Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)


Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Tilly Vosburgh, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden, Bradley Hall, Hilton McRae, Sam Phillips, Victor McGuire, Jody Haise, Pauline Whitaker, Belinda Low, Leonard Szepietowski, Harry Peacock, Mark Wingett, Dorian Lough, Jon Gunn, Richard Dixon, John Neville, Lillian Price. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

In Victorian England, women didn’t generally have very many choices and those that did usually got them because they were stronger and more aggressive than most. Perhaps that’s why most Victorian heroines remain role models for women even today.

Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is an educated, forthright young lady who loves the rural Dorset that she grew up in. She also loves horseback riding and it is during one of her rides that she encounters neighboring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a quiet man of good character. He falls hard for the impetuous young Bathsheba (who hates her given name by the way) and impulsively asks her to marry him, promising to buy her a piano if she does. She declines, telling him that she would want a man who could tame her and the quiet Gabriel never could. Shortly after that Gabriel loses his flock in a particularly devastating way and must sell his land in order to pay his debts. He sets out to find employment. In his travels he comes upon a barn fire and with the farm manager and owner both missing, takes charge and puts the fire out. When the owner returns and thanks him, he asks for a job. The owner turns out to be…Bathsheba.

In the meantime she had suffered a reversal of fortune of her own; no longer poor, she had inherited her uncle’s farm and was determined to make it successful. After firing her corrupt and useless manager (McGuire) she sets about managing her farm with the aid of Liddy (Barden), her assistant and Gabriel’s able stewardship it begins to turn a profit.

She also gets the notice of William Boldwood (Sheen), a neighboring farmer and the wealthiest man in the district. Lonely and socially awkward, he had been engaged once only to be jilted. Now mistakenly thinking that Ms. Everdene is interested in him romantically, he pursues her doggedly with his own offer of marriage and as a wedding gift, a piano. By this time however, she has a piano of her own and declines, valuing her independence too much.

But not for long. Into her life comes soldier Frank Troy (Sturridge), a dashing young man who dazzles her with his swordplay and ardor. Completely head over heels, she marries the military man even though Gabriel counsels her not to and loses his job because of it, only returning to work because the sheep are dying from a disease that only he knows how to cure.

It soon becomes evident that Troy has no interest in farming and less in Bathsheba. He prefers to gamble their profits away, and his ardor is reserved for Fanny Robbin (Temple) whom he had once intended to marry and had been left standing at the altar when she went to the wrong church. She is now pregnant with his child. All of these events are priming the players for tragedy and for Bathsheba Everdene, a choice – which man truly is the one for her?

This is the fourth filmed version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel (the first released exactly 100 years ago in a silent version). In many ways, it captures the rural life that Hardy so loved (and through him, his characters) better than any of them. Certainly cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures the loveliness of the Dorset countryside in vista after vista; silky mist-shrouded mornings, blazing colorful sunsets, bucolic woods and fields.

Vinterberg (The Hunt) is best known as a co-founder of the influential but spare Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking and he would seem an odd choice for a lush classic of such epic sweep as Hardy but he keeps much of the movie simple. The country life that he depicts here seems almost heavenly; one could long for a lifestyle of washing sheep and harvesting grain, walking the country at dusk and singing with the farmhands at supper by candlelight. It is definitely enticing to those of us beset by the fast pace and cold technology of modern life.

Mulligan, Oscar nominated ] for An Education, has done the most brilliant work of her career thus far here. She captures the spirited nature of Bathsheba Everdene but also her vulnerabilities without making her seem too modern, although in many ways Bathsheba belongs more to the 21st century than the 19th, even back when Hardy wrote her – so much so that Suzanne Collins filched her surname for her spunky lead character in The Hunger Games. That Bathsheba chooses the dashing soldier over the security of William Boldwood and the bedrock but unspectacular love of Gabriel Oak is a lament that many guys, unable to compete with the cute and the popular in high school, can understand.

Schoenaerts is a Belgian hunk who has all kinds of upside. He reminds me a bit of Viggo Mortensen and has that charisma necessary to be the leading man in a big budget movie and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find him on the Hollywood A-list before too long. Sheen has continued his exemplary work of recent years and makes the haunted farmer Boldwood flesh and blood, as opposed to the kind of creepy pervert that Peter Finch portrayed him as in the 1967 version.

While it’s possible this could be contending for awards come Oscar time, it’s unlikely given the early summer release date. It’s quite possible that an autumn re-release might put Mulligan, Christensen and even Vinterberg up for Oscar consideration but even if not, this is a film worthy of attention even beyond the film buff and older audiences. I have to admit that it is a smart move to use this as refreshing counterprogramming to the big blockbusters that will be filling up the multiplex screens this time of year. Those who prefer their movies less loud and teen-centric should keep their radar out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: Really gives a sense of the beauty of rustic life. Mulligan is a strong lead. Classic story.
REASONS TO STAY: Adds little to previous film versions of the novel.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan suffered a concussion when she was thrown from a horse. Nobody realized she was injured until she fell to her knees during the next scene to be filmed. Schoenaerts thought she was acting and continued his lines; it was only when she slumped over that anyone realized that there was something wrong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wuthering Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Child 44

Valentine’s Day


Valentine's Day

Jennifer Garner finds out what Demi Moore already knows - Ashton Kutcher delivers.

