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The Scarlet Letter (1995)
a good movie after all
I was expecting something awful because of the mockery and disparagement from the critics. I'm so glad I saw it anyway! I am critical and usually hard to please as a movie viewer, and this was a good movie, especially when you compare it to most of the crap being made. I find it hysterical that people are pretending to take such offense that Hawthorne's story wasn't followed to the T. Name one classical story that is followed to the t by Hollywood. Or any book adaptation for that matter. Name one.
I think all the mockery is really about the fact that this movie critiqued the early brutal treatment of women in this country's history. This is almost never explored, never exposed. When Hester says, "This isn't about the sin of us women, it's about the sin of you men," that is the sort of line that makes you unpopular with critics. Then they will pretend it's all about the art. There was a lot about the art in this film to appreciate. Oldman's performance was incredible, subtle, believable. Duvall never disappoints, and the abuse of Hester was realistic in its viciousness, even though it only showed the edges. I appreciated most of all that the filmmakers were willing to take on this subject matter. How they adapted it to modern movie viewer tastes, well, maybe they could have done better, but the pressures to make an expensive film commercially successful cannot simply be overlooked. All and all they did a good job. I'm so glad I finally watched it, and didn't let the mocking critics turn me off to it forever.
A Price Above Rubies (1998)
Quality film but with too many prejudices
Although I thought this was in many ways a good movie, I did think it ridiculous that Catholicism was portrayed as the religion accepting of sensuality and sexual respect for women, with a Hispanic man as the one who knows how to be a real lover, while Orthodox Judaism is depicted as hypocritical, repressive, misogynist, and Jewish men are depicted as either insensitive in bed or as rapists. Aren't there more shades of grey in all groups? There does need to be more exposure of the plight of women in traditional cultures, but I thought this was too steeped in prejudice, knowing it's "okay" to be so toward Orthodox Jews, but of course not toward other minorities, who are treated quite differently by the writer/director. I did appreciate that the director showed how cruel the oppression of women is, and the bind many find themselves in when oppression is carried out and defended by a closed community. But the portrayal of a woman who was violently attacked and repeatedly exploited as remaining "cohesive" in personality and untraumatized in mind was unrealistic, and in a subtle way, minimized the horrors of violence and coercion. I'm sure this was not the director's intention, but in a way it is a distorted view of women to think that we could endure violence without great mental injury.
The Lake House (2006)
After seeing the trailer, I didn't expect the Lake House to be a great movie. But it is creative, weirdly believable, not overly sentimental, engaging, on and on. My only real criticism is that the ending is too short and quick, even quicker than the usual Hollywood formula of giving only a minute or two for the resolution. I didn't time it but I think this one gets about 20 seconds. After all that we went through to get there? The ending is also the one part of the movie where the direction falls short. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are both top notch actors in the romantic drama and romantic comedy genres. They somehow manage to have great chemistry throughout this film, though they are seldom together; it is especially there at the party where they actually meet and interact. But their chemistry is lacking in the last scene. This is due to the directing, the choreography of their long awaited encounter, followed by the too short and simple "resolution". This short "let's get it over with" ending left me feeling a slight lack of resolution, after such a good film.
North Country (2005)
An important issue dumbed and numbed
I hate to give North Country a relatively low vote because this is such an important issue, and I appreciate the good intentions of director Niki Caro, and the A-list actors who no doubt took a big pay cut when agreeing to take a role.
On the other hand, I feel disappointed, a little angry, as well as insulted as a woman that this hugely important story was made into a melodrama that flattens out what really happened, and somehow manages to diminish the political nature of sexual harassment, even while seeming to highlight it.
At least 90 percent of the problem had to do with Michael Seitzman's script.
In the interview with Seitzman on the DVD, he makes clear that he didn't think the sexual harassment story was the real story. The real story, he said, was the traumatic experience Josie had in high school, and her relationship with her son.
Therefore he should have written a script for Lifetime focusing on what he felt was the "real story". He should not have used one of the most important cases for sexual harassment in legal history as the vehicle for telling this other story.
