Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens 01This story of a simple-minded mother and daughter, born into privilege and unable to generate the income necessary for basic survival, forces us to ask dangerous questions about social responsibility.  HBO Films enlisted two extraordinary actors, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, to create this compelling movie, that deserves a much wider audience than what the cable channel can generate.

Grey Gardens 02Based on historical events, this film tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Lange), aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy/Onasis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter, also named Edith (Barrymore).  For simplicity, I’ll use the film’s reference of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” to distinguish the two characters.  Most of the movie takes place in 1975, when two filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles, filmed a documentary, called Grey Gardens, the name of the East Hampton estate, on Long Island, where the two women lived, but there are also flashbacks through their lives leading up to that time, beginning in 1936.

Big Edie (Edith Bouvier, sister of John Vernou Bouvier III, Jacqueline’s father) was a lady of high society who married New York businessman Phelan Beale (Ken Howard).  They settled on the Long Island estate of Grey Gardens and had several children, Little Edie being the oldest.  In 1936, as a young woman, Edie decides that she wants to become an actress and singer.  Although not overly talented, her energetic, bubbly personality could have carried her quite far, but both her father and mother prevented it from happening.  Phelan, quite aware of her simple-minded personality, thinks that she should marry a wealthy man who can take care of her, while Big Edie wants to keep her at home at Grey Gardens, where she can help to entertain their endless parties.  Big Edie is herself a singer and wants nothing more than to sip champagne, sing, and entertain.

Frustrated with the way his wife throws away their money, and struggling himself in the Depression era economy, Phelan takes Little Edie to New York City, where he tries to get her to stay within her allowance and find a husband.  She is more concerned with getting an audition, but falls in love with a married man, tycoon Julius Krug (Daniel Baldwin).  When Phelan learns of this relationship, he forces Little Edie to return to Grey Gardens.  With a big audition coming up, she drives back into the city and tries to see Julius, who becomes enraged that she might ruin his marriage.

Utterly dejected, she returns to take care of her mother at Grey Gardens.  Suffering from a nervous disease, exasperated by seeing her life fall apart, Little Edie loses all of her hair and takes to covering her head in scarves and blouses, creating her own unique look.  Ultimately, Phelan can no longer support their lifestyle.  He is disgusted by the continual round of parties and he divorces Big Edie.  When he dies, he leaves her the Grey Gardens estate and a limited trust for the survival of his ex-wife and daughter.  Gradually, all of their servants and friends leave until they are completely alone.

The older sons urge Big Edie to sell Grey Gardens so that she and Little Edie will have enough money to live on once the trust expires, but she feels that estate is her home, all she has left, and she refuses to sell.  With no one to maintain it, the estate begins to fall apart.  Big Edie adopts lots of cats and raccoons wander the house picking through the trash.  At last, the trust expires and there is no longer any income.  Scrounging for food and without heat, the two women barely survive the harsh New York winters, listening on a little radio as Jacqueline marries John F. Kennedy, survives his assassination, and marries Aristotle Onasis.

Neighbors complain about the stink emanating from the property and eventually city inspectors come to condemn the property, but the women carry on in spite of it.  The attention of the city brings a photographer to the house and Little Edie invites him in to take their pictures and when the word gets out that Jacqueline’s family is living in complete poverty and filth, she comes to visit them.  Fondly remembering the gay days of her aunt and cousin, she contributes the money to enable them to survive, hiring local contractors to clean up the house, fix broken windows, haul out their rusting old car, and provide for them going into the future.

When the Maysles show up with the idea of doing a documentary, Little Edie embraces it as an opportunity to showcase her talents to the world.  In the film, she sings and dances, argues with her mother, shows them around the property and sees a future in which she can finally escape Grey Gardens for good.  Big Edie, who has depended on her daughter so long, allows Little Edie to go to the premier and finally accepts that her daughter will have to go out into the world.

Directed by Michael Sucsy and written by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, the script takes a great deal from the real lives of the two women, but especially from Little Edie.  Her surviving letters and journals were used by the director to flesh out the details of her life and used very successfully in the movie.  The camera is non-intrusive in the storytelling and fragments of the documentary have been recreated to great effect, intercut with the regular action.

Jessica Lange is terrific as Big Edie, showing a great range as we see the character grow from a woman of around forty into her old age.  A consistent and marvelous performance.

However, Drew Barrymore really steals the movie.  Her Little Edie, although every bit as simple-minded as her mother, is given an amazing degree of nuance that allows her to touch us with her own tragedy, yet soar with her indomitable spirit.  If anyone ever doubts that Barrymore is not one of the best female actors working today, please refer them to this movie, because she carries with a brilliant performance.

Nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, it won Outstanding Television Movie, Lange won for Best Actress, Howard for Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning for art direction, hair, and make-up.

Both a tragedy and a comedy, this is an emotionally engaged, beautifully written and acted movie.  I highly recommend it!

Advertisements

The Silence of the Lambs

Silence Lambs 01When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.

The following review contains a detailed analysis of the plot, so be forewarned.

Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) recruits Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) for this job without telling her why: he wants to get Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to help them profile Buffalo Bill so they can catch the killer before he acts again.  Even before she can leave Quantico for Baltimore, they are already too late.  Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) lures young Catharine Martin (Brooke Smith) into his van and abducts her, putting her down in an empty well in his basement and forcing her to use lotion to soften her skin while his little toy poodle Precious looks on.  Sitting at a sewing machine, surrounded by rare moths, he sews his collected skin together.

Silence Lambs 03In Baltimore, Clarice meets Lecter’s prison psychiatrist, Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald), who has taken to using subtle torture to try to make a name from Lecter, who was at one time himself a brilliant psychologist.  Given the antagonism between the two, she requests to see Lecter alone.  As she walks up the corridor to the special cell, one of the other inmates, Miggs, whispers obscene things to her.  In his cell, protected by glass, he is prohibited from contact with anything that might be used as a weapon or to escape, even pens, although he is allowed pencils to complete intricate drawings.  Clarice asks him about an especially detailed drawing of Venice and he remarks that it is his only way of having a view of the outside world.  Fascinated by her, he picks out her perfume and tries to get inside her mind without revealing anything of himself.  Frustrated, he dismisses her, but on the way out, Miggs throws a ball of come at her and this upsets Lecter who yells at her to come back.  He tells her to find an old patient of his, giving a few verbal hints and a fake name.

Clarice unravels his clues and follows them to a self storage garage outside Baltimore with an old car that contains a mannequin and a jar containing the head of Lecter’s former patient.  She revisits Lecter and he reveals that he did not kill the man, but that it is the world of a serial killer in the making.  Using a quid pro quo dialogue, he reveals bits and pieces while learning of Clarice’s youth, including the death of her father and her brief time on a sheep ranch in Montana staying with cousins afterward.

Another body is found and Clarice accompanies Crawford to examine the body.  Although he appears to be playing psychological games with her, Clarice stands up for herself and earns the fair treatment she deserves.  While examining the body, they find the pupa of moth wedged inside the girl’s mouth.  The investigation leads Clarice to university specialists who tell her that the pupa is a rare species of Asian moth.

Back in Quantico, she sees a television report that Senator Ruth Martin’s (Diane Baker) daughter has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill.  Martin attempts to humanize her daughter to the killer by showing pictures of the girl growing up and referring to her over and over by her name: Catherine.  Oblivious to the broadcast, Bill continues to sew the skin of his victims together.

Silence Lambs 02Promising Lecter a transfer away from Dr. Chilton, Clarice tells him that if he can help them find Buffalo Bill, he will even be allowed some time on a beach.  Recording the conversation, Dr. Chilton checks with Senator Martin and discovers that the FBI has lied to Lecter and no such deal is in place.  He reveals this to his patient and brokers his own deal with Martin.  During his conversation with Hannibal, who is restricted with a straight jacket and face plate, Chilton leaves his pen lying in the office, then leaves Lecter to his assistant with the instruction to clean him up and get him ready for transfer.  In Memphis, Tennessee, Lecter is taken off the plane, but when Chilton goes to sign his release, he can no longer find his pen.  Lecter watches him anxiously until a guard offers a pen instead.

Introduced to the Senator, Lecter gives her false information as to the identity of Catherine’s abductor and is then escorted to a special cell on an isolated floor of the courthouse.  Clarice comes to see him, even though it is no longer her case, to try to find out why he gave the Senator false information and to keep trying to get the real killer’s name.  Playing quid pro quo again, he gets her to reveal that the reason she ran away from the ranch in Montana was that she was awakened by screaming because the spring lambs were being slaughtered.  Appalled, she opened the pen to let them go, but they wouldn’t leave, so she took one lamb and ran away, getting caught several miles from the ranch.  Lecter gets her to admit that she sometimes still has nightmares about the screaming of the lambs.  As Chilton and the officers escort her out, Lecter gives her back her case file and tells her that all she needs to know is there.  When the guards deliver Lecter his dinner, they handcuff him to the bars of his cage, but using components from Chilton’s pen, he unlocks his cuff and kills the two guards, cleverly making his escape.

Silence Lambs 04Piecing together bits of what Lecter has given her, she realizes that the killer might live close to the first victim because in the beginning these killers covet those who are nearby, that they see every day.  With this knowledge, she goes to visit the family of the first victim and stumbles upon the killer.  I won’t revel the ending, even though it is very exciting.

Only the third film to win Academy Awards in all the top five categories, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Adapted Screenplay, it is also the first horror film to be named Best Picture.  All five awards are richly deserved.

This 1991 film truly established Jonathan Demme as a master of the art of film directing and in The Silence of the Lambs he has created a masterpiece that even Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The airtight script by Ted Tally, based on the 1988 novel by Thomas Harris, melds several genres in a stew that is absolutely compelling.  A friend of Harris, Tally’s first draft was accepted by Demme and the film went into production with very little revision.  It is virtually unheard of in the film industry for a script to be so well written is taken on a first draft basis.

