Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

Dunkirk – Movie Review

An unusual movie, quite brilliant, and one for which you should probably come prepared, Dunkirk drops the viewer into the middle of action already far underway.  If you don’t know you World War II history, you’re going to spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out what’s going on.  Or perhaps you’ll give up and go with it, but you’ll be cheating yourself on the importance of what is taking place on the screen.  I’ll provide a small clue and tell you it’s a movie about survival and how far an individual and a group will go to achieve it.

The storyline doesn’t follow one particular character through his experiences and struggles during the war and evacuation.  Rather it presents the events taking place from multiple POVs, both military and civilian, thus providing a wonderful angle from which to view the scenes.  With this technique, the viewer is also treated to a variety of reactions about what is occurring.  Again, if you’re not familiar with World War II history, you may be surprised to find this isn’t an action movie with battle scenes like you were possibly expecting.

Dunkirk is an intense fusion of visuals and sounds.  At first I thought the cinematography looked too new, but the clarity of the shots appealed to me long before the movie was over.  When combined with an amazing soundtrack crafted by Hans Zimmer, the experience draws one in mind and body.  I found myself tensing up in my seat to the musical equivalent of the sound of gunfire, the groaning metal of a sinking destroyer, and a dive-bombing plane.

The movie doesn’t downplay the heroism of the men serving in France, but shares the valor with the civilians who rushed to their rescue for the evacuation effort.  And instead of presenting Germany as the soul antagonist, Dunkirk relays the various forces of antagonism that worked against the soldiers and civilians alike.

With a great cast of actors including Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Hardy, Dunkirk is not for the casual movie goer.  However, if you’re a World War II history buff or a history buff in general, you’ll leave the theatre feeling like you walked every grueling step with the soldiers, and you’ll be glad you did.

A Little More Persuasion

So, having recently read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, naturally I had to watch the movies to see which one did the best job of capturing all that the novel is.  I’ll give the readers following my blog a few moments to finish laughing.  But seriously, if I had to choose one as my favorite, it would be the 1995 adaptation starring Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root.

With that being said, I must also admit that reading the book first will be extremely helpful because there is a large cast of characters and detailed storylines to keep track of.  Without the benefit of a reading, the movie might seem patchy, as if much is left unexplained.

I believe the reason no movie will ever completely depict Persuasion, or any book for that matter, but in particular Persuasion, is because much of the prose describes what the characters are thinking and feeling.  We have an in-depth view of Anne’s heart that can only be conveyed on screen by her expressions.  The same is true of Captain Wentworth.  However, when the characters do speak, there are no wasted words.

The thrill of romantic tension Jane Austen infused in her novel comes out well in the 1995 Persuasion.  Again I found myself wanting the movie to hurry up and relieve Anne’s and Wentworth’s agony, but just as quickly wishing to prolong the scenes so I could relish them over and over.  At the conclusion of the novel, I felt as if I was leaving dear friends behind, and the movie engendered the same emotions as well as put faces on said friends.

And then there is the kiss in the 1995 Persuasion when Anne and Wentworth finally overcome their insecurities and presumptions regarding each other.  Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root do it the best as we’re given the view from just over Wentworth’s shoulder as he’s leaning down to make contact with Anne’s lips, and she closes her eyes right before they touch.  Let the squealing and sighing commence because it is, in my humble opinion, the best onscreen kiss ever.

As for Ciaran Hinds and Amanda Root, they do a wonderful job portraying Wentworth and Anne.  He is classically handsome with high cheekbones and a regal bearing.  Never is Hinds’s Wentworth the pretty, spoiled rich boy next door.  Amanda Root’s Anne embodies Jane Austen’s own sentiment of being “almost too good for me.”  She is perfect as the plain but pretty woman past her bloom who later revives the blush upon her cheeks the closer she comes to her one true love.

The 2007 adaption of Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones is not bad, but it’s not great.  I would never dissuade you from watching to make up your own mind.  My biggest complaints are that some characters’ lines end up in the mouths of other characters and too many scenes are consolidated which lessens the impact of what takes place.  There is also a titch too much creative licensing going on and four times the director employs the technique of having Anne (Sally Hawkins) look directly at the camera as if making eye contact with the viewer thus conveying the depth of her feelings at the moment.  Once would have been sufficient to make us feel Anne’s pain.

