The First Time

First TimeThe very sweet teen romance written and directed by Jon Kasdan (son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan) is disarmingly honest, with characters that feel so real there isn’t the hint of artifice.  Centered around two teens who meet by accident, become friends, and each decide to give up their virginity to the other, this film will leave you with a warm, gooey feeling that makes it a worthwhile viewing experience.

Aubrey Miller (Britt Robertson) is a junior in high school.  Leaving a party, she sees Dave Hodgman (Dylan O’Brien), a senior at a different high school, rehearsing a declaration of love for his longtime friend, Jane (Victoria Justice).  In spite of herself, she coaches him on how to do it right, explaining several times that she has a boyfriend and that she hates public displays of affection.  When the party gets busted, he walks Aubrey home and they talk about themselves and what they want to do with their lives.  At the door, she invites him inside and he is blown away by the collages that fill her bedroom.  They have some wine and end up falling alseep on the floor curled up together.

The next morning, they are awakened by a knock on her door.  Panicked, Dave spills a wine glass on his way out the window.  Her parents (Joshua Malina and Christine Taylor) lecture her about drinking, but Aubrey convinces them that its better for her to be drinking at home than at a party or driving.  Through friends, Dave is able to get her home phone number and calls her up, wanting to see her again.  She tells him that she’s going to see a movie with her boyfriend, Ronny (James Frecheville), an older guy who is rather obnoxious.  After the movie, one of their friends invites them to a party at her parents’ house and they all go.

During the party, Ronny tells Dave that he is going to have sex with Aubrey later that night and Dave is depressed that her first time should be with such a putz.  He gets some time alone with Jane, but finds that he is no longer interested in her.  Driving around on his own, he gets a call from Aubrey, who has broken up with Ronnie.  He picks her up and they each reveal that they have feelings for the other.  At her door, they kiss passionately.  The next morning, they go out with his little sister, Stella (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who approves of their relationship.

Aubrey finds out that her parents will be out for the evening, so she invites Dave over.  Although they are passionate at first, when Aubrey gets a condom for him, everything slows down and they both become extremely nervous about having sex for the first time, which leads to an unfortunate experience.  Afterwards, they are both depressed and when he leaves, she tells him that she will call, but they both have the feeling that it is over.  Each waiting for the other call, they obsess about their feelings for each other.

Eventually, as she prepares to leave for school, Dave shows up.  Once again, he’s been rehearsing what he wants to say to her, but it comes out simply: he likes talking to her and he wants to keep talking to her and maybe they can figure out what happens next along the way.  She asks him for a ride to school and they talk about maybe doing everything better in the future.  In spite of her hatred of public displays of emotion, she says to hell with it and kisses him passionately outside her school.

There are several reasons why the movie is successful.

One of them is Kasdan’s script, which is so incredibly simple that it really tugs at the viewer’s heart.  Many script writers of teen romances try to complicate the story by throwing in all kinds of unnecessary complications, but Kasdan relies on being a teenager as all the complication required and it works amazingly well.  His direction is also simple, very clean, with lots of long two-shots where the actors are allowed to carry the story without any gimmicks.

The other reason for the movie’s success is the performance of its two leads.  Dylan O’Brien gives us a character who is incredibly innocent, who wants so much to be in love that he targets his best friend, without realizing how different they are.  Britt Robertson creates a character in Aubrey who sees the world through cynical eyes, but ultimately wants nothing more than to be with someone who cares about her.  They are both rock-solid performances, completely believable, and ultimately very likeable, creating terrific chemistry together.

This film is short, simple, very well-made, and very heartfelt, with just enough comedy to offset the deeper emotions that it evokes.

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Norma Rae

Norma Rae 01Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away.  Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.

The following review discusses the entire movie, including the ending, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled for you, I suggest you see it first.

Norma Rae (Sally Field) is a woman in her twenties who works at a textile factory in a small southern town, the only real job available to local workers.  She has been married once and has one child from her ex-husband and another she earned in the back seat of a car with another local boy.  Struggling under minimum wages, she lives with her mother (Barbara Baxley) and father (Pat Hingle), who also work in the factory.  Her only recreation seems to be meeting a traveling salesman for sex whenever he passes through town.  Although all of the workers at the extremely loud factory are upset about their working conditions, Norma Rae is the only one who complains to her bosses.

