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See It for Streep and One of the Greatest Comic Performances of All Time
The movie version of Fay Wheldon's novel "The Life and Loves of a She- Devil" for the most part misses its marks. You would think a movie with this cast and great source material would be a lot better than it is but it's not. Though a film's failure cannot be blamed on just one thing, for this film, the lion's share belongs to the director, Susan Seidelman. Her direction is flat and unimaginative. She shot "She Devil" like it was a TV movie. It certainly looks like it. There's no spark or liveliness to it. It's point and shoot direction. This is acceptable when the actors and the material are solid but here they are not. As good as Roseanne Barr (or Arnold or whatever last name she was or wasn't using at the time) was on her TV show, here she's as flat as Seidelman's direction and since she's the center of the film, it nearly kills it. I think our sympathies were supposed to rest firmly with Roseanne's character Ruth but since she is presented so negatively, we cannot understand why her husband (or anyone) would have been attracted to her in the first place. She comes across as gross and incompetent. There's nothing at stake when she seeks revenge on Bob for leaving her because neither character feels worth the time.
The whole movie would have been forgotten if it had not been for one thing: the unbelievable, incredible, tour-de-force comic performance of Meryl Streep. Every single scene she is in is a comic whopper. When she is on screen, the whole movie suddenly jolts to life. Streep's acting skills often rely on capturing the smallest of nuances and in "She Devil" she nails them perfectly. Her Mary Fisher is a woman addicted to the impossible dream of perfect romance. Every word out of her mouth is whispery affirmation of it. She is so good that we end up rooting for her and worse, feeling sorry for her. Streep's best scene (and they are all good) comes about midway when Bob (now cheating on her) comes home late. Streep, on all fours, wags her fanny as she exclaims she's an artist. Brilliant.
Artistic Pretensions Undermine a Great Idea....
"Blowup" has one of the best ideas for a mystery-thriller ever: a shallow fashion photographer accidentally photographs a murder. A simple yet brilliant idea that is ripe with possibilities. I can only imagine what someone like Hitchcock or David Lynch could have done with it. But "Blowup" literally blows it because director Michelangelo Antonioni undermines it with his "art". I am not one of those people who needs or likes things explained. I love ambiguity and unanswered questions when they fit into a larger plan but it is not entirely clear what plan or idea Antonioni was after. People who think they are art minded will likely read into it what they will (for example that it is about the illusion of reality or some other kind of nonsense). The ambiguities in "Blowup" pile up one on top of the other to the point where we are not sure what it is supposed to be about and get frustrated by the fact that it doesn't stick to what works. Why not just focus (no pun intended) on the photographer's growing fascination/obsession with the photos of the murder? When "Blowup" does do this, the movie is excellent. The scenes where he keeps enlarging the photos are so good they are exhilarating. Following this, the movie offers us a series of scenes that make us question the logic of the protagonist and the film. Antonioni might think that by following a more logical narrative, he is catering into popular tastes (God forbid) but what he ends up doing is undermining the story and confusing us unnecessarily. There are ways he could have kept the narrative logical while at the same time exploring his own need to be creative (Lynch, at his best, is a master of this). As it is, Antonioni's need to be arty and edgy (for 1966) trumps the story. It is too bad that he did this because "Blowup" has such a great idea.
Saving Silverman (2001)
If You're Feeling Down and Depressed, try a Dose of "Saving Silverman".
"Saving Silverman" is about as far away from, say, "Citizen Kane" for film greatness as any film could. But it's not a clunker either. For what it is, it's a very enjoyable, occasionally hilarious movie pretty much guaranteed to give anyone a good time.
