Hysteria (2011)


You'll find this in the dictionary under "knowing look."

You’ll find this in the dictionary under “knowing look.”

(2011) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Felicity Jones, Gemma Jones, Anna Chancellor, Malcolm Rennie, Kim Criswell, Georgie Glen, Elisabet Johannesdottir, Linda Woodhall, Kim Selby, John Overstall, Ann Comfort, Jonathan Rhodes, Leila Schaus, Ellie Jacob. Directed by Tanya Wexler

Medicine is a field of study that is ever changing. What we KNOW for sure one year is medieval foolishness the next. The human body is a mystery that we have yet to get a real handle on.

In Victorian times, medicine was positively barbaric. Going to a doctor was just as liable to get you killed as the illness or injury you had. Still, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Some scientific sorts were challenging widely-held beliefs through research and the scientific method. Things we today take for granted – the changing of bandages on wounds to prevent infection, the washing of hands before examinations and surgeries, these things were brand new then.

Given the Victorian view on women, it is unsurprising that their mood swings, feelings of frustration and general anxieties were all lumped together not so much as female foolishness but as a catch-all diagnosis – hysteria. Women could be committed to asylums or jailed because of it, or if criminally charged could have forced hysterectomies performed on them (and yes, that is where the term comes from).

However, there were doctors who treated that sort of thing. Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Pryce) was one. He had discovered that women with these complaints (and other similar ones) often found relief by a technique that involved manual stimulation of the genitalia. With a discrete tent-like curtain up, he would let his fingers do the walking and soon enough the woman would experience what he called a paroxysm. It’s what we today call an orgasm, although it was thought at the time that females didn’t experience sexual pleasure. Medieval foolishness, remember?

Anyway, his practice is getting so large that he needs to take on some additional help and it looks like Dr. Mortimer Granville (Dancy) is just the ticket. While he has a tendency to question the methods of established physicians which has basically put him in a position where nobody is willing to hire him, he manages to convince Dr. Dalrymple that he will behave himself. Seeing as Dr. Dalrymple is desperate not to mention that his field of expertise is frowned upon by the medical establishment, it seems they both need each other.

Granville being young and handsome soon becomes a hit with the female patients, but also with the residents of Dr. Dalrymple’s home including Emily (F. Jones), Dr. Dalrymple’s youngest daughter and a proper Victorian lady at that; and Charlotte (Gyllenhaal), his oldest who is the source of all the good doctor’s grey hair. Miss Charlotte you see is a non-conformist, a sort of pre-feminist who runs a shelter paid for by dear old papa who more than likely is happy enough to get her out of his sight. There’s also the randy young maid Molly (Smith) who flirts outrageously with the good Dr. Granville.

Dr. Dalrymple is having none of that however. He feels that Dr. Granville is a fine catch, someone who can partner with him in the practice and marry his youngest to seal the deal. However, Dr. Granville is becoming a victim of his own success; he has begun to develop muscular cramping and pain – most likely what we would call Carpal Tunnel syndrome. However his good friend Edmund St. John-Smythe (Everett), a kind of brilliant slacker, has invented an automatic feather duster, the movements of which remind Dr. Granville of the same motions he uses to stimulate his patients. Thus, the vibrator is born.

Female sexuality is still largely taboo in many ways even more than a century later. Our country is just as prudish as Victorians when it comes to women having sex, let alone enjoying it. Even discussing the subject is thought to be perversion. I personally don’t get why but I guess that I’m just slow on the uptake. The movie has a wonderful opportunity to talk about this subject and give it some weight.

Sadly, the filmmakers choose to make it more of a lighthearted farce than an examination of the attitudes towards women in general and their sexuality in particular. Still, the movie does at least invite conversation on the subject which is at least something. It also has the brilliant Maggie Gyllenhaal who takes a movie that occasionally loses focus and gives it life and energy. While occasionally the role of Charlotte becomes strident, Gyllenhaal gives her enough soul to make her sympathetic rather than irritating.

Everett and Pryce, both veterans who are normally counted on for fine performances, give a decent go of it but Dancy who has had some pretty good turns on both the small screen and the big is largely colorless here which is kind of odd for him. If he’d had half the energy Gyllenhaal did this would have been a movie contending for year-end awards. As it is, it is a movie that has some moments both of pathos and humor with a modicum of thought-provoking on the side. Even despite the movie’s flaws that’s still a recipe for success in my book.

WHY RENT THIS: Gyllenhaal is likable indeed and Smith is fabulously sexy here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Trivializes the subject a bit. Too low-key.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would guess from the subject matter, there is plenty of sexuality and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original electromechanical vibrator was portable but required a wet cell battery that weighed 40 pounds.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An abridged documentary on the female orgasm as well as a Q&A session with Dancy, Wexler and Pryce at the Tribeca Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.5M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Real Genius

Leaving (Partir)


There's no passion quite like illicit passion...