(New Line) Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Alba, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Topher Grace, George Lopez, Eric Dane, Taylor Lautner, Patrick Dempsey, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Bradley Cooper, Kathy Bates, Bryce Robinson, Larry Miller. Directed by Garry Marshall

There are many who consider Valentine’s Day to be a “Hallmark holiday,” an artificial occasion that prompts the sale of chocolate, jewelry and flowers, as well as dinner reservations. It is a day for those who are single and not seeing anyone to be reminded painfully of that fact, and for the unromantic to give their best shot at actual wooing.

It is a sunny day in Los Angeles on February 14, which means that the florists of the Southland are going to be hella busy. For Reed Bennett (Kutcher) who inherited his flower shop from his grandparents, it’s going to be a little different; this morning he has proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and she’s said yes. His best friend Alphonso (Lopez) is happy but seems surprised she accepted his proposal.

Schoolteacher Julia Fitzpatrick (Garner) is awakened by her boyfriend, handsome cardiologist Dr. Harrison Copeland (Dempsey) who is unfortunately flying up to San Francisco to perform surgery there and will have to miss his Valentine’s Day rendezvous with his deliriously happy girlfriend. Still, he leaves her with a cute little memento.

Liz (Hathaway) and Alex (Grace) have had a night of incredible sex; they’ve only been going together for a couple of weeks but things look very promising. He is a bit of a nebbish from Indiana and she is a sophisticated L.A. woman who has kept from him that in order to help pay off her student loans, she is also working as a phone sex operator while she works as an assistant to bitchy high-powered sports agent Paula Thomas (Latifah) whose star client, quarterback Sean Jackson (Dane) has just been let go by his ballclub. Sean’s publicist Kara Monahan (Biel) is working on spin control at the same time she is planning her annual “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party. Terminally single, she commiserates with buddy Kelvin Moore (Foxx), the second sportscaster at a local television station whose station manager (Bates) is relaying instructions from on high that more fluff pieces are wanted and Moore, who doesn’t believe in romance, finds himself doing a piece on romance in L.A.

For romance, he could have looked no farther than one of Julia’s students, Edison (Robinson) who has a big crush on someone at his school and hires Reed to send some flowers there. He is staying with his grandparents (MacLaine, Elizondo) because his mother is away. The grandmother has just revealed something to the grandfather that is a game-changer in their relationship. Edison’s babysitter (Emma Roberts) is contemplating having sex with her boyfriend and her best friend (Swift) is head over heels over track star Willy (Lautner). In the meantime, a businessman (Cooper) and an army captain (Roberts) are sitting next to each other on a flight home.

Just another day in L.A., no? No. It’s a day on which romance will bloom for some, wither for others and make unexpected turns for all of them. Some of these relationships will not survive the stress and pressure of Valentine’s Day.

Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate have crafted a sort of American version of Love, Actually and quite frankly, it doesn’t measure up. For one thing, there are far too many threads going on here and quite frankly about half of them are unnecessary. That forces many of these relationships to be given short shrift in terms of screen time so we don’t get the opportunity to become invested in them. We didn’t really need two high school romances, nor did we need multiple anti-Valentines Day cynics in the mix. One gets the feeling that there were stars who called Marshall and said “I want in” and Marshall had his writer add another vignette to accommodate them.

Surprisingly, Kutcher proves to be the most winning actor on this fairly distinguished list. He is at heart a really nice guy, and he is the real glue that holds this entire handmade Valentine together. His relationships with Garner, Lopez, Robinson and Alba are all well-thought through and work nicely. Lopez is also impressive as the somewhat clumsy but lovable sidekick. Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the world, shows why as the captain coming home to the love of her life. She is alternately warm and sweet as well as cold and sandpapery. Not Oscar-winning material mind you but compelling nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for a good romantic movie, as Da Queen can attest – Love, Actually and About a Boy are two of my favorites, and I watch them regularly on DVD. Although this movie has it’s share of sweetness, it won’t bear the same repeated viewings on home video for me. There’s just too much going on and despite the talented actors who do their best in roles that are just not that well-developed, not a lot here to love.

REASONS TO GO: A star-studded cast and a lot of awww moments. Kutcher does a nice job of being the glue that holds this movie together.

REASONS TO STAY: While some of the pairings work from a chemistry standpoint, not all of them do. It seemed to me there are too many vignettes going on for the movie’s own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality, as well as some partial nudity but nothing very naughty. Indeed, this movie is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Julia Roberts’ last name in the movie, Hazeltine, is a combination of her daughter’s names; Hazel and Valentine. Also, on Alex’s phone the date “Monday, February 14” is plainly seen. Since Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, we have to assume that the movie takes place in 2011, the next year that Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie to be seen cuddling on the couch with someone you love.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Starting Out in the Evening

Leap Year


Leap Year

Amy Adams is absolutely flummoxed that Matthew Goode has never seen a brass bed before.

