the transformation. However, the business dinner he takes Vivian to with Morse and his son David (Hyde-White) doesn’t end well when Edward admits his intention is to break up the company and sell the land which is worth far more on the open market than it is with the shipping company on it. The Morses leave the table in disgust.

As the week continues, Edward begins to fall for the lively Vivian and she finds herself falling for Edward who is more vulnerable than he admits to being. His lawyer and business partner Philip Stuckey (Alexander) doesn’t approve of the changes he sees in Edward and blames Vivian for it which leads to a heated confrontation among the three of them.

In the meantime, Vivian is swept up in Edward’s world, flying up to San Francisco to see La Traviata at the San Francisco opera which transports her (it doesn’t hurt that the opera is about a wealthy man falling for a prostitute). He, on the other hand, is beginning to see just how empty his life has been without Vivian. Can their two worlds truly be compatible? Will she stay with him beyond the week he paid for?

This movie, along with When Harry Met Sally is credited with the resurgence of romantic comedies which popular in the 50s and 60s had declined to the point where not a single one was produced by a major studio during the 70s. The film is a frothy mix that benefits from Roberts’ bubbly personality and of course that amazing smile which lights up the screen. This would be her second Oscar nomination (she’d already received one for supporting actress in Mystic Pizza) and first for leading actress. It would also make her a genuine star and one of the biggest female box office attractions to this day.

There are those who look at this as anti-feminist and degrading to women, as Vivian seems to need to be “rescued” by a man from a life of exploitation by other men. I don’t agree with that assessment. Vivian is strong and yes, she’s being exploited but she wants more and is on the road to achieve it without Edward’s help (she even refuses it). That she ends up with her knight in shining armor is because she changed him, not because she needed him to save her.

That aside, this is one of those movies that is a Valentine’s Day go-to. For many women, this is a favorite and for a lot of men as well – not just as a romantic comedy but as a movie. There’s something about it that appeals to people, the idea of being plucked out of your mundane existence and into a life of wealth. Who wouldn’t want that?

Roberts, who is amazing here, isn’t alone. Elizondo has always been one of my favorite character actors and this is the performance that made him that for me. Bellamy and Hyde-White are sympathetic, and San Giacomo, who I had a bit of a movie crush on at the time, is gorgeous and feisty, a perfect foil for Roberts. Even Alexander, who would go on to play more bumbling comedic roles, does a terrific job as the truly nasty Philip.

There is a warmth here that is quite frankly a hallmark of Garry Marshall films. In many ways, this is the movie he’ll be remembered for (although there are those that insist that the TV show Happy Days will be his artistic nadir) and if so, not a bad legacy to leave behind. It’s a modernization of the Cinderella fable that resonates with all of us as to the trasnformative power of love, something that is so powerful it changes our lives for the better. There’s no doubt that for most couples, this is a Valentine’s Day movie that you can’t go wrong with.

WHY RENT THIS: Roberts at her very best. One of the most romantic movies of all time. Nice supporting performances by Elizondo, Bellamy and San Giacomo.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some are uncomfortable with Vivian’s performance.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and adult themes to go with a smattering of foul language here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Bellamy’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 15th Anniversary DVD edition is loaded with ’em; a Natalie Cole music video, footage from the wrap party (in which we get to see Gere, Roberts and Marshall warble “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to an appreciative audience, a tour of the locations that the production filmed at in 1990 with Marshall as your tour guide and a blooper reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.4M on a $14M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Still Alice

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond


The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Bryce Dallas Howard incurs the wrath of PETA.

(2008) Drama (Paladin) Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Evans, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margaret, Mamie Gummer, Jessica Collins, Will Patton, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Zoe Perry, Barbara Garrick, Zach Grenier, Laila Robins, Susan Blommaert. Directed by Jodie Markell

Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest writers in American literature so when a previously unproduced television script (meant for director Elia Kazan and actress Julie Harris) was unearthed, it was reason for celebration. Sadly, rather than be the subject of a major studio release being heralded for Oscar gold, instead it is the subject of a well-cast but ultimately little-promoted indie film.