Norma Rae 02A union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town representing the Textile Workers Union of America to try to organize the workers, but is met with animosity.  Most of the workers fear for their jobs in a town where their jobs are the only jobs to be had.  Norma Rae makes friends with Reuben as he settles in for a long battle.  At a bar, she meets a local man she had known as a child, Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges) and they go out for a beer.  They meet Reuben at the bar and he gives them a ride home because they are too drunk to drive. 

Norma Rae 03Sonny takes Norma Rae out to the lake with her two children and his own daughter from his previous marriage and he proposes to her.  Shortly afterward, they are married and settle into their own home.  The plant manager gives her a promotion and a raise to a job where she spot checks the work of the other workers, but she loses her friends because of it, so she goes back to her regular job on the floor.

When her father dies of a heart attack because his manager won’t let him take a break when he feels breathless, Norma Rae joins Reuben in his fight to establish a union.  She heckles and badgers her neighbors and works tireless hours with Reuben trying to convert people and get enough votes for the union to go through.  The plant managers try a number of tactics to break up the union organizers and one of them is to plant a letter on the bulletin board accusing black workers of running the union effort.  This leads to several beatings of African American workers.  Furious, Reuben asks Norma Rae to get the text of the message.  She tries memorizing it, but that fails and Reuben tells her that she must simply write it down.  She replies that she will be fired, but Reuben assures her the union will stick up for her.

Norma Rae 04She stands at the bulletin board writing down the message when she is confronted by management.  They bring her into the manager’s office and fire her.  She insists on writing down the names of all the managers present and they try to force her to leave.  As they escort her across the factory floor, she turns on them, defiantly proclaiming that they will have to get the sheriff to throw her out.  Standing up on a table, she writes the word “union” on a cardboard sign and turns in a circle showing it to the other workers.  One by one, they shut down their machines in support of her effort.

The sheriff arrives and takes her to jail.  Her one phone call is to Reuben who bails her out and takes her home.  She wakes each of the three children and sits with them on the sofa, explaining what she’s done and reciting her mistakes in life, showing them pictures of their fathers and telling that in spite of all of her mistakes, she has done the right thing in standing up for the union, that her freedom and their future is the most important thing of all.

Her example inspires more people to join the union and when the vote is taken, they narrowly win certification.  Before leaving town, Reuben asks her what she will do now and her answer is simple and concise:  “live.”

Based loosely on a 1975 book, Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann, the script by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch fictionalizes the real Crystal Lee Sutton into Norma Rae Webster, placing the story in a different town, and creating characters different from the real ones in the original book.

Martin’s Ritt’s direction is terrific and one of the reasons Norma Rae is such a good film.  His use of the hand-held camera keeps the movie immediate and kinetic.  The other reason it is a terrific movie is the performance of Sally Fields as Norma Rae.  At the time, she was just beginning to overcome her early type casting as the joyful, innocent girl in the television show The Flying Nun.  Just prior to filming Norma Rae, she had won an Emmy Award for one of the best television dramas ever, Sybil, in which she played a girl with multiple personalities.  Part of what makes her performance so appealing is that she keeps it so down to earth.  Not once during the entire movie is she unbelievable as this uncomplicated, emotional Southern girl who must stand up for her rights.  It is such a good performance that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  It changed her life and broke her out of the mold she had been set in.

The supporting cast is excellent, including a terrific performance as by Ron Leibman as Reuben.  He was kind of shafted in the credits and advertising.  Beau Bridges was a bigger name and even though he has a much smaller role, he was given billing over Leibman.  Both Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley are terrific, too, as are the children in their smaller roles.

This movie is very powerful and it holds a just place in film history.  It should be seen by everyone, but especially those who are unsure what unions are and how they came to be.  It is an excellent film.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About NothingIf you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.

The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons.  After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.

Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina.  Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese).  The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick.  No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero.  Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice.  A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man.  Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night.  He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.

Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).

For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick.  Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.

When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage.  Borachio has the answer.  He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.

The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch.  Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding.  Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy.  Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning.  Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”

Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love.  They pledge themselves to marry.

At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party.  He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock.  The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway.  Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her.  Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.

Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding.  And so, there is a double wedding at the end.

There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic.  For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language.  Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American.  The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn.  Good, young actors contribute a  great deal to the success of this movie.  Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie.  I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal.  Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful?  Apparently so.

The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is.  Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice.  Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.

As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem.  I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous.  From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do.  Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk.  But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.

This isn’t really Whedon’s fault.  Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us.  Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.

Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.