Movie history (especially in the 1930s) is littered with small comedy films that were never meant to be critical, award winning films but made for audiences that wanted to laugh like "We're Not Dressing" and any number of WC Fields' films (Fields' "Million Dollar Legs" seems very similar in tone to "Saving Silverman"). Unpretentious, funny and entertaining films and "Saving Silverman" falls squarely into that category. It's dopey but harmless and frequently charming. All of the actors are in-synch and none of them hold back especially Amanda Peet as the woman from hell. She's beautiful and you can completely understand why Darren would fall for her the way he does. Peet's willingness to give it her all (especially at the end) is key to the movie working as well as it does. Any vanity on her part would've sunk the already flimsy premise but she goes into it wholeheartedly. Peet's not given enough credit here.
Yes, Black and Zahn are great. That pretty much goes without saying. Biggs is well cast but he's essentially playing a male victim. The role is largely just his puzzled reactions. Last but not least is Amanda Detmer as Sandy in a role straight out of 1930s comedy: the good, down to earth girl who ever so slightly off her rocker (but in a good appealing way). R. Lee Ermey rounds out the cast in a silly but memorable role. Who would've thunk that the uber-intimidating drill sergeant from "Full Metal Jacket" would turn out to be one of the most reliable character actors around?
"Saving Silverman" is a simple, funny little film. Not great but it was not made to be.
Solid Film Adaptation by Polanski...
The Polanski films I have seen are his two "big" ones: "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown" and his fine adaptation of the play "Death and the Maiden". What I admire about all of those films is Polanski's focus on the substance of the material. He's not trying to be cinematic in his direction. He reads the material, interprets how he thinks it could it be presented as a film and does it. And he does it so solidly that his methods, his technique can almost seem incidental, like any old director could have pulled it off. "Carnage" is an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's international hit "God of Carnage". Reza's material is interesting because no matter where the action is supposed to taking place (France, England or Brooklyn), the setup is universal. Two children get into a conflict on a playground and one is slightly injured. The parents attempt to act civilized (like "adults") to work things out like which child is responsible and who is owed compensation. Of course it would not be a play without conflict and that is what soon develops not only between the two sets of parents but between the sexes. The alliances shift and morph in the play/movie between the couples and the males vs. the females and back again. The slightest word or act is interpreted by one or two as hostile. Meanings are read into each word or phrasing. The gist becomes simple: the parents, in their attempts to be civilized and adult about it all, are just as boorish and childish as their children.
Taking all of this in for us is Polanski and his solid direction. Except for a couple of scenes in a hallway, he never attempts to move the action out of the apartment building. Other directors would have tried to create scenes outside just to try and remove the feeling of a filmed play (like Mike Nichols did with the scene at the bar in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"). Polanski knows that the key to the play's success was in the interaction among the characters and so he keeps that focus in the film. His camera moves to different takes in the room to capture the character's expressions and movements but it is always focused on them, their words and actions.
The material is thin and I don't think Reza was trying for any larger statement on the human condition or something. It's a funny, perceptive character study that works beautifully thanks to Polanski's direction and great performances by all four (with a special nod to Foster as the wound-too-tight, hyper-parent Penelope. Anyone with children will recognize her character).
I'ts a Gem (Forgive the Terrible Cliché but it Fits)
It's understandable that a lot of people seeing Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" will not like it primarily due to the main character. For anyone who has not seen "Greenberg" yet, I urge you to see it and hang in there while watching it. Yes, the main character, Roger Greenberg, can be perceived as (among many things) annoying, selfish, confusing (and confused), angry, prodding and a social misfit and he will try your patience but that's the point of the movie. Greenberg, in his own way, reaches out to those around him while inadvertently (unconsciously?) pushing them away. The two main characters he reaches out to are his brothers' assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig) and his former band mate Ivan (Rhys Ifans).
I recall years ago reading a review by the great Pauline Kael of a movie called "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne", a movie that deals with a lot of the same issues that "Greenberg" does. In her review, Kael stated that during a particularly awkward scene for Judith Hearne, Kael found herself fussing with her notepad as if something on it needed tending to. She realized that what she was doing was looking for something to pull her attention away from the screen so as not to watch and experience the discomfort the character was enduring. That is what it was like for me watching "Greenberg". There are any number of scenes that made me start looking away because I simply couldn't bear to see how it would play out (i.e. the party scene near the end).