Fisher Sparrow (Howard) is a Memphis-area socialite in the 1920s whose family has fallen on hard times. Her father was the center of a scandal when he dynamited a levee, causing a low lying area to flood and drowning two sharecroppers who lived there, as well as ruining land downriver of the levee. Fisher had no knowledge of that before she returned from some time in Europe.

She is supposed to be making her debut in Memphis society (a big deal back then) and because of her supposed wild behavior and her daddy’s reputation, she can’t find a decent gentleman willing to escort her to the balls and parties of the social season. She resorts to paying a field hand, Jimmy (Evans) to be her escort. Jimmy’s a decent sort who has a governor of Tennessee in his bloodlines but his family has been driven to poverty, with an alcoholic father (Patton) and a mother who is in an institution which Fisher hints she can get her out of, or at least into a better facility.

An aunt of Fisher’s gives her a $10,000 diamond earring set to wear for the season. The first party turns out to be a disaster; Fisher has a meltdown wanting the band to play music more in the flapper style which causes the party guests to say cruel things to her. Jimmy rushes to her aid and takes her home. The party invitations dry up after that and the only one Fisher can get is a Halloween party on the other side of town which was unaffected by her father’s actions.

On the way to the party, Fisher and Jimmy stop at the levee for a few moments. Fisher attempts to kiss Jimmy but he pulls away. Angered and humiliated, Fisher tries to jump out of the car as they pull up to the house where the party is being held. Shortly after she notices one of her diamond earrings is missing. A misunderstanding causes Jimmy to believe that she is accusing him of taking it.

Heartsick, Fisher goes away from the commotion to find her Aunt Addie (Burstyn) lying in bed, wracked in pain. The two have a heart-to-heart and Aunt Addie advises Fisher to leave and go back to Europe which she is more suited for. Addie makes Fisher promise to give her a bottle of pills so that Addie can die with dignity; Fisher promises she will as soon as the missing earring is found.

Devotees of Tennessee Williams will find some of the characters familiar; the down on their luck Southern family, the crumbling gentility and honor, the fiery sexual Southern belle. However, the characters and situation aren’t the best to come from his pen.

The movie is subdued in many ways and a bit mannered; modern audiences might find it too slow paced for their tastes. Still, there are some good performances here. Howard turns in one of the better performances of her career (and certainly her best since The Village). She is at once brassy and vulnerable, ambitious and un-self confident. She isn’t the most likable movie heroine ever, but she has enough flaws to be interesting.

Evans is mostly known for comic book roles in Fantastic Four and Captain America: The First Avenger. A few decades ago this kind of role would have been played by Paul Newman and not so long ago by Matthew McConaughey. Evans doesn’t have the best Tennessee accent ever but that’s ok; it’s the man inside the accent that makes the role memorable and Evans does that.

This has all the tawdriness and quiet desperation of some of William’s best work but none of the really interesting, unique characterizations that make his best work great. It’s worth seeing from a standpoint that it’s Tennessee Williams but in all honesty there are far better movies of his work out there, not the least of which are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. You’d do better renting those to get an idea of how great a writer he once was.

WHY RENT THIS: Howard is impressive and Evans is pretty good too.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too mannered and slow-moving for modern audiences. Not one of Williams’ better works.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality as well as some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lindsey Lohan was originally cast in the lead role but her legal problems precluded her doing the movie. Howard was given the role instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Cast Away

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)


 

The Importance of Being Earnest
Algie and Jack try to make sense of the intricate plot.

 

 

(Miramax) Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Frances O’Connor, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Anna Massey, Edward Fox. Directed by Oliver Parker

 

I find it somewhat depressing that in this day and age, a mind-bending number of Americans have never heard of the great Oscar Wilde, and only a very few have even experienced one of his plays performed on stage. There’s something about it that just seems blatantly wrong.

 

One of his best and best-known plays was The Importance of Being Earnest which was first performed back in 1895. It is the very epitome of the drawing room comedy; most of the action onstage takes place in a drawing room, and like most of Wilde’s work, nearly every line is a gem, a bon mot that stands the test of time. Yes, there are a few topical references but not enough to make a modern audience scratch their head in puzzlement, other than those rubes who would do so anyway.