All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

Notorious

Notorious 03The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

This review contains plot spoilers.

When her German immigrant father is convicted of treason in 1945, beautiful Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes on a binge.  Her reputation as a party girl has been well earned, so American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) tries to keep some distance as he prepares to recruit her to spy on her father’s old friends, but he can’t seem to help getting involved with her.  Although she claims not to care about it, Devlin has wiretapped proof that she is a patriot and so he gets her to fly to Rio de Janeiro for a job.

By the time she is settled in Rio, Alicia is in love Devlin and she goes off of alcohol and dedicates herself to him, but he doesn’t quite believe her.  He is still suspicious that she will take another lover when she can.

Her job is to hook up Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father’s friends who made advances to her in the past.  She practically begs Devlin to tell her not to take the job, but he thinks that she should refuse it on her own.  This test of wills leads her to accept the challenge.  She is successful with Sebastian, but he keeps seeing her with Devlin and suspects that she may not really love him.  He dares her to prove her loyalty by marrying him.  Alicia brings her dilemma to the American agents, all of whom want to leave the decision up to her, except for Devlin.  In love with her and angry that she has actually taken Sebastian for a lover, he advises her to go through with the marriage.

Notorious 01Alicia becomes convinced that whatever Sebastian is hiding is kept in his wine cellar, but he has the only to it.  On Devlin’s urging, she steals the key and plans to investigate during a large party.  She invites Devlin and the two of them sneak away during the party to look in the wine cellar.  He accidentally breaks a wine bottle and it is full of uranium.  Although he cleans up the mess and they make their escape, Sebastian has discovered that his key is missing when he goes to get more wine.  He sees Devlin and Alicia together and they kiss to cover their escape from the wine cellar.  Sebastian sees them and realizes that Alicia doesn’t really love him, then, when his key appears on his key ring the next morning, he realizes that she is a spy.

At the urging of his mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), they begin a slow process of poisoning Alicia.  When she grows more and more ill, she cannot make a meeting with Devlin and he becomes suspicious.  He goes to the house to investigate and finds her deathly ill.  Confessing his love for her, he takes her from the house right in front of all of the Germans.  Sebastian begs to go along with them, but Devlin refuses, leaving Sebastian to face the wrath of his ex-Nazi friends.

In its restored version, this black and white film is absolutely beautiful.  Ingrid Bergman was made for the black and white film medium and the camera certainly loves her beauty.  Alicia is a very complicated role and her performance is dynamic and powerful.  Likewise, Cary Grant plays Devlin as a very complicated man and gives probably the best performance of his career, nuanced and detailed.  Hitchcock uses his camera masterfully, creating some of the best shots of any of his films.

Notorious 02The suspense in this movie is palpable, at times so thick that it is almost impossible to watch, but the story is so compelling it is difficult to turn away.  The kisses between Bergman and Grant are incredibly sexy.  In one shot, they kiss, nuzzle, talk, and kiss over and over again for minutes.  The movie also contains one of Hitchcock’s most well known shots, a long crane shot from the second floor of the house, moving inexorably down to a close-up of Bergman’s hand, behind her back, holding the key.

Written by Hollywood’s legendary screen writer, Ben Hecht, Notorious is a masterpiece that must be included among the very best of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies and it should be seen by everyone!

Jane Eyre 2011

Jane Eyre 2011This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

For a detailed plot synopsis, please see my review of the novel at the link below.

The movie begins between the second and third sections of the book, when Jane  (Mia Wasikowska) runs away from Thornfield Hall and becomes lost on the moors.  This is a dramatic departure from the other adaptations, which tell the story in a straightforward manner.  To bring the single most iconic scene to passionate life at the very beginning is both clever and stirring.  After she is found at the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), the first two parts of the story are told in flashback as Jane regains herself and settles into life with St. John and his two sisters, Mary and Diana.  The other two adaptations give the final third of the novel short shrift, but this version, by making it the “present day” of the movie, allows us to experience Jane’s new life and the relationship with St. John to the fullest.

The second innovation is that the script makes the deepest cuts in the first section, Jane’s childhood.  There are good and bad repercussions of this, but in this movie they are mostly good.  The abuse within Mrs. Reed’s (Sally Hawkins) household by both her aunt and her cousins is shown much more dramatically.  The child actress playing Jane at ten, Amelia Clarkson, does a terrific job.  The cruelty of the school is brought out more boldly in this version, as we actually see Jane’s friend, Helen Burns (Freya Parks) being caned by the headmistress.  So, even though this section is shorter, it is much more powerful in setting up Jane’s character.

