drama

Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants

When I finished Sara Gruen’s novel, I hugged it before I put it down.  I just loved the feel of it, the story, the characters, and I was sorry when it was over.  When they announced the film, I was pleased — until they announced that Robert Pattinson would be playing Jacob, the lead.  The last time I did not want to punch Pattinson in the face was when Voldemort cut him down in a cemetery in Little Hangleton.  Even with Reese Witherspoon and the two-for-two Christoph Waltz, I was nervous that the main character would not be the lovely man I had loved on the page.  Then Hal Holbrook plays elderly him in the framing narrative, and all was well in the world.  Of course Waltz is as always a freaking genius.  Pattinson and Witherspoon do look strange together, but it’s no matter — the story flows smoothly around them; it’s less about any love among these people than love for the world of the circus, anyway.

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Hanna

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Hanna

Matinee

Hanna is a bit of a mystery.  Played by the ethereal Saoirse Ronan, Hanna is introduced in no time as a cunning huntress, an over-educated killer polygot, and a total naïf.  If you ever wondered what Aliens’ Newt might have grown up to be, see Hanna.

Her father, Eric Bana, has them living off the grid, seemingly in a timeless bubble of held breath and unrelenting strictness.  They huddle together in a small house near the arctic circle, fending for themselves and training, always training, for the inevitable forces that will hunt them down and destroy them.  Until Hanna enters the real world, as you know she must, we have no idea who those forces might be — and through the end we’re not even sure why they would pursue with such lethal intent.  Ultimately, to enjoy the film, that unresolved point doesn’t even matter — what matters is eluding Hanna’s pursuers and showing her the world.

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Jane Eyre (2011)

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Jane Eyre (2011)

As many long-suffering high schoolers did, I read Jane Eyre in 9th grade and hated it.  Later, of course, I reread it and loved it!  Even as I warmed to Charlotte Bronte’s surprisingly astute judge of the psychological damage inflicted by the callous societal attitudes of the day, I never really got why Jane went for Mr. Rochester.  Simple as that.  In a culture of withholding and cruelty, his “charms” could best be described as “as expected” rather than alluring on any level.

In this adaptation, screenwriter Moira Buffini and director Cary Fukunaga finally helped me get it.  From Rochester’s hysterical secret to Jane’s default setting of undeservingness, Buffini takes them both to a place of mutual respect and understanding.  It may not necessarily be true to the text as such (it has been quite a while) but it’s true to the spirit of Jane.

Casting Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) as the glowering antihero was equally as inspired a choice as using Colin Firth in 1995’s Pride and Prejudice:  both of them are unconventionally handsome and gentle actors thrust into roles that radiate unpleasantness and are difficult to warm to.  Rochester’s irrational grumps and rages feel more human coming out of Fassbender, not unlike Firth’s cold and cutting remarks.  It’s the only way to insert humanity into them onscreen in the truncated time span of a film.

Mia Wasikowska’s Jane is stoic and unselfconsciously beautiful, frail-looking but strong as bamboo when tried.  We can see all her internal scars, feel the effects of her abusive upbringing, even as the movie is forced to rush through the extent of it.  From such a barren life grows a fierce weed, almost mannish her lack of guile or vanity — and from thence her appeal.  It’s funny how literary and contemporary men always decry women for leaving their feminine place, but are yet always drawn to the outspoken, independent, fearless women they decry.

This version of Jane Eyre is light on Rochester being cruel to her himself, and in that fails the story just a little — but I confess I enjoyed it more for that.  I also liked the sense of Rochester being in the world when Jane has not been.  Not only in terms of his bastard ward, but just his whole clearly grown-up-ness and jaded weariness — yet still he is weaker than this beaten down servant girl.

My one quibble is a sort of narrative device that confused me — and likely might have done for anyone who hadn’t read the book at all.  The whole episode with St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters, I had forgotten happened at all.  So when we’re shown the flight across the — moors? heath? — by Jane, twice, it’s not immediately evident where it falls in the timeline, both times.  It can be worked out and it’s not vital, but it rendered a scene a little contextually confusing, implying through editing that Rivers helped her find her job at Thornfield, the Rochester house.  It’s only a quibble.  I enjoyed this film very much.  I hope you will too.

MPAA Rating PG-13

Release date 3/11/11

Time in minutes 120

Director Cary Fukunaga

Studio Focus Features

Oscar-Nominated Short Films of 2010

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Oscar-Nominated Short Films of 2010

It’s difficult to see the Oscar nominated shorts — they play obscure or international festivals, throwing Oscar pools into disarray and forcing people to guess based on whatever available production team they can uncover. “Oh, Pixar? I’ll pick that one.” “It’s about Nazis? Yeah just choose that one.” The shorts, all 10 in one screening, are available for viewing in short bursts at your bigger art-house theatres, and I do entreat you to go if you are at all interested. There is a reason these five are chosen from a morass of shorts — in this day and age, anyone can make a credibly slick-looking film, but it is still a rare confluence of wonderfulness for the film to look, sound, and feel like real art.

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The Company Men

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The Company Men

Is 2011 too soon to try and tell a story that is sympathetic to the very greedmongers that were complicit in setting the depth charges on our economy in 2008?  Maybe — but I would argue its proximity to the events it depicts gives it some heft.  Writer/director John Wells explores the lives of four executives of differing levels of influence and depravity as they wend their way through the beginnings of the collapse.

 

It’s difficult to witness how unrepentantly rich and entitled these folks begin, and how long they cling to the illusion of the bubble that made their fortunes.  I cannot imagine being so bored and profligate that the only solution is a $2,000 end table for that little spot in the hallway.  Without too much spoilage, Ben Affleck is the lowest on the totem pole and so he’s of course the first to feel the axe.  Emotionally, his story is the real investment arc of the film, and his lot is the easiest to identify with, even the disposable income bits.  While privileged beyond anyone in my social circle, his wealth is still that sort of relatable, possible American dream wealth.  Affleck trades on his natural playboy movie star charm and his Regular Joe side as well to nail this role.

 

His higher ups (Craig T. Nelson, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones) operate in a whole separate plane of reality.  It almost helps to see how removed they really are, though it does nothing to quell that sick feeling in your stomach when they continue to thrash ineffectually at the problems they misunderstand and propagate.  Hindsight may be 20/20 for those people but everyone at the bottom saw this coming from miles away.  Brace yourself for the expected sights of empty cubicles and boxes of personal possessions, but also watch the faces of the characters responsible, and how they respond.

 

Watching the different human weaknesses of the other executives, watching Affleck’s denial and lack of preparation despite the good sense of his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) is sickly entertaining and deeply human.  The casting is terrific — the kids all look like their parents and the existing careers of each actor feed into our perceptions of their characters as well.  Kevin Costner appears unexpectedly to deliver a different side of the American dream and throw into sharp relief how different these investment people are from the regular working man.

 

Ultimately the story humanizes them, but it does not forgive them; it’s a brave tale to tell while the country still reels from the disastrous policies that allowed this unchecked greed to rot the entire economy from within.  I can’t say that it will help you feel better, but it’s an excellent story, well-executed and performed, and worth your attention.

MPAA Rating  R- language, nudity

Release date 1/21/11

Time in minutes 113

Director John Wells

Studio Weinstein Company

 

Somewhere

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Somewhere

Sofia Coppola grew up at her famous director father’s side, seeing the glamor and the tedium of Hollywood firsthand. She explored this dichotomy with brilliant directness in Lost in Translation, with bubbly metaphor with Marie Antoinette, and now here.

However one might have enjoyed Translation or Antoinette, they were both gloriously watchable in both their quiet and their antic moments. Somewhere focuses on the tedium to the point where my companions and I were practically counting the unnecessary extra beats and minutes of a shot or scene aloud to keep ourselves entertained.

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True Grit

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True Grit

Full disclosure: The first two times I tried to watch this Coen Brothers remake of John Wayne’s 1969 film, I fell right asleep.

I’m a fan of the Coens’ sensibility nearly across the board, and of stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I was impressed by Hailee Steinfeld’s turn as 14 year-old spitfire Maddie Ross and tickled to see my long-ago acting teacher have a nice long chewy courtroom scene with Bridges. Is it just that it’s a western that sent me packing with the sandman? Twice?