The producers should have demanded a script that more closely resembled Susannah Grant's Erin Brockovich. The sequence of victimization after victimization depicted in North Country didn't let us get to know Josie's character in any depth. We saw her slammed against the wall again and again, from beginning to end. We see that she stands up against the oppression, but we aren't taken into her sensibility, her choices, her process, her blind spots, character change, etc, etc, like in EB. Likewise, the lack of complexity in the male "macho" characters also flattens the story, and takes away from the real difficulties in challenging sexism and sexual harassment. In real life, character complexity of those who oppress or who defend oppressors is part of what makes the problem of sexual harassment difficult to fight.
I read an interview with Niki Caro, and though I think she's a very talented director, I got the sense that she didn't really get the politics or history behind sexual harassment. It seems things aren't as bad in New Zealand as they are here in the U.S. This is a foreign culture to her, and Northern Minnesota is certainly a foreign culture. I wish she would have spent more time fully understanding the issues and cultural dynamics (including the accent and mannerisms of the area, etc, which were sprinkled into the movie, but not rigorously replicated) before undertaking the project. If she had gone the extra mile to immerse herself in the issue and the region, perhaps she would have demanded a total rewrite of the script.
The Merchant of Venice (2004)
Stunning, Well-Intentioned, but Anti-Semitic Nevertheless
Stunning film, I won't dispute that. Seldom have I seen such an interface of high caliber talent (and I don't mean "names") -- from the original music, to the costume design, to the acting, to the poetic writing of Shakespeare. Al Pacino's acting, particularly in the first two-thirds of the movie, took my breath away. Jeremy Irons continues to impress me. Lynn Collins was every bit the equal of these two greats.
I also appreciate the good intentions of director and screenwriter Michael Radford. I think he did the best he could to bring out the humanitarian vision within the play and overcome its anti-Semitism.
However, anti-Semitism is almost as fundamental to this play as sexism is to Taming of the Shrew. It simply can't be transformed into something else, and ultimately the play does not offer an insightful glimpse into the corrosive effects of racism/anti-Semitism.
Shakespeare never interacted with any Jews or Jewish community because Jews were expelled from England before his time. His play was written based on what he learned from the society around him and, from there, his "enlightened" interpretation of the anti-Semitic myths about the Jews. But an "enlightened" interpretation of lies and projections of villainy, giving the fabricated scoundrel of the anti-Semitic imagination some "humanity" and complex motivation, is still founded on lies and projections.
It isn't enough to "understand" Shylock's bitter and murderous behavior, because the portrayal didn't refer, even metaphorically, to a real dynamic in the behavior of severely oppressed Jews toward their gentile oppressors.
Antonio's more lofty behavior in the end was Shakespeare's dramatization of the commonly held belief in Christian moral superiority, a belief widely held to this day. This belief was maintained despite (and because of) widespread anti-Semitic Christian behavior toward Jews, which at that time did not just consist of spitting and insults, but of rape and persecution and murder. The pursued pound of flesh was Jewish.
Shakespeare brings the play to conclusion with his (and his intended audience's) idea of justice. However, the depiction of the brutal intentions, which reverses the historical dynamic between Christian and Jew, is fundamentally unjust. It brings "understanding" to an unreal phenomenon for which there is no need for understanding. Shylock is a fabrication created from the threads of anti-Semitic myths; the character is not a historically valid representation of a Jewish man.
The filmmakers and actors argued that the play/film is a valuable exploration of the corrosive effects of anti-Semitism and racism. While the effects of racism is a very worthy subject to explore through film, an honest depiction will reveal that the effects from injustice, degradation, and danger are most often directed toward one's own. Today that dynamic is seen in impoverished inner cities where the victims and perpetrators are usually from the same communities and families. Nevertheless, there is the contemporary, paranoid mind of the oppressor which imagines the oppressed is "out to get us."
It's also important to note that the effects of oppression are complex, and are not solely negative. Some of the most creative American traditions have come from the inner city. There is the experience of danger and poverty, but there is also laughter and vibrancy that are largely missing in the American suburbs and the wealthier parts of a city. Similarly, Jewish men and women have created and sustained nurturing communities, vibrant culture(s), and have made creative and intellectual contributions to the larger world disproportionate to their numbers. These positive aspects are probably due in part to having to cope with and overcome the harmful effects of oppression.