After leaving Lowood as a 17 year old girl, Jane takes her position at Thornfield Hall.  In this version, it seems much older, more rustic and authentic, dark and brooding, becoming more the character that Brontë created in the novel.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) guides her through narrow hallways, dimly lit by candles.  Her pupil, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), speaks mostly French and is very charming.  Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is offensive, brooding and Gothic.  The entire creation of Thornfield Hall is much spookier than the other versions.  This film also shows the process of Jane and Rochester falling in love, which makes it much more believable.  The script actually brings over some of the dialogue from the book where Jane and Rochester speak during the evening.  The viewer can see Jane challenging him intellectually.

The acting is superb.  Mia Wasikowska gives an extraordinary performance as Jane Eyre, even if she is quite a bit more beautiful than the character in the book.  They try to make her look plain, but Wasikowska’s eyes alone give her away as a beautiful woman.  Likewise, Michael Fassbender is terrific as Rochester, but he’s just a little too handsome.  Nonetheless, these two actors have an extraordinary chemistry that brings a great deal of emotion to the story.  The supporting characters are also very well drawn, again bringing a felicity to the book that is rare in film adaptations.  Jamie Bell is especially good as St. Johns.

Cary Fukunaga’s expert direction brings this wonderful script to life, from creating the rustic Gothic texture of the environment to the beautiful use of light and shadows throughout Thornfield Hall.  The film is full of a kind of shimmering beauty that makes it a wonderful viewing experience.

From almost every point of view, this is a delightful adaptation of a great classic novel.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Jane Eyre 1996Read my review of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie of Jane Eyre.

Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.


 

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.

Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

Jane Eyre 1996

Jane Eyre 1996Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.  That was proven conclusively with the BBC film Pride and Prejudice, presented as a television mini-series five hours long.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre presents particular problems because each of the three distinct elements of the story warrants telling, yet the third section is difficult to fit into a film.  Adapted for the screen by Hugh Whitemore and legendary director Franco Zeffirelli, this 1996 script, like others before it, concentrates on Jane’s childhood and her relationship with the master of Thornfield Hall, but compresses the third part of the book into a few hasty minutes.

For a full synopsis of the story, I refer readers to my review of the novel Jane Eyre.  In short, it is the story of a girl, Jane Eyre (Anna Paquin), in the middle years of 19th Century in England, orphaned and mistreated by her aunt, then sent to an impoverished school for girls.  She grows up to become a teacher (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and is employed at Thornfield Hall by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright) as governess for a little French, ward of the master of the hall, Mr. Edward Rochester (William Hurt).  She falls in love with him, but he is married to a madwoman, so Jane runs away and is taken in by a clergyman, St. John (Samuel West) and his sisters.  The clergyman employs her as a school teacher, but asks her to become his wife and travel with him as a missionary.  She refuses and instead goes back to Thornfield Hall, only to find that it has been destroyed in a fire.  Discovering that Rochester’s mad wife died in the blaze, she reunites with the man she loves.

Director Franco Zeffirelli is a master at camera composition, use of landscape, and color and this film certainly reflects that.  It is beautiful in every respect and can be enjoyed simply for that aspect.  Both Anna Paquin and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wonderful as Jane Eyre at ten and seventeen.  They look so much alike that they are certainly believable as the same person.  That Gainsbourg is made to look plain is a step above most adaptations of the novel and it makes her extra believable in the role.  She also infuses the character with the simplicity and independence that make Jane Eyre such a memorable character.  The creation of Jane Eyre in this film is really terrific!  William Hurt is fine as Rochester, though he is plainly a little too good looking for the part.  There are also a few times when I didn’t believe him as an Englishman, although there is nothing glaring about the performance.  It is solid, but not overly impressive.  The supporting cast is really terrific, especially Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Leanne Rowe as Helen Burns, John Wood as Mr. Brocklehurst, Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Miss Scatcherd, Amanda Root as Miss Temple, Billie Whitelaw as Grace Poole, and Maria Schneider as Rochester’s mad wife Bertha.  Elle McPherson, the model, also makes a cameo as Blanche Ingram, the society woman set on marrying Rochester for his money.