Nothing in "Greenberg" turns out the way you expect. Written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, they never do anything obvious or melodramatic though I kept expecting them too (how many watching this will think the worst when a kid at that party yells that there's something in the pool?).
Stiller is great in the role. I'm not a big fan of his but he's terrific here. He's goes all the way with it, never once trying to show us that this isn't really him, that its just a character. Nor does it feel like an "oscar" bid. But a review of "Greenberg" wouldn't be complete without mentioning Gerwig's role of Florence. It's a very hard role and performance to describe without seeing it. Like "Greenberg" she's hard to define. Clueless but aware, forgiving but not a doormat, polite but willing to say what needs to be said. Her character is full of contradictions and so is the film. It's a little gem of a film.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
First Class Production....
This 1974 adaptation of Christie's 1934 works so well for three reasons. Sidney Lumet's superlative direction.
A great bunch of actors both (at the time) old (Bacall, looking and acting great, Bergman) and new (Bisset, York, Redgrave).
Last but not least the material itself.
It's the last item that I think a lot of people overlook when they consider "Murder on the Orient Express" either as a film or as one of Christie's stories. Without giving too much away, unlike a lot of her other material, "Murder on the Orient Express" deals with some real issues like revenge, mourning and finding the strength to move on after a tragedy. What has always intrigued me the most was how well Christie and this film handle the more than obvious parallel to the Lindbergh kidnapping and it is the fact that it plays the pivotal point in the story is what gives it much more weight than any other of her stories. This film adaptation serves the material superbly from the amazing opening sequence that brilliantly summarizes the kidnapping to the great, almost celebratory closing scene. None of the adaptations of Christie's films made after this one had this films impact.
The Help (2011)
Gets So Much Right and So Much Wrong....
I'll give "The Help" 10 stars for the Women. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson (playing old, old, old yet again) are thrilling to watch. They have the all out fierceness that makes movies like "The Help" enjoyable and seem to give them "weight". One wishes the film makers trusted these Women more and let them have more screen time. When Emma Stone's Skeeter finally gets Viola Davis' Aibileen to talk to her for a book she's writing about the experiences of black women who serve as housemaids and nannies in assorted white households in Jackson Mississippi circa 1963, Aibileen very tentatively begins by relating a story of the first child she took care of as a 14 year old in 1925. The way Davis speaks it, the story sounds fascinating and I wanted to hear all the details. But the director cuts away the scene to where Aibileen and Skeeter are done with their talk and we never hear all about Aibileen's story. The movie could have done with a lot more of the real stories about these women's lives but we only get bits and pieces. We really don't get to know a whole lot about them and that's a shame. We might think we get more but that is because these actresses are so damn good that we fill in the gaps ourselves.
I'll give the "The Help" one star for what is gets wrong and it's not the first to do so. The film once again focuses too much time on the oh-so-helpful-wizened-white person role this time played by Emma Stone as Skeeter. She's one in a long line of actors who've played this part. Coincidentally (or maybe not) Sissy Spacek (a bit horrifying here in an old lady role. She's only 62!) played this role once in a movie called "The Long Walk Home". I assume that the money behind this film felt that in order to get white audiences interested, they had to keep this legacy going. While I think it's OK to have this kind of role, the film makers once again my the role pretty much the central character but they try and circumvent this by having Viola Davis' Aibileen narrate the picture (though this narration seems to be absent throughout long stretches of the film). It's insulting to the main characters in the film ("The Help" of the film's title) and diminishes from some of the meaning the film has. The rest of the white cast ranges from barely adequate/watchable (Spacek) to eye rolling caricature (Bryce Dallas Howard's Hilly Holbrook). The least said about Howard's character the better.
I'll recommend "The Help" based solely on the African-American actresses (and Chastain as the only white character with some depth of feeling that seemed genuine). The rest is filler that we've seen before and can do without.
Well Done. A Surprisingly Very Good Movie....