There’s no passion quite like illicit passion…

(2009) Romance (IFC) Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi Lopez, Yvan Attal, Bernard Blancan, Aladin Reibel, Alexandre Vidal, Daisy Broom, Berta Esquirol, Gerard Lartigau, Genevieve Casile, Philippe Laudenbach, Michele Ernou, Jonathan Cohen, Helene Babu. Directed by Catherine Corsini

Cinema of the Heart

Cheating on a spouse is one of the great universal taboos. It is not acceptable in any culture that I’m aware of, although there seems to be some tolerance in some European cultures for middle aged men to have younger mistresses.

That same tolerance isn’t extended to middle aged women however. Case in point, Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, a French film which explores the subject. Middle aged Suzanne (Thomas) has lived most of her life in France (she’s English) and had put her successful career as a physical therapist on hold to raise her children. Now that they’re nearly gone, she’s eager to resume her career and to that end her tightfisted husband Samuel (Attal), a physician, is remodeling a shed in the yard to serve as her office. He’s hired Ivan (Lopez), a Spanish emigrant, to do the work – under the table, of course.

When Suzanne forgets to set the parking brake on her car, sturdy Ivan chases it down but it runs over his foot. Mortified, Suzanne feels a bit guilty knowing that he was planning to travel to Spain and visit his daughter from another marriage. She feels obligated to drive him there. Along the way they get to talking, get to know each other…and at the trip’s conclusion, they kiss.

Of course one thing leads to another and soon the two are embarking on a torrid physical affair. At first Suzanne is happy for the first time in a very long time and soon she comes to realize that her marriage has been a loveless sham. She wants this. She wants it all. And she tells Samuel so.

Big mistake. Samuel as you can guess doesn’t take all too kindly to this. When Suzanne leaves, he freezes all her funds. She is left with no money and no career. As her finances dwindle into desperation stage, she resorts to taking some of her things from her home. When Ivan tries to sell them, he’s arrested for stealing them as Samuel had reported them stolen.

When Suzanne begs Samuel for mercy, he tells her quite matter-of-factly if she returns home to her old life, Ivan will be set free. The horror of her situation causes Suzanne to faint. But unconsciousness won’t put off the decision for too long – and it’s a decision with ramifications far beyond what’s expected.

Now on paper it sounds pretty straightforward. Love is the answer, isn’t it? Wellllllll, not always. Suzanne’s commitment to Samuel is both legal and moral and breaking it isn’t without repercussions in both areas. Her carnal re-awakening seems to have overwhelmed her thoughts about the ramifications of her actions to her children and her community. But she’s entitled to happiness, isn’t she?

It’s a delicate question. Samuel seems to be quite a good guy at least initially – a little bit miserly but nothing too horrible. He seems genuinely supportive of his wife. It is only after the affair becomes known to him that he turns into a real bastard. Attal captures both sides of Samuel quite nicely.

Thomas, an Oscar winner for The English Patient, has become one of the biggest stars in France and is quite frankly one of the best actresses on the planet although she isn’t usually considered as such here but she makes Suzanne compelling, even though she’s not always what you would call the nicest of people. She’s kind of a bitch in fact and when we see her faced with her worst dilemma, her reaction is not only unjustified but it’s not unexpected.

This isn’t a hearts and roses kind of movie. It really looks at the seedier side of love and the results are catastrophic for everyone involved. There are some very intense sex scenes here with Thomas and Lopez, but the affair seems to be much more about the physical than about the romantic. It’s a fairly cynical look at love which is a pretty un-Gallic point of view in my opinion. Still, Thomas is so excellent and the cinematography so beautiful that one can overlook the fairly unremarkable story and consider the double standard I alluded to earlier – how different a film would this have been if it had been Samuel having the affair?

WHY RENT THIS: Thomas at her very best. Highly erotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pedantic story really has little to say. Lead characters are so selfish and unlikable that it is difficult to root for them.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of sexuality and some violence; also a bit of bad language and situations more suitable for adults than children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leaving represents the 15th film directed by Corsini since her first La mesange in 1982.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I think the movie most likely broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day 2

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Keanu Barada Nikto.

(20th Century Fox) Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith, Jon Hamm, Kyle Chandler, Robert Knepper, James Hong, John Cleese. Directed by Scott Derrickson

It is no secret that we have been poor custodians of our planet. One wonders what superior intelligences might think if they noticed us, and if they would be moved to step in.

Dr. Helen Benson (Connelly) has a full plate. Not only is she an academic with a classroom-full of disinterested minds, she has an unruly stepson named Jacob (Smith) who has been acting out ever since his father – her late husband – died in Iraq.