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Never Let Me Go

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Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Matinee with Snacks

Based on the quiet and elegant book by Kazuo Ishiguro (he also wrote Remains of the Day), Never Let Me Go is a wonderful adaptation. Not only does director Mark Romanek (most notably One Hour Photo) capture the tone and sense of mystery of the novel, but director of photography Adam Kimmel gives the alternate world a grounded and even quaint feel, which belies the cold ethical questions at hand. It’s foggy and cold, even on sunny green days, a world whose back is turned (not from scorn, from discomfort) on this anachronistic institution. If you go in ignorant of the real premise, you may still feel like something is off about this small world. Halisham is a boarding school in the 1978 British countryside. The drab grey clothes and the rigorous yet permissive environment all feel foreign and false. Screenwriter Alex Garland (notably Sunshine and 28 Days Later) feeds out what you need to know with grace; by the time you’re watching what in lesser hands could have been The Island or Dollhouse, you’re hooked on the characters.

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Rabbit Hole

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Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole

Matinee with Snacks

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — often times, plays that are adapted into movies feel weird and stilted in their dialogue. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire adapted his own play, and he does a marvelous job de-theatricalizing his won work. Why does thus matter? What’s wrong with theatrical language? Nothing, as such. But Rabbit Hole is a delicate piece of drama, involving high states of emotion and confrontation — and for it to work as a movie, it absolutely must not sound anything but real and natural. Well done, Lindsay-Abaire. Director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig & The Angry Inch, Shortbus) is no stranger to intensity or discomfiting levels of intimacy (emotional or otherwise), nor is he a stranger to the theatre. He’s the perfect director for a story that could have been maudlin, depressing, or self-indulgent in other hands. I had resisted watching this one for a while, concerned that it would be too crushingly sad or psychologically disjointed.

The premise is simple — eight months after the accident death of their young son, Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman (also consummate stage and screen crossovers) are struggling to keep their marriage afloat. Their coping, their mourning, but also their attempts to bounce back to some kind of new normalcy go in all directions, not always the same ones. We’ve got high drama fights and tony moment of sousal understanding — explosions and swallowing, love and fear and confusion. I haven’t enjoyed Kidman this much in some time; much is made of her ice-queenly, frozen forehead, but she is not anything but raw and uncontrolled here. Eckhart is always solid and here is no different — his time spent with Sandra Oh in group therapy reminds us of the husband he must have been Before The Tragedy, so we, like Kidman, can miss that guy all the more.

The supporting cast is also great, with Oh and Dianne Wiest as Kidman’s well-meaning mom, and Miles Teller as Jason, the teenager down the block. We don’t realize why he is significant until all in a rush we find out and it’s such an impact after his quiet teen presence. Each of these people help Kidman and Eckhart move through this moment in their lives and on to the next one. The next one will also be filled with a sense of loss, and love, and all the things currently crowding this one, but it’s at least the next moment, and not a state of permanent freeze as they fear. Rabbit Hole is a lovely contemplation on the grief process, on people just doing their best (failing and not), and the importance of comfort in all its many forms. Perhaps it would even be something that someone in a group therapy as these characters are in would benefit from.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/17/10
Time in minutes 91
Director John Cameron Mitchell
Studio Lionsgate

The Fighter

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The Fighter

The Fighter

Rental and Snacks

Based on a true story, the tale of Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund [note: between the film itself and various online sources, I have not seen one that agrees on the spelling of these guys’ names] is one seemingly tailor-made for awards consideration. Eklund (Christian Bale) was a professional fighter who now (1993) is a local hero in his home town of Lowell, MA, and a crackhead. His little brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is going into the family business, but is a different sort of fighter than his elder brother. The difference is not just their physiques or fighting styles, though that certainly enters into it. The family idolizes Bale, and all but Wahlberg is in total denial of how lost their elder son really is. Wahlberg loves his family and he wants his shot, and is strangling in the arms of his eight siblings and his pushy mother/manaer (Melissa Leo).

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