Woman in Gold

Woman in Gold, starring the legendary Helen Mirren, is a great story and a so-so film. It’s based on the true account of a famous Austrian painting seized illegally and immorally by the Nazis from its rightful owner, and the attempts of the last living relative, Maria Altmann, to get it back.

It takes the opposite tack from Last year’s dreadful The Monuments Men (http://film-prof.com/?s=monuments+men), which lamely tells the story of a group of men organized to do the retrieving of many of these stolen works of art. That film took the birds’-eye view of the problem and one of its solutions; this one tells one person’s story and focuses on one painting in particular. It’s a better film, but not by much.

The structure of the film involves many a flashback to Maria’s (Mirren) youth, her relationship with her aunt (the subject of the famous painting), her marriage and her eventual escape from the Nazis. The present has her working to get the painting back from Austria, for which it has become “the country’s Mona Lisa,” as one character says. To help make this happen, she enlists the aid of a young lawyer and family man played by Ryan Reynolds in a nearly painful way.

Mirren is a giant in British cinema, for television as much as for her films. In the U.S., it was probably her Oscar-winning work in The Queen that made her the most noticed. While she is an actress first rather than a personality taking on this role and that, her recent performances haven’t been the best fits for her. Last year’s Hundred-Foot Journey had her put on a French accent, and she gave her best to every scene she was in (http://film-prof.com/?s=Hundred+Foot+Journey), but she is as French as Whoopi Goldberg, and while her work was admirable, it wasn’t completely believable.

She has almost the same problem here, but the accent is a slightly better fit and again she digs in as deeply as she can. She is playing a German Jew, and what we see is a great British actress doing a winning impersonation. But even with all that talent put to work, the star still outshines the character.

What doesn’t help is the couple playing the younger Maria (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband (Max Irons, son of acting greats Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack). We see their life in Vienna, their wedding, their early years together, and their thrilling escape from Vienna to a safe life in the U.S. Unfortunately for Mirren, her younger self and her husband are far more believable, and to press the point further, far more interesting than the older Maria. While the attempts to sue the Austrian government is not an unexciting journey, the rising anti-Semitism, the young couple’s love, and the painful and suspenseful escape are far more engaging than the main story.

The film also steps on its own toes by having the young couple successfully escape, which we know must have happened, and then completely dropping all mention of the husband, who has come off as caring and likable. In researching this after seeing the film, I was sure they must have divorced or he died an early death. In actuality, they had four children and remained married until his death in 1994. Why this is buried is distracting and odd.

A fascinating real-world confluence of various artistic streams is found in the person of E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of Austrian musical composer Arnold Schoenberg. There are two problems there, one small and one insurmountable. The small problem is that the film tries to connect Randol to his famous ancestor and his work, as well as the composer’s role as an Austrian. There’s a concert of Schoenberg music, and a few tears, but it doesn’t work, and it becomes little ado about nothing.

What is the film’s biggest goof is the casting of Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg. The film is a BBC Films Productions, in part, and it’s a rogue’s gallery of solid British and European actors: “I remember that guy from ‘Foyle’s War,’ and hey, wasn’t he in Run, Lola, Run?” Casting Reynolds, one of America’s best romantic comedy actors, was an obvious choice from a marketing point of view. But it nearly undoes the film.

Reynolds is a solid comic actor and world-class line reader (http://film-prof.com/?s=line+readers). What he isn’t, apparently, is a solid straight dramatic actor. In Woman in Gold, he places his serious lines in the same verbal rhythms as his best comedy work, and they fall neither comfortably nor convincingly in those cadences. Beyond that, Reynolds simply doesn’t locate and lock down on this essentially serious character. The actor’s glibness pops out here and there, against the tenor of the scene, and Reynold’s natural charm often comes to the fore at the most importune times. He moves into tears and being overwrought a few times, but none of them resonate. It’s a major miscasting, and almost torpedos the film.

