Archive for February, 2005

Being Julia

Monday, February 21st, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“Being Julia,” director Istvan Szabo’s film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “Theatre,” makes the argument that everything is artifice and that people, with varying degrees of success, are always acting. Despite a splendid supporting cast and a delightful central turn by Annette Bening, “Being Julia” is as trifling and farcical as its subject matter: soapy backstage romances and turnabouts in late 1930s England. As Julia Lambert, a stage diva with Margot Channing-esque skill, Bening has a ball playing a woman who spends so much time acting that the line between herself and her characters has been blurry for years. Facing down the reality that one cannot play young forever, Julia careens between joy and despair – often in the same scene.

Julia seems to have a firmer grasp on her impending decline than does her husband/manager/director (and one-time co-star) Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons), who seems content to keep filling the seats with one production after another. Together, Michael and Julia share a nearly grown-up son Roger (Thomas Sturridge), who knows more than he sometimes lets on. Several other key figures weave in and out of the story. Of these, the strangest but most arresting is Jimmy Langton, the ghost of Julia’s mentor, played with verve and gusto by Michael Gambon. Appearing to Julia at key moments to coach her through sticky interactions, Langton seems to materialize from a better-written, more interesting script.

Julia throws herself into a sexual fling with Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans, a bit out of his depth) a young American immediately recognizable as more calculating and deceptive than his moon-eyed persona suggests. As soon as Julia becomes aware of Tom’s manipulations, she brews up a sweet revenge that plays out – where else? – on the stage. Given the nature of Julia’s unconventional approach to relationships (humorously, she often repeats bits of dialogue in her everyday interactions) the viewer can never be entirely certain to what extent her emotions ring true, but Bening’s effervescence usually manages to smooth over the rough edges.

Ronald Harwood’s screenplay is the film’s largest liability, and its herky-jerky pacing inhibits any sense that events are building upon one another toward a particularly satisfying resolution. Bruce Greenwood, as Lord Charles, one of Julia’s admirers, disappears for so long that by the time he shows up for a pivotal moment, viewers might have altogether forgotten him. It is also impossible to believe that a West End veteran like Julia would fail to detect his sexual orientation, but that is another matter entirely.

“Being Julia” never manages to take flight in the manner of great backstage films like “All About Eve” or “The Dresser.” Perhaps its leisurely pace, in which some scenes are drawn out beyond the endurance of acceptable patience levels, is to blame. It could also be that several key characters – especially Julia’s husband Michael – remain out of focus when they should be razor sharp. Certainly Szabo should have been able to shore up the emotional void that exists at the heart of the movie. Bening and the rest of the cast enjoy themselves immensely, but the merriment is not always transferred to the adoring public.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/21/05.

Vera Drake

Monday, February 14th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Mike Leigh is a tremendous talent as a filmmaker, and his latest feature “Vera Drake” can be every bit as gripping and moving as the best moments from “Naked,” “Secrets & Lies,” or “Topsy-Turvy.” Set in London in 1950, Leigh’s film at first seems calculatingly and rigorously structured, but eventually the director’s humanism overtakes the politically charged material to find in favor of the strong title character, a middle-aged, working-class housewife who secretly performs underground abortions. While the subject matter is guaranteed to arouse passionate feelings in audience members, Leigh has as much to say about some of his pet themes (like class, the peculiar nature of family, and the keeping of secrets) as he does about one of the most divisive issues in society.

In a terrific, Academy Award-nominated performance, Imelda Staunton plays Vera as the epitome of self-sacrifice and hard work. Toiling as a domestic in the opulent homes of the wealthy, Vera never fails to make dinner for her family or tend to her aged mother. Cheerful and kindhearted, Vera shares a loving relationship with husband Stan (Phil Davis), who works side by side with his brother as an auto mechanic. Vera and Stan are the parents of grown children Sid (Daniel Mays), a happy-go-lucky tailor and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a painfully timid wallflower who has managed to catch the eye of pathetic Reg (Eddie Marsan), a young man Vera has invited to dinner.

Leigh presents Vera’s hidden occupation with the same kind of no-nonsense, matter of fact care and attention to detail that Vera brings to her paying jobs. It is immediately clear that Vera performs abortions because she truly believes that she is helping the women who seek out her services, and Leigh does not flinch from this view. The director chooses to maintain a certain distance from any internal deliberation that Vera experiences, and the result is complex: we must speculate as to why Vera has chosen her particular path. That ambiguity will certainly please some viewers and frustrate others.

“Vera Drake” is at its best when it is ruminating on the tiniest details of the lives of its characters. Leigh is discreet but not shy about depicting Vera in the act of providing abortions (the several instances have a fascinating, montage-like effect as they show myriad circumstances, each set unique), but just as much time is spent exploring the Drake household. In accordance with the mechanics of the plot, the gears make a grinding shift halfway through, and the film only slightly falters in drawing out the fate of Vera once she has entered the confusing labyrinth of the legal system.

Leigh sets up one interesting counterpoint to Vera’s illegal operations. The daughter of one of Vera’s employers is raped by a suitor, and Leigh weaves a parallel story thread that is surprising in the way it handles the seemingly convergent plotlines. Rather than resort to a more obvious kind of resolution, Leigh takes the opportunity to explore the alternative to Vera’s method or pregnancy termination. While this diversion could have used one more scene to strengthen its argument, Leigh underlines his point about class and power. Leigh concludes his film with a dedication to his parents, a doctor and a midwife, and by the time the credits roll, another of the filmmaker’s powerful tales has delivered much food for thought.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/14/05.

Million Dollar Baby

Monday, February 7th, 2005


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Clint Eastwood – perhaps energized by the success of “Mystic River” – returns just in time for award season with another film of surprising power and grace. “Million Dollar Baby” is a boxing movie, and boxing movies are not routinely recognized for their originality. Eastwood understands this concept going in, and the result is a reassuring blend of cinematic storytelling that embraces expected cliché in order to allow the viewer to focus on the rich characterizations and emotional details of the director’s carefully crafted world. A spunky underdog from the wrong side of the tracks convinces a grizzled trainer to take her all the way to a championship bout. If this sounds like a stock plot from a bygone era, don’t be misled: Eastwood is mostly on his “A” game, and the result hits as hard as the title character.

Like his memorable restructuring/reiteration of cowboy myth in “Unforgiven,” Eastwood again retools audience expectations thanks to both an unhurried pace and an effortless sense of style. Playing faded trainer/gym owner Frank Dunn, Eastwood slips easily into the trappings of his iconic screen presence. Tired, tough, and temperate, Dunn has exercised perhaps too much caution since a long ago fight took the eye of his best friend Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman, providing another voiceover that flat out would not work if anybody else tried to deliver the lines). The two men pass most of their days looking over young fighters both talented and hopeless.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a poor waitress with drive and discipline that could outpace nearly any U.S. Marine, shows up one day and refuses to leave Dunn alone until he agrees to train her. Maggie recognizes something special in Frank, and it is merely a matter of time before the old salt is caught up in the thrill of teaching a gifted pupil. Against all odds, Maggie begins a meteoric ascent in the ring that offers Dunn a delectable taste of glory. As they spend more and more time together, a close relationship develops between Dunn and Maggie, and Eastwood underscores the bittersweet connection with a minor subplot that quietly reveals a broken bond between Dunn and his grown-up daughter, who refuses every letter he tries to send to her.

“Million Dollar Baby” has raised the ire of groups that feel Eastwood’s story devalues life (a devastating turn of events takes place during the course of the movie that completely refocuses all narrative concerns), but this misplaced suggestion fails to account for specific circumstances – driven by the fierce individuality and strength of the characters – and instead depends upon a sweeping generality. Ironically, Eastwood’s own conservative identity criss-crosses with several themes, and if any major element is worthy of criticism, it is the ham-fisted depiction of Maggie’s welfare-dependent family.

The plot point to which many object has appeared in other tales, and Eastwood as director and storyteller clearly respects the central trio (virtually the entire movie keeps them front and center) enough to always see them as unique persons. Not many mainstream moviemakers (Kubrick is one of the few who comes to mind) have been as willing as Eastwood to flirt with introspective self-doubt, personal failure, cruelty and despair. The beauty of “Million Dollar Baby” is that the film never goes too far down that path: it will surely not be mistaken for a feel-good movie, but it also refuses to succumb to total desolation.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/7/05.