Murder mystery, detective story, horror, and psychological drama all work together under Demme’s expert hand.  Running just under two hours, the story is so gripping that it is extremely difficult to pull oneself away.  The music by Howard Shore feels invisible, yet it is coldly calculated to lead the viewer steadily and deeply into the grisly scenario.  Shore said of his score, “I tried to write in a way that goes right into the fabric of the movie.”  Bullseye.

Demme’s use of close-ups in the intense dialogue between Starling and Lecter, especially with the camera moving ever so slowly in tighter and tighter, creates such a feeling of intimacy and gripping suspense as to make it palpable.  In addition, the movie is a prime example of brilliant editing, each scene cut perfectly for the story.

The acting is pure gold.  This is by far Jodie Foster’s best performance in a long and distinguished career and she earned her Oscar by imbuing Clarice Starling with such a rich and subtle layering of character that she was completely believable and utterly compelling.  Opposite her, Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal with such brilliance, both believably intelligent far beyond most people and yet eerily spooky in his madness, one moment perfect British manner, one moment biting someone’s nose off.  Whenever he is present, a scene is elevated to the deepest level of psychological complication.  Great acting!  The supporting cast all do their jobs, each actor invested in their little part of the tapestry.

I’ve now seen this movie six times and each time I still find every single moment of it to be utterly compelling.  It stands the test of time with no effort at all and must be considered deep within anyone’s list of the Top 100 films of all time.

Adults only, this is a must-see movie!!!

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 Elinor MarianneThis 2008 adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel stands out as the best so far, not because it is utterly faithful to the novel, although it is the most faithful of all adaptations over the last twenty-five years, but because it really penetrates the emotional heart of the novel.

This version begins by revealing the two actions that fuel the story.  The first is only alluded to in the novel: the seduction of Eliza Williams by John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper).  It is shown in close-ups lit with the bright red of a fireplace, so it isn’t possible to truly identify either the seducer or seduced.  The second action is the true beginning of the novel: the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood.  On his deathbed, surrounded by his second wife, Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer), and her daughters, Elinor (Hattie Morahan), Marianne (Charity Wakefield), and Margaret (Lucy Boynton), he entreats his son John (Mark Gatiss), from his first marriage, to make sure they are adequately taken care of, given that the English system of inheritance will exclude them from all but a paltry yearly stipend.

John inherits Norland Park and his wife, Fanny (Claire Skinner), immediately wants to move in and convinces him that his promise to his father certainly wouldn’t any kind of financial security.  When the Dashwoods arrive, Marianne is quite upset.  She feels the mansion should be rightfully theirs, but Elinor, the more sensible of the two reminds her that the house is not legally theirs.  Fanny is unbearable.  They decide to look for a new place to live, but Mrs. Dashwood simply has no idea of how little money they have.  Elinor suggests that they will only be able to afford a cottage.

Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens), the oldest son in their moneyed family, comes to visit and he and Elinor are deeply attracted to one another.  Just the opposite of Fanny, he is nice to Margaret and makes friends with Marianne.  Fanny, seeing the attachment between Elinor and Edward, counsels Mrs. Dashwood that Edward is destined to marry a very wealthy, well-placed society woman.  Shortly after that, Mrs. Dashwood receives an invitation from her cousin, Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), to let a cottage on his estate at Barton Park in Devonshire and she immediately accepts.

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 CharityThe family relocates to a beautiful cottage by the seaside, surrounded by rolling hills and the rough rocky cliffs of the shoreline.  Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett), immediately set about trying to find husbands for them.  They introduce Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey), a wealthy former military man of thirty-five.  He falls in love with Marianne, but she thinks he is too old and lacks passion.  In an attempt to evade him, she takes a fall in the hills and is rescued by Willoughby, who is visiting his aunt at nearby Allenham.  Thinking him very romantic, Marianne falls in love with him, not realizing that he has already seduced Eliza Williams.  Brandon, confronts Willoughby, but the latter proclaims that his intentions toward Marianne are honorable. 

Mrs. Jennings’ nieces, Lucy (Anna Madeley) and Anne Steele (Daisy Haggard), come to visit and Lucy confides in Elinor that she has had a private four-year engagement to Edward.  It comes as a shock, but Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy.  Every time they meet thereafter, Lucy reminds Elinor that’s Edward is her lover.

As the whole group prepares to go on a picnic to Brandon’s estate, Delaford, but receives an urgent letter that causes him to cancel.  He rides off leaving the party confuses, but Willoughby takes advantage of the situation to take Marianne to show her Allenham, while his aunt is away.  Since he has taken a lock of her hair and seems to be completely in love with Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor assume that they are privately engaged, but when it looks like Willoughby will make a formal proposal, he suddenly leaves for London at his aunt’s bidding.

Later, Mrs. Jennings decides to visit her home in London and takes the girls with her.  Expecting to see Willoughby, Marianne writes to him every day, but hears nothing.  Then, at an Assembly, she confronts him and he coldly turns his back on her.  Nearly fainting, she is rescued by Brandon.  He returns all of her letters to her, apologizing for giving the false impression that he may have cared for her.  Marianne is distraught.  Mrs. Jennings then discovers that Willoughby is engaged to a young woman of great fortune and Brandon reveals to Elinor that Willoughby seduced his young ward, fifteen year old Eliza Williams and left her with child.