(Universal) Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, John Lithgow, Adam Scott, Kaitlin Olson, Noel O’Donovan, Tony Rohr, Pat Laffan, Alan Devlin, Ian McElhinney, Dominique McElligott, Mark O’Regan, Maggie McCarthy. Directed by Anand Tucker

In life we sometimes find ourselves on a journey from point A to point B. There are times when the destination isn’t the main thing; the trip itself is what defines us.

Anna Brady (Adams) is a driven, focused woman with a firm grasp of what she wants out of life. She has a marvelous eye for detail which serves her well in her profession as an apartment presenter – someone who is hired by realtors to take empty apartments and dress them with furniture and things to give the space as appealing a look as possible.

She has been going with her boyfriend Jeremy (Scott) for four years. He’s a cardiologist who, like Anna, is married to his job and lives with his nose in his Blackberry. The two have decided to try to get an apartment in Boston’s most prestigious building, the spots for which are like gold and guarded with zealous self-righteousness by the building’s board. After their interview with the board, Jeremy tells Anna that he has something he needs to give her at dinner; Anna’s friend Libby (Olson) had spied him coming out of a posh Boston jewelry store. Is this, at last, the night that Jeremy pops the question?

Of course not. She is instead, presented with diamond earrings, marking one of the few times in history a woman is depressed about receiving diamond earrings from her handsome, cardiologist boyfriend. After that, he’s off to a convention in Dublin – or is that a symposium? Convention seems like a rather gauche term for a gathering of cardiologists.

Anna’s drunken ne’er-do-well dad Jack (Lithgow) offhandedly lets drop that in Ireland it is permissible for women to propose to men on Leap Day (February 29) which, as it just so happens, is just a few days hence. Anna boards a plane meant to take her to Dublin. Will she, at last, make it to the Irish capital and propose to her feet-dragging boyfriend?

Of course not. Bad weather diverts the plane to Cardiff, where the same bad weather shuts down the ferry service as well. The closest Anna can get to Dublin is a small village called Dingle, which has a single pub owned by Declan (Goode) who, as Anna finds out when she makes a call, is also the village taxi service. He is at first not willing to drive her to Dublin which he seems to bear some resentment towards, but when a local reminds Declan his kitchen is about to be repossessed and he needs to raise 1,000 Euros within a week, he relents since Anna is offering 500 for the ride. At last, is Anna on her way to Dublin?

Of course not. Stubborn cows, early trains, and bad breaks (or is that bad brakes?) conspire against Anna as the 29th creeps closer and closer. Declan and Anna initially get along about as well as the IRA and the British Army, but soon enough they begin to warm up to each other. Will Anna make it to Dublin in time to propose to her boyfriend…and is he the one she ought to be proposing to?

Writers Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont are well-known “script fixers” in Hollywood and this is their first original script. I say original and yet there is nothing particularly original about it. This is standard romantic comedy fare following typical Hollywood romantic comedy formula; boy meets girl, boy and girl can’t stand each other, boy and girl fall for each other, boy and girl are separated by circumstance or misunderstanding, boy and girl finally realize they need each other and wind up together in the final reel.

The problem here is that there are no surprises. Everything follows the formula down to the letter, never deviating an inch. While Adams is one of the most charming and likable actresses working today, she is given a script which doesn’t utilize her natural abilities much. She comes off as fussy and prissy; it is a tribute to her abilities as an actress that she remains likable in a role which essentially isn’t. Goode is given the standard Irish rogue’s role and does what he can with it, but comes off bland. It isn’t his best work ever, and the movie might well have used it.

The cinematography is simply gorgeous. The movie’s producers wisely chose to shoot in locations not traditionally used in Hollywood, which prove a gorgeous backdrop to the romance. The movie is worth seeing just for the scenery alone. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t measure up to the backdrop.

There are few genuine laughs here and plenty of stock Irish and romantic comedy characters, enough that you have to wonder if the script was not so much written as assembled. There is some charm here, enough that you won’t feel like you have completely wasted your time but this is a movie suffering from a sore excess of Hollywood cliché. The state of romantic comedies in Hollywood is pretty sad; most of them, like Leap Year, follow the stock formula religiously and on those rare occasions where there is some deviation, it is cause for celebration. These days, romantic comedies rely on the likability, charm and chemistry of the leads and if that isn’t there, it’s pretty disastrous. This isn’t quite a catastrophe, but it isn’t a triumph either.

REASONS TO GO: Amy Adams is such a charmer that even with sub-par material she still shines. The area the filmmakers used to film is rarely seen on movie screens and is simply breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: Another romantic comedy with a stale, cliché script. There are no real surprises and not a lot of laughs.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of mild sensuality and a bit of foul language, but suitable for teens and mature tweens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the village of Dingle is ostensibly on the Eastern shore of Ireland, the Aran Islands where those segments were shot are actually off of the Emerald Isle’s West Coast.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the Irish vistas look best on a big screen but overall if this isn’t the kind of film that appeals to you there is no reason not to wait til the DVD or cable release.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: What Just Happened