Picks: Recommended--with Reservations
Pride and Prejudice. Dir. Joe Wright. ( UK). I enjoyed this production of the classic Jane Austen novel, but as the film wore on, I began to realize a simple truth: that Keira Knightly plays Elizabeth Bennett as a younger version of the woman I imagine her to be. She seemed to play her like a 15-year-old—emphasizing more so the flightiness of her character, the coyness of an insecure young woman, a tendency to laugh inappropriately and anxiously, and yet energetic and showing a potential for steely-willed commitment. I very much enjoyed the opening shot of the film—a master tracking shot that dropped us into the world of early 19 th century rural England. That was a fun way to begin. The early part of the film was dominated by energetic camera movements, character movements, and relentlessly fast-paced action. The camera seemed to love to follow Elizabeth wherever she went. XX, who played Darcy, showed restraint—sometimes bordering on boredom and indifference. But I think he has the easier role than Elizabeth. So much depends upon the character Elizabeth. She is the one that holds the family together. She is the moral compass and the emotional compass of the film. I felt that this version of the film was aimed at a younger audience, as if trying to introduce this classic to today’s teenagers. Often the director seemed afraid to portray the immense quiet (and perhaps even boredom) of the daily quotidian—especially the life of young women like Elizabeth, where there would be so much sitting and sewing and reading and writing and then taking long walks in the countryside to get out of the house and doing this day after day and month after month. I missed the down times of the characters in this story. Another way this film was aimed at younger viewers was in the way Elizabeth and Darcy bantered. She was sharp-tongued, and the agenda seemed to be that only a man would be worthy of Elizabeth when he could take her hard-edged criticisms. When the film reached a dark night of the soul for Elizabeth, and we saw her in the rain, and she has the big argument with Darcy and rejects his proposal, I realized that Keira Knightly was a practitioner of the Winona Ryder school of acting—fiery, black-eyed, always bemoaning one thing or the other, casting great sighs and moans—and being, well, just so dramatic! Well, perhaps that’s not fair to Winona Ryder. I think I am getting at the Americanization of this version of the film—that’s what bothered me a tad. Is it possible that there is too much focus on Elizabeth in the film? Certainly Elizabeth grows up in the novel; she comes to realize that she has misjudged Darcy completely. She was guilty of pride; she was guilty of prejudice. But when she finally cracks, and she wanders the moors in desperation—only to run into Darcy—their consummation is more than demonstrative, and the rain of kisses between them reminds me that we have left the early 18 th century behind, Toto, and are now moving steadfastly into the 21 st century. We worship passion, and we find restraint distasteful. But that’s not the way it’s always been. The Elizabeth Bennett I know and love lives in the two DVD set Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, written by the marvelous Andrew Davies for A & E in 2001. Apart from this prejudice on my part, I got something out of this version of the classic novel: I found it entertaining and sometimes enjoyable.
Transamerica. Dir. Duncan Tucker. What worked in this film? The performance of Felicity Huffman was a revelation. She created a remarkable character. Once Stanley Shupack, she was a transgender woman that awaited a sex-change operation that would make her a transsexual woman. Every move she made was sure-footed and agile and portrayed a variety of moods experienced by that character. She made that character come to life. But what did not work in this film? The writer-director suffered two ills—his writing and his directing. This film was billed as a great road movie—where characters take a journey across time and space and learn something about themselves in the process. But the road movie part begins early in the film, and nothing really happens on the road that brings resolution. The young man she takes the trip with—allegedly her son through a liaison with a woman 16 years ago—is characterized superficially, and his acting is not up to the level of Felicity Huffman. It was painful to watch the scenes on the road unfold—and feel that nothing that happened really mattered. The young man was insufferable and boring. Some of the scenes played like Saturday Night Live sketches. Of course, the big secret is that she is his birth father—and he really wants to meet his father. Well, he is driving across country with his father. She just happens to be a woman. When the secret is revealed, the drama falls flat because the young man’s response is one-dimensional. Late in the journey, when their car is stolen, and they are picked up by an American Indian (played beautifully by Graham Greene), the film suddenly takes hold of reality. The old Indian is attracted to the middle-aged woman. They share a chemistry. Here is the film that could have been! Dump the son (who cares about him?) and embrace this woman’s real destiny—in relationships! The climax of the film is when the Felicity Huffman character visits her parents, and then the forced sketch-level comedy really takes off. Now there are moments when the film works; and certainly the encounter with her parents could have been much more profound (and the comedy funnier because of the tragic component of that relationship). The film drifts a great deal at the end before getting at a last scene that does make sense, and does show resolution, and is a worthy scene. The problem is that getting to that scene was awkward and uneven, and all in all contributed to an undermining of the great performance by Felicity Hoffman.