Sense-and-Sensibility-2008 Elinor WeepingThe group goes to a gathering held by Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh), where Lucy Steele hopes to gain the good will of her future mother-in-law, but when Anne accidentally reveals the engagement, Mrs. Ferrars tells Edward that unless he breaks the engagement, she will cut him off from his fortune.  A man of honor, Edward sticks to his promise to Lucy.

Brandon escorts the family back to Devonshire, stopping at Delaford along the way.  Seized by her grief at losing Willoughby, Marianne gets lost in the rain and is found by Brandon.  She is put to bed, but develops a life-threatening fever.  Elinor waits at her bedside while Brandon brings their mother, but Marianne’s fever breaks and she recovers.  Realizing that Brandon loves her and seeing how he has cared for her, Marianne switches her affections to him and becomes engaged.

When Edward returns, everyone assumes that he is married to Lucy, but he reveals that Lucy has also switched her affections to his brother and has married him, leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.  Hearing this news, Elinor tries to cope with her feelings as Edward proposes.  A happy ending is thus concluded, with Marianne happy as the mistress of Delaford while Elinor marries poor Edward in his country parsonage, happier than she would have ever believed.

Sense and Sensibility Lucy BoyntonFans of the book will note that several changes have been made, but nothing truly drastic.  Many other versions of the story have managed to lose characters, such as little sister Margaret, who plays a great part in this version, and Anne Steele, who also plays a big part.  The script is written by Andrew Davies who did such a masterful job with the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is largely regarded as the best version of that masterpiece.  Even with the few changes that Davies has made, the script remains more faithful to the novel than any other version.  The characters of Elinor and Marianne are beautifully written and take their part at the heart of the story.  Marianne’s passion is appropriately tempered with Elinor’s restraint.

Casting is frequently the cause of either the success or failure of a novel adaptation and that is certainly the case here.  Hatty Morahan’s Elinor is staid, but always, beneath the surface, you see her emotions whirling.  This care to show us how much Elinor feels, while outwardly appearing in control, is simply a beautiful job of acting.  Charity Wakefield’s beauty certainly compliments her passionate view of life and the acting is superb.  These two bring us full circle as Marianne learns some of the restraint of her sister, while Elinor finally opens up her heart and allows us to see deeply inside.  The chemistry of these two as sisters is truly great.  Janet McTeer is marvelous as Mrs. Dashwood and the charming restraint of Lucy Boynton as Margaret is simply delightful.

All the technical aspects are very well done, the sets beautiful and especially landscape of Devonshire is a delight to the eye.  One great little detail is Margaret’s collection of sea shells which she strings together to make a visual motif that the camera repeatedly comes back to.  The beauty of the sea side is lovingly captured.

Sequenced into a three episode series, each episode lasting one hour, it comes out to three hours compared to the five hours of Pride and Prejudice, but compared other movie versions, constrained to a two-hour format, this covers the scope of the book very well indeed.  If watching the DVD, you may as well skip the self-congratulatory “Making of” featurette and go immediately to Disk 2, which has a movie length BBC production called “Miss Austen Regrets.”  This is a fictional biography of Jane Austen and is fairly well done.

I highly recommend this version of Sense and Sensibility and it would make a great addition to any Janite collection.

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica RothThis third and final installment of the Divergent Trilogy takes the bizarre, complicated plot even further and it relies even more on people making stupid decisions, rending it by far the worst of the three books that make up this ill-advised trilogy.

This review reveals the conclusion of the series, but it is for the benefit of the reader as you may not wish to read the whole thing knowing how it ends.

The battle between the factionless, led by Four’s mother, Evelyn, and the former factions, led by Four’s father, Marcus, heats up considerably, so Tris and Four leave Chicago and find the people who are really running this bizarre mess of a society, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, and its leader David.  It turns out that these people have really screwed things up by trying to create better humans, so the Divergent are actually normal people and those belonging to factions are genetically damaged.  When Four discovers that he is genetically damaged, he stupidly joins in a plot against the Bureau, which, it turns out, wasn’t such a bad idea because they are in fact the big bad villains.  David decides that since their experiment was a failure, they need to release a chemical throughout the city that will wipe the minds of everyone, then they can start out all over again and do it right.

Reacting against this bizarre notion, Tris throws her life away trying to stop him.

It was established in the other novels that Tris has a death wish, but quite frankly, I never took it seriously, because in all other respects, she seemed (in spite of a steady spate of tears) to be a strong, fairly intelligent person.  She is, after all, the heroine.  Readers need to be aware that this trilogy is a *tragedy* in the true sense of the word.  We’re all so used to having happy endings, especially in Young Adult literature, that reading a dystopian YA tragedy is a pretty shocking affair.

Roth has tried to make her death seem organic, by repeatedly bringing up her death wish, but I really thought that it was perhaps the final thing she had to overcome in order to become a complete person.  No, it turns out that she really hasn’t grown that much at all.  She simply throws herself away.

