Sunday, November 28, 2010

Burlesque (2010)

I wouldn't say Burlesque is a good movie, but the music is fun, solid and performed very well. Traditionally, musicals aren't long on plot, but the dramatic sequences in this one are flimsier than most. This is a story that belongs on the stage, not the screen. Still, Christina Aguilera is great while singing and dancing and sweet and credible in her acting moments. Cher is underserved by the script, which is neither realistic, nor outrageous enough in its lack of realism, to make great entertainment.

Christina Aguilera's Ali leaves a dead-end life in Iowa and heads to "Hollywood," to make it big. Although this movie is set in the present day, the characters have sensibilities that would have seemed phony in a 1940 B-flick. It's one thing to present a formulaic story, but shouldn't the formula be contemporaneous with the period?

Looking for a job, Ali has no luck responding to the ads she finds in Variety. But seeing a costumed woman on a fire escape, she becomes intrigued (why I don't know) and wonders into a small Burlesque club. Once she sees the dancers on the stage, she's instantly mesmerized. Even in its heyday, burlesque had its sordid side. Fast forward 70 years later and the luster has surely worn off. The performers in this particular burlesque aren't even actually singing. They are lipsynching to old classics. We learn that the owner (Tess) doesn't bother with letting them actually sing, because that's not what her patrons are there for. They only want to see the skimpy costumes and suggestive dance moves. So, if Ali has showbiz in her blood, Tess' Burlesque club would not seem to be the ideal place to spill it.

I'm more nostalgic than the next guy, so the thought that a burlesque club like Tess' might actually exist somewhere is actually exciting. Heck, I'd like to think that Club Lingerie where Cher first danced with Sonny on Sunset Blvd. and Wilcox in the sixties was still up and running, but it's not and if it was, in the glare of the 21st century spotlight, we'd quickly see that what we thought was gilt was just chipped lead paint.

Before television, a girl from Iowa might be lured in by the bright lights and sparkly costumes of burlesque, because she'd have nothing to compare it to. But with the advent of tv (not to mention the internet) you don't have to visit a place to know it exists. Having seen Vegas, Monte Carlo, Paris, London and New York on the small screen why would anyone, especially someone as confident in her talent as Ali, set all of her aspirations on getting a gig in a Los Angeles dive?

As soon as she enters the burlesque, our heroine not only sees it as a stepping stone for her ambitions, but as a pinnacle. Ali immediately wants to know who she has to sleep with to get up on that stage. The friendly bartender Jack tells her that Tess, the owner, is the one she should be talking to. When Ali finds Tess she is told to get lost. Resourceful, she refuses to leave, but instead starts waiting tables for free just to be allowed to keep hanging around. Tess is resigned to having her as a waitress, but wants her nowhere near the "talent." Tess' resistance is just as confusing as Ali's determination. Tess is not running a broadway theater. She has not backers to please, no box office to speak of (admission is $20) and the girls working on her stage don't seem to possess an inordinate amount of talent. Ali's pretty enough. Why wouldn't Tess give her a chance or at least let her audition to see if she had anything to offer.
It would take less energy to see Ali in action than it would to keep rebuffing her. I understand that having an overlooked understudy become a breakout star is a tried and true plot, but no one is going to become a star in this dinky burlesque club that time has passed by. The whole idea that Ali is coveting the spotlight in this joint is comical and that Tess' is jealousy guarding it is hysterical.

Tess is not the only obstruction. Kristen Bell plays her familiar shrew, only raven-haired. Her Nikki feels threatened by Ali's emergence.

Ali will not be deterred. When she insists upon dancing for Tess, Tess is charmed, if not blown away, and makes her a back up dancer. Tess' strong maternal instincts quickly draw her to the lonely girl. The inevitable happens. Tess fires her drunken star performer and orders an unprepared Tess to take her place. She doesn't bother to say, "you've going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star," only because she really doesn't think Ali has that much in her. But when the DJ leaves his post and Ali has nothing to lipsynch, she unleashes her masterful voice and enthralls everyone. Tess immediately decides to build the entire show around her.