Wentworth in this version is handsome but not dashing, and Anne’s hair looks as if it needs a good washing.  As for the kiss at the end, Anne has been running to catch up to Wentworth, and she pants too long and too hard.  Then the scene drags on forever, I have to assume because of the director’s instructions or perhaps to give Sally Hawkins time to catch her breath, and the moment is spoiled.  It is actually more embarrassing than romantic.

One saving grace is Anthony Head as Sir Walter, Anne’s father.  It’s almost frightening how well Head portrays the depth of shallowness and vanity to which Sir Walter has sunk, caring little or nothing for those around him who he deems worthless including his own dear daughter, Anne.  Kudos to Head for making me hate this character because I have to admit, sometimes I love a character I can hate.

There are a couple TV mini-series based on Persuasion from the ‘60s and 70’s and a modern adaptation all of which I’m sure I’ll miss.  Until a glowing review for one of them comes from a friend or follower, I’ll stay with the novel and the 1995 movie.

In Our Hands

I’m always saving my pennies to purchase books, so I rarely spend money on seeing movies.  Well, that and the fact that I like to support my local library by checking them out.  With that being said, I still didn’t have to dig in to my Mason jar of book funds thanks to the generosity of my Aunt Deniece.  She bought tickets for me and my son to see In Our Hands.

In Our Hands is the docudrama commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War.  The movie features historical footage, personal interviews, and professional reenactments celebrating Israel’s 55th Paratroopers involvement in the battle for Jerusalem.

The barely twenty year-old nation of Israel staved off extinction at the hands of surrounding Arab nations determined to wipe Israel off the map.  Israel’s defense forces risked everything, taking on better equipped, larger military forces, for the sake of their homeland.  The unexpected Israeli victory returned the Jews to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the old Temple.  Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day every year in honor of the sacrifice made in June, 1967.

The title of the docudrama comes from Lt. General Mordechai “Motta” Gur’s famous statement broadcasting that the “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”  The movie does a wonderful job recreating this scene sure to give anyone goosebumps.  Equally miraculous is the scene of Israeli soldiers praying the Shema at the Western Wall.

I highly recommend viewing this amazing, must-see movie.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to own this one.

Florence Foster Jenkins

florence-foster-jenkinsPer my aunt’s suggestion, I recently watched Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg. I went in with the expectations of a hilariously funny movie, and there were some humorous moments, but overall I found it to be quite sad. In between cringe-worthy scenes where the protagonist made a fool of herself was a deeper story of love and friendship, passion for one’s chosen art form, and the true definition of success.

As usual, Streep gave a charming performance reminiscent of her Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Streep’s Julia Child was a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus on what she wanted and proved her abilities. As Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep portrayed a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus and ended in total embarrassment due to her overwhelming lack of talent. Not much of a stretch there except for different professions.

I don’t know if it was my parent’s high-definition television, which shows every unflattering flaw, or makeup, meant to create said flaws, but Hugh Grant, who did a decent job in the role of Jenkin’s husband, didn’t look so good. True, it’s been years since his performance in Love Actually, however, I choose to remember him as the intelligent, slightly sexy Prime Minister. Maybe because of his appearance in Love Actually, I had a hard time believing him as the weeping husband at the end of the film.

What truly made the film enjoyable for me was Simon Helberg. While I’ve always appreciated him as Howard on The Big Bang Theory, what a lovely surprise it was to see him act far beyond this role. Helberg’s Cosmé McMoon delighted with facial expressions and tones of voice that conveyed much more than the lines he spoke. As I watched him, I sensed that I’d seen his performance somewhere before. The longer I scrutinized, the more I had déjà vu regarding his portrayal of McMoon. Where had I seen this level of acting that was mysterious, charismatic, and quirky all at once?

Then it suddenly came to me. Helberg must have been channeling Gene Wilder because I’ve never seen anyone who could tantalize with just a twitch of a smile or flicker of the eyes the way Wilder did, and yet Helberg captured it perfectly and brilliantly. From that moment on, it was like I was watching Wilder himself. I have decided that Simon Helberg absolutely must remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When Gene Wilder passed away last year, my heart was broken. Now I believe I’ve found a way to overcome that grief and recapture the magic of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I know a remake exists, but it misses the mark in too many ways to count. No offense to Johnny Depp, but he’s Jack Sparrow, not Willy Wonka.

Now, one of my life’s missions is to stalk Simon Helberg on social media until I can convince him to take on the role of Willy Wonka. I’m sure he’ll agree that it must be done. He alone can reach back into our childhoods and recreate all the thrilling enchantment we experienced the first time we saw the movie.