Although the plot, and especially the ending, are serious problems in the novel, maybe the biggest problem is the “voice.”

In the first two novels, Roth established a wonderful voice for Tris and since both of the books are written in the First Person Present tense, it works very well.  The third novel, however, introduces the voice of Four as she alternates perspective in different chapters.  It is a bit of a shock, after having a consistent viewpoint in each of the first two novels, to have someone else speaking, but real problem is that Roth has not bothered to create a unique voice for Four.  He sounds so much like Tris that many times I had to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to find out who was speaking.  In terms of creating unique characters, this is a very serious problem.  Once I understood that Tris would die, the reasoning became apparent: she had to have someone continue speaking after Tris was dead.  In the end, I don’t think that matters at all.  As soon as Tris died, I closed the book and put it away because the voice I had listened to for several hundred thousands words was silenced and I didn’t care what happened afterwards.

Allegiant has the feeling, like Insurgent before it of being a rushed effort.  I don’t think that Roth truly took the time to think through her story before writing it, because there are so many things that don’t make sense, that don’t seem believable, that it seems unnatural, rather than an organically sound plotting.

My final advice to readers would be to enjoy the first book in the series, Divergent, and be happy with that, because it is the only complete, beautifully written, cogent novel in the trilogy.  It is pretty well designed, with strong characters, a terrific plot, and it is written in a style that makes for satisfying reading.

Of all the Young Adult dystopian trilogies in the market, the Divergent Trilogy starts out among the best and ends up among the worst.

Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures Clive-Owen Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches writing at Croyden, a high end  preparatory school in Maine.  A professional writer himself, Jack is flirting with losing his job because of functional alcoholism and a lapse of productivity, having failed to publish in quite a few years.  In addition, the school literary magazine which he edits has gone downhill, producing flat, uninspired writing and nothing original from him.  His principal, Rashid (Navid Negahban), confers with head of the governing board, Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) about Jack’s conduct and they give him a warning that his status will be reviewed at the next meeting.

Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheThe new Honors Art teacher, well-known painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), who suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis and walks with the aid of a cane, challenges her students to go beyond themselves to create better art.  Using the old phrase “a picture is worth a thousands words” she tells her students that words are cheap and useless, thus fueling the “war” between the two arts at the school and inspiring the students to achieve more.

Drinking heavily and fighting to keep his job, Jack tries to write something new and inspiring, but all he can create is insipid, so he steals a poem that his son wrote and publishes it in the literary magazine as his own.  It is so good that Dina uses it to inspire her students to make drawings and painting based on it.  Three students figure prominently in this battle of the arts: Emily (Valerie Tian) an Asian painter, Cole (Josh Ssettuba) an African-American graphic artist, and Swint (Adam DiMarco), a writer and would-be cartoonist.  Swint, a show-off has a crush on shy Emily and he begins to harass her, eventually going so far as to distribute an obscene cartoon of her throughout the school.  Jack has defended Swint, but when he discovers the cartoon in Swint’s sketchbook, he turns the boy in and Swint is expelled.

When Dina gives terrific testimony of Jack’s behalf at the board meeting, his job is saved.  He brings her flowers and they consummate their simmering love, but Jack gets up in the night, finds a bottle of vodka in her refrigerator and proceeds to get drunk.  He tells her about plagiarizing the poem from his son and then, losing his balance, he falls into Dina’s most important painting, smearing it.  She throws him out and Jack must begin to confront his own problems for the first time, facing his alcoholism and trying to redeem his own spirit.

Obviously, in a movie like this, the writing is paramount and I give extremely high marks to Gerald DiPego for his literate and organic script.  Director Fred Schepisi thought his words were important enough that he was kept on the set during the filming in order to make changes himself, rather than bringing in any other writers.  But even though writing is important, this film also stands or falls based on its art and Juliette Binoche, doing her own painting, brought a sense of legitimacy by creating terrific paintings and drawings all her own.

Of course, there is no real battle between art and literature.  They are two completely different and equally valid arts.  On the surface, they would appear to be complete opposites, but, as with all creation, the goal should be the same: to touch the human heart.  This movie does that, in part, due to the organic nature of the writing and the painting that fills it.  When I say that a work of art is organic, I mean that it grows naturally out of its components.  The story in Words and Pictures has more to do with Jack’s own frailty and his dependence on alcohol.  It is that dependence that brings his life into complete disarray, despite his other endearing qualities, and it is his control of that weakness that allows him to become a complete person again.  The same is true of Delsanto’s art.  Like, Jack, she has floundered for many years, not because of a lack of inspiration, but because her own degenerating body has had her full attention.  She needed something to wake her up and Jack’s challenge is what brings her back to life creatively.  Her art grows beyond her own injured body to become something beyond what she had been capable of.

Writing an organic script that is completely natural is not an easy process, but DiPego has created a real beauty here.

Clive Owen drives the film with his performance.  The center of the film, he is realistic in every way as an American teacher.  His control of the language, his phrasing, and his maniacal love of good writing is infectious and he seems to be a terrific teacher.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance as Delsanto, nuanced, layered, and impressive.