Meanwhile, Ali has become roommates with the friendly bartender. He's got a girlfriend in NY, which, I guess, is the barrier to their budding love. It's really hard to say. Their romance is not played for passion. Jack thinks she looks good in a short nightshirt, but there's no real sexual tension between them. Indeed, she thought he was gay when they first met. Most Hays Code restricted lovers are far less chaste than these two. The banter they share is mild. The heat non-existent. They do enough to make you smile, but not enough to make you care.

When Tess' loyal assistant Sean advises Jack that Ali is beautiful on the inside, not just on the outside, I began to think that writer/director Steve Antin was mistaken about the meaning of PG-13. He apparently thought that only people 12 and under would be admitted. Hey, I know that Aguilera used to be a Mousketeer, but that was 16 years ago.

Eric Dane plays Marcus, the billionaire who wants to (1) buy Tess' club out from under her and, (2) add Ali to his lists of conquests. Frustrated that Jack has continued his long distance engagement, Ali goes out with Marcus, but being a good girl she is more impressed by a pair of Louboutin shoes she spots on one of his party guests than she is with his car, mansion and vast real estate holdings. In modest movie tradition that must be borrowed from Disney, it's not clear whether they ever consummate their relationship, but let's just say Ali keeps a lot of late nights with Marcus, much to roomie Jack's dismay. Of course, Jack and Ali eventually come together. She is particularly impressed when he holds a Famous Amos box over his bare crotch and asks if she wants some cookies. But that's all torn asunder when his ex-fiance shows up and falsely tells Ali that their engagement was never broken and Jack has been lying to her all that time.

Back at the burlesque, like Daddy Warbuck's, the good-hearted Tess is about to lose everything. She refuses to sell her club to Marcus and is unable to get a loan from the banks. They are going to close down her beloved club in a matter of days. Okay, Tess loved the business. I understand that, but I don’t know why she couldn’t take the $1 million check that Marcus was offering and open a nicer burlesque place somewhere else with it. What meant more to her, her show and the girls or particular piece of real estate? I mean, the club was not like an Italian family restaurant her grandfather handed down to her in 1910. Why not just move someplace else and keep the tradition alive in new digs? We'll never know.

Ali finds out that Marcus wants to tear down Tess' club and build a high rise in its place. She concocts a scheme to beat him at his own game and encourages Tess to sell the airspace over her club, so that no one will be able to build over it. Suddenly flush, Tess remodels the burlesque making it bigger and better than -- well, it was never big or bet in the first place, but you get the picture.

The closing number is hot. If there's anything to recommend the movie it's the songs, so in that sense, it is a "musical." However, I grew up admiring the likes of Gypsy with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. This movie doesn't even give us the satisfaction of seeing "Baby Louise" transform to "Gypsy Rose Lee." Instead, Ali ends up as basically the same kid she was when boarding the bus in Iowa. Don't give me the dancing numbers, but leave out the drama. I want the anger and betrayal, the hurt and comeuppance, those are what actually give a musical voice. If they're absent, just dub it a "concert" and call it a day.

It makes for a nice family film, especially around the holiday season, but it tells an aged story, while lacking the skills of old.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

I didn't realize that this was a continued imagining of Carroll's story, rather than an adaptation of it. That came as a nice surprise, because the plot made more sense than I'd expected. Instead of isolated encounters with a host of disparate characters, a young adult Alice is aided by an assortment of Wonderland favorites on an Authurian quest to find the sword that will kill the Jabberwocky and free the land from the despotic Red Queen.

Before she falls down the rabbit hole, we learn that Alice is an unconventional young British woman, being pressured into a foppish marriage. Since childhood she has been a recurring nonsensical dream, full of talking animals and smiling cats. She wonders if it means she is mad. Her creative father confirms that she is, but assures her that all the best people are. Thirteen years later, her father has died and her mother and sister insist that she finally stop being so whimsical. Margaret, her older sister advises her to marry the Lord who is primed to propose to her, so as not to be a burden to their mother and because it is expected. It seems that Alice is the last to know about the pending nuptials. Ordered to the gazebo by her intended, he asks for her hand before a crowd of waiting socialites.