One night she is fetched by stern, humorless military sorts who escort her from her home to an unknown destination. They won’t – or can’t – tell her what’s going on, but there is no doubt it’s serious; a busy freeway has been completely closed off for the benefit of their motorcade.

It turns out there’s a spaceship approaching Earth and it appears it is going to land in Central Park, which should have alerted the Men in Black immediately. Instead, we get the Army with a bunch of trigger-happy jarheads that open fire the moment something emerges from the spaceship, which is actually a sphere of swirling green.

Lots of these spheres have landed all over the Earth, but none of them have a giant robot (which is called Gort after some military acronym that I forgot five seconds after the line was spoken). It is about to open up a can of giant robot whoopass on the Army when the fallen alien speaks “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” Truer lines have never been spoken.

While recovering from its gunshot wound, the alien begins to evolve at an accelerated rate, eventually evolving into Keanu Reeves (I guess the alien wasn’t done evolving yet…thanks folks, I’ll be here all week). The alien, whose name is Klaatu, demands to be taken to our leaders (sorry, I couldn’t resist) which according to Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Bates) is out of the question. Instead, she sets up Klaatu to be interrogated. This is what is known in the biz as a bad choice.

Using powers beyond human ability, he escapes and seeks out Dr. Benson, the only human who has treated him with any kindness at all. The government is absolutely bonkers to get him back and puts out an APB, which means that everyone is chasing Klaatu, Dr. Benson and the spoiled brat…I mean Jacob. Dr. Benson finds out to her horror that Klaatu represents a coalition of aliens that have been observing our planet and are very disappointed at how we’re treating our planet. Therefore, in order to save this life-giving orb, they need to wipe out the parasites that are killing it…namely us. She must find a way to convince him that we are worth saving, otherwise we’ll be joining the dinosaurs on the woulda coulda shoulda list.

Obviously this is based on the 1951 classic sci-fi film of the same name. Derrickson and his writers are relatively faithful to the original, making only minor changes in the overall story but some of them are rather crucial. While the first was an anti-war and anti-nuclear holocaust warning, this one is squarely on the side of those scientists who have been making dire predictions about where the planet is going (and somewhere, Al Gore is smirking “See? You shoulda voted for me”). It’s the details which are vastly different and quite frankly, therein lies the devil.

While this isn’t particularly a special effects-driven movie, they are pretty spectacular when the movie chooses to use them. The robot Gort, who is 28 feet tall (20 feet taller than the original Gort), is particularly menacing although some purists were screaming when they found out that Gort was actually a biological being and not mechanical.

On that score, I have my doubts about Keanu Reeves. His stiff, emotionless demeanor actually works here as an alien being. He is well matched with Connelly, who is one of the more expressive actresses we have going. She is the yin to his yang in the movie, and that makes the movie far more successful than it might have been otherwise; whereas Keanu is the movie’s brain, Connelly is the heart.

Monty Python’s John Cleese does a fine turn in a non-comedic role as a scientist Helen brings Klaatu to talk to in a last-ditch effort to convince him not to kill everybody. Bates is always dependable to be plucky although she brings an element of menace that she usually doesn’t display. Jaden Smith, excellent in The Pursuit of Happyness is merely average here; he’s such a brat that you just want to throw him under the nearest freight train, which I suppose must mean he’s a plenty good actor because if he was really that whiny and disrespectful, his dad Will Smith would have long ago put the fear of Gawd into him.

If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it tends to be a bit preachy and a little overbearing. While I get the urgency of the message, I still get peeved when someone feels the urge to nag me about it, even if it is for my own good. It’s enough to make me want to trade in my Hybrid for a Hummer.

The movie may have been a little too thoughtful for its own good in that regard. It surprisingly doesn’t disgrace the original, which I quite expected it to do – that’s a very high bar to live up to – but it doesn’t measure up to it either, which I also quite expected from it. This won’t make the Earth stand still, but it might just make it take notice if we’re lucky.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some very nifty special effects and Connelly makes a great every-woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a little bit over-ponderous and preachy.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of global disaster and some occasionally disturbing violence; those prone to nightmares and the more sensitive sorts should probably not see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Central Park bridge under which the surviving heroes take shelter with at the movie’s conclusion is the same one used at the end of Cloverfield.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on the eco-friendliness of the production as well as on the real-life search for extra-terrestrial life. Visual Effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun discusses how the filmmakers arrived at the final version of Gort, which is fascinating stuff. The Blu-Ray edition has a feature that allows you to design your own Gort, and finally as a special bonus treat, the two and three disc DVD editions as well as the Blu-Ray edition come complete with the 1951 version this movie is based on, starring Michael Rennie and the late Patricia Neal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $233m on an $80 production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Killshot