Back around 1980, when cable TV started its proliferation, it still had that anything goes feel that happens with something new. HBO was one of the first premium channels and along with the usual movies that filled out its limited on-air hours (it was not on 24 hours back then) the network often programmed what could be described as filler content especially on the weekends when it was on the air for somewhat longer stretches. Most of these films were forgettable movies like Ashanti" (boring and lifeless) and "Voyage of Tanai" (truly a WTF movie if there ever was one). But into this mix would sometimes appear movies that did spark interest and sometimes became hits because of their airing on cable. Two films that come to mind are "Over the Edge" (which made a big impact on the girls in my 8th grade class due to Matt Dillon) and "Homebodies", a truly oddball movie about senior citizens becoming homicidal when confronted with the prospect of being evicted from their homes. Both of these films were true finds and could have found life playing commercial stations as well but their presence on cable made their impacts more pronounced because of the lack of commercials and no editing. "Sublime" falls into this category. Apparently a straight-to-video release, it stars what could only be described as second tier TV actors (Tom Cavanagh, George Newbern) and directed by Tony Krantz who had no directorial credits to his name. Surprisingly, the movie plays extraordinarily well. It's suitably eerie, confusing (intentionally so) and most importantly, it makes you care about the main characters especially Cavanagh's George and Kathleen York's as George's wife, Jenny. I will admit that I did not "get" a lot of what is allegedly the films symbolism and frankly the point of the movie really didn't hit me (I kept rewinding it right before the end to hear what Jenny and George were talking about because it seemed to be related to what he does) but to me, it didn't really matter. "Sublime" is not a film that someone just threw together. It has a great atmosphere, is intelligent and thoughtful and is certainly not your run-in-the-mill enterprise.
War Horse (2011)
A Boy And His Horse...
"War Horse" is a good, solid piece of movie making and since it's directed by Steven Spielberg, what more could anyone expect. It is another movie that people should see in a theater because one of the film's merits is its filmed scale. It's shot in a grand, epic style that we do not see very often anymore and on a home screen (regardless of the size or the stereo system) the effect will be lost. That said, "War Horse" is not a great film. It's essentially a "boy-and-his-horse" story set against the backdrop of World War I and while Spielberg certainly creates some brilliant sequences (horses pulling a massive German "gun"), in the end, the movie doesn't ellicit the big, all-encompassing, emotional response that I think he intended (and from what I've read, the play accomplished). The main reason for it is (ironically) because of the horse. If they could give an Academy Award for best animal actor, this horse would win it easily. He was mightily impressive not only in the standard shots but in some reaction shots that were superb. He bonds with another black horse in the film and this relationship became one of the film's most touching aspects. But as good as he was, by focusing our emotions almost entirely on the horse, the other, deeper aspects of the film get pushed to the background. I think "War Horse" was supposed to be some kind of rumination on war and the toll it takes on people with the horse aspect acting as a symbol (or a metaphor?) but not intended as the focal point. Since the horse is the focal point in Spielberg's "War Horse", the other meanings are lost or at least pushed to the background that they don't resonate after the movie is over. Spielberg doesn't help things at all by staging yet another of his BIG emotional endings and in "War Horse" it feels particularly unnecessary. Why-oh-why does Spielberg feel the need to do this in what feels like every single one of his movies since "E.T."? As good and at times great as Spielberg is, he is not a sophisticated director who can handle subtle meanings. He's a good mimic but in the end, he always seems to fall back on schmaltz.
My giving "War Horse" 7 out of 10 is for the film's grand scale, some good performances by the aforementioned horse as well as Jeremy Irvine as the boy Albert, Emily Watson (memorable in a role that could otherwise have been forgotten) and best of all, Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls who takes the horse from Irvine's Albert and promises to take care of him. Hiddleston reminds me of those great British actors like Leslie Howard who were both strong, urbane and human.