Zeffirelli spends adequate time on Jane’s childhood, especially in framing the friendship between her and Helen Burns.  The middle section that concentrates on the evolving relationship between Jane and Rochester is extremely well done.  The affection between them is difficult to achieve, partly because they are such different people, but Gainsbourg and Hurt work very well together and Zeffirelli helps the viewers to see it happening without using words.  It is masterfully done.

Whitemore and Zeffirelli take a big chance, however, by introducing the characters of St. John and his sister Mary as go-betweens when Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed becomes ill before dying.  Although it tightens up the plot in a creative way, it also puts in place the means of Jane ending up with them later on and leads the screenwriters to completely eliminate what might be the best scene in the entire work: Jane’s wandering the moors alone after she leaves Rochester.  In the novel and in other screen adaptations the scene is extremely powerful.  Jane, without caring for her own life, wanders aimlessly, sleeps in a ditch and is at death’s doorstep when she stumbles onto St. John’s home.  By cutting out that scene, the screen writers have her go directly to St. John based on his prior association with her and her illness is skirted over very quickly.  Likewise, Jane’s enormous confusion over St. John’s proposal is also missing.  In the novel, her thoughts on the proposal provide the entire basis for her return to seek out Rochester and that inner logic hurts the entire last part of the movie.

On the other hand, Zeffirelli brings the film in at slightly under two hours.  It is a beautiful movie, with many positive aspects to it, not the least of which is the most believable Jane I’ve yet seen.  Paquin and Gainsbourg are absolutely marvelous and that means a lot in a story that absolutely depends on the believability of the title character.  I find it a little annoying that William Hurt has top billing because his character is truly ancillary to Jane.

It is a good film and should be seen by all fans of Jane Eyre.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.


Jane Eyre 2011Read my review of the 2011 Cary Fukunaga movie of Jane Eyre.

This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

The Spectacular Now

Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.  Because this is a special film in many ways, this review contains spoilers, so beware if you haven’t seen the movie.

Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) is a high school senior who is the life of the party.  His girlfriend, Cassidy (Brie Larson), just happens to be the coolest girl in school.  He sits down at his computer to answer an essay question for a college entrance exam.  What was your greatest challenge and how did you face it?

His answer centers around how Cassidy has just dumped him.  Always helpful, he had been trying to set up a friend with a girl, but she happened to come with another girl and he just happened to be sitting with her in his car at lakeside drinking when Cassidy discovered them.  He’s almost always drinking, but he doesn’t see that as a problem and he figures that he’ll get Cassidy back pretty quickly, but she has already hooked up with the star athlete, Marcus (Dayo Okeniyi) and has left Sutter in her dust.

He goes out to party and ends up enormously drunk.  The next morning, he is awakened by a girl who finds him laying in someone’s yard passed out.  The girl, Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley) is also a senior at his school, although he doesn’t remember her name.  A semi-geeky girl who likes science fiction and graphic novels, Aimee is way too normal for Sutter, but he can’t find his car so he helps her do her mother’s paper route and ends up having a lot of fun.  He asks her out to lunch, then to a party.  He still isn’t over Cassidy, but she can no longer deal with his lack of ambition and drinking.  Aimee, who has never had a boyfriend, is just happy that he likes her.  He might be a good student, but he just doesn’t care.  There is a certain ennui about him, even though he puts up a good front.  Part of his problem is that his mother, Sara (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a single parent and she keeps him apart from his father.  Sutter remembers playing baseball with his dad and completely blames his mother for “kicking him out of the house.”  His sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is married to a lawyer, doesn’t really care about their father.

Aimee falls in love with Sutter, but he continues to drift, fantasizing about getting back together with Cassidy.  He gradually comes to love Aimee as well, but he does not think he is good enough for her.  The sad thing is that he’s right.  Sutter doesn’t know what to do with himself.  He’s drifting through high school, he doesn’t want next year to happen, and he doesn’t want to make any plans.  In a scene with Cassidy, she begs him to think about the future, but he tells her that all that matters is the “now,” enjoying each moment as it happens.

Accepted into a college in Philadelphia, Aimee tells him that she can’t go because her mother won’t let her so they make a pact: if Aimee will stand up to her mother about going to college, then Sutter will confront his own mother about seeing his dad.  He asks her to the prom and gets her to start drinking alcohol, giving her a personalized flask when he picks her up.  Later, she tells him that she has decided to go to Philadelphia and tells him he should go there with her, that they could get a place together and get jobs while she goes to school.  He doesn’t commit himself to it, but he also doesn’t tell her “no.”  Marcus confronts Sutter about Cassidy, but Sutter tells him that there’s nothing between them.  When Marcus wishes he could make her laugh like Sutter does, Sutter advises him that all he needs to do is relax, to live in the “now.”