Trying to describe the plot of the play is time-consuming and in the end is a lot like describing quantum mechanics to a four-year-old. The plot is intricate and full of layers and twists and turns, some of which you can see coming but many that you can’t. The basics are this; Jack Worthing (Firth) is a foundling who was adopted by a country squire; fully grown now, he acts as the guardian to his benefactor’s granddaughter Cecily Cardew (Witherspoon).

 

Jack often travels to London to rescue his ne’er-do-well brother Ernest out of a jam. The problem is that there is no brother Ernest; it’s a ruse calculated to allow Jack to come and go as he pleases. When he is in town, he takes the name of Ernest for himself so that he may remain incognito and as Ernest, he has fallen in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax (O’Connor), the lovely and practical granddaughter of Lady Augusta Bracknell (Dench).  Gwendolyn also returns his affections.

 

Jack also visits his friend Algernon Moncrieff (Everett) who is actually pretty close to the scoundrel Jack makes his non-existent brother to be. He uses the excuse of visiting an ill friend named Bunbury to escape the city when creditors begin to close in on him. On one of these expeditions to the countryside, he winds up at Jack’s home where he takes on the persona of Jack’s fictitious brother Ernest, and promptly falls in love with Cecily (are you with me so far?).

 

That’s more or less the set-up; you can guess that there will be many obstacles that will be tossed in the way of the happiness of both couples, until Love Conquers All in the final act (or in this case, reel). Unlike other similar drawing room comedies of the day, Wilde threw in a lot of observations of the human condition, particularly where it regards class distinctions and sexual politics.

 

This is a lush-looking production, with the bucolic English countryside taking center stage. Parker, who in 1999 filmed the adaptation of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (and would make it a trifecta in 2009 when he filmed Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray) knows how to evoke the era visually, with splendid costumes, magnificent estates and staid English manners.

 

It’s a shame he got infected with Anachronistic Music Syndrome. Those of you who’ve seen A Knight’s Tale and basically anything Baz Luhrmann ever directed will know it; it’s the occasion when a movie set in one period uses a musical score that is in the style of a different period. So when the swing music of the 1940s is the background for a Victorian drawing room comedy, it just wipes the mood right off the screen. It’s an offshoot of Look Ma I’m Directing Disease, and not a pleasant one.

 

However, when you have Oscar Wilde writing your screenplay (and Parker utilizes Wilde’s play word-for-word in many instances), you really can’t go wrong. Few writers before or since have had the wit of Wilde, and none the ability to mask social satire with urbane mannerisms.

 

It helps to have a superior cast. Firth and Everett are two dependable performers who both do quite splendidly in their role. Dench was born to play the crusty Lady Bracknell and does so with gusto. Even Witherspoon, the company’s token American, adopts an English accent rather nicely; my only complaint is that she’s so bloody gorgeous that you sometimes get so lost in her looks that you forget that she’s speaking important dialogue.

 

There are a couple of fantasy sequences that Parker (who also wrote the screenplay) inserted into the film that really didn’t need to be there, but in all honesty it’s all right. If you have never seen or read an Oscar Wilde play, this is as good a place as any to acquaint yourself with him. It’s not quite as good in many ways as the 1952 film version (which starred Michael Redgrave as Jack, Michael Denison as Algernon and Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell) that Anthony Asquith directed but it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

 

WHY RENT THIS: It’s Oscar Wilde; nearly every line is laugh-out-loud funny, even more than a century later.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Anachronistic musical score syndrome torpedoes the audience out of the atmosphere and mood.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of drinking and smoking but as you would expect from a play written during the Victorian era, there is nothing here you should feel uncomfortable letting your entire family watch. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actress Finty Williams, who portrays Lady Bracknell as a young dancer, is in reality Dame Judi Dench’s daughter. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.  

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.3M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crossing Over

The Education of Charlie Banks


The Education of Charlie Banks

Jesse Eisenberg and Eve Amurri share a laugh.