Piling on to the damage of the miscasting is Katie Holmes as Randol’s wife. She nearly floats off the screen, making little to no impression. Part of the stress of the whole situation is supposed to be Randol’s commitment/obsession with the case and its impact on his family. Between the two actors here, those issues seem to evaporate as quickly as they are approached.

What makes this all worthwhile is the strength of the artistic, family, historical, and nationalistic story behind the painting. Rooted in the horrors of Nazism, the pain of broken families, the pursuit of justice, and the feisty charm of an old woman wanting her family’s artifacts back where they belong, the story alone makes the film worth seeing. Like Big Eyes, this is a flawed film on a fascinating topic. Also like Big Eyes, this “interesting” film is just good enough to prevent the possible really good film on the subject from ever being filmed.

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Do You Believe?

Do You Believe? is uneven, bumpy, and at times simply unbelievable. It’s also the best Hollywood-style “Christian” movie of its type. The acting, while uneven, is a huge step above the norm. Its cinematography, too, is by far the best seen in these kinds of films, and there are two moments that the equal of the best films of the year.

Those “moments” include a pan that may well provoke an audible shocked gasp from the audience (spoilers preclude me saying anything more). But what horror or mystery films often fail to do well is done deftly and successfully here in a moment that is meant to be surprising and tense, and is. The other “moment” is actually an entire sequence. All I’ll say here is that involves a series of car crashes that is believable and horrible at the same time. There is a melodramatic thread that takes the sequence into something of a “been there/done that” side story, but the beginning of the sequence is a model of direction—within or outside of the context of “Christian films”.

Artistically, the film is a Christian version of Best Picture winner Crash. It fits neatly into the category of hyperlink cinema, best demonstrated in the films 21 Grams, Babel, Traffic, and even reaching back to Robert Altman’s Nashville. If Do You Believe? can be faulted for a high degree of “coincidence” with character and situation, so should these others.

The film is the latest and best example of what we might call traditional evangelical American cinema, and perhaps one of the strongest reasons for its success is the presence of A- and B-list starts. Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino and Lord of the Rings and “Rudy” star Sean Astin may be the most famous—and perhaps most talented—but the film presents the film return of Cybill Shepherd (The Last Picture Show) and television’s “Six Million Dollar Man,” Lee Majors. Ex-football star Brian Bosworth has a major role, and acquits himself fairly well. The young and talented Makenzie Moss threatens to steal the film with her combination of cuteness and realism. And virtual unknown Liam Matthews probably holds the film together most strongly with a character that is real and immoveable. It’s the film’s most solid performance, and needs to be.

The script tries to do way too much, and throws in nearly everything but the kitchen sink. But the film’s structure is a big step forward, and the dialogue is more realistic and intelligent—and realistically spoken—than in any other film of its type.

As a Christian film, and with me now writing this sentence as a Christian, I can say that the film is aimed at the believer, giving us what we want to hear and see, and encouraging us in the process. It’s also aimed at the unbeliever that is being drawn into Christianity. Lastly, for the nonbeliever, it’s one of the clearest demonstrations of what Christians believe that I’ve seen on the screen. As corny as some of the scenes and situations might be and sound, this is what we Christians really believe—from the forgiveness to the (spoiler alert) miracle (so well set-up and yet still not well connected to the rest of the film) to the reality of what it means to carry one’s cross on a daily basis to the increasing resistance we feel from our culture (lawsuit).

From a film artistry point of view, one’s reaction is dependent to a great extent on the spiritual beliefs of the viewer. If one connects to the religious reality up on the screen, as a drummer or other musician might connect with Whiplash, then this is a fairly well done film that can be quite moving, with excellent cinematography, and some solid acting. If one is opposed to Christian faith, its faults will loom larger, and the uneven acting and the script’s weaknesses will be off-putting, and even the various conflicts may be hard to relate to.

For my Christian brothers and sisters, let me say this is the best of the bunch so far, and makes me hopeful for the future of this branch of film. For my non-Christian friends, come and view this as an anthropological study, and you’ll gain some insight into what your crazy Christian friends really believe.

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An Open Letter to Christopher Plummer

Dear Mr. Plummer:

I am making a presentation soon on The Sound of Music, and chose it partially due to the attention recently given to it on its 50th anniversary. Although you’re making nice right now, we all know you’ve had a bumpy relationship with the film from the beginning (an understatement, of course). You’ve often tried—unsuccessfully—to distance yourself, and even separate yourself from it. The reason you can’t is that your performance is part of the basis for the film’s success.

Without your performance, The Sound of Music might well have floated away into the clouds or gone even more cotton candy sweet than it did, all effort to diminish that sweetness by director Robert Wise notwithstanding. You grounded the film, sir, in more ways than you might have realized.

First, you kept connected with the film throughout the performance, and your professionalism never let you bring anything less than your “A” game. I may be reading you wrong, but it seemed as if there were moments that you were doing everything you could not to reveal that you thought you were slumming, and that what you were doing was either beneath you or simply Not Your Thing. I know that you and Ms. Andrews were laughing yourselves silly in the “Something Good” sequence with the groaning arc light situation. You seemed to be working extra hard to stay engaged with her when she was singing to you during that number. But you did stay engaged, and the scene was the richer for it.

You also made the most of every scene you were in. As underwritten as the character of the Captain might have been, you made it as real and fleshed out as you could. You added humor, slyness, darkness and depth to almost every scene you were in. If, as you stated, working with Ms. Andrews was like being hit over the head daily with a big Valentine’s Day card, you provided the dark undertone that enabled her to work to define and ground the sweetness into something real and relatable.

As the more accomplished, experienced and talented actor, I can only imagine what you brought to every scene you had with Ms. Andrews. She has given you credit for teaching her how to act angrily in her scene where she is rebuking your character for not paying enough attention to your children (after they have all gotten dunked when the boat tipped over). If that’s the case, you taught her well. Her anger may never have the same edge as yours, it was her own real anger, and it made for a believable, strong scene. You need to be aware of how much you were able to bring out of her as an actress. We’ll never exactly know, of course, but I can only imagine it would have been a much lesser film without your participation, your example, and your spoken and unspoken training of your fellow actors.

You have the reputation of being an underplayer, and it worked well here. But it was what you were underplaying that worked so well. You brought sorrow, pained isolation, and yes, even a current of dark sexuality to the part. Perhaps that is just part of “who you are,” but thanks to your commitment to the part –painful for you or not—you make the part your own and added a depth, weight and darkness it needed. The film is infused with that darkness to some extent, and while generally unnoticed under the mountains, children, nuns, music and the glories of Ms. Andrews’ voice and performance, it’s there.

You weren’t just involved in a wildly successful film musical, Mr. Plummer. You were a great part of its success and its longevity. I hope you’ll soon see that and embrace it.

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The Red Shoes (1948, British)

The Red Shoes is a 1948 British Technicolor wonder that also happens to be a film about ballet and the constant struggle between being a great artist and having a life (see Whiplash for the most recent cinematic reminder).

The inestimable George Eastman House in Rochester, NY is currently hosting the exhibit, “In Glorious Technicolor”. Along with the museum’s exhibit of film clips, cameras, photos, and history, there is an accompanying film series of important examples of Technicolor technology and application. I was fortunate enough to revisit The Red Shoes in a restored 35mm print in the Dryden Theater, the Eastman House main theater.

If you love film, if you love art, if you love dance, if you love Technicolor (or color in film in general), try to see The Red Shoes in a theater. You may have to wait and work for it, but it’s worth the wait. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about with the argument of film vs. digital, The Red Shoes is a marvelous and classic argument for the beauty of film.

The images are dense, rich, and striking. The cinematography is by cinematic genius (a term I use rarely) Jack Cardiff. Cardiff had won a well-deserved Oscar for his work in the previous year’s Black Narcissus. While The Red Shoes (directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) won two Oscars (for Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Color, and for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), it’s one of Oscar’s big misses that this gem didn’t win Cardiff his second golden man in a row.

The film uses color expressionistically. The central ballet—anticipating and likely suggesting the ballet sequences in An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain—is an explosion of deep color that is alternately exhilarating and haunting. The British approach to Technicolor steers clear of the American obsession with primary colors, and is at once more subtle and more beautiful. Here, scenes of obsessive sadness lean to the purple, where scenes of anger lean to the read. But unless you’re looking, you’ll only feel them and not notice them.

It’s probably a lost cause to continue to promote film over digital at this point, with all due respect to the film stalwarts. But if you want to see how spectacular film color could be, you need go no farther than The Red Shoes. As an art film, it will live for ages. As a model of Technicolor, it’s probably already a dinosaur, but it’s a glorious one.

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Whiplash

Saw the triple-Oscar winner a couple of weeks ago. The film is about a young and talented drummer and his teacher at a Julliard-like arts school who puts him through the ringer personally and musically. The two technical awards were for editing and sound mixing; the acting Oscar was the first foregone conclusion of the awards—Best Supporting Oscar for J.K. Simmons.

In some ways, this was the little-film-that-could. Simmons was a lock early on, but it was a shock to most people when the film was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (a category that was a controversial choice—but that’s another article).

It’s a solid and well-done film, but I have a few reservations. The tale of the professor/teacher/trainer that pushes you beyond your conceived limits is an old one, and this is just another variation on the same. What helps this old story is that drumming is a visceral art—you can see it and you can hear it—solid film material in theory. The process of creation, practice and improvement is far easier to portray than writing music, painting, or—God help us—writing a book.

Apparently a few scenes were filmed at first, which were then used to lure funding for the rest. Some have called it a short expanded into a feature. In any case, the film feels like an expanded short. There are really just three-and-a-half people in it: the young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, who has a solid career in front of him), the teacher Fletcher (Simmons), Andrews’s father (Paul Reiser, who gives the film a much-needed grounding) and the half-character Nicole (Melissa Benoist), Andrew’s sometime girlfriend.

There are other characters, of course, but they don’t feel fleshed out in the same way. The world of the film also seems a bit thin. The heart of the film is in the rehearsing and performing spaces, of course, which makes sense. It’s when the characters venture out from there that the films seems stretched out and padded.

Most of the attention has been paid to Simmons, which makes sense, too. He seems to have won pretty much every Supporting Actor Award available last year, and in some ways deserves it. The Academy loves awarding great performances from journeymen (or –women) who have been doing solid unrecognized work for years. (Full disclosure: I felt vindicated with this performance and all the awards, as I have thought of Simmons as under-recognized for years; see http://film-prof.com/2014/02/16/five-more-supporting-performances-that-dont-get-the-attention-they-deserve/).

But when watching it, I thought it first deserved Best Part of the Year—or many a year. The part was practically created to win awards, and it’s an actor’s delight. Just as one critic noted that whoever played Viola in Shakespeare in Love (1998) would win the Oscar because the part was so good, I think the same happened here. Not that Simmons doesn’t hit every note—many of which are profane and vicious. He does, but in spite of the fact that the script demands scenes of physical and emotional violence, and we see the character’s soft side a few times to round out the harsh edges, we don’t really get a fully realized character here. The anger is there, the tears and sadness are present, and the warmth (real or not) is expressed, but they don’t quite add up to a coherent character. As much as I have supported Simmons over the years and don’t begrudge him the Oscar, I have great sympathy for those who thought that Mark Ruffalo deserved it for Foxcatcher, where he gave a more modulated and subtle performance.

Unfortunately, the same is true with Miles Teller’s Andrew. We are sympathetic to him throughout most of the film, and yet he’s an arrogant, condescending jerk who blows off a positive relationship because he’s convinced it will limit his art. I understand the argument, but didn’t believe all these pieces were coming out of the same person.

There are also simply unbelievable turns of event that arise every so often that seem to come less from the world the film created than the hand of a screenwriter creating more barriers for his characters to climb over.

If’ you’re sensitive to rough language, stay aware. If you’re sensitive to abuse, even artistic abuse, stay away. But if you want to see some solid performances attached to an intense story of art, mentorship, and the fine line between encouragement and cruelty, this is a story for you. My best friend and his wife were shaken after seeing this. As an artist and performer myself, I know something of this world and wasn’t so affected. But it’s the latest entry into the world of a few unanswerable questions: Where’s the line between intense training and abuse, and will a full-out dedication to one’s art mean that love and life are impossible? The film gives no answers to either question, but gives plenty of evidence of what’s at stake.

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The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Exotic Marigold Hotel is the first film I’ve written about where I have to throw my hands up and declare it officially critic-proof. Not that I couldn’t sit back and analyze it from several different perspectives. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s essentially unbelievable in its action and pairings, and there is a an odd camera movement combined with an unnecessary tracking shot that still doesn’t make sense. It slavishly follows nearly every cliché for its type, and yet is still something of a mess. But none of that matters. It’s like going to Grandma’s—there might be plenty out of kilter, but if you love her, you don’t notice (or it doesn’t matter).

To call the film an enjoyable romp is to oversell it, as romp implies something of a structure. And while we lurch toward the inevitable wedding of its main male character (Dev Patel), we also slip and slide into four other couplings, none of which are believable, and whose decisions and actions we simply sit back and accept at face value. Why? Because we love these actors first and these characters second, and just being with them will be what brings in the audience.

The stars shine brightly: Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. They don’t have to do anything or act with purpose, and often they don’t here. Maggie continues to get the Downton Abbey one-liners, and she adjusts well to being out of that imperious period and character. She is the heart of the film, and we’re all just happy that she’s still around. Dench is supposed to be the apple of Bill Nighy’s eye, and as in the earlier film, we just are supposed to accept the 15-year difference in their ages—she’s older—which is more than evident on-screen. But if those two likable stars want to play that game, then, heck, we’ll go along with it against our more rational impulses.

Penelope Wilton, another Downton Abbey alumnus, is essentially dragged in to make an appearance. Her role is essentially unpleasant, but since the actress isn’t, we, uh, go along with it.

Then there is Richard Gere, added clearly to bring in the older female audience. He doesn’t seem to be getting much direction in terms of performance. He doesn’t exactly phone it in, but it doesn’t come close to being a stretch or any kind of demonstration of his actual acting prowess. He’s more of a cipher than a character, and his inevitable hook-up is both obvious and as incredible as the rest.

Dev Patel, a growing actor adept at both comedy and drama, gives a performance that’s pitched too high in terms of energy. Since the character is a go-getter, we can accept this—but just barely. Has the four-year interval really turned this character into such a whirling dervish of obsequiousness? And why does the script force his character into a side trip of childish insecurity (with all the same energy as when he’s up emotionally) when we haven’t seen that side before? Again, Patel makes it work, and we go along for the ride, even when we’d rather not. Patel does have a way with a comic line, however, and we can only hope this talent gets exploited more in the future.

The film integrates the western aspects of the hotel with its Indian environment more than the first film. The sounds, sights and colors of India are more present and of a piece with the western set and habits of its main characters. That alone gives the film an extra energy and attractiveness, and is the strongest improvement over the original film.

But when all is said and done, this is a film of actors we enjoy spending time with. They each go through their paces, some logically, some not, some pleasantly, some not. But the lack of logic and the presence of questionable plotlines won’t matter. Either these wonderful actors are worth spending two hours with just because of who they are, or they are not worth it. For this writer, they were. As in many an epic or historical drama, it’s the cast that matters. Here, that’s pretty much all there is. But what a cast….

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Still Alice

Still Alice is practically an afterthought at this point, and will likely only be remembered as the film that finally brought Julianne Moore her first Oscar (she won as Best Actress earlier this year) after a number of nominations. And while Moore is certainly the bright light shining atop this structure (I’m thinking the introduction to All About Eve here), there are a few other performances worth noting as well.

The subject of the film is perhaps the second biggest star after Ms. Moore, who plays a Columbia University professor suffering with the early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The subject is fraught with emotional weight, as well as social and scientific significance. It might have become “that film” that raised awareness and instigated a social discussion of the disease, joining The Snake Pit, Philadelphia and The Lost Weekend as “issue films” that functioned as well-made films as well as conversation starters. Yet like The Theory of Everything, Away from Her, Dallas Buyers Club, and even The Pride of the Yankees, the strength of its central performance distracts from the issue or disease at hand (and with The Theory of Everything as well as The Pride of the Yankees, the other big distraction from ALS as a disease is who is suffering from it).

Here is the central sufferer isn’t famous, but does live in a relatively rarified world of comfortable New York City brownstones in New York and vacation homes. It’s as focused and limited a world as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which presents a similar narrow world. The difference is that in spite of the “small world” in which that film’s inhabitants lived and loved, the central struggles of its main characters were universally shared or understood. Not so in Still Alice, which focuses keenly on its central character and the effects of the disease on her and her family. We’re barely made aware of others who suffer from the same disease, and only as it supports the central struggle.

The film itself is relatively straightforward and direct, fairly well constructed, and could be described as lean and mean. It’s a better film than you might think if you’re only used to what used to be called “disease of the week” films on television. But other than causing some slight discomfort on the part of viewers to whom the disease is a reality or a fear, the film itself is easy to let slip from the memory (no other meaning implied).

What is provides best is a platform for performances, especially the central award-winning one. Julianne Moore is almost a hyper-realistic actress, and when she finds a good character fit (e.g., Children of Men, Far From Heaven, The End of the Affair), her performances elevate and energize her films. When the first isn’t so good (the Hunger Games films, Nine Months), she tends to either stick out of her films or shift into another dimension that only has a tangential relationship with the other actors or the film itself). Here, she has the perfect fit between character and her talents. Like Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Colin Firth in The King’s Speech and Daniel-Day Lewis in My Left Foot, this is a highly technical acting challenge as well as an emotional one. Moore, like those other actors, hits every technical and emotional note purely and cleanly. She never works for sympathy, and gains it in the process. It’s the perfect connection of actor and role, and she makes the most of it.

What is perhaps surprising is the quality of the supporting work. Alec Baldwin has almost become something of a joke for his boorish off-the-set behavior, and it seemed as if his years as a TV star had perhaps robbed his ability to fully inhabit a role without bringing his mannerisms into the performance (e.g., Blue Jasmine). Here, however, he reminds us that he can be an actor of the first rank with a restrained, mannerism-free performance as Moore’s character’s husband, who is torn with his own challenges at work and at home as her disease progresses. It’s a refreshing, real and straightforward performance that gives one hope that we still have a first-rate actor here.

Some ink has been spilt—and it’s flowed in one of two opposite directions—about Kristin Stewart’s performance as Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is occasionally pouty, negative and attitudinal, and evokes Stewart’s most famous role to date in the Twilight series. Yes, she is giving a contained performance, but as the film continues, we see shades we aren’t used to seeing and undertones that work well for the character. Going toe-to-toe with an actress like Moore at the height of her powers, and coming out her equal is quite the triumph. This isn’t the actress of Twilight, in spite of the similarities of its pouty characters. If rumor is true and this is Stewart’s breakout year as an actress instead of just being a star, this may well be the first film pointed to. Lastly, Kate Bosworth heretofore known more for her beauty than her acting talent, gives a solid performance as Alice’s other (and married) daughter—a small role, but an important one to the film’s structure. She’s a counterpoint to Lydia and is someone who is affected, but less so, than the closer family members, allowing us one perspective on the affects of this disease on others.

In spite of its electric and often poignant topic, Still Alice is a film that will ultimately be remembered as a showcase, primarily for Moore. We’ve been waiting for that showcase for years, and Hollywood was grateful to find an opportunity to give her what some feel is a long-overdue Oscar. It could have been deeply affecting, and it even strives for some kind of resonance in its final scenes. But ultimately, it’s a small but solid film with a good supporting cast and a classic central performance. That’s not bad, but it could have been so much more.

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