Woman in Gold – Movie Review

I’m not a fan of Ryan Reynolds especially after watching the disaster that was The Green Lantern and some piece of tripe he starred in with Jason Bateman. In fact, I don’t care for his acting at all, and I’m being generous when I call it acting. Helen Mirren, on the other hand, is brilliant, fabulous, and classy even if the movie she stars in is horrible and disintegrates around her.

When I saw that Ryan Reynolds had been graciously cast opposite Helen Mirren in the movie Woman in Gold, I cringed wondering if even she could carry the dead weight of Reynold’s flat acting and bleating voice. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she didn’t have to.

Woman in GoldWoman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann, a young Jewish woman who fled Austria with her husband during World War II. Sixty years after her forced exile, Maria seeks the help of Attorney Randy Schoenberg to reclaim the famous Gustav Klimt painting of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Maria and Randy take the battle all the way to the US Supreme Court with a slowly building intensity that often left me clenching my teeth as I awaited the outcome of each painful step. I won’t spoil the ending, but rather, I’ll say this is one movie that should not be missed.

What I will focus on is the impression the movie left upon me. It is hard to imagine a regime so evil that it would perfect the practice of hatred to the level that the Nazis did. And yet, one can hardly turn on the news or surf the Internet without seeing this same type of barbarism taking place today all over the world. God forgive us that we are allowing it to happen again.

Equally chilling is the arrogance and indifference with which these acts of terror are met. Of course, it is absolutely criminal that personal property is stolen, but more important are the lives that are being destroyed. As Helen Mirren portraying Maria Altmann said regarding the restitution of the stolen art, it will not bring them back. Still, it is a small step toward acknowledging and righting the wrongs committed.

Then the problem becomes how do we stop the crimes that are occurring now as we make restitution for the past while preventing the evil from raising its ugly head in our future? I believe the answer lies within each person on a daily basis. What will you chose to do today? Acts of good or deeds of evil?

Woman in Gold 2

The Homesman – Movie Review

images (3)One of the best movies I have seen in a long time is The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Jones stars as George Briggs, a claim jumper saved by pious spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank. The performance of these two Oscar-winning actors is brilliant as they draw you in to the stark reality of life in the 1850s American West.

In return for sparing his life from hanging, Briggs is pressed into service as a homesman by Mary Bee. A homesman is someone who accompanies people back home when they become too ill to survive life on the plains. In the case of three women who have experienced hardships beyond their endurance, severe mental illness necessitates removal from their families.

There are harsh and disturbing images in the movie, but in the hands of a director like Tommy Lee Jones, they don’t come across as cheap, shock value scenes. Factor in an all-star cast of characters in fabulous cameos, an unexpected mid-movie twist, and visually appealing cinematography and The Homesman presents the makings of a classic film.

I don’t want to start a firestorm debate on book versus movie; however, I’m anxious to see if the novel lives up to the quality of the movie. I researched the novel and author and was pleasantly surprised to find that Glendon Swarthout is also the author of the novel, The Shootist, which inspired the 1976 movie and is best known for being John Wayne’s last film. Admittedly, I’ve never read a western, but I am interested to give Mr. Swarthout’s The Homesman a try if for no other reason than to see how closely the movie follows the storyline.

Let us not forget Marco Beltrami’s beautiful yet haunting musical score which perfectly matches the scenes from the movie. If movie music allows you to recall and relive the scenes as if you were watching them all over again, I believe the score deserves the mark of excellence. Marco Beltrami achieves this with a score that is powerfully subtle, always blending with the scenes rather than jarring you out of them, and certainly memorable.

Whether or not you are a fan of the western, I believe you will find The Homesman an enjoyable movie not to be missed.

Maleficent – Movie Review

images (3)My desire to support the local library, even if it is destroying itself from the inside out, means I’m coming in late with my review of the movie, Maleficent. I’ve already mentioned this in a previous post, so enough said on the subject.

I’ve discussed the movie with my friend and co-worker ever since the trailers for Maleficent first appeared. We agreed that Angelina Jolie was the perfect choice to play the character. My friend is into behind the scene facts and gossip about movies. She mentioned that Angelina studied the Disney cartoon extensively to ensure she portrayed Maleficent correctly down to her razor-sharp cheekbones.