This film has a strange, emotional power that elevates in the same way that Stand and Deliver moves one to aspire.  Immensely satisfying! I highly recommend this movie!

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

 

mr and mrs smithThis 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.  Before leaving England, Hitchcock had expressed a desire to work with Lombard and he got his wish in this film.

David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are a devil-may-care married couple in New York City.  He is a partner in a law firm with Jeff (Gene Raymond), but is sometimes absent for days as the couple holes up in their bedroom trying to make up after an argument.  It’s one of Ann’s rules that they have to stay in the bedroom until they make up.  When the film opens, they have been there for three days and they finally reconcile.   Over breakfast, she asks him if he would marry her if he had it all to do over.  Following her rule of complete honesty, he tells her that he wouldn’t.

However, when David goes to work, an official from Idaho, Harry Deever (Charles Halton) informs him that because the county they got married in is actually in Nevada, their marriage is null and void.  David calls Ann and asks her to dinner at Momma Lucy’s, a restaurant they used to eat at before they were married.  Mr. Deever, an old family friend of Ann’s stops by their apartment and tells her what he’s told David.  Certain that David will ask her to marry him again at the restaurant, she meets him full of expectation.  When they arrive at the restaurant, they find that Momma Lucy has gone back to the old country and it is now a seedy dive.  They arrive back home and David gets ready for bed, putting champagne on ice.  Upset that he still hasn’t asked her to marry him, she throws him out of the apartment and he has to go sleep at his club, the Beefeater.

Without Ann’s rule in place to keep them in the bedroom, they cannot make up.  David, regretting his earlier statement that he wouldn’t marry her if he had it all to do over, begins to follow her around begging her to forgive him and remarry, but perversely, it is Ann who likes her new freedom.  She takes a job, which David gets her fired from.  He tries to get Jeff to talk to her, hoping they can work something out, but Ann simply hires Jeff to be her attorney and then accedes when he asks her to go out with him.

At the Beefeater, David makes friends with Chuck (Jack Carson), who has also been thrown out of his home.  Chuck sets him up on a double date with a couple of low end dames and when they appear at the restaurant, David sees Ann with Jeff and tries to make her jealous.  Desperate, he follows them to Lake Placid and begins a series of machinations designed to pull the couple apart and bring him back together with Ann.

In spite of Hitchcock’s very capable direction, there are several things in the movie that are bothersome and I believe the issues belong to the script.  For one thing, it seems very cold of Ann to simply turn away from David the way she does.  I expected to see her plotting to intentionally wound him with the objective of getting him back eventually, yet it isn’t until the very end of the movie that she capitulates and realizes that she really does love him.  If she had, for example, discussed with Jeff her plan for getting him to apologize and re-marry her, it would have made perfect sense.  Krasna (or Hitchcock) leaves us to guess at her motivation for wanting to marry Jeff.  Toward the end, we see that she is fighting against her instinct to love him, but it is actually Jeff who pushes her back toward David.  It seems a little weird to me.

Another problem is that aside from a very few moments, I didn’t find the movie to be particularly funny.  At times, it goes begging for laughs.  Carole Lombard’s superb comic timing is never really used to great effect in the script and Robert Montgomery actually mugs at times looking for laughs.  This was Lombard’s next to last movie before her life ended in a plane crash while on a War Bond tour.  It’s really too bad, because Hitchcock and Lombard would have made a terrific combination.

I guess it says something that Hitchcock himself was disappointed in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in spite of its big box office success.

It’s not a bad movie, but I was hoping for a lot more than I got.

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird 01This review discusses the entire film, including all of the crucial moments and the ending, so if you are waiting to see the movie, I suggest you read this analysis afterwards.  My review of the novel is located at To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

The 50th Anniversary DVD set of this classic American movie is truly special.

Not only is the film restored to its beautifully filmed black and white texture, but the set contains two additional full-length films, Fearful Symmetry, a poetic tribute to the book and the making of the film, and A Conversation with Gregory Peck, a film made by Peck’s daughter about his final few years when he toured, sharing his stories and answering questions from fans.

To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the greatest films ever made and the years have not diminished its greatness in any way. It is unusual to see a nearly perfect adaptation of a modern classic novel (Pulitzer Prize, 1960), but the combination of Harper Lee’s story, Horton Foote’s adaptation, Robert Mulligan’s direction, Henry Bumstead’s art direction, Russell Harlan’s cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful music make this film uniquely touching, a deeply penetrating portrait of small town rural life in the 1930’s, in the deep South.

The opening titles of the film immediately set it apart from everything that went before. As the camera works in extreme close-up on an old cigar box, the careless humming and babble of a little girl at play is the only sound.  Opening the cigar box, we see carved images of a boy and girl, an old pocket watch, a pipe, a pocket knife, marbles, and crayons among other little things.  She removes a crayon and begins to scrawl across a sheet of paper.  As she colors, the words “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” appear in white behind the crayon.  A piano plays a few simple notes, further immersing us in the feeling of childhood before the music swells.

To Kill a Mockingbird 02This opening takes us into a world of innocence, a world that a little girl would find safe and comforting. The scene is Maycomb, Alabama in 1932, where attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is raising two children, a boy of ten, Jem (Phillip Alford) and a girl of six, Scout (Mary Badham), with the help of a black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). Their neighbor across the street, Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) is very kind to the children and seems to have more than a passing interest in Atticus.  Narration is provided by an adult (Kim Stanley), the voice of Scout as a woman looking back the events that shaped her life.

A country farmer, Walter Cunningham, Sr. (Crahan Denton) brings a sack of hickory nuts to the family and Scout gets Atticus to come out and accept them, which embarrasses the farmer. Atticus tells her that the man owes him for some legal work and that’s the only way he can pay and work off his entailment.

Into this peaceful summer idyll comes another boy, Charles Baker Harris (John Megna) who prefers to be called Dill. He’s from the big city (Mobile) and staying with his Aunt Stephanie (Alice Ghostley).  As they play, Jem tells Dill about the house two doors down, a rundown shack inhabited by a crabby old man, Mr. Radley (Richard Hale) and his legendary son, Arther (Robert Duvall), known locally as Boo.  No one has seen Boo for years and Jem speculates that he is kept chained to his bed, except at night when he roams the town looking in windows.  When still a boy, Boo stabbed his father in the leg with scissors and was for a time kept in the court house basement before he was taken home and secreted away.

Atticus is friends with the local sheriff, Heck Tate (Frank Overton). Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) stops by one evening to ask Atticus if he would defend a young black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of beating and raping Mayella (Collin Wilcox) the daughter of a white trash redneck alcoholic, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell (James K Anderson).  Atticus takes on the case in spite of the overwhelming odds.

Dill is facinated with the story of Boo Radley and he needles Jem into organizing a night trip into the Radley back yard. The three of them go and Jem actually goes up on the back porch and peeks in the window, but a menacing shadow scares him and the three of them run away.  Jem’s trousers get caught on the fence and he wriggles out of them and joins the others in just his underwear.  Knowing that he can’t go back inside the house without his pants, Jem goes back to get them and finds them folded on the fence.

This isn’t the only evidence of Boo, however, as Jem has been finding assorted items in a tree hollow for quite some time. He shows Scout his cigar box full of objects (the one she plays with in the opening credits).  They find the little carved images of themselves just before Mr. Radley cements over the tree hollow.

To Kill a Mockingbird 03Summer turns to fall and Dill returns home. Scout begins her first year of school by getting into a fight with Cunningham’s son.  To smooth things over, Jem invites the boy home to dinner.  During dinner, they talk about the Cunninghams having to hunt for their food.  Annoyed with Atticus’s refusal to let him have a gun, Jem brings up the subject of Atticus getting his first gun and Atticus relates the story that his father told him, that he was allowed to shoot birds, but never a mockingbird, because all they did was sing and it would be a shame to kill one.

Scout keeps getting into fights at school, mostly because the other kids accuse Atticus of being a “nigger lover.” He must sit her down and explain about racial hatred and his own duty to defend Robinson even though the whole community is against him.

One day, a mad dog appears on their street. Cal takes the children inside and calls Atticus, who arrives with Heck.  The sheriff asks Atticus to shoot the dog, but Scout protests that Atticus can’t shoot.  However, Hecks says that Atticus is the best shot in the county, so he takes the gun and kills the dog in one shot.  Jem watches with big, round eyes, astounded that their daddy can shoot so well.  It is a simple scene, but serves as a metaphor for the madness that is to follow.

Winter turns to summer again. Heck has been keeping Tom Robinson in a distant jail, but before the trial, he brings the man back to Maycomb to be held overnight.  Fearing a lynching, Atticus sits in front of the jailhouse door and waits.  The kids sneak up to see what Atticus is doing and they watch as several cars approach and men with guns get out to face the lawyer.  Scout runs to her dad and Jem and Dill follow as she pushes her way through the crowd.  Although Atticus orders them to leave, Jem stoutly refuses.  Seeing Mr. Cunningham in the crowd, Scout says hello to him and talks about how bad it is to have an entailment.  Shamed, Cunningham leaves and takes the lynch mob with him.

When the trial begins, the kids can’t into the courtoom on the main floor, reserved for whites only, so the black preacher takes them with him up to the balcony where the blacks sit and they watch the trial from there.

The case against Tom Robinson consists entirely of superficial evidence. There is Heck’s testimony of that Bob Ewell came to see him, claiming that his daughter had been beaten and raped and his description of her on the night he saw her.  In cross examination, Atticus asks why no doctors were called and there is no reasonable explanation, but he does elicit testimony that she was beaten on the right side of her face (ie. would have to have been made by a left handed person).  When Bob Ewell testifies, Atticus shows that he is left handed.  Tom doesn’t have use of his left hand, as it was injured in an accident.  Ewell testifies that he saw Tom leaving the property, but he didn’t see the beating and rape.

Finally, the victim herself, Mayella, takes the stand. Although she gets frequently confused and even contradicts herself on occasion, she dramatically declares that Tom beat and raped her.  Under cross, Atticus attempts to get her to admit that her father frequently beat her, but she does not break.  He tries to get her to describe the rape and she won’t, instead dramatically declaring that the whole bunch of “yellow cowards” would never get her to change her story, so Atticus gives up.  The prosecution rests.