Alice's "real life" is almost as surreal as the dream to which she escapes, but it does give us a framework for identifying the people and symbols that confront her in Wonderland (the name she gave the place as a girl, which is now known as Underland in her adult fantasy).

Mia Wasikowska was not known to me prior to this movie, but she inhabits the character of Alice with a grace and command that seems effortless, easily holding her own with veterans Johnny Depp (The Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen). Depp and Carter have played insane and quirky many times too often. Yet, their performances are not cliched. Depp brings an innocence to the Hatter that you would have expected to be lost after Edward Scissorhands.

Carter's quips establish that humor has its own logic, even when part of an incomprehensible plot. You'd think that a joke had to deviate from the norm to get a laugh, but when there is no norm, how does humor find its starting point? Well, it begins with the actor's intonation and delivery, the way he or she creates incongruency, simply by being serious in a wacky world -- or wacky in a serious one!
It's not the special effects, but the acting that holds the audience's attention, when the story (such as it is) would not.

While Carroll's books raised political questions, this movie doesn't give you much to think about. Will a young woman flout society and independently pursue her dreams? We know she will. In Wonderland an uncertain Alice runs to a gazebo, afraid she lacks the courage or inclination to slay the Jabberwocky holding the world hostage. We know that it represents the same gazebo where the insufferable Lord Hamish Ascot awaits Alice's answer to his marriage proposal. Even before Alice successfully lops off the Jabberwocki's head in her dreams, the answer to Hamish's proposal is obvious.

As she realizes that her tendency to imagine 6 impossible things before breakfast (as her father did) is a good trait, not a bad one, it dawns on Alice that what she is experiencing in Wonderland is a memory, not a dream. If she could only recall and retain the lessons she's learned during past visits to Wonderland, she'd never lose sight of her path. If she embraces her own madness and originality rather than balking at it, she will move forward. Then, rather than having the same dream over and over, maybe she'll envision new ones. Alice Through the Looking Glass here we come . . .

Alice wakes up, rejects Hamish, straightens out her family and decides to become an apprentice in her father's business, heading its expansion into new countries.

In the end, the film is not about story or substance, but style and execution. On that level, it succeeds.

Casual Comments: Goodness, the White Queen may have taken a vow not to hurt another living creature, but she sure had no qualms about letting everyone else maim and kill on her behalf.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Everyone said this movie was too "dark" for children. It's actually too clever. It successfully parodies film genres more than 40 years old.

When 17-year old Andy heads off to college, his mother forces him to clean out his room. He must choose what he wants to take with him to school, store in the attic or toss in the garbage. His toys have gone unplayed with for years and this is just the end of a road they saw coming along time ago. Forced to sort his possessions, Andy chooses to take his favorite toy cowboy Woody with him to college and to box all the rest up in the attic. They end up being thrown out by mistake and, along with Woody who tries to help them, escape the City Dump by stowing away in a box donated to the local Day Care.

At first glance, the Day Care looks idyllic and they are shown around the place by a friendly stuffed bear named Lotso, who tells them they'll be staying in the Caterpillar room. It's only after recess is over that they realize that the "Caterpillars" are toddlers who bang, tear, and eat on toys, playing with them within an inch of their lives. When they demand to be moved to a room with older children who know how to play properly, things become sinister. Buzz investigates after hours, busting in on a shady card game where the Day Care toys place their bets and spin a "Speak and Say" like a roulette wheel. He learns there's a dark side to the Day Care operations, where they plot to send the new toys to the toddler room where they'll be destroyed, while the toys in charge, live the good life. It's Animal Farm, by Mattel! The Day Care cartel is happy to let Buzz join their group, but when he insists upon equality for his friends too, he's taken hostage. Lotso and his band of thugs imprison Andy's toys, keeping them on strict lock down.