The Upside of Anger. Dir. Mike Binder. This film did not capture my imagination. I saw it as a mediocre version of Terms of Endearment. We have the wild woman living near a retired baseball player (similar to the retired astronaut played by Jack Nicholson). Both films are about an unlikely romance between two lonely people. Both films end with a similar scene that provides closure to the prior action. What was missing? In Terms of Endearment there was a great subplot about the mother’s daughter and her children, and the romance was an original and fascinating relationship. Not so in this film. In Terms of Endearment the mother experiences more than one transformation, and her courage and strength are called upon before the ending scene—especially in one dramatic scene about loss that was intensely dramatic. That brief ending scene in Terms of Endearment was a perfect coda—and it suggested much more to come in the relationship. In The Upside of Anger that ending scene failed to inspire—and a major plot twist just before the ending undercut the earlier direction of the plot and did not offer the main character an opportunity to be transformed in the same way that the mother was transformed in Terms of Endearment. Now I realize I am not writing a review of the latter film. But the point I am making is that too often Hollywood films steal ideas from other films as if producers believe that the formula that worked for one will work for this one. There were some great outrageous scenes in Terms of Endearment; and in this film there are many outrageous scenes. But to me they fell flat. A good example: the two characters, played by Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, are at each other’s throats for most of the film. In a key scene they end up in their two cars at an intersection, and they end up yelling at each other and stopping traffic and this is all supposed to be so cute. Yes, it was cute! But it was a forced kind of “cute,” and I was not moved by it. In the previous scene she calls Denny to see if he would like to have sex! When she goes to his house, he is hiding outside. Cute! Terminal cute! Another example: twice the Costner character, Denny, sits in the mother’s bathroom as she steps out of the shower. He insists that he “was not looking,” but then he admits, “I was looking.” Cute! Terminal cute!
Another downside of this film was that it was told through the eyes of the youngest of three daughters. She is a wise child, savvy about doing multimedia projects, and she offers the closing words in the film—“You wake up one day and are not afraid of the journey. Anger, like growth, comes in starts and fits.” Profound! Terminally profound! So what’s the point of this film? I think we are supposed to believe that the mother’s bizarre behavior is motivated by her anger at her husband—because he left her for some sweet young thing at the office. The problem with this is approach is that she came across to me as terminally nasty, brutish, self-pitying, and erratic. I can handle that level of response if I believe it is motivated by something like grief, and I can imagine the kind of grief felt because of abandonment. But the intensity and genuine nature of that level of emotion never came across to me. I watched a good actor, Joan Allen, playing an opaque character. I did not understand what really motivated her. Then the denouement of the film is a kind of rabbit pulled out of a hat—and that didn’t work for me either. It was enjoyable enough to watch the interactions between the main characters, Allen and Costner. I think Costner’s persona was utilized effectively. He does come across like a fading jock—but the weakness of his acting style becomes apparent when he tries to hit the required reaction shots in key scenes, and I did not think he was able to reach the level of subtly needed to convey complex emotions. Allen can do it, but Costner cannot do it.
War of the Worlds. Dir. Steven Spielberg. The subtitle of this film should be, “Tom Cruise,
family man, saves the world.” The problem
with this film is that it reveals more about the director’s hang-ups and the
cultural values of Americans more than it does about the film as an example
of the art of cinema. In some respects,
Spielberg’s work transcends the art of cinema anyway—because he has been accepted
as a kind of American cultural icon. To many Americans, he is the great American
director, the man who has scared several generations of American filmgoers.
Since 1975, with his direction of Jaws,
he has deserved consideration as a great filmmaker.
Between 1975-1984, he became famous for making great films
about benign aliens (Close Encounters
One of the problems with ET
was the emphasis on the naïve wisdom of children in contrast to the cynical
and manipulative adult world. I have
never appreciated Spielberg’s appropriation of that stereotype. Children are wise, in many respects, but they
function better in the world if they are mentored by wise adults. The next
stage of his career began with The Color
Purple (1985), a film based on the Alice Walker novel. Perhaps his interest in that novel had something
to do with his obsession on the abandoned and/or fatherless child.
But at least the
In short, I do not worship at the altar of Steven Spielberg. His cinema does not feed me as I need to be fed. And that is the problem with War of the Worlds. The film is all Steven Spielberg. He has found another father-figure—this time Tom Cruise—and he has found another beguiling child, wise beyond her years, in Dakota Fanning. But there are no rich characters in this film beyond those two. Tom Cruise is everywhere in this film. He is superhuman. Why is it, when he is in the cage under one of the monsters, that suddenly the people in the cage begin to pull him back from the maw of the monster? Because they know that Tom Cruise is going to save them! And why would monsters bother to pick off one person at a time (such a waste of death rays) when they could vaporize 30-100-5,000 at a time (we can do that with hydrogen bombs!)? Because it looks cool cinematically to see a fleeing person suddenly vaporized before our eyes. Look here critic! You do what sells in this country. Although this film did not bore me, I sat in the theater and was unmoved. Scenes flitted past me, and I was not involved in the story of these characters. It was too late to introduce Tim Robbins as the resident whacko halfway through the film. It was boring to think that the teenaged son (another example of the glorification of the modern suburban family and its alienated male teenagers) had to go over the hill and “see it for himself”—because that would show us that he is made of the same stuff as his father. I felt I was watching something that was marketed rather than created artistically. Where is the artist that snubs his nose at conventionality and cultural mores and says, “Here is my vision of reality; you may be made uncomfortable by it, but please stay tuned and maybe you will be transformed by it!” Why has Spielberg stopped hearing that voice in his head? Why do I not care when Tom Cruise shows up at the end of the film with daughter in hand and is reunited with his real-man son? I do not care because the director has failed to make me want to invest my emotions in these people. Remember the scene where the snake-like robotic arm checks out the basement for any signs of human life? That scene was just another way to let Spielberg show off his cinematic skills. And his cinematic skills are legion. Despite my misgivings, I admit that Spielberg is a craftsman extraordinaire. My concern is that he is providing mediocrity of story and mediocrity of character too much in his cinema of the past 20 years. I suspect I will continue to see his films—but I suspect I will not be inspired by them.
World’s Fastest Indian. Dir. Roger Donaldson. ( New Zealand). Watching Anthony Hopkins is always a delight—as it is in this film. But his performance, although juicy and often over-the-top folksy, is ruined by an average screenplay—and by secondary characters who fail to add any depth to the story. Part of the problem is the emphasis on the little neighbor boy who is absolutely devoted to and inspired by this old man—who putters away his days in his greasy garage using molten metal to fashion pistons for his Indian motorcycle. Bert leaves New Zealand to head for the Great Salt Flats in Utah—the Bonneville Proving Ground—so that he can race his motorcycle against the clock. Apparently the film is based on the true story of the old Aussie who set a land-speed record in a particular class of motorcycle in 1967. The key to this character is simplistic: he makes a friend of everyone he meets because he judges no one—he simply people as they are. He establishes a quick rapport with everyone and that’s that! This idea may be endearing, but it did not work for me—it seemed forced and manipulative. I never really understood the essential character of this old man. Another element of this film is that it is a road picture. When Bert makes it to America, after serving time on a tramp steamer as cook (and winning the hearts and minds of all the crew—naturally), he moves across the California landscape, up through Nevada, and finally up to Salt Lake City. I was reminded a bit of The Straight Story, another film based upon a true story of an old man who motors from Iowa to Wisconsin on an old John Deere riding lawn mower. All I can say is that I believed Alvin Straight’s story—it seemed to be genuine and idiosyncratic and somewhat tragic. I believed that character generated that story. But in this film the character seemed to exist in service of the story—and although I did warm to him, I never felt as if I grasped what he was about. Quite simply, Hopkins carries the film. Without him, the film was less than zero. An image of an old man standing on the salt flats and crying his eyes out—because he stands on holy ground. I believed that image; the actor conveyed it perfectly. And there were a few other moments—especially the scene where he left the cars tagging along with him on a test run—they were all going 95 miles per hour, and suddenly he leaves them in the dust. Just the beauty of the ride—the speed, the freedom from constraints, the elegance of man and machine in harmony—those images stay with me. Years will pass, but I will always remember the performances of actors who have the stature of an Anthony Hopkins. They bring magic to the screen; they light it up and make our lives richer for it.