(Anchor Bay) Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Ritter, Chris Marquette, Eve Amurri, Sebastian Stan, Gloria Votsis, Steven Hinkle, Dennis Boutsikaris. Directed by Fred Durst

Change is part of the human experience; we all aspire to change the things that are imperfect within us. We are not always successful at changing, but we never give up hope that someday we’ll finally get to where we want to be.

Charlie Banks (Eisenberg) is a young man who is a walking bundle of nerves. He has a fascination for Mick (Ritter), the neighborhood bully that borders on awe, going back to their childhoods. It’s the swagger and self-confidence, two things that Charlie doesn’t possess, that he admires. At a frat party one year as Charlie prepares to enter a prestigious Ivy League University, Charlie witnesses Mick beating up a couple of jocks nearly to death.

He reports this to the police, but afraid of the consequences of his decision he recants, leaving Mick out on the streets after serving a few days in jail. Charlie has no idea if Mick knows for certain who squealed on him in the first place but now that he is in his academic environment he figures he’s safe from him.

That turns out not to be the case. One day Charlie is surprised to find Mick visiting Charlie’s roommate Danny (Marquette), a friend of Mick’s from the neighborhood. Charlie is understandably unnerved, wondering if Mick knows. What was supposed to be a brief visit turns into a lengthy stay, as Mick begins to insinuate himself into Charlie’s circle of friends, even making romantic overtures towards Mary (Amurri), the girl Charlie is crushing on.

As time passes, Charlie’s fears seem to be allayed. Mick seems to see Charlie as something of a role model. For Mick’s part, he sees that learning isn’t necessarily for pussies and begins to feel a glimmer of hope that a better life is available to him. Charlie knows what Mick is capable of and warns his friends to a certain degree, but at the same time is rooting for Mick to change his ways. Can Mick overcome his own brutal, violent nature?

Limp Biskit frontman Durst explores themes that aren’t exactly unknown to heavy rockers, and inserts them throughout the movie. Drugs, sex, violence are all in the mix, as are feelings of insecurity and a bit of a middle finger to the upper classes (most of Charlie’s circle are twits, arrogant assholes and spoiled brats).

Eisenberg made this at an earlier stage of his career when he tended to be a bit twitchy in his actions. It gets so unsettling that by the movie’s end you feel yourself tapping your feet or drumming your fingers unconsciously. It’s good to know that he’s matured as an actor, as his most recent turns in Zombieland and Adventureland both show.

Ritter is what one would call “interesting casting,” a polite way of saying “Who the heck cast him as that?!?!” This is the kind of role that twenty years ago might have gone to Michael Pare or Matt Dillon or last year might have gone to Channing Tatum; there needs to be a sense of the smolder beneath the charming façade and Ritter tries gamely to conjure it up, but isn’t always on the money there.

The triangle between Charlie, Mick and Mary make up the most compelling part of the story for me, and given the early-80s/late-70s era that this is set in, the sex and drugs and rock and roll are a big part of it too. The last 20 minutes seem to lose their way a little bit before the end credits run; I got the feeling that the writers began to lose some focus, although that could have been simply me. Either way, it isn’t a good thing.

As first movie’s go, The Education of Charlie Banks isn’t a bad first effort. It is certainly flawed and might have benefitted from the surer touch of a veteran director, but we all have to start somewhere. I haven’t seen The Longshots, Durst’s second film, but I’m more inclined to based on seeing his first.

WHY RENT THIS: The relationships between Charlie and Mick and Mary make for an interesting triangle.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Eisenberg is a little bit too twitchy in the movie, giving the effect of watching a kid with ADD for a couple of hours.

FAMILY VALUES: As would befit a movie set in the early 80s about the poor little rich kid set, there’s a ton of drug and alcohol use, lots of swearing and thanks to the presence of Mick, a ton of sudden and terrifying violence. There’s also plenty of sexual content for those who look for such things.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this was the first feature film to be directed by Durst, it actually was the second to be released; the sports film The Longshots with Ice Cube had a wide release several months before Anchor Bay released this on its brief limited run.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Whiteout