As they fight Lotso's evil forces, the movie becomes a combination of gangster film noir, prison caper and horror movie. There's Big Baby, a large, old baby doll with a lazy eye, who serves as Lotso's chief enforcer, manhandling the toy prisoners, while gurgling, cooing and toddling along shadowed corridors.

There's Chuckles the Clown who was there when Lotso first turned bad and tells Andy the story of the plush bear's (downfall), in a voice as dead as his frowning face.

There's the tight-jawed telephone toy, who tells Andy how to break out of the daycare joint, even though he thinks that escape is a lost cause.

There's the menacing mechanical monkey who watches all on daycare security cameras and alerts Lotso whenever anyone makes a move.

Toy Story plays on these celluloid cliches to bring us something creative, original and quite comical.

At 1 hour and 43 minutes, I never felt that the movie grabbed until the very end when we got a sequence at the garbage dump that went too long, with the toys eluding destruction one too many times.

Of course, they find freedom in the end. Back home at Andy's, Woody prepares to go off to college with Andy. He believes that it's more important to be there for the boy who has now outgrown him, than to be played with. Meanwhile, the other toys are heading for the attic. But they aren't despairing. After all, they have each other and after their terror time at the Day Care center, they are resigned to the peace and quiet of permanent storage.

At the last minute, Woody writes a note for Andy and leaves it on the box of toys fated for the attic. The note directs Andy to donate his old toys to "Bonnie" a young girl Woody met at Day Care with a wild imagination and fierce love for her toys. Andy obeys the note and takes the toys to a delighted Bonnie. He spends hours "introducing" her to them and making them come alive through play.

What Andy didn't expect when he gifted Bonnie with the box was that his beloved Woody was among the donated toys. Shocked to find the stuffed doll at the bottom of the box, Andy wants to keep him for himself, but Bonnie has played with Andy before. She's pulled his string and memorized his recorded messages. She already loves him, so Andy leaves Woody in good hands. Andy looks back before driving away and the answering stare from Woody's still eyes make tears form in my own. It turns out, Woody is even more emotive when he's inanimate than when he comes alive (outside of the presence of humans). I laughed. I cried. I marveled. I don't know if Toty Story 3 makes a good kids' movie, but it worked for this adult.

Closing concerns: Boy, they sure have regular garbage collection in that town. Day or night, the garbage trucks where Woody lives come by more often than the buses do in Los Angeles.

Hmmm, I was rather sorry when Jessie the stuffed cowgirl fell for Buzz the toy astronaut. After all, I always thought of her as Woody's girl. I suppose the change in her allegiance was ok when I thought that Woody was leaving his toy friends and going off to college with Andy, but now that he's staying, it feels kind of sad to have Woody on the sidelines while Buzz and Jessie tango. He tosses Jessie a rose to clutch in her teeth while she and Buzz sway. Even cowboys can be cuckholded.

I don't know what made Woody change his mind about going with Andy. As Andy packed for school, Woody overheard Andy's mom tell him that she wishes she could always be with him. Andy responds that she will. I guess Woody feels that he'll always be with Andy too, even if they're physically parted. But Andy will see his mother again. Woody may be gone for good. Since the beloved Andy was planning on taking Woody to school, why not go? Did Woody decide that maybe it was better to think of his own future for a change and go with his friend, rather than tagging along with an owner who was no longer a kid. Did Woody finally follow every one's advice and decide to stop hanging onto the past? It wasn't a bad decision on Woody's part, but it came out of left field. Woody had always been so resolute in his determination to stay with Woody. He felt he belonged to him -- after all that was "Andy's" name printed in magic marker on his boot.

I'm not sure what kind of future the toys have now. After all, Bonnie wasn't that young. She was just a little smaller than Molly who had already given up her own old toys (Molly's Barbie doll enjoyed an amusing subplot with Ken from Day Care). It won't be long before Bonnie outgrows the toys herself. Plus, even if she hangs on to some of them for sentimental reasons, surely her first allegiance will be to her original toys and not the ones most recently donated by Andy. Although the immediate future of the toys seems like an active, happy one, it also seems transient, fleeting. Of course, that's how the future is for humans as well. All you can do is live for the moment.