The only witness for the defense is Tom Robinson himself. During his testimony, he admits that Mayella invited him onto their property more than once to do little errands for her and states that on the night in question, she invited him into her house, closed the door, and kissed him, asking that he kiss her back.  He resisted and ran from the property.  During the cross examination, the District Attorney, Mr. Gilmer (William Windom) gets Tom to admit that he felt sorry for Mayella and that seems to anchor the case against him.

During his closing statement, Atticus hammers home that there is no evidence against Tom and asks the jury not to hold it against him that “a black man felt sorry for a white woman.”

The trial scene presents the only serious weaknesses in the movie. While it is not hard to believe that a rural south town would rush the trial through in one day back in the 1930’s, it is not believable that Atticus, with a year to prepare, would miss such obvious advantages.  Heck testifies that Mayella had bruise marks all around her neck, as if someone had held her by the throat.  Since Tom cannot use his left hand, he could have only held her with his right.  Atticus should have pointed this out over and over and used it in his cross examination of Mayella.  He should have hammered the point over and over that Tom could not have left the black eye and bruises on the right side of her face since he couldn’t use his left hand.  You would think that he would have canvassed neighbors or townspeople to see if there was ever any evidence that Mayella had beaten by her father before or seen if the town doctor had ever treated her for it.  He certainly could have brought forward testimony that Ewell was drunk most of the time.  It seems like Atticus just didn’t prepare much of a defense.  Then, in his closing argument, he missed one opportunity after another to hammer home that Tom could not–physcially–have committed the rape.  It seemed over-simplified to me.

The second problem in the trial scene is that the director allowed–and probably encouraged–a certain amount of over-acting. It can be seen most dramatically in the testimony of Bob and Mayella Ewell, which almost made me laugh.  That should have been controlled.

Of course, the all male white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty. While in transit to a different jail, Tom attempts to run and is shot.  This hits Jem very hard.  It seems that there is no real justice in the world and it deeply bothers him.  Summer turns to fall again and Scout has to dress up in a ham outfit for a school play.  Afterwards, her dress is missing, so she has to walk home wearing her ham costume, escorted by Jem.  They are attacked in the woods by Bob Ewell, who breaks Jem’s arm and throws him down, knocking him out.  As he goes to attack Scout, Boo Radley steps in and, during the scuffle, sticks a knife into Ewell’s ribs, killing him.  He picks up Jem and carries him home, with Scout, now free of her costume, following along behind.

To bring justice full circle, Heck suggests that they say that Ewell fell on his own knife. Atticus at first seems more intent on placing the action in Jem’s hands, so that he could claim self-defense, but the sheriff reminds him that bringing Boo out into the limelight would be awful for him and that justice would be served by simply saying that Ewell fell on his knife.  Scout tells Atticus that bringing boo into the limelight would be like killing a mockingbird.

The film ends with little Scout walking Boo home, then snuggling into Atticus’s arms as he watches over Jem in bed.

To Kill a Mockingbird 04Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus is easily the best of his career and it earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It is understated and is mostly free of the theatrics that marked many of Peck’s performances during his career.  He creates for us a thoughtful, intelligent father, who does his duty not only his children and the town, but to justice itself.  The children are good, especially for kids with no acting experience.  Phillip Alford as Jem is the better of the two.  His performance is believable throughout the movie and can stand with Peck’s.  Mary Badham, as Scout, has a few moments when she seems to be acting, rather than living her part, but when she is good, which is most of the time, she is very good indeed.  The scene where Atticus puts her to bed and she asks about his pocket watch is as good as it gets.  She is so natural as a curious and lovable little girl that it really touches your heart.

All of the supporting actors are terrific, down to the smallest role, and it makes Maycomb seem to live as a real Alabama town in 1932. Brock Peters went on to have a great career as an actor and both Alice Ghostley and Robert Duvall, who made their acting debuts in this movie, went on to have stellar careers.  Duvall is now considered one of the best actors of the 20th century.

I am glad the film was shot in black and white because it seems just so appropriate for a time when our country seemed to be black and white. The cinematography by Russell Harlan takes advantage of the medium and seems to make the shades of black and whtie sing, creating a metaphor for the story itself.  Elmer Bernstein’s score is truly inspired, especially the little piano compositions that emphasize the innocence of childhood.

This is a film that everybody should see. In preparing for this review, I watched the film twice and got even more out of it the second time around.  Released in 1962, it was a socially concious film that brought racial justice into the public’s eyes at time of great social change.  Atticus himself seems to take on the soul of the liberal white world, making the point that it was time to stand up and see that racial equality was a significant issue in this country and that our country could not be whole again until the issue was settled.

But where the film is most successful is in showing the end of innocence. For the children, it is coming to understand a complicated and hateful world that needs changing, of growing up into people who do not fight, but who oppose injustice, even against seemingly insurmountable odds.

It is a shame to kill a mockingbird.