Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Secret and Moving Romance: Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes & Felicity Jones in The Invisible Woman
One of the things that has been most lacking this past year in the movies has been great scripts. The screenplays for many of the worthwhile movies of 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Philomena, all suffered from underdeveloped characters, other than the lead ones, pedestrian plotting or simply thin story lines. That makes it all the more puzzling that such a beautifully written and nuanced film like The Invisible Woman has fallen through the cracks, receiving only a limited release in the U.S. It’s doubly disappointing that its lead actors, Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones, were also overlooked for the Oscars. All this means that the movie, despite some success in Toronto, in limited screenings at a second run house where it’s in its third week, is well worth your time. It’s recently opened in its native U.K. where hopefully, it will shine brighter.

Based on Claire Tomalin’s popular biographical book The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, it tells the riveting and rich story of a late in life affair that popular author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), then aged 45, had with 18 year old Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones), a would be actress whom he met when she replaced her sister in a play he was producing. Slowly falling in love with her – something evident to her loving mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) and two sisters, Dickens has to navigate a censorious Victorian society, which would never countenance the relationship and deal with his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), mother of his eight children, with whom he has long fallen out of love. The film begins more than ten years after Dickens has passed on in 1870, where a troubled Nelly, prone to striding along the beach near where she lives as if possessed of demons, is causing a near spectacle of herself and forcing her loving and decent husband George (Tom Burke) to despair of their relationship. Slowly, Fiennes, working from Abi Morgan’s delicate screenplay, peels back the layers of Nelly’s disturbances and brings us into Dickens' world, one just as complex, emotional and dark as any of his great and lasting novels. Desperately hoping to make a go of it with the beautiful and strong willed Nelly, Dickens finds that even as the author of some of his country’s most acclaimed works, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, and a cultural superstar of his time – much in demand for lectures, reading and autograph sessions – he cannot, dare not, declare his love for Nelly publicly, much less live with her as he so desires.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Lego Movie: Imagination & the Nature of Play

There have been many films based on toys, and even more films with tie-ins to real-life toy franchises. The Lego Movie presents us with both, but in doing so it manages to say something unique about creativity, imagination, and how we all approach the act of play. Living in a clockwork Lego city, the tiny plastic Emmet must rise to his role as. “The Special” and stop the evil Lord Business from putting a stop to their existence, brick-by-brick. The premise may sound less than inspired, but in The Lego Movie, toys come to life in more ways than one.

The Lego Movie’s visuals are incredibly varied and rich in detail. The film employs CGI to great effect in its attempt to recreate a stop-motion feel, which is undoubtedly the way the movie would have actually been made in years past. True stop-motion would not have been able to achieve the heroic visual scope on display here, however – thousands of disparate (and recognizable) Lego pieces fly across the screen in frantic volleys, creating exciting and visually breathtaking sequences and settings. Nods are made to classic Lego sets (such as the blue spaceman of the 1980s Classic Space series, who looks appropriately weathered and play-beaten and is hilariously voiced by Charlie Day), and there are very few things in the movie which aren’t made entirely of Lego – even the muzzle flashes of characters’ guns, to give one small example, are re-purposed flower stem pieces. The Lego Movie is full to the brim of this kind of inventiveness and visual creativity. The only problem was the inclusion of 3D, which felt tacked-on and served only to dim the film’s vibrant colours.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Kids' Stuff: Some Thoughts on Shirley Temple and Mitt

There’s a scene in one of the Shrek movies in which Puss in Boots, a tricky cat with extraordinary powers of seduction and persuasion, voice by Antonio Banderas, trades bodies with Donkey, a, well, donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy. When Puss tries to win over some guards by flashing them one of his adorable smiles, he fails to take into account how different his features now look, and the guards recoil, screaming, “Kill it! Kill it!” If I admit that that’s pretty much how I feel when I see clips of Shirley Temple in her prime, does that make me a bad person, or just a bad American?

In her first big role in a big-studio movie, Stand Up and Cheer (1934), Temple played one of the discoveries of Warner Baxter, the newly appointed Secretary of Amusement, who is personally tasked by FDR to drum up some entertainment that will end the Great Depression by inspiring Americans to cheer the fuck up. It sounds enough like campy fun that I worry a bit about the spoilsport inside me, who wonders if this presentation of the Depression as some kind of shared national bummer, without regard to the actual policies and attitudes that led to the economic disaster, might have been as bad for people as the sight of people on cable news. That is, those people a few years ago, acting as if the Bush-era economic meltdown had been caused by the government being too helpful and generous to people on the verge of having their lives ruined by bad mortgages sold to them by predatory lenders. When the Great Recession hit, it inspired a special kind of nostalgia in some people for the kinds of movies that helped Americans hold it together in the 1930s. You'd think the popular image that might be conjured up in the minds of repertory programmers and hip film geeks would be the sporty, fast-talking urban comedies and the last of pre-Code Hollywood. But no. It was Shirley Temple, dimpling and smiling, and ordering adults not to be frowny faces, who was the number-one box office attraction, for four years running. How were she and William Powell and James Cagney popular in the same medium, at the same time? How did they share the same solar system?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Exercise in Technique: Pat Metheny Unity Group's Kin

I've been listening to the music of Pat Metheny for over 30 years. What initially struck me was the sound of his guitar, his remarkable technique as a musician and his highly energized band. Inspired, I went to his concerts and sought out interviews, articles and videos of which he was a part. Today Metheny continues to be a personal favourite of mine and I've had the privilege to hear his music evolve since the release of the band’s 1978 self-titled release, Pat Metheny Group. (ECM). Lyle Mays, the Group’s long time keyboard-player, whose lyricism often complemented the highly skilled guitarist, always balanced Metheny’s rhythm-based work. Their approach was always fresh to the ear and made for a melodic blend. From 1978 to 2005, the Metheny/Mays compositions dominated the contemporary jazz charts and pushed the boundaries of the music to places even they probably never expected. Their high energy works are juxtaposed with the quietest of ballad writing, reaching audiences around the world who were impressed by the shear skill of reproducing their often complex works in performance.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Huffing and Puffing: Big Bad Wolves

Menashe Noy & Lior Ashkenazi in Big Bad Wolves

When it comes to genres, including movies, not all countries are created equal. Israeli cinema has received much deserved acclaim in recent years but the country’s best movies, or at least the ones that play commercially in North America, are usually dramas, with the odd lighter exception like The Band’s Visit. The few Israeli genre flicks I've seen haven’t impressed me all that much. Saint Clara (1996) was a Carrie-like horror movie about a telekinetic Russian girl newly immigrated to Israel which was chiefly interesting for its scathing portrait of juvenile delinquency in Israel and the fact that it was co-directed by Ari Folman, who would go on to make the brilliant animated anti-war movie Waltz with Bashir. (2008). Total Love (2000) was a fantastical cult film (in Israel) about the invention of the ultimate love drug that quickly devolved into incoherence if not outright silliness. Clean Sweep aka Mars Turkey (2001) was a profane and overly violent cops and crooks movie that wore out its welcome early on. A few years back, directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado concocted Rabies (2010), Israel’s’ first zombie film, which I didn't see but which garnered quite the reputation at home. Now the directing duo are back with Big Bad Wolves, a thriller that owes equal amounts to American classics like Joe (1970) and more recent torture porn movies like the Saw series, though it’s not nearly as exploitative as those films. It’s also, despite rave reviews from director Quentin Tarantino, who called it the best film of 2013,  and some other critics who put it on their ten best lists in the year end Film Comment issue, not nearly the revolutionary genre buster they’re calling it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Peter O’Toole and the Modern Breed of English Movie Actors

Before Peter O’Toole died in mid-December at the age of eighty-one, he was probably the greatest male actor in the movies; if you wanted to be more circumspect you might have tied him with Michael Caine. His career in film stretched back more than half a century, on TV and in live theatre even farther. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1952 and 1954, where his classmates included Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Brian Bedford – just a sample of what can only be assumed to be the most amazing generation of British actors in history. Think about it: O’Toole’s cohort also included Maggie Smith, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Richard Harris, Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Rosemary Harris, Tom Courtenay, Diana Rigg, Claire Bloom, Joan Plowright and Julie Christie. Their predecessors had included such luminaries as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, and of course Laurence Olivier: classically trained stage actors who conferred a kind of aristocratic status on the projects in which they were involved. They were strikingly different from their American peers – classier, better spoken, more pensive, with vastly more impressive dramatic ranges but (with the exceptions of Guinness and Olivier) less star dazzle. England didn’t cultivate stars; the English film industry, for all its virtues, was more sedate, more modest, a little grayer. O’Toole’s generation was more dynamic. They came up after the war, and the Suez crisis, which denoted the last gasps of the British Empire, helped to form their world view. When they began their careers the Angry Young Man playwrights were transforming the English theatre: Burton, Bloom, Plowright, Bates and Finney appeared in the exciting film versions of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer. They married the same fastidious classical training the preceding generation had received with a more democratic sense of what theatre could offer, an instinct for the camera, the uncorseting influences of the American Method and the sixties, and a willingness to explore sexuality as part of the process of building a character. And they didn’t just want to be stage and TV actors; they wanted to be movie stars too, and many of them became just that.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Freedom, Family, and Basketball: Max Minsky and Me (2007)

Emil Reinke and Zoe Moore star in Max Minsky and Me

"You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your place in it."
  attributed to Albert Einstein

In an era when films for and about adolescents have a rough time navigating the divide between Disney animated movies (strong though films like Frozen might be) and apocalyptic and pseudo-gothic fare like The Hunger Games and the Twilight films, it is always a special delight when a movie offers a sincere look into the lives of young adults. Max Minsky and Me (2007, Max Minsky und ich in German) is just such a movie. One of the few feature films of German filmmaker Anna Justice, Max Minsky and Me offers a well-crafted and often delightful story about the frustrations and joys of young adulthood, set in contemporary Berlin. Based on Holly-Jane Rahlens' award-winning novel Prince William, Maximillian Minsky, and Me (set in 1997, published in 2002) and adapted for the screen by the novelist herself, Max Minsky and Me stars Zoe Moore as Nelly Sue Edelmeister, a bookish Jewish girl who is more interested in astronomy than her imminent bat mitzvah, and Emil Reinke as Max, the sullen, slightly older boy that Nelly coerces into coaching her in basketball. The two teens could not be more different but as the story unfolds, it is clear that they find in one another precisely what they need.