When the toys first realized that Andy might be dumping them, Woody tried to reason in the face of their panic: "We always knew this day was coming." Their answer: "But now it's here." Guess you can't really worry about it until it happens, but knowing that it's coming doesn't make the pain any less, when it arrives.

As someone who once wrote a poem about 'cobwebbed doll eyes watching the days past,' I actually think about neglected toys more than I should. It doesn't help that my mom gave my barbie dolls to a neighbor when I was 12, without bothering to ask me first. Then, within days of me moving to a college dorm, she trashed all the magazines, pictures, books and other mementos I'd spent an adolescence collecting. I have trouble letting go. No wonder I hear Woody's story in my own. No surprise there are 3 dolls in my house that I've owned for 30 years now . . . and counting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows #1 (2010)

The movies are still not as good as the books, but the leads are as charming as ever and provide an appeal and rooting interest that exist independent of Rowling's pages.

I'm glad that the first installment of Deathly Hallows takes us away from Hogwarts and those endless quidditch games and deeper into Harry, Ron and Hermione's feelings.

As the trio goes on the run from the deatheaters, their surroundings are frequently cold, isolated and gray. To match the environment, Hermione is thinner, almost gaunt. Ron is disheveled and disillusioned. Harry is numb and somber, the accumulation of grief (for his parents, Dumbledore and Mad Dog) having robbed him of his wonder and fun.

The characters love and are in love, but there's no heady or light romance. Their ties are made of weightier stuff, which makes them mean more. When Ginny turns her bare back to Harry and asks him to zip her dress, it's a sensual, adult move. Their subsequent kiss is played for comedy when her jokester brother spies them, but the moment is more sober than diverting, portending the future the pair may never see.

Ron and Hermione's affection is more obvious than ever, but continues unexpressed. It's not Harry meeting Sally, where two pals are oblivious of their romantic feelings. Ron and Hermione both know that they love the other, but continue in a platonic mode which makes them feel less vulnerable. Harry's the third wheel in their relationship, trying to comfort both while acknowledging their covert courtship as little as possible.

When the three impersonate employees and smuggle their way into the Ministry of Magic, they end up at a hearing for a doomed muggle-born woman, accused of stealing a wizard's wand. A befuddled Ron finds that he is disguised as her husband and is expected to support her at the trial. Since that falsely accused woman's fate could be Hermione's some day, I'm surprised that Ron didn't exhibit more compassion for her flight, but that mistaken identity is played more for laughs than pathos.

Once exposed at the ministry, the friends must escape. Hiding out in the wilderness, the three form their own fraternity, setting up camp, tolerating bad habits and temper flares, with Hermione carefully planning every step of their journey (including haircuts and clothing) with endless items from her handy, bottomless bag.

Much of the emotion is captured in unfinished thoughts, as when Harry is annoyed by Ron's constantly blaring radio. He wonders what Ron hopes to hear. Hermione points out that maybe what's more important is what Ron doesn't hear. A good point. Harry's parents are dead. Hermione's muggle parents are mostly protected from the wizard wars (especially now that she has erased herself from their memory). It's only Ron who has a large family to miss and worry about. The dialogue also says a lot with few words when Ron lashes out at Hermione and Harry and says he saw them together. Without an elaborate explanation or denial, an earnest Hermione merely exclaims, "there was nothing!"

Of course, what Ron saw between them was not intimate. It was just Hermione and Harry being familiar, domestic and easy with each other, something that Ron and Hermione can rarely do because unspoken attraction creates tension between them. At one point, when Harry tries to mediate peace between his buddies, Hermione tells Harry that she's always angry with Ron. Of course, the truth is, anger is never the overriding feeling.

For me, the best parts of the film were when Ron, influenced by an evil horcross, imagines that Harry and Hermione are in love and angrily leaves, as Hermione begs him to return. She cries silently in his absence while continuing to put puzzle pieces together that might save the world as they know it. Pain that lingers silently seems more realistic than outbursts and speeches.