Of course, Shakespeare doesn't depict the treasures of Jewish community and culture. And while he depicts some of the pain, frustration, and outrage, the depiction of these feelings simply taking the form of vengeance is not valid.
That doesn't mean I think this film shouldn't have been made, or the play shouldn't be produced. However, I don't think that it should be presented as NOT anti-Semitic. I think an accompanying critique of the inherent anti-Semitism of the play, and the historic anti-Semitism in England, is the only conscientious way to present it. There is no need to pretend that Shakespeare rose above the racism and sexism of his time. He didn't. He had many moments of profound, humanitarian insights, but those moments shouldn't be used to argue he was something he wasn't.
Something to Talk About (1995)
a disappointment despite great actors and a brilliant screenwriter
This movie had all the essential elements at hand, but somehow it doesn't come together. The main reason is the poor direction by Lasse Hallström. He has done solid movies before, I'm a big fan of Chocolat, but unfortunately he comes off as an amateur here. The viewer never gets a feel for the "geography" of the setting. Important little interactions are barely visible -- for example, when Jamie offers Grace another drink, and she grabs his, it is a potentially comical and telling moment that isn't even on screen. (I couldn't figure it out until watching carefully during the second viewing -- did she grab the bottle? did she take her empty glass? Eventually it appears she has a glass in hand with liquor still in it.) The little girl's acting seemed to be left to chance, and chance didn't do a good job for her.
There is frequently a lack of realistic presentation in the sequence of action. One minute Eddie can't breathe after being kicked in the balls, 10 seconds later he is walking normally into the kitchen. The potentially hilarious scene at the women's "cookbook" meeting, when Grace demands to know who else has slept with her husband, was almost ruined by Hallstrom's failure to coordinate line-response. The audience gasps before Grace finishes speaking the essential words in her question. In fact, that whole scene, with its unrealistic, one-dimensional characters, ultimately comes across as condescending toward women.
Another fundamental problem with this movie is the plot. Callie Khouri is nothing less than a brilliant screenwriter, but I think she handicapped herself here with post-T and L fears of accusations of "man-hating". Understandable, given the public platform given to all the scary men loudly objecting to the depiction of a woman shooting a rapist ["dear God!"] Callie Khouri's strength is her honest, cut-the-gloss depictions of painful male-female relationships, along with the comedy she brings forth through allowing women an instinctual response to abuse. In this script, however, those moments of comedic and tragic honesty are kept in cages, so that there are little gems scattered throughout, but the movie as a whole does not reflect her native talents.
The Way We Were (1973)
wowed at twelve, but 30 year later...
I saw this movie growing up, and had the impression it was so terrific, and absolutely heartbreaking. Saw it a few days ago, 30 years later, and ... wasn't as impressed. The acting of Streisand made this movie good. Along with the music (still a tear jerker to me). And the theme of the difficulties inherent in an inarticulately relationship is worthy. But wow, I'm stunned by the reliance on stereotype of unattractive, needy Jewish girl and attractive, talented gentile boy. I myself as an adult couldn't figure out what Katie saw in Hubbell, if she was really the politically intense, principled character she was suppose to be. (Though the chemistry between Streisand and Redford is palpable. Maybe this was also why the movie was such a big hit.)
I didn't think Hubbell was inherently a cardboard character, script-wise, as Redford feared. Hubbell had a slime side -- cheating, abandoning his daughter, emotionally unavailable to his partner, arrogant. (All qualities now judged from cultural perspective of early 2000s.) But in movie, these characteristics just seemed to be reasons Katie couldn't hold onto her guy. Perhaps it was Redford who flattened the potential for the character's complexity, giving the character a seemingly monotone "integrity," even after behaving in ways that utterly lacked in integrity.
I also caught some problems with the script this time around. For instance, I thought it was hilarious (unbelievable) that Hubbell wouldn't know the name of Katie's mother even after they were married and Katie was pregnant. And by the way, what was the catalyst for their last breakup? I realize now I didn't miss anything -- it is missing.