The Collector (1965)
Good but Is Never Truly Gripping or Compelling
Director William Wyler's adaptation of a novel by John Fowles concerning a disturbed young man's obsession with a beautiful woman who he eventually kidnaps and places in a basement room. The film is solidly made and acted and while it is interesting to watch, it is never gripping or compelling. It doesn't have any of the sordid messiness that the material requires and would have given it the edge it needs. Wyler's solid direction is at odds with the material. It's too neat and tidy. Samantha Eggar is a standout despite the fact that the ending feels like a cop out.
I was interested in seeing "The Collector" only because it was directed by William Wyler who was one of the top directors in Hollywood from the 1930's through the 1950s. "The Collector" is fascinating because the story itself is a bit perverted and falls into the realm of Hitchcock, not Wyler (I kept thinking about Hitchcock's "Psycho" throughout). Why would Wyler, a solid veteran of Hollywood Movie Workhorses, be drawn to a dark film about an egotistical "head-case" who collects butterflies and decides that he wants to collect a beautiful woman he has long admired and keep her to himself? I have not found anything about his reasons but his involvement makes "The Collector" worth a look. Certainly, nothing about the story makes it worthy. What might have seemed daring and cutting edge back in 1965 now seems tame and has been done numerous times and better (the film is like "Misery" with the gender roles reversed). Nothing about what happens between the beautiful Miranda (a painfully beautiful and likable Samantha Eggar) and creepy Freddy (Terence Stamp) is really unique or even very interesting. But "The Collector" does hold your interest. The movie's opening moments are confusing. Wyler's attempts to establish Freddie as a character does not work completely enough to substantiate the act of kidnapping. Once Freddie has kidnapped Miranda and places her in a dungeon like setting, "The Collector" starts to come together. It becomes a character study of a demented, delusional loser who still pines for love and his prisoner's attempt to some how get out of the situation alive. In the scenes between Miranda and Freddie, Wyler's strength shines and Eggar is particularly good. She's lovely to look at and you can certainly understand why Freddie is attracted to her. Eggar's eyes show us how she is trying to assess the situation for an escape while Freddie keeps changing his methods and reasons for holding her captive. Without Eggar or a comparable actress, "The Collector" wouldn't work at all. It is too bad that what limited success the film does achieve falls squarely on Eggar's shoulders because Terence Stamp's Freddie is the reason the film fails to compel. It's not necessarily Stamp's fault. He is a great actor and though he is playing a stiff (or a demented dork), Stamp is never stiff or dull. "The Collector" simply does not establish how we are meant to feel toward Freddie until the very end when a piece of throwaway narration finally lets us know that he is psychotic (probably a sociopath). I doubt the intention by Wyler's was to create this ambiguity. If the film had made Freddie's character clear, then we would feel more peril for Miranda and her situation. As it plays out, we are confused by him and never really know if he is dangerous or just a bit of a lonely nut looking for love. This confusion elicited some seemingly contradictory and expected reactions. Take for example the scene where Miranda is tied up in the bathroom while the neighbor visits Freddie. When Miranda turns the bathtub water on so it overflows I found myself actually not wanting the neighbor to notice. I was actually on Freddie's side for some reason. If Hitchcock had made "The Collector" then I could see him doing something like this. He's the type of director who would have loved to have the audience side with the psycho but he would have made Miranda somehow unlikeable. In Wyler's film, he has not convinced us of Stamp's true nature (the upbeat, chirpy music that underscores many of Stamp's scenes certainly does not help). Therefore, the film feels uncertain and unfocused and it kills any tension.
In the end, it comes down to the direction. As good as Wyler is, material like this is not something that is within his expertise. Perhaps he was, in his late career, trying to do something new. Having been a long time film maker, he might have sensed the changing times and tried to stay relevant. It's a worthy effort. "The Collector" required a director with a vision to create a sense of constant menace. The material should not have been smartened up the way Wyler does it but played for it's pulpy, scary aspects. Hitchcock could have done it. Certainly Polanski could have too and his "Rosemary's Baby" just three years later managed to be lot of what "The Collector" could have been.