Hermione and Harry continue alone on their quest for clues that might stop their enemy Voldemort and, even though they share a dance I find gratuitous, I'm thankful that Rowling made these two friends and nothing more. The movie makers did not want to follow her lead, they would have loved to tease the audience with a commercialicious Harry and Hermione flirtation, but, for me, triangles ruin romance rather than heighten it. Desire between Harry and Hermione would have dilluted both the love they find with others and their own friendship. I like to see members of the opposite sex become and remain nothing more than best friends. I like to see "true love" that is monogamous exist in fiction, since it's so elusive in the real world. I'm glad there are no Team Harry and Team Rons in this series.

Ron's return is sweet and not (too) overdone. After saving Harry and vanquishing his own demons by a frozen pond, Ron is reunited with an angry Hermione. She blasts him for abandoning them. He explains that he wanted to come back immediately, but after leaving, he couldn't retrace his way to their moving camp. So, he was alone for weeks, but on Christmas he used the illuminator gift bequeathed to him by Dumbledore and, from it, Hermione's whisper formed a light that found its way straight to his heart, leading him back to his friends.

Soon enough, the trio is captured by snatchers (bounty hunters) who drag them back to Death Eaters who want to save their own lives by turning them over to Voldemort. The boys are thrown into a dungeon while Hermione is tortured upstairs. I'm a little disappointment that Ron is not quite as tormented by Hermione's screams as he was in the book. Helena Bonham Carter plays the head villainess. Having first seen Carter as a girl in Room with a View, I've been bewildered and somewhat dismayed by her insistence upon taking one maniacal role after the other. I'd like more variety from this actress who is fully capable of emoting without chewing the scenery. Still, she is good in these caricature roles and after a few minutes of Bellatrix, I find myself longing for a dose of Carter's Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, as a kicker.

The movie is not without humor and punchlines, but with muggles being hunted like Jews during the Holocaust, there's a sense of fear even in the comic moments and that's as it should be. The danger is real, not merely allegorical, as evidenced by the propaganda leaflets being continuously printed and distributed throughout the wizard world; the framing, trial and imprisonment of innocents; and the sadistic Bellatrix using her teeth to carve the word "mudblood" into Hermione's skin.

The movie does not build to a climax. There's no cliffhanger, only a pause, but I'm relieved not to be left hanging. Going in, I was afraid that Part 1 would end with Ron still estranged from his friends. Waiting for that rift to mend would be more than I could stand. I'm glad that we leave our heroes embattled, but undivided. Voldemort is growing stronger and so is this franchise. I'm glad to have spent 9 years with these people. The scripts haven't been transcendent, but they've created a world that's become more real than magical and that's a good thing.

It's been a satisfying journey and we're reaching the end. Part 2 of Deathly Hallows will be released next summer. As they return to Hogwarts, I believe Harry, Hermione and Ron are ready for their close ups.

Credits roll at the end, not the beginning. I'm surprised that Rupert Grint gets second billing, before Emma Watson. I suppose that's how their names appeared in the first movie and it hasn't changed since then. Not that I mind. I think Watson is the best actress of the three, but have always been a bit sad that Grint gets less attention than the other two. At least he maintains equal status somewhere.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Separate Lies (2005)

The movie is best described as a polished cross between Unfaithful (2002) and Evelyn Prentice (1934), only it falls short because there's no moral dilemma or rooting love interest.

It starts with a man riding a bike down a lovely, quiet pastoral lane. Then, there's a loud, discordant blast. He's violently thrown from the bike and blood seeps from his chest, leaving a large stain on his white shirt. Cue the opening credits.