When Aimee badgers him into investigating his father, Holly finally gives him the phone number.  Sutter calls his dad (Kyle Chandler) and arranges a meeting, bringing Aimee with him when he goes to visit, but when he discovers that his father is an alcoholic skirt chaser, he sees his own future.  Depressed, he drinks heavily as he drives them back home.  Aimee tries to comfort him, telling him that she loves him, but he belligerently tells her to get out of the car.  When she does, she gets hit by another car.

Although she’s not seriously injured, Sutter’s depression reaches a whole new level.  They graduate, but he feels no joy in it.  She waits at the bus station for him to join her, but he drives by and lets her go off on her own.  Drunk again, he plows down the mailbox in front of his house and gets into a violent argument with his mother.  When he screams at her that she doesn’t love him, she comforts him and tells him that he is a gentle and giving man.  Sutter breaks down and sobs in her arms.

Confronting the computer screen and the question of what his greatest challenge is and how he overcame it, he types in a confession that he is his own greatest problem and that it is a problem he must solve every day going forward, finally recognizing that the “now” will come again tomorrow.  In the final scene, he joins Aimee in Philadelphia.

Even though this film is riddled with problems, there are also many things to like about it.  There is a simplicity in the script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapted from the novel of the same name by Tim Tharp) that is quite engaging and the realistic approach of director James Ponsoldt keeps the viewer constantly involved in the story.  Sutter is a complex person and I have to give high marks to the creative team for making such a deeply layered character and wonderfully consistent throughout the entire film.  Surely, the temptation to make the film a pure romance must have been quite strong, but the movie works hard to keep Sutter real and to deal realistically with his problem, which is immense for a boy of his age.

It is dramatic, it contains a theme that is built and explored in a way that many other films should aspire to, it is very carefully written and well-thought out.

In addition, there are a couple of excellent performances in the movie by Jennifer Jason Leigh (I didn’t even recognize her) as Sutter’s mother and Kyle Chandler as his father.  Each of these actors brings a depth and a reality to their roles that goes even beyond the well-crafted script.  All of the other supporting actors do a good job as well.

The problems are mostly in the production, but one problem in the writing really holds the movie back.  There is nothing likable about Sutter.  As I watched the movie, it was easy to identify him as the protagonist and to feel a certain amount of angst for him, but the writers did nothing to help me like him or really care about him.  My first instinct was to blame the performance of Miles Teller, but I realized at some point that the story should have shown something else to make me care about what happened to him.  That was missing.

Shailene Woodley gives a fine performance as Aimee, but I believe she may have been miscast.  Given the beauty of the actress and Aimee’s terrific personality, I found it simply impossible to believe that she never had a boyfriend or that she was a wall flower.  Girls that special rise to the top because those around them inevitably recognize what’s great about them and give them a special position in the social order.  In fact, Aimee is so special that it is really difficult to believe that in her isolation she could love someone like Sutter.

In his desire to make the movie realistic, I believe that Ponsoldt must have encouraged Teller and Woodley to improvise much of their dialogue because it seems so genuine, however, the constant use of “awesome” and “amazing” and “cool” becomes almost funny at some points.  Sure, it’s probably realistic.  One can imagine real teens talking this way, but it sure makes them seem a lot less intelligent.  There should be an argument on this point because the question of realistic dialogue comes up over and over again.  My own personal opinion is that the clever screenwriter will use just enough teen clichés to make the dialogue believable, but back off before it becomes a running gag.  I think what happened in this movie was improvisation on the actor’s parts.  I don’t know that for a fact, but it feels that way.  Good and bad.

The ending probably should have been retooled as well.

Although the scene of Sutter writing his new answer is effective, I never had the feel of a real denouement, a crystal moment of realization in which Sutter knows how he needs to change his life and dedicates himself to doing so.  Maybe it is more realistic that he has a hint of what he needs to do and points himself in the right direction, but in the interval between breaking down with his mother and writing his new answer, I would have liked to see something that really gave him a positive direction.

Even given all of these problems, I still recommend this film, not only to film students, but to people who want to see a teen romance that has some backbone to it, a film that challenges itself to do better and makes a very positive footprint in the right direction.

The good outweighs the bad.