Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ethan Frome (1993)

Edith Wharton is not a writer I'm very familiar with though I enjoyed Martin Scorsese's elegantly stagy 1993 adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. The same year, British director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) released his adaptation of Ethan Frome, a tale of emotional and psychological entrapment. Madden's film starred Liam Neeson as Ethan Frome; Joan Allen as his distant cousin and later wife Zeena Frome; and Patricia Arquette as Zeena's distant cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with the couple after Zeena falls ill of a host of mysterious ailments. Set around the turn of the 20th century in the snow-covered back country of fictitious Starkfield, Massachusetts, the film opens with a new preacher (Tate Donovan) arriving at this frigid outpost and seeing a grossly hobbled Ethan Frome trudging through the snow. He begins inquiries into this strange, broken man but is told by townspeople to leave the Fromes alone. Undeterred, the preacher goes to the Frome house and hires Ethan as a driver, to model Christian charity to his flock. After being snowed in at the Frome's hovel one night, the preacher becomes even more insistent on knowing the story of this sad and isolated man. How did he come to be so bent and miserable. An acquaintance of the Fromes'  weaves the sad but morbidly fascinating tale of love, duty and disappointment. The three principals (Neeson, Allen and Arquette) give solid performances (especially Allen, a personal favorite of mine) in a film that probes pretty deeply into the core of human despair. Highly recommended but the story, for those unfamiliar, is extraordinarily bleak.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson is a beguiling film that's a study in the art of beguilement. The artist under consideration is Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a terrific Bill Murray) and the object of his attention is a distant cousin, Daisy, (Laura Linney in a wonderfully nuanced performance) who is beckoned by FDR's mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to come to the family home on the Hudson to "entertain" the president while Eleanor (Olivia Williams) is otherwise occupied. It soon becomes apparent how much "entertaining" the president needs and soon Daisy is his constant companion and occasional sleepover mate. Daisy is enamored of and devoted to the charismatic president, who is trying to lead the country through the agonizing depths of what we now call the Great Depression. But her long-held secret relationship with Roosevelt, much like FDR's physical condition, was shielded from public scrutiny. It was understood and accepted, even by the president's other paramours. The central action of this beautiful and revealing motion picture is a visit to the Roosevelt estate by King George (Samuel  West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), the parents of the current British monarch, in 1939 to ask America for help in fending off the inevitable attack from Nazi Germany. The royal visit is a festival of diplomatic near-disasters and faux pas but also includes a  tremendously insightful tete-a-tete between the two world leaders -- one of the finest bits of acting I've seen in a while. Michell, who I only know from his films Changing Lanes (2002) and Notting Hill (1999), has an marvelous eye for period detail, a mischievous wit, and a narrative intelligence that gently reveals what much of world is only now coming to know -- that a much beloved U.S. president, a historic icon and international hero was, in fact, a cad and scoundrel. It's a marvelous tale well-told. Recommended but the subject matter is mature.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Of Their Times

The expression "a product of his time" re Strom Thurmond has been circulating since Mrs. Essie Mae Washington Williams' first announcement that she was the daughter of the senator and his family's housekeeper. But in how many ways was SHE heself a product of her time? My foster mother was teaching at Claflin University just next to S.C. State University when Mrs. Washington Williams was a student there. I asked my foster mother if she had known about Mrs. Washington Williams during those days. She said nearly everyone knew she was Thurmond's daughter but no one EVER said anything about it openly. She described Mrs. Washington Williams as pleasant and dignified. I couldn't get from my foster mother, she was in her late '80s at the time we were talking, why this was the case -- respect? fear?. She wouldn't or couldn't say. I always find myself going back to the fact that it was NOT uncommon for prominent white men to have children by black women back in the day. Some of the children benefited from that paternity but many (most?) were marginalized and without a true place on either side of the color line. And that is what made the mulatto of literature and film so "tragic."

Side Effects

I am unapologetic in my affection for Steven Soderbergh's work. I cannot name a feature film he's directed that I've seen that I did not enjoy -- some more than others, of course, but every one of them I found smart, swift and entertaining. I also thought his collaborative work with George Clooney, the HBO mini-series K Street, was genius. I was in the Soderbergh fan club from 1989's Sex Lies and Videotapes on (though I decided not to see last year's male stripper fantasia Magic Mike because I was getting dangerously close to Channing Tatum fatigue). Even though Tatum was a member of poster quartet for Soderbergh's Side Effects, I went into the picture hoping the woodenness of "the sexiest man in Hollywood" (?) would be offset by Jude Law's ineluctably enticing charisma, Rooney Mara's hypnotic intensity and Catherine Zeta-Jones unvarnished beauty. And it was. But also the Fates were kind as Tatum, an ex-con white color criminal married to an unaccountably depressed woman (Mara