Friday, February 29, 2008

House of Mirth (2000)

I don't know what my reaction would have been if I'd seen this movie cold, but viewing it as a dramatization of Wharton's book, I found it two dimensional, missing many opportunities the book presented for character exploration and growth. This review focuses on the differences between the book and the film.

The movie was startingly unsubtle at times, which tended to take me out of the plot. For instance, in one emotional scene, when the cousin sobbed "Lawrence, Lawrence," as Lily exited the room, I rolled my eyes. It didn't help that they melded Lily's cousin and Lawrence's cousin into one character, diminishing their foil potention. Much of what the book revealed through character juxtaposition was lost that way, because the two cousins served as opposite sides of the Good v. Evil spectrum. In Wharton's pages, we saw Lily slowly shift from leaning to one side, to sliding towards the other, through her contrast to the cousin characters.

Lily's social standing isn't the only thing that changes as she descends into poverty. She evolves as her life devolves. The movie loses sight of this transition, because when we begin Lily isn't an especially shallow person herself, so we can't appreciate her developing substance as you do in the book.

The movie portrays her as someone who had no choice, but, in fact, she did have other choices and eschewed them. Her disdain for Gerty, a woman Lily eventually
came to look up to (who resented Lily, but never stooped to being less than
loving to her) told us a lot about Lily. We needed Gerty to show us all that was wrong with Lily as much as we needed Grace to show us all that was honorable.

I wanted to see the Lily who disparaged Gerty at first, scoffing at a woman who's cook also did the washing (with the result being that her food tasted like soap to Lily). I wanted to see the Lily who remarked that she differed from Gerty, because Gerty "likes being good, and I like being happy." The movie showed us too much of the good Lily from the first, so that the evolution was not as sharp or interesting as it could have been.

Furthermore, in the book, it was Grace Stepney who was quietly in love with Seldon, not Gerty. The movie basically eliminates Gerty (and her goodness) entirely. A shame, because not only did Gerty illuminate Lily in the book, but she was a tool used to explore the character of Selden as well. Selden chided Lily saying that she shouldn't go to visit Gerty on wash day, if she didn't like the idea that Gerty's cook doubled as her laundry woman, but in many ways, he was as far from attaining the Gerty ideal (of humble perfection) as Lily was and there was no Gerty there, as measure, to bring about his ultimate realization of this fact and make him conscious of his hypocrisy.

The movie plot advanced, but the characters didn't as much as Wharton's did. If they'd focused on the character development, then Lily's choice not to automatically use Bertha's letters, would have been more profound. I think the movie Lily was so good that it was hard to understand how sorely she WAS tempted to do the unconscionable in marriage, in blackmail, in life.

To the book's Lily, the unethical was not unthinkable at all, just ultimately undoable and that's why it devastated her so that Lawrence was able to read her thoughts so well, but never appreciated how pristine her deeds were in contrast to those thoughts -- until it was too late. Because he could see into her soul, he assumed the worst. But there is something much more empathetic (and human) about the person who is tempted to do wrong, but overcomes that temptation, than in the person who is never tempted.

The movie never let us glimpse the younger Lily's disdain for the world beneath her upper society or for even the life she could have had on the edge of it, as a lawyer's wife. In that position she could have lived respectably, just not frivolously. The movie doesn't acknowledge her rejection of everything modest and inner drive to be at the center of her social set. Instead, the film plot aligns her quest for wealthy connections, with a need to maintain the necessities of life. They made Lily resemble an Austen protagonist who would end up penniless if she didn't marry well. But at the beginning of Wharton's book, Lily didn't face a life of poverty at all. She wasn't grasping out of necessity. She was motivated by ambition and self-aggrandizement. Her values increased as her social status declined.

As for the acting, unfortunately, Stolz struck me as petrified wood. Gillian Anderson? As an X-Files fan, I suppose I am spoiled. I know what she can do with quiet, so I'm less fazed by noise and tears. Of course, there are those X-Files critics (famously honored in The Simpsons' episode The Springfield Files ) who claim that Anderson is incapable of showing any expression at all.
They think the liveliest thing about Scully is the color of her hair. I suppose Mirth would come as a revelation to them. Since I think Gillian blossoms in the intensity of silence, the Mirth scene I liked best was probably the one with Bertha, after Lily has been accused of arranging an evening alone with George and suddenly realizes that she has been framed as the correspondent in any divorce George might contemplate. I loved the dawning awareness crossing GA's face.

Still, in the book Lily was a full match for Bertha Dorset, never out of her league. She simply made a conscious decision to exit the league sometimes. The movie has Gus Trenor's wife telling Lily in the beginning that she doesn't have the ability to compete with Bertha's nastiness and really, that just wasn't true. The literary Lily was not outwitted by Bertha, but rather chose to take the high road. I wish the film's Lily hadn't been so -- so innocent. The naivete only diminishes both her tragedy and moral triumph. Wharton's heroine was more proud than passive.

Of course, I loved the scene with Lily and Lawrence when she said, "love me, but don't tell me so." There were some scenes that were done so beautifully that I just wanted to cut them from the context of the movie and hang them on a wall.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Life is Beautiful (1997)

MOMENTS THAT LINGERED: For me, the heartstopping, "Sophie's Choice" moments in this movie came when Dora insisted that she belonged on the train leaving for the concentration camp. It was not only that she was sacrificing her own life, to share the fate of her husband and son, but the fact that there might have been some infinitesimal chance to use her wealthy family's influence to have her family spared, if she had remained free. She might possibly have been helpful to them on the outside, while hope and identity was lost once she boarded the train.

To me, Dora's decision not only evidenced her utter loyalty to her family, but showed us how entirely she had abandoned the world she had been raised with and the shallowness and prejudice it represented. She had only recently been united with her mother when Guido and Giosue were taken, but she didn't run to her mother for solace or even advice. Though her future might be crumbling, Dora no longer had a place in that past.

Instead, her feelings seemed to be that if her son and husband were being persecuted simply because they were Jewish, then she must suffer the same lot, because she was no different than they were. She felt no distinction. She would recognize no distinction. She would not allow the world to make a distinction. As Ruth pledged to Naomi, Guido's people became Dora's people. By voluntarily choosing the same lot to which her family was subjected, Dora underlined how arbitrary and irrational racism is. It was just as senseless to be spared because of lineage as it was to be gassed because of it. Dora said that she should be on that train, but so should we all. If anyone must be, then everyone should be.

Of course, the heart of the movie is the whimsical facade Guido assumes for his son, masking his full awareness of the horror. The dichotomy is never more stark than when he peers out of the train window and sees Dora getting on. His silent heartbreak, juxtaposed against Giosue's joy that Mommy will be making the trip with them.

What is most interesting is that during the brief moments when Guido is to make contact with Dora, you can tell that he would try to buoy her spirits just as he did Giosue's, given the chance, but all hope has left Dora. There is no light to be rekindled even briefly. No forgetting, no transcending the death that the imprisonment brings. When she hears Guido's voice over the loudspeaker, even learning that he and Giosue are still alive does not give her real relief. The phonograph music and Guido's voice spark memories, but only as ghosts do, reminding you of what has been lost, more than reviving the past.

After the camp is liberated, Dora is still a listless shell and is not resuscitated until she holds her happy son in her arms once more, a moment of which she had never dreamed. Guido had the fantasies. He alone held the key to possibility. Once he was gone, Dora was unable to imagine herself in any future, except the one the gas chamber would hold. Giosue's final embrace restored her in a way that mere physical release did not.

Of course, the most penetrating moment was Guido's death. It happened offscreen, which had the strange effect of maximizing rather than minimizing the impact. He performed until the end, comically marching to his fate. Surely it would take more than bullets to extinguish such a magical mind and its ever animated spirit, but cruelty levels the world without discrimination, destroying the great with the small and both as easily. Often feared as something momentous and powerful, life's culmination, is invariably a whimper, not a bang, silencing kings and paupers alike, with its anti-climatic finality and stillness. Without thought or hesitation, the end comes instantly for our hero, Guido's killer doubtlessly forgetting him before the rifle has cooled. Yet, Guido lives on, because Giosue has won the game, gets to ride in the tank and captures an even bigger prize: a reunion with Dora who is sure to hear the stories that Guido used to protect and inspire their son for decades and generations to come. Thus, life is not cheap after all. Life is beautiful.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Thin Man (1933)

This movie, the entire 14-year series actually, starts where most screwball comedies end: at the marriage. Even though cinema was still young when Nick and Nora first graced the screen, it was already laden with cliches. All of which the Charles' gracefully sidestepped, arm in arm.

Husband and wife were in delightful synch, mainly because she was just as irreverent as he. They did not squabble to further the plot. When she entered the room and found him in a compromising position with a beautiful dame, the audience held its breath, waiting for the inevitable misunderstanding. Instead, Nora surprises us by simply crinkling her lovely nose. She's amused by the predicament that Nick finds himself in, not jealous and never tearful.

The only time that Nora nags is when Nick presumes to try to solve the mystery without her. So much of the humor in the movie comes from their non-reactions. Both are as nonchalant as they are eloquent, handling a clever comment as deftly as their cocktails.

Although the intrigue is commonplace, the supporting characters are not and provide entertaining foils. But it's Nick and Nora who sell the movie. It's not only the characters that are attractive, but their approach to life is so enticing. Their banter is the goal in and of itself, not the means to an end. It's wonderful to think that their might be life beyond "meet cute."

Though unrealistic, how refreshing to see spouses enjoy each other's humor, style, looks -- and drunkenness, to encounter a duo that never quarrels over money, alcohol or infidelity. Of course, no screwball comedy would waste time manufacturing ways to keep its zany couple apart, if they were all as magical together as Loy and Powell.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

This movie is generally considered a frothy diversion, seldon rated as an all time favorite, even by those who recall it with fondness. But for me, it's a Top Ten classic. As is usually the case, it reaches that status for reasons that transcend the facile plot and visits the themes we find as poignant in life, as in the films that reflect it.

Lucy Muir, a young widow and mother, moves into a home she finds is haunted by a rather debonair sea captain. He's as charming as he is contrary, so naturally the 2 bicker frequently. But alas the UST (unresolved sexual tension) between them, must remain so, because he's dead and she's alive and you can't get more star-crossed than that. So, Lucy is determined to get on with her life and overcome the constant interference of the meddling captain, who disturbs all her visitors with his meddlesome pranks. When he sabotages the efforts of one too many suitors, Lucy explodes.

Although there's more bark than bite to her anger, the captain realizes that he's holding her back. The more she's in his ghostly company, the less she's with the world. He doesn't want to selfishly deprive her of the life she still has, just because his is gone. Therefore, the Captain makes the decision to stop haunting Lucy. More importantly, to set her completely free, he erases memory of himself from Lucy's mind.

Thence forward, she goes on ghost-free, but one can't really call it living. The visitors stop coming, her daughter grows up and doesn't need her constant attention any longer. Lucy withdraws, because although she doesn't remember the Captain, she misses him terribly. He remains a vague thought in her head that she cannot fully recover. Familiar sounds make her look around, expecting to see -- she knows not what. She can't remember. She carries around her this sense of loss, made worse because she doesn't even know what she's longing for.

Once merry and spirited, she grows somber and closed before her time, nursing the nameless void. All those suitors the Captain chased away hold no interest for her now.

For me, that image of Lucy feeling incomplete and unfulfilled, missing something she can't describe has universal meaning. Ghosts are fantasy, but vague dissatisfaction and sense of longing for that intangible something more is very real. It plagues widows languishing in sea side mansions and business men thumbing their blackberrys alike.

Of course's Mrs. Muir's problem would have been easier to solve than most of ours. Why didn't the Captain just return? Once he saw that she wasn't moving on without him and would have been happier sharing an imperfect life with him, than an empty one with corporal companions, he should have materialized again. He left, so as not to stand in her way, but in his absence, Lucy created barriers between herself and the living world that were more impenetrable than any obstacles the Captain could have strewn in her path. He left so that she could go forward, but having known him, she couldn't go back. She was not the same woman she'd been before meeting him. He erased her recollection of him, but not the impression he left behind. She spent the rest of her days alone, as a testament to the ghost she did not even remember.

Lucy's is no different than other failed relationships. How many other heroines, literary or flesh and blood, have spent years mourning relationships they left, because the would-be mate was too poor, too old, too different? Too late they learn that the problems they foresaw in pursuing the troubled love are nothing compared to the travail of living without it.

Eventually, death stole upon Lucy as she dozed in a rocking chair. The moment she passed away, the Captain came and escorted Lucy's young soul into their happily ever after. Yet, I was left mourning for all their wasted years apart.

Why is it that an eternity of joy is still insufficient to override relatively transient pain? For me, joy is fleeting, while sorrow is infinite, capable of being relived repeatedly, with a pain that is nearly undiluted, while the moments of delight can never be completely recaptured. Maybe, it's because happiness is light, buoyant, uplifting, and weightless, while sorrow is heavy, permeable, sinking so deeply as to leave a scar that is never completely healed.

Though the movie is fun and fanciful, it leaves me with thoughts that are complex and bittersweet. Questions about fulfillment, imperfect love, and the endless nature of grief, with answers as elusive as the Captain's ghostly chuckle.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

As an X-Phile, I'm forced to admit that what intrigued me most about this film is its plot's resemblance to one of my favorite X-Files episodes: Milagro.

Milagro actually told 2 stories. There was (1) a writer with the power to murder through his "fiction," and (2) the real-life writer the Milagro character symbolized, Chris Carter, who learned that his characters had spawned a life of their own and could no longer follow the direction that he'd planned for them.

Of course, in Stranger Than Fiction, the writer, Karen Eiffel, does not exactly lose control of her characters against her will, as is the case in Milagro. In fact, her protagonist is prepared to submit to his fate. And he does so, not because he concludes he has no control over his actions, upon learning that he exists only in a writer's head, but because he decides that the course the writer has fated for him is actually the best one, for reasons bigger than himself.

Faced with the humanity and humanness of the man she conceived in ink, Eiffel herself must also define (or redefine) what the "greater good" really is and she changes her plot, not because she had no choice or lost control, but because power possessed need not always be power exercised.

In this way, Eiffel learned a lesson that eluded both the Milagro killer and the man responsible for him (Chris Carter). I don't think Carter ever became reconciled to the fact that his vision of Mulder and Scully had to give way to what the fans', actors' and network "suits'" inexorable influence on the X-Files became. Carter didn't change his course, so much as he was driven off the road. Likewise, the Milagro writer (Padgett) learns that while the pen is greater than the sword, love is greater than his pen. He does not relinquish his vision as author, but is blinded and has it taken from him. Conversely, Eiffel is never defeated as a writer. She just learns that there is more than one way (and more than one reason) to tell a story.

In crafting her novel, Eiffel was never looking for fame and fortune or even artistic pleasure. She only sought literary perfection. But she realized characters so lifelike that ultimately she decided that even if it's only on paper, she had no right to play God.

Notorious (1946)

I first saw this film at a revival film festival while a college student. Must have been almost 25 years ago.

What struck me most was how my heart beat when Alexander found Alicia in the wine cellar and reached to kiss her hands. She threw them around his neck in a mock show of exuberant affection, successfully hiding they key of betrayal clinched in her palm. I grew up in a world of Star Wars special effects, watching movies in theaters wired with the type of THX sound that made the whole venue vibrate. So, it amazed me that such a small moment, in a film made 17 years before my birth, could still excite me so. I not only felt the supsense, but shared Alicia's fear and her turmoil.

Of course, more than excitement, this film is about romance. For some reason, Casablanca never did it for me. I don't think I ever trusted Ilsa. I know I never forgave her. Maybe that's because I never witnessed her pain at losing Rick for myself and I didn't fully believe her when she described it. In Notorious, by contrast, Alicia's loss is palpable. I think I bought everything I knew about Cary Grant from other movies into my reading of Devlin. I knew how silly, funny, tender and nimble he could be from Arsenic and Old Lace and Penny Serenade, to the Awful Truth. So, when I looked at Devlin, I saw through him. I simply assumed that inside he was all the other things I'd seen Cary Grant be before. When he treated her like a prostitute, bit into Alicia's soul with his cruel words, I felt all the love and hurt he was repressing and knew his inner struggle.

Cary's character doesn't have an arc in Notorious as he does in An Affair to Remember. We don't see him in love and then in betrayal, so we can't really assess the contrast. In Affair, we watch Nickie harden himself, to hide the pain he felt when Terry failed to meet him at the top of the Empire State Building. We don't witness the hardening process in Notorious. By the time we meet T. R. Devlin, he's already cold and accusing, already been burned.

Devlin was so unbending and cool throughout the movie, that his softness in the final minutes when he clutches Alicia to his cheek would not have been enough for me. The final tenderness would not have mitigated his previous harshness or blunted his bitter words. It could not have made up for or melted the icy perception he'd created in the movies first 90 minutes, had I not seen Devlin as Cary Grant from all those movies past, and known exactly what was lurking inside, all the things Devlin was withholding from Alicia.

I brought all of my Cary Grant experiences with me to my viewing of Notorious and they created the facets of Devlin's personality that were only hinted at onscreen. So, when Devlin rejected her, I knew everything that she was missing, every gaze, laugh and caress suppressed. That's why my heart broke with hers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Match Point (2005)

Funny how this all boils down to the story of how a man falls in love with his own wife.

When tennis pro Chris Wilton marries into a wealthy family, we are shown with paint-by-number illustrations, that he has become quickly and completely enamored of his life of luxury. Yet, he is so consumed with his passion for the enticing Nola Rice, that he would have given his wife's riches up entirely, had Nola been interested in a future with him, early in their liaison. She was not.

What unfolded was not just a man tiring (in classic literary fashion) of the mistress who had once enthralled him, but a husband becoming increasingly attached to the stability and unconditional love offered by his spouse. He started off taking it for granted and ultimately killed to keep it. This evolution is best evidenced in the way that Nola observes that the reason Chris can't impregnate his infertile wife is because he doesn't love her. When Mrs. Wilton finally conceives and gives birth it is a testament to how Wilton's lust for Nola gave way to the growing contentment he began to find in family life.

Interestingly, Wilton's wife and in-laws did not just shower him with money, but from the start they expressed support, friendship, concern and a blind trust that he hardly valued until he was at risk of losing it. Onscreen, Chris was never obviously aware of his growing need for family, but it can be heard in his reflexive denial when someone observes that he doesn't love his wife. It's not that he doesn't love her, he objects. Eventually, we see that he does, even if he never recognizes that.

As Chris changes, or because Chris changes, so does Nola. She goes from free-spirited and independent to clinging and insecure. Her world grows smaller, to the point where dreams are lost and Chris becomes her only focus. Yet, I don't think it's her degeneration that is driving Chris away, so much as it his distancing that's driving her to desperation. She tells him she's not beautiful, "what I am is sexy." Men may never have respected her, but they were always smitten. That's how she has come to define herself. When she loses her physical thrall over first her fiance and, then, Chris, she loses track of the only sense of power she ever possessed. The faster you feel something slipping through your fingers, the harder you try to hold onto it, hence Nola's tightening grip on Chris. Yet, I don't think his struggle to break the stranglehold would have been as fierce, but for the lure of the family life he had once eschewed.

When the movie began, we were never given Chris' background. We don't know where he came from, what he was escaping, but we were also given no reason to distrust him. When he told his new, rich girlfriend that he didn't want hand-outs, the only reason we thought he was lying is because, from Montgomery Cliff in the The Heiress onward, characters in movies who resemble Chris are always lying. But I think that in Match Point, Chris' lies -- like his crimes -- were always on the surface. We never saw him scheme to attain his expensive lifestyle. In fact, he seemed to drift towards it by default, because nothing more worthwhile beckoned. Things happened to him. He didn't make them happen. We only saw Chris take the initiative twice: (1) when he risked everything to pursue Nola, and (2) when he risked everything to kill her. Money wasn't his goal the first time, nor was it the second. Love was.

Heist (2001)

Mamet's use of players is reminiscent of Orsen Welles (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, etc.). Now, the minute I see Ricky Jay, I know that I am in the midst of a con. This is true even when Ricky Jay appears in non-Mamet works like The Prestige or Kidnapped. Now, in all honesty, I haven't seen all episodes of Kidnapped. It was cancelled by NBC before full denouement occurred. Still, I'm pretty sure Ricky Jay's character was involved in the crime. Isn't he always? Doesn't his very appearance in any film tell us, in shorthand, that everything is not what it seems, that people are playing a role, that "reality" is a very subjective concept?

In Heist, it was through Ricky Jay's character that I learned the most about the protagonist Joe Moore (Gene Hackman). You would think that Joe's love interest, Fran (Rebecca Pidgeon) would provide the window into his soul, but that was not the case. Fran was just as deflective and deceptive as Joe, so she only furthered illusions, not insight. Conversely, because Ricky Jay's character, Pinky, was onscreen the least of the major players, he seemed to be the most straightforward. Indeed, although Ricky Jay is famous for his sleight of hand, in this movie, his Pinky is always employing some level of honesty, even when knee deep in his gang's deception. Pinky says he has a bad leg as part of a ruse and -- in fact -- he does have a bad leg. Pinky claims he has a beloved niece to explain a planned oversight and, in fate-sealing time, we learn he does have a beloved niece. These small truths amid the grand lies, give a level of humanity to a character that might otherwise be expendable.

Early on in the movie, Pinky gets himself hit by a car to create a diversion so that Joe and his right-hand man Bobby (Delroy Lindo) can escape. As Bobby and Joe flee the scene, Joe asks Bobby how Pinky is. The simple question indicates that he cares about a friend's physical condition, even in the middle of a scheme. Later in the movie, after Pinky's life has been sacrificed to the scheme, Joe seems to have forgotten the man even existed.

Bobby is ready to lament their fallen comrade and remarks that it's a shame about Pinky. At first, Joe doesn't even hear him. He asks Bobby to repeat himself and then mechanically agrees that it's too bad about Pinky, without any true emotion. A scene later, Fran also comments that it's a shame about Pinky. Joe never brings up the subject himself and he quickly forgets it once someone else does. Joe calls Pinky's death the price you pay and is more interested in Fran's response to his observation than he is in Pinky's loss.

That's when you learn everything you need to know about Joe. If he can barely spare a thought for Pinky, a man he worked with for years, who casually risked his life for Joe -- though not his niece's life -- then how can Joe be expected to care for anyone else? In the last minutes of the movie we learn that Fran has also deceived Joe. And if you're tempted to wonder if her betrayal caused him real pain, then you remember Pinky, as Joe does not, and know that it couldn't have.

Joe tricked Fran last, but he also tricked her first. When he sent her to seduce their enemy Jimmy Silk (Sam Rockwell), Joe probably foresaw that she wouldn't return. He didn't care. There was never a question of whether Fran would be "taken from" Joe. He wasn't interesting in keeping. Jimmy Silk was dumb and coarse, he had nothing to attract Fran away from Joe, except his genuine attraction to her.

Bobby's rages, Pinky's niece, Fran's doublecross. Cardboard figures or not, in the end, we saw real emotion towards another character exhibited by all, except Joe. That's why he was the lead con, the last con. The ultimate role-player.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

The image that struck me most was when Andy tossed the glass bowl of pebbles onto his cocktail table. All of the rocks were smooth and oval, with glossy finishes, except: one jagged stone, pale in color, larger than the others. It stood out, just as Andy did, a point brought home forcefully after the backyard confrontation with his father.

Or maybe Andy's problem was NOT standing out, not mattering enough, being enough in the family, in his marriage, at his job, in the world. The large pale pebble clattering onto the table, was an obstructing sore thumb, marring the symetric beauty of the other cascading stones, as they all fell together.