Judi Dench
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The Importance of Being Earnest

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Last filmed in 1952, Oscar Wilde’s play was deserving of an update. Pity no one managed to see it. Horrifyingly, I have been stymied as to how to review it for months. Literally! It’s a frothy delight, true to the spirit of the original, but flavored with the permissiveness of the present. Perhaps the filmmakers took too many liberties with the behavior of the time, but I suspect they just wanted to keep their MTV audience interested. I mean, it’s rated PG for “mild sexuality.”

Apparently screenwriter/director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband, another film adaptation of Oscar Wilde, as well as the Laurence Fishburne Othello) doesn’t think the classics are good enough – but at least he is true to their spirit. He loves Rupert Everett as a straight man and so do all the ladies out in the audience, so go Ollie go! I have not read any interviews with Mr. Parker, but it is clear that he really loves the works that he brings to the screens, though he tries to push the boundaries of the script towards the modern sometimes. In this case, it was the bizarre comedy of errors coupled with a casual sense of sexuality, something Lady Bracknell would never indulge in her wicked nephews.

If you don’t know the general premise, our two bored and aristocratic friends find amusement in pretending to be a different person in Town than in the country, and in the guise of their respective alter-ego “Earnest,” have seriously engaged the affections of two young ladies. The problem is, the ladies love them for being named Earnest, and some cross-acquaintanceship (and the fact that they both pretend to be Earnest) creates some seriously high-end farce. In the end, of course, being earnest is more important than being Earnest, but both together make for some wickedly scintillating comedy.

And excuse me? Could it be better cast? NO! So if you have never seen the play live, you must endeavor to see this cast. Rupert Everett is Hollywood’s shining example of why we don’t actually care if our leading man actors are gay, as long as they are as dashing and charming as Rupert. He’s got the Wilde fever for certain, and he’s a delicious foil to Colin Firth, a geek’s hunk, comfortably haughty and uptight (as we love him in his dual Darcy roles) as the other “Earnest.” Basically. if you love the play, you will love this movie. I’m not going to give you any more teaser information if you have not. All farce is a greater joy when it is a surprise.

Anachronistic as it is to say so, Judi Dench ROCKS as the redoubtable Lady Bracknell – with her natural gravity and fearsomely twinkly eyes, it’s no wonder most community theatres have to resort to a man in drag for this role. Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park, A.I.) and Reese Witherspoon make up the rest of the main ensemble, though all the supporting characters are equally lovely. Reese is the lone Yank in the sea of stiff upper lippers, holding her own like a native. They’ve all been playing these sorts of roles since they were in leading strings, and she eases into it like, well like Gwyneth Paltrow. A supreme compliment, by the way. One wishes this cast could go and remake other works, like Dangerous Liaisons (in the period, not Cruel Intentions) so they could continue to play together. Oliver Parker Repertory Theatre! Oh yes!

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/22/02
Time in minutes 100
Director Oliver Parker
Studio Miramax

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Watching Iris is like flipping through a painstakingly maintained scrapbook, lovingly assembled by someone with deep emotional ties to the subject. James Horner’s beautiful, delicate music (punctuated by dreamboat violinist Joshua Bell) provides the same reverent mood that the smoky, colored light in the rafters of a stained glass building creates. In fact, with no knowledge or investment in the lives of Iris and John, I was already teary eyed just two minutes into the film thanks to Horner.

I had never heard of Iris Murdoch prior to my awareness of this film, but I am glad to have had such a gentle and loving introduction. Iris is a movie, a true story, about romance and love and the mysteries of connection as much as it is about the heartbreak of Alzheimers. Based on her husband John Bayley’s book, An Elegy for Iris, it is an acting setpiece for not only the redoubtable women playing Iris but also for the men playing John. And it is an absolute crime that Hugh Bonneville was the only one of the lead foursome not nominated for an Oscar; they were all deserving of accolade. You might recognize Hugh from Notting Hill. You should recognize older John, Jim Broadbent (who, since I saw the film, won his Oscar) from Moulin Rouge and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Hugh and Jim were percolated in a time machine to play each other; and their hearts are on their sleeve, while never being overpowered by the figure being memorialized in the film. They are lovely and weak, strong and loving, but never cartoons.

Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench share the role of Iris. Quel surprise that Dench can hit this role our of the park – her gravity in Iris’ lucid moments is stunning but her floating mindlessness is equally felt. Her capacity to embody a person so wholly is constantly astounding. They both radiate the same fire and beauty, the casting for this film could not be better. Delightful. Winslet is always her best when she gets to be smart and strong, and even though the older and younger generation do not share the screen at any time, they draw strength and beauty from each others’ performances, or that’s how it looks.

I say the film is romantic, but it is romantic not like a romance of finding each other, but a romance of knowing each other. The longer journey of being together, being in love together, and living through such a change as Iris experiences, makes for a beautiful tale. It is a tale of caring for and being with someone and the slow pain of watching her break down – her impossibly elevated status of unpossessable goddess slowly slips her down from being his mistress to his child.

Director Richard Eyre should be proud of his cast but they seem to operate on a plane beyond direction. It is an actorly movie, all character study and little “plot” per se, but the overall story told through these flashes of past and present draw a more delicate picture of romance, of love, and of the tenuousness of connection, than any standard narrative could succeed in doing. Run out and buy the soundtrack too, while you’re at it.

MPAA Rating R for language and sexuality
Release date 2/15/02
Time in minutes 91
Director Richard Eyre
Studio Miramax

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The Shipping News

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Matinee and Snacks if you love the book

The reviewer tried to read the book. Thin, 337 pages, a trifle. On more than one occasion labored over the prose. Curt, choppy poetry that defies engagement of interest when lacking dialogue. Cursing as she struggled to plough onward, salty sweat on her lip, forcing her way to page 90. Final stop – the film has arrived. Names all symbolic, irritating obviousness. Lack of verbs. Film needs no verbs. Actors need only dialogue. Kevin Spacey is wonderful. Reviewer saw it with a fan of the book. Fan swooned. Waxed poetic of the beauty of the film. Trust her judgement if you love Proulx. Main character is a writer whom could not be written about.

The audience with free passes shivering in the air conditioning. Spacey lumbers onto screen, the exact opposite of Keyser Soze. Puffy body, dejected shoulders. Physical weight of his unhappiness palpable. Clothes wrapped around bent shoulders. “He’s too thin to play Quoyle, don’t you think?”

“But look at him – even though I know he is physically too fit, too confident, too present, I am watching him disappear under other people’s needs!”

“Shhh! Judi Dench is speaking.”

Dench curls her eyes around her venomous past. She is a prima ballerina in such climate. Quoyle a ballast in his own life. Boats, boats, and more boats litter the scenery, meaning much but saying little. Landscape eats the characters and digests them into useful grist for the film. Quoyle’s body shapeshifted as each scene went by, growing muscle and bone and vital spine. Spacey does it again. Triplets play one girl who should be sisters. The singing of the house is audible and not due to sound engineers. Cate Blanchett, so little seen, so very crazy. Why does he love her? We know. We have all loved her in some form in our lives. We forgive, pity, wait.

Julianne Moore, sensuous Newfie with a secret. We feel Quoyle’s captivation and his curiosity. Spacey makes us feel his desperate yearning. Wombs cry out from the theatre, “I’ll have you!” Moore smiles wisely. If Spacey is gay as rumored, he is the best actor in the world.

Review lunges clumsily at meaning. Did she or didn’t she like it? Hate the book, cannot finish it. No need; Kevin Spacey renders reading obsolete by showing so much with his body. Audience a rapt filing cabinet of varying degrees of age, comprehension. Students will skip book, see movie, reveal ignorance. Changes are minor but significant. Mood is thick. Tone perfected by loving glass and celluloid making a light soup of portent.

If this review writing style annoys you, see the movie, skip the book, and marvel at the wonder that is Kevin Spacey. He inhabits his body so completely that he physically changes before your eyes, like an elapsed time video of a flower opening in the sun. For him and Judi together in a room is like sipping reality tea. Imagine the horrible alternate reality that once existed where John Travolta was tagged to play this part. Go out and support Kevin Spacey.

MPAA Rating R-language, sexuality, disturbing images

Release date 12/25/01

Time in minutes 111

Director Lasse Hallstrøm

Studio Miramax

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The World Is Not Enough

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I say network premiere because that way you will have the majority of the lamest jokes (known on an alternate, humor-free planet as double entendres) excised for a television audience, thereby suffering less. It’s a good thing Garbage did the theme song, setting me and a million other critics on end trying to work that into a pun about what we thought of the film. Pierce Brosnan was my first love – before I had that crush on Jason Neely in 7th grade, I wanted Pierce Brosnan. The fact that it took me over a week to see my beloved Pierce in his third Bond installment, with a cameo by John Cleese on top of that, AND I hated the film, says so very very much about how truly wretched this latest 007 movie is. And Denise Richards is actually much worse of a nuclear physicist than you might think. Chew on that.

Sophie Marceau is very beautiful but the French Babe Is Not Enough. Pierce Brosnan is the hunkiest James Bond and yet saddled with the lamest 007 movies and therefore making an unwitting mockery of himself all in the same of BMW and Tag Heuer and so on. To be fair, the product placement in this installment was less…obtrusive than that last one. But it’s still heartbreaking. Not even John Cleese could save it! Oh woe! Not even Robert Carlyle (Full Monty) or frickin’ JUDI DENCH could save this movie. They know it too – they do their damnedest to keep the Titty-anic from sinking but they so are under-equipped. Tragic, really.

The opening sequence, prior to the oily, interesting credits and theme song, was a huge deal – boats crashing and jumping and diving and pirouetting about, machine guns blazing, assassins assassinating, Bond pursing his lips and adjusting his collar (in a creepy, Michael J. Fox kind of way and not a sexy, shaken, not stirred kind of way) and it was BOR-ING. Lots of inexplicable (and ultimately, never explained) cross-intrigue apparently all for its own sake.

“Ooh!” yelps the director, screaming at his screenwriter. “And then it would be cool if he could like, flip over the – what? Oh, OK, so first he shoots this thing which lands in a perfect parabola shape, thereby vaulting him to the – huh? Oh, OK, so the woman goes over this deal and runs up this tent thing, which of course he was planning on so he could – and then BOOM! That would be cool! Make it happen!”

“Uh, but sir,” the belabored writer cringes below the liverwurst breath of his boss, sighing like Kiff on Futurama but not as aggressively insubordinate. “That would make no sense, be stupid, and still be boring.”

“Boring! But stuff gets knocked over! The finest agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, mucking about with a total disregard for civilian safety, recklessly endangering Fergie as she shops? I LOVE it!”

And so there it is.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 11/19/99
Time in minutes 128
Director Michael Apted
Studio MGM

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Shakespeare In Love

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Full Price Feature, buy any tie-ins that occur

If this does not win the Oscar for best screenplay at the very least then I don’t know what’s wrong with this country. Shakespeare in Love is a delight on every level of movie-going. I am not alone in ranking this as definitely one of the 5 best movies I saw all year, possibly top three. I’ll have to review my notes for movies I saw 10 months ago to be sure but what a joy!!!

SIL is a fictional account of a brief episode of writer’s block in William Shakespeare’s life, the result of which was a star-crossed romance, some cross-dressing escapades, and other events that eventually became part of his most popular works. Joseph Fiennes, the younger brother of Ralph, has that same eerie purity of male beauty but with close-set, highly smoldering eyes instead of his brother’s cooler, more distant charm. In other words, woof! There are times, however, where he resembles the Artist Formerly Known as Prince just a little too much, but it still worked for me. Gwyneth Paltrow, my loyal readers may recall, was on probation after being in Great Expectations, and mostly pardoned after the wonderful Sliding Doors – now she has earned enough credit that she could make one whole bad movie again and I will still love her. She is great in this movie. (And guys, you get to see her bubbies!)

You don’t have to be a Shakespearean scholar to enjoy SIL, but you should have some knowledge of his plays – for example, you should know that in Romeo and Juliet, the title characters are star-cross’d lovers who meet in secret and say “Anon!” to their nurses to make them wait. You should know he writes a play called Twelfth Night, you should know about the Elizabethan convention of men playing women, and his writing plays where women are disguised as men in the stories. Basically, an average working knowledge is all you need, but the more you know the better. I’m no expert, but there were a few jokes where I was the only one laughing…same with some other people I know. The screen play, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, is totally brilliant. I mean, absolutely wonderful. It parodies Shakespeare’s historical playwriting environment as well as his plays and interweaves “real life” situations together that we will later see presented in his plays – and pokes loving fun at them at the same time. Oh, it is an utter delight!!!

Stoppard, a revered playwright (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), also pumped out a couple of other movies that you might have loved: Empire of the Sun and Brazil. Who knew? Director John Madden (Mrs. Brown) seems almost secondary to the crisp writing and wonderful ensemble contributed to by Rupert Everett, Imelda Staunton, Colin Firth, and Ben Affleck – yes, Ben Affleck. Trust me, he’s great. More people as well, including that wonderful man from The Full Monty. My apologies for not knowing his name – but he’s awesome.

Walking to my car, I was energized, excited, just so glad that good films can still be made. It’s just like getting the perfect gift for Christmas that you didn’t even think to ask for but was what you wanted more than anything. I am so grateful that people still care to make good movies, and this is such a refreshing splash of water. They even slipped in a sly little reference to the recent (good) remake of Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo DiSomething…tee hee! Judi Dench (the Artist formerly known as Mrs. Brown/Queen Victoria) is Queen Elizabeth, and she is incredible. I ran to the bookstore to buy the screenplay – dash it all! Only a cheesy poetry compilation with our hot Elizabethan lovers on the cover. I will have to content myself with the score until some bit-head with impeccable taste uploads the script to the internet. If I had any webspace I’d do it myself, watching and writing a million times until I got it all.

On top of just being a white hot grease fire of pure entertainment, it’s also very historically accurate (insofar as the events that are real – but it is fiction). What an added bonus. And those shoes!
Go, just go, I can’t do it justice but it’s fabulous wonderful all that. If it’s not playing in your area start driving. This is why people go to the movies.

MPAA Rating R – sexuality
Release date 12/25/98
Time in minutes 122
Director John Madden
Studio Miramax