Anne is married to the impossible-to-please solicitor James. Tom Wilkinson plays James with a brusque, Nixon-like disapproval that helps one understand why Anne is frustrated in her marriage, but (Bill) the younger man to whom she becomes attached is so thoroughly unlikeable that it's impossible to comprehend her desire for or loyalty to him. She enjoys his disdain, especially when its directed at her husband. When she joins with Bill in ridiculing a picture hanging on their parlor wall -- a picture that she herself hung -- James is livid. He tells her he hates that she has ganged up against him, two against one. He immediately senses that she is using this outsider to stage a quiet rebellion against him that she alone would never have undertaken. His reaction may look like anger, but it feels like pain.

Later, when her affair with Bill is revealed and she finds herself unable to end it, Anne says she doesn't understand the draw to him herself. She wonders if it's lust or love, but concludes it doesn't matter: either way she can't give him up. We never really see Bill and Anne alone together (except when they're spied by James, through a rainy glass) and don't know if there's a soul lurking behind his languid facade. Anne assures her husband that Bill really doesn't care much about her and that that's the pull. He's not meticulous like James. He doesn't have expectations of her, so she can relax with him. That's her excuse for the infatuation, anyway. I began to think she only wanted to hurt James for all of his demands and commands and used Bill as a passive form of revenge that was never acknowledged in the movie. As a result, based on the motivations as I perceived them, I wanted something from the characters that the movie saw no need to deliver. My interest and the movie's plot followed separate lines.

While workaholic James is in London, a tipsy Anne runs down a bicycler, while she's driving Bill's car during a lover's joyride. The cyclist turns out to be the husband of Anne's housekeeper. James notices a dent on Bill's car and suspects he was the hit and run driver. When James confronts Bill and insists that Bill do the right thing, Bill agrees to confess his guilt to the police. It's only after James returns home and tells Anne of Bill's plans that she reveals that she was the one driving the car -- and that she has also been sleeping with Bill. In the movie's best scene, James responds to this news by saying he's sorry and quickly heading outside to vomit. Despite the polite appearances, he's not just apologizing for his nausea, but instantly suspects his own fault, even before assigning any blame to her, feeling that he drove Anne to infidelity. The problem is, although she initially denies James did anything wrong, it's clear that she thinks he's responsible for her problems too and at that point in the movie, Anne becomes just as unlikeable as Bill to me, while James is increasingly sympathetic, though not necessarily in the movie's eyes. He keeps having to pay penance, until the end. Anne doesn't.

Anne is often distressed, so we're supposed to think that she's torn with guilt over having killed her housekeeper's husband. But if she really was, why did she leave the scene of the accident in the first place; then host a party that same evening; pretend to console the cyclist's worried wife at the hospital; remain silent about her own participation when he died; and only declare that she really wanted to admit she was the driver, after James pressed her beloved Bill to confess to the crime?

Although he was merciless when he thought Bill was the driver, faced with his wife culpability, James tells Anne to keep quiet about the accident. She says she's willing to take her punishment, but he counters that she won't be the only one to suffer. His reputation will also be smeared, if his wife is imprisoned. Why is it different now that he knows she's the driver, she asks? Anne points out that James wouldn't have cared if Bill had gone to jail and hurt his family. Why should their family be spared? Seemingly stunned by his hypocrisy, Anne insists that she wishes James wouldn't keep forcing her to remain silent. But she was silent long before James found out. I don't think he's the one forcing her. Moreover, it's rather obvious that although he told her that she should keep silent for his sake, his true concern is for her. It's possible even he does not realize how much he loves her, but his regard is becoming transparent to the audience.

This is reminiscent of the Dedlocks in Bleak House. The depth and unconditional nature of Sir Leicester's love stunned the reader, who'd pegged him as cold and superficial. Similarly, James was cold and curt, but not uncaring; we spend the last half of the movie watching those surface layers fall away. But there were never that many layers to begin with. Maybe it's because his heart was always so close to his sleeve, that he was so persnickety about small things like cuffs. He controlled minutiae, because his emotions could not be reined as easily. This man was never like James Stevens in Remains of the Day. This James was always distant, but never inaccessible.

If James could be compared to Leicester Dedlike, unlike his wife Honoria, there is less to Anne Manning than first meets the eye, not more. Maybe she repressed so much, for so long, that in the end there is little left inside, to hold in or give out. She seems to have a sense of obligation, but not of right and wrong.

Anne lies to the police and lets James lie for her, all while continuing her affair with Bill, which tryst involves them speeding recklessly through the country side in the same car in which they have already killed a man. She has the nerve to object when James lashes out at her, he replies he has only three options: suicide, bitterness or to say he's glad to be rid of her. He says he can't quite bear to do the latter, so bitterness is all he has left. If Anne had ever loved James, this would have been the point where she put him out of his misery either by breaking it off with him completely or finally separating from Bill. Apparently she can do neither. She plans a racing jaunt in Paris with her lover, but also wants to meet up with her husband while there. She seems to be seeking an open marriage. He declines.

While playing the victim, it's clear to the me that Anne always had the upper hand in that marriage. She ran the house the way he wanted, waited on him, catered to him, but was also able to bend him to her will every time she took a stand. Problem is, she took so few of them.

After Anne tearfully tells the cyclist's widow that she was responsible for the accident, she leaves Bill, but it's not because she loves James. Rather, with one weight off of her chest, she wants to free herself completely. She's just tired of feeling guilty and remaining with her husband is the less culpable choice. Somehow, her feelings are always paramount. It becomes tedious having James with this selfish martyr, especially when he has a caring secretary who seems like she'd actually want his company, not suffer it.

By chance, James learns that Bill is dying of cancer. He can keep the news to himself or tell Anne and risk having her run back to Bill, as Bill smugly predicts she will. James can tell her the truth and lose her again. I'm left wondering why all of them, Bill, James and Anne believe that Anne leaving James is any big loss. Faced with the choice of being honest or preserving his complacent marriage, James tells Anne about Bill and she promptly packs to be with her dying lover, but not without a parting shot: demanding to know why James keeps setting tests for her, when he knows she always fails them. Once again, she doesn't take responsibility for her own decision to go. She was forced to in response to James the Brute's domineering nature! Unfortunately, James himself seems to buy this.

Maybe he felt sorry for Bill. Maybe he wanted Anne to be with the man she loved. Maybe it wasn't a test.

In the end, it's easy to believe that Bill truly cared for Anne, since he was willing to confess to a vehicular crime he did not commit to save her and ready to die without her ever knowing he was ill. He told James that she should remain happy in her ignorance. There was probably something selfless behind his cavalier exterior. He loved Anne. She loved Bill, but who loved James? Anne confessed to the hit and run, yet the movie ended with me feeling that no one had ever held her responsible. Emotionally, the bicycle accident was the least of her crimes.

Open Question: The reason that the housekeeper, Maggie, was able to forgive Anne for lying about her husband's death is that Anne hired her when no one else would. Maggie had been convicted of theft and had not worked for 8 years. When Bill returns to his home town after years working in New York, we learn that he and Maggie are not strangers. She used to work for his family. Still later, we learn that Bill was the witness against her in the theft trial. Yet, when they first met, it was Bill who looked evasive and guilty, not Maggie. One sensed her dislike of Bill, but not shame, not even anger. I kept waiting to learn that Bill had falsely accused Maggie. Maybe he'd stolen from his own family to support his debauchery and then blamed the missing items on the maid. The movie never says this is the case, but Maggie never admits to stealing either. She talks about her conviction, not the crime. Moreover, if there is distrust between Maggie and Bill, it is on her side, not his. But what can she do? Class divide is not a theme in the movie, but it's not absent from it. This is evident when the police inspector vents at Maggie, for protecting Anne and changing her story about whose car struck down her husband. He pleads with her not to lie for them, because they wouldn't do it for her. In the end, her graditude towards Anne seems misplaced.

Side note: I shrieked a little when I saw John Neville's name in the opening credits. He played Bill's doting father. Oh, it's been 12 years since I've seen my beloved "Well Manicured Man" and I've missed him like crazy. Don't think that seeing him in an English country house with his grandchildren didn't remind me of a certain scene in Fight the Future . . .