Elizabethtown

 

ElizabethtownIf ever there was a candidate for a movie that needed a Second Look, it is the 2005 Cameron Crowe romantic comedy-drama, Elizabethtown.  Crowe wrote and directed the film, which features music by his wife, Nancy Wilson, one-half of the musical duo Heart.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a rising young star in a world-beating athletic shoe company in Oregon (think Nike) working for a man named Phil (Alec Baldwin).  He has designed what the company has hyped as the next great shoe, Späsmotica, but just before it is released, the reviews start tumbling in and it turns out that it is the biggest turkey ever put out by the prestigious firm, doomed to loose the company close to a billion dollars.  He has to say goodbye to his job and his girlfriend Ellen (Jessica Biel).

When he gets home, Drew rigs his exercycle with a knife in an effort to kill himself, but before he can actually do the deed, his sister, Heather (Judy Greer) calls him to inform him that their father, Mitch (Tim Devitt) has died and that he must go to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, his father’s home town, to cremate the body so that he can bring the ashes back to Oregon.  As they talk, their mother, Hollie (Susan Sarandon) is freaking out trying to cook.  On the flight, he meets offbeat, perky flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) and they have an immediate affinity for each other.  She gives him directions on how to get from Louisville to Elizabethtown and gives him her phone number.

After arriving, his cousin, Jessie (Paul Schneider), a former member of country-rock band called Ruckus, greets him and re-introduces him to his dad’s friends and family, including Uncle Dave (Loudon Wainwright III) and Aunt Dora (Paula Deen).  They had planned on a burial in Elizabethtown and are completely against cremation.  He checks into his Louisville hotel and finds him in the middle of gigantic wedding party, “Chuck and Cindy: The Wedding.”  He tries to call Heather, Ellen, and Claire with no luck, then Heather calls him and tells him he needs to return at once to deal with Hollie, who is still freaking out.  Ellen calls him to break up and finally he gets on the line with Claire who is just returning home.  They begin a conversation that lasts all night long, discovering more and more how much they like each other and they finally meet half-way to watch the sun rise together.  They spend the day together and shop for his father’s urn.  Along the way, Drew becomes friends with Chuck and Claire practically joins the wedding party.

With so much going on around him, Drew just doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to grieve for his father’s loss, but he does keep revisiting the man in the form of flashbacks to his childhood.  At one point, Drew is ready to call off the cremation, but it is too late.  The deep has been done, so he collects the urn.  Claire shows up at his hotel again and they finally consummate their relationship, but the next morning, she prepares to leave.  Drew catches her in the hotel parking lot and explains about his monumental failure with the shoe company.  To her credit, Claire doesn’t care, but there is still something that keeps her from committing to him.  She explains several times that both of them are stand-ins, one side of an incomplete relationship and that this role is one they have to play.

As romantic comedies go, this is a very smart one, always entertaining, and deeper than it probably should be.  Crowe is an excellent screen writer and he really knows how to tell a story.  His characters get under your skin and you can’t help but root for them to have success.  Both Drew and Claire are extremely well-written and their romance is something that feels very special, maybe as special as Chuck and Cindy?  Could be.

However, even with such a great script and excellent director on hand, the movie could have easily failed—and nearly did.  The first actor cast as Drew, Ashton Kutcher, apparently had no chemistry at all with Dunst and was replaced after filming had started with Bloom.  It was a brilliant decision because the character of Drew must carry the film and Bloom is extraordinary in the role.  I don’t often rave about young actors suddenly fulfilling their promise, but Orlando Bloom is so engaging, both in the comedy and in the drama, that it is pretty much impossible not to like him and pull for him.  Dunst gives one of the best performances of her career and the worldly, carefree Claire, someone that every guy I know would love to meet.

I always love seeing Susan Sarandon in any movie she does and she is great once again as Drew’s mother Hollie, bringing a careless wonder to a woman trying to cope with the loss of beloved husband.  As if that wasn’t enough, the ensemble cast is terrific.  Paul Scheider is great as cousin Jessie, Bruce McGill is hilarious as Bill Banyan, and both Deen and Wainwright are wonderful in their cameos.

One staple of any Cameron Crowe film is great music and Nancy Wilson has obliged us with a big catalogue of mix and fill music, as well as her own film score that compliments the action and the mix music perfectly.

The end of the film is quite something and I find that I can watch Drew’s trip cross-country back to Oregon again and again for the footage of the great central United States.  And I love that Mitch’s final resting place isn’t one place, but rather an entire country.  I can’t help wishing that I had a son like Drew to help distribute me between Lincoln, Nebraska, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Francisco, California. 

What a way to go!

E

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If ever there was a candidate for a movie that needed a Second Look, it is the 2005 Cameron Crowe romantic comedy-drama, Elizabethtown.  Crowe wrote and directed the film, which features music by his wife, Nancy Wilson, one-half of the musical duo Heart.  As romantic comedies go, this is a very smart one, always entertaining, and deeper than it probably should be. 


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Little Women (1994)

Little Women 1994This Robin Swicord adaptation of Luisa May Alcott’s classic novel is very good, considering that the movie comes in under two hours. I will not detail the story itself as that is already covered in my review of Little Women in my book section.

Briefly, including spoilers, this is the story of the March sisters, ranging in age from 12 to 16 at the beginning of the novel, living with their mother in Cambridge, MA during and immediately after the Civil War. Their father is a pastor to Union soldiers during the conflict.  The central character, Jo, aspires to become an author and she befriends a wealthy boy, Laurie (Teddy), who lives nearby.  As they grow up, her older sister, Meg, marries Laurie’s tutor, father returns home, younger sister Beth dies of a heart problem carried over from scarlet fever, and Amy grows up.  When Laurie finishes college, he proposes to Jo, but she turns him down, so Laurie goes with his grandfather to Europe, where he dissipates, while Jo moves to New York to become a governess.  Amy goes to France with their Aunt March, where she meets Laurie.  As Jo falls in love with a new acquaintance, Professor Bhaer, Laurie fall in love with Amy and marries her.

This film features a superb young cast. Wynona Ryder stars as Jo and she carries off the girl’s naiveté and yearning with a youthful vigor that is completely believable.  Young Christian Bale is perfect as Laurie.  Amy is played by two actresses: Kirsten Dunst plays Amy as a girl and Samantha Mathis plays her as a young woman.  Although both of them are good, there are several problems with the arrangement.  First, they don’t look enough alike to be believable as the same person and second, by jumping four years into the future, the film does not let us see Amy grow and change, so the character differences between the two Amys is stark and does not feel natural.  The script completely leaves out how Amy replaced Jo as a companion for Aunt March, leading to changes.  It does not let us see how Jo offended Aunt March, which was what led to the Aunt taking Amy to France instead of Jo.

Trini Alvarado as Meg and Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, the man she marries, are both very good and Susan Sarandon is perfect as the mother of the girls, Marmee.

Clare Danes sometimes shines as Beth. The scene where Mr. Laurence presents her with the piano is excellent, although the film doesn’t take the time to show her practicing on the piano at the Laurences, which is part of what makes the gift so special.  However, during the scene where Beth dies, director Gillian Armstrong allows Danes to play the scene with a certain fear and regret of death, whereas in the book, Beth embraces her death.  Beth’s character is built around her being a homebody and so certain of Heaven that she dies with a kind of splendid peace.  Danes performance negates the character she has so carefully built.

One of the things the movie didn’t do as well as the book was the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo and she refuses him. It is probably the best scene in the novel and it seems to flounder a bit in the film, so that what should be a major crisis on which the story pivots just doesn’t bring the heat.

However, the movie clearly improves on the book with the character of Professor Bhaer. As played by Gabriel Byrne, he is more romantic and open-minded, certainly clean-shaven.  This redrawing of the character to make him more likable is connected to a new ending that makes the story work much better.  In the book, Bhaer goes into a fit over Jo writing sensational stories for yellow press and she gives up writing entirely, but in the movie, he merely feels that she should write from her own heart and do better.  Following Beth’s death, Jo, in the movie, proceeds to write a novel about her own family and that novel then becomes Little Women and gives us a real parallel with Luisa May Alcott, who wrote the book originally about her own family.  Bhaer then finds a publisher and delivers the galleys to Jo, which is how they get together.  This ending is so much more satisfactory than the novel.  It is unreal that Jo would give up writing for good and it feels entirely wrong that she would marry such a closed-minded old fool as Bhaer in the book.

One more improvement really gives the movie a lift over the novel. Throughout the book, Alcott preaches to her readers, giving many little examples of how girls can make their own family lives better if they only behave properly and completely trust in God.  The movie removes almost every single instance of preaching and tells the story without a moral hammer.

Overall, it is a very good film. This is the fifth adaptation of Little Women to the screen.  There were two silent versions, in 1917 and 1918, a film in 1933 directed by George Cukor with young Kathryn Hepburn as Jo, and one again in 1949 with June Allyson as the main character, but also featuring Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, and Margaret O’Brien.  The 1949 version is the only other one I’ve seen and it is also very good, but for modern viewers I would not hesitate to recommend this 1994 movie with Wynona Ryder.  It is a solid adaptation, well directed and–for the most part–very well acted.