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RachelGettingMarried_9Rachel Getting Married

This is a film that is uncertain of its genre.  It starts out and has the feel throughout of a slice of life movie, yet, underneath, a great tragedy is struggling to get out, and, at the end, it bursts into a kind of feel-good film.


realitybitesReality Bites

This 1994 movie, written by Helen Childress and directed by Ben Stiller, touches on a number of issues for young people, including attachment to brands, rejection of previous generations, employment difficulties, and romantic angst.  Highly successful at the time, much of the movie can be said to be just as valid for today’s young adults as it was when released.


Rear-Window-pic-2Rear Window

A nation of Peeping Toms.  That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.


Goldsworthy 01Rivers and Tides

Andy Goldsworthy

Working with Time

The violent colors of autumn leaves, an iron-rich rock that turns water blood red, blackened stalks, great slabs of ice, thorns, chipped rocks: these are the materials that Andy Goldsworthy uses to create his ephemeral art.


Audry Hepburn Roman HolidayRoman Holiday

This classic romantic comedy is as much fun today as it was when the film was first released in 1953.  It is built around two lies of identity told to each other by the main characters so that they can spend a day together in Rome.


ruby-sparksRuby Sparks

Ruby Sparks is a brilliant 2012 romantic fantasy.  Both a comedy and a drama, it never falls into the genre of romantic comedy, but blazes its own original, fantastic trail.  Written by Zoe Kazan and directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the film has a single, organic arc that shoots into the sky like a brilliant firework, ultimately exploding into fragments that all make perfect sense.

Rachel Getting Married

RachelGettingMarried_9This is a film that is uncertain of its genre. It starts out and has the feel throughout of a slice of life movie, yet, underneath, a great tragedy is struggling to get out, and, at the end, it bursts into a kind of feel-good film.

In Stamford, Connecticut, Kym (Anne Hathaway) is given a weekend pass from her drug rehab center to attend the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). She is picked up by her father, Paul (Bill Irwin) and stepmother, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), so the presence of two inter-racial marriages is brought front and center.  As if that wasn’t interesting enough, the wedding has a East Indian theme, with a group of fascinating Middle-eastern musicians who provide a kind of world music backdrop to the action and featuring Robyn Hitchcock, singing and performing.

Right from the beginning, Rachel and Kym clash and it is a battle that will carry until nearly the conclusion of the film. Kym is totally self-absorbed and constantly turns what should be a joyous occasion for Rachel into a story about her own problems.  Recognizing the Best Man, Kieran (Mather Zickel), from Narcotics Anonymous, she has sex with him and he reveals that she is not to be Maid of Honor. Rachel has asked her best friend, Emma (Anisa George) for that honor and Kym becomes extremely upset, thinking that it should have been her.  Exasperated, Rachel asks Emma to step down and let Kym be Maid of Honor.

At the rehearsal dinner, where we finally meet their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), amid a great many toasts, Kym apologizes to Rachel for her screwed up life, but afterwards Rachel viciously attacks her for making the wedding all about her and not about Rachel and Sidney.

The next time Kym goes to her Narcotics Anonymous meeting, she explains how, when she was totally messed up on drugs, she drove off a bridge and killed her little brother, Ethan, who could not get out of his child seat. Once this is revealed, we see the real tragedy emerging: the blame from Rachel and the protectiveness of Paul now make perfect sense.  Kym’s inability to forgive herself is at the center of the movie.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that the very best part of the movie is the wedding itself.

First, the good news.

All of the acting is stunningly good, especially the two leads, Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, who deliver such a natural feel to their characters that they are absolutely beyond a doubt believable and empathetic. You really care about them and what happens to them and you root for them to solve their problems and find a way out of their problems.  There were times when one or the other of them nearly brought me to tears with their beautiful performances.  The supporting cast is also incredible.  Bill Irwin and Debra Winger are so honest and believable as the divorced parents of the girls that not once do you question their action.  Anna Deavere Smith is also terrific and every supporting character has the solid feel of being a real person.

Filmed in a cinema verité style using hand-held cameras, sparked by extensive improvisation by the actors, the film sparkles as a slice of life movie.  This is the way people talk and act, in kind of a haphazard way that just doesn’t feel scripted at all.  Much of the credit for this success belongs to director Jonathan Demme, who urged the cast to be acting all of the time as a cadre of cameras worked their way around the set and the musicians improvised a soundtrack that was recorded at the same time as the dialogue.

This film was written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of terrific director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne. A middle school drama teacher, she has attempted several screenplays, but this is her first effort actually produced.  Since I haven’t seen the screenplay—and since director Jonathan Demme depends a great deal on actor improvisation in this movie—it is impossible for me to judge the quality of the script. 

That being said, the film has a few obvious problems and I’m inclined to ascribe them more to Demme’s direction and control over the editing than Lumet’s screenplay.

At one hour and 53 minutes, this movie is at least 30 minutes too long. Demme filmed long, improvised scenes at the rehearsal dinner, the musical portion of the dinner, and at the wedding itself where he simply fell in love with the ensemble and included much, much more than was needed in the final cut.  Everything that takes away from Kym’s and Rachels conflict should have been cut down to size.  A sampling would have done the job and put us back soundly into the main story.  Sometimes what is left on the cutting room floor will determine whether a movie is good or great and I’m inclined to think that is the case here.  If it had been tightened up, then perhaps the tragedy and feel-good ending would have come together to make a truly great film, but the slice of life aspect overcomes everything else and makes the film really drag in places.

Anne Hathaway was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film and she certainly deserved it. In fact, there could have been multiple acting nominations because all of the actors are just that good.  Much of the directing is also excellent and all of the music is amazing.  All of the ingredients for a great film are present.

Ultimately, I think someone needed to step forward and say, “This is a about Kym and Rachel and we’re going to focus and hone the movie to that purpose.” The ending would have been much more poignant if it had been the natural outcome of a drama built steadily in that direction.  Perhaps the slice of life aspect of the movie would have suffered some, but I honestly believe that this movie has a great deal more in it and that great deal should have been more tightly focused.

Becoming Jane

Becoming JaneOur general fascination with all things Jane Austen continues with this 2007 fictional glimpse into one short period of her life: that time when she was attracted to Tom Lefroy and would have formed an engagement if not for the objections of his family. I say fictional because the filmmakers have taken considerable license with what we understand as historical fact.  This is something movies do all of the time, but with Jane Austen it is best to take special care because her fans are quite dedicated.

It is a Sunday morning in 1795 in Hampshire, England. At the cottage of the Reverend George Austen (James Cromwell), youngest daughter Jane (Anne Hathaway), toils away at her writing while her sister Cassandra (Anna Maxwell Martin) and the others sleep.  When the servants get to work, Jane begins to play her piano loudly to wake everyone up.  Cassandra has just become engaged to Robert Fowle (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) who must travel to the West Indies to earn his pulpit.  The local grand dame, Lady Gresham (Maggie Smith) is resolved that her nephew, Mr Wisley (Laurence Fox) will marry Jane, despite her poverty, but Jane is much less certain.  She desires to marry for love, not money, as is the custom.

Meanwhile, in London, young law student Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy) drinks and carouses his way into the bad graces of his uncle, the Lord Chief Judge of the high court (Ian Richardson). Although he comes from a poor Irish family, his uncle is without heirs and Tom depends on the possible inheritance as the only way his family can survive.  After a night of drinking, Tom arrives late to court and his uncle berates him for his lack of decorum.  As punishment, and as a possible tonic for his Tom’s decadent lifestyle, his uncle sends him to the country to stay with relatives.

Arriving bored and angry, his friend Henry Austen (Joe Anderson) invites him to attend a tea to celebrate Cassandra and Robert’s engagement. Jane reads a lengthy, comedic tribute to the happy couple, but later overhears Tom disparaging her writing. In a pique of anger, she burns her marriage tribute and questions her other writing.  Henry, one of Jane’s older brothers who has just graduated from Cambridge, has also brought a priggish friend, John Warren (Leo Bill) to the party and he becomes smitten with Jane, although she finds his bumbling manner offensive.  Tom’s relations include his cousin, young Lucy Lefroy (Jessica Ashworth) who has a crush on Tom and hopes to make a match with him.  A member of the Austen party is Jane’s cousin, Eliza, the Comtesse de Feullide, who had been married to a French count, beheaded during the Revolution.  She takes a shine to Henry and hopes that her wealth will provide a means for him to become an officer in the English Navy.

Walking in the woods, Jane encounters Tom and they exchange uncivil words, but despite his criticism of her writing, Tom sees her intelligence and wit and is attracted to her. During an accidental meeting in the Lefroy library, he gives her a copy of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones so that she can experience a more visceral form of writing.  When they discuss the morality of it, he remarks that good people can come to a bad end, but Jane has already grasped the prime purpose of what a good novel should be.  “A novel should reveal the true source of our actions,” she tells him.  This is the heart of good fiction: action must be organic.

Mr. Wisley finally asks to Jane to marry him, but she cannot in good conscience say yes to him. She doesn’t love him, although she is beginning to respect him.  Her mother (Julie Walters) is very distressed by this refusal, but her father takes it more in stride.  Even so, he is realistic about the world.  “Nothing destroys spirit like poverty,” he tells Jane.  But Jane wants to marry for love and gradually realizes that she loves Tom.  At a ball, Lady Gresham confronts Jane, telling her explicitly that her nephew’s offer of marriage is the best that Jane can ever expect in her life and that she has a duty to her impoverished family to accept.  Outside, by the fountain, she and Tom profess their love to each other and pledge that they will try to find a way to make it work.

On the way to visit Jane’s older brother, Edward, Tom invites Jane, Eliza, and Henry to stay with his uncle in London, hoping that Jane will make a good impression, but at dinner, Jane contradicts the Lord Justice on the nature of irony and falls into disfavor. Unable to sleep, Jane begins drafting a new story, First Impressions, which turned out to be the first draft of Pride and Prejudice.  Before Tom can tell his uncle that he wants to marry Jane, the Lord Justice receives a letter informing him that Jane is a penniless husband-hunter.  He turns his back on them and Tom has only one option if he wants to inherit his fortune: he must abandon Jane.

Directed by Julian Jarrold, the movie was filmed almost exclusively in Ireland, with assistance from the Irish Film Board, mostly because Hampshire had become too clean and modernized. It is a beautiful film, no doubt.  The cinematography by Eigil Bryld brings the English countryside to life, even if it was filmed in Ireland.  Trust me, you won’t notice the difference.

The script, drafted by Sarah Williams and finalized by Kevin Hood, was based on a the book, Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Hunter Spence, uses some historical facts, but mashes everything up to create a good romantic film.  The best of it provides terrific glimpses into influences on Austen’s writing, such as Lady Gresham’s remark that there is “a lovely-ish wood” nearby that Jane and Mr. Wisley could walk in or Wisley’s fragmentary remark that “it is a truth universally acknowledged.”  Certainly Lady Gresham bears a striking resemblance to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and there is evidence that she used her own mother and father as models for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.  Jane’s relationship with Cassandra is compared to Lizzie and Jane, but they could also be Elinor and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility.  The bumbling John Warren is very close indeed to Mr. Collins.  All of this is extremely well done, if a trifle obvious in places.  It is a witty and emotional script, very well written.  However, if readers are seriously interested in Jane Austen’s life, I would recommend the biography Jane Austen: A Life, by David Nokes.  This is an excellent book and is much more factual than the movie.

The acting is first rate, especially the supporting cast. James Cromwell and Julie Walters as Jane’s parents are terrific, as are Maggie Smith, Ian Richardson, and Anna Maxwell Martin.  Helen McCrory is remarkable as Mrs Radcliffe, the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho, whom Jane meets on her stopover in London.

James McAvoy brings a lot of soul to Tom Lefroy, elevating him far beyond the carousing rascal he starts out as, into a man who must carry his own pain with him throughout his life.

Jane Austen Portrait

But the movie is centered around Jane Austen and Anne Hathaway’s performance is critical to the movie’s success. I have read that many English critics have found fault with her English accent and others are affronted by the fact that she is American and not English.  These things did not bother me.  And I found her performance to be very strong and very affecting.  She amused me and moved me and must be accorded as giving a very good performance.  My only issue is personal.  I have a certain view on Jane Austen that has been fostered by my own reading, by my study of her biography, and by the one picture that seems to capture her essence.  I think her weight was an essential part of her character, that her own roundness helped to reveal who she was.  Hathaway is thin, she looks harshly angular and skinny and despite her truly remarkable performance I simply could not accept her as Jane Austen.  Perhaps this is a failing on my part, but I would have much preferred to someone a little closer to Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

anne-hathaway-becoming-jane-GC

I was also a little irked by the historical inaccuracies. For one thing, Jane Austen was incredibly well-read and was certainly familiar with Fielding’s Tom Jones as a classic of the times.  I also found it troublesome that she would consider eloping with Tom Lefroy.  Austen was a girl of her times and would not pull a Lydia Bennet.  Their daft brother, George, was secreted away and the family never saw him, yet here he is included as if they saw him every week.

These are, of course, minor objections in a movie that largely succeeds and makes a worthy addition to film canon of Jane Austen. Everyone who is deeply into Austen should see the film and make up their own minds.  For my part, I liked it in spite of myself.  I was moved by both Jane and Cassandra and I loved their relationship.  It is probably quite close to their real relationship and is very moving.  Overall, I found the movie to very affecting and I must recommend it.