I must admit I’ve only ever seen clips of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, but what I’ve seen clearly depicted Maleficent as the bad character. All of Angelina’s efforts in makeup and costuming certainly went along with what I’d seen.

My biggest concern when it came time to watch the movie was that I wouldn’t be able to turn off my internal editor and enjoy watching. I worried that the makeup, costuming, cinematography, and scenery would distract from the storyline. It didn’t, and I was able to take it all in.

But let’s actually discuss the movie.

If anyone could rage onscreen with the strength of a betrayed woman scorned beyond all reason, it would be Angelina Jolie. Factor in those horns and cheekbones, and she’s one scary lady. That didn’t happen in Maleficent.

The backstory did a good job of explaining why Maleficent ended up bitter and angry, but along the way, someone decided to remove the teeth from what could have been an incredible tale. Maleficent was all bark and absolutely no bite.

Instead of watching the main character deteriorate into a sociopathic, homicidal maniac bent on the destruction of a kingdom via the cherished princess, we were treated to a kinder, gentler Maleficent. Seriously?

What was the point of making her look fierce if she’s going to offer a clause to her own curse, attempt to revoke said curse, grow close in heart to the victim of her curse, regret her own actions when the curse is fulfilled, and be the only one who could actually break the curse? These changes in script were bland at best and completely undermined the entire story.untitled (6)

Perhaps Disney was trying to make a subtle point? Bad people can be redeemed. Perhaps the writers and producers didn’t want to scare children? Take a look at what kids watch on TV. Has Disney forgotten how to portray good versus evil? They certainly blurred the lines this time.

I could ask many more questions and read many themes into Maleficent. Quite frankly, it’s just not worth it. For me, the movie didn’t satisfy, and I will be much more skeptical of the upcoming remake, Cinderella.

The Trip to Bountiful

Geraldine Page

Geraldine Page

The Trip to Bountiful starring Geraldine Page is one of the best movies ever made. It’s based on Horton Foote’s play which originally aired on NBC in 1953 before being produced for Broadway.

The story follows Carrie Watts, an elderly woman living with her weak-willed son, Ludie, and his self-centered wife, Jessie Mae. All Carrie wants before she leaves this earth is to see her beloved hometown, Bountiful, one last time. Although she’s strong in spirit, she’s too frail in heart and body to safely make the trip alone.

Her days are spent cooped up in a little apartment in Houston, Texas, singing hymns and trying to stay out of Jessie Mae’s way. Their verbal sparring is the result of different desires. Carrie wants to live in the past when life was simpler while her daughter-in-law yearns for materials things in a modern world. When Carrie can no longer wait, she sneaks away to Bountiful for the trip of a lifetime.

While most everyone will agree that remakes are rarely as good as the original, Cicely Tyson has undertaken to recreate the magic of the original Trip to Bountiful movie. She started out on Broadway, but I’m pleased to say the version including her performance, which appeared on Lifetime, is on also DVD.

Regardless of which version you choose to watch first, you won’t be disappointed. I strongly recommend you take the time to watch both. The strength of desire portrayed by Mrs. Page and Mrs. Tyson is overwhelming. You’ll be rooting for Carrie Watts and humming hymns long after the movie has ended.

Cicely Tyson

Cicely Tyson

Onward, Christian Ire… Or Not

untitled (11)I’m obviously rather late coming in on the debate of the Russell Crowe version of Noah. In my defense, I wasn’t going to pay to watch that piece of tripe. (Sneak peek on my opinion of the movie.) I had to wait until my turn at the library came up so I could watch it for free. There goes two hours of my life I’ll never get back.

Where do I begin? With the armadillo dog, perhaps? (Snort.) How about the shiny magic rocks or glowing, charmed snakeskin? There are always the Watchers to debate. Don’t even get me started on the hideous CGI, animatronics, or whatever it was they used.

Using a few Biblical names and borrowing the history of the world being destroyed by water were the only things remotely familiar in this farce of a movie. Nothing else was recognizable. To rewrite the facts then present them so pathetically reflects poorly on everyone associated with the film.

In short, dystopian universe Noah is so unbelievable, there is absolutely no way any Christian could be offended, myself included. The movie it utter laughable nonsense.

On the other hand, if the intent of the film was to create yet another divisive, pseudo-Christian religion, the movie presents the perfect shaky foundation for this to occur. Going green seems to be the underlying message. No doubt, Al Gore will be on board as a prophet.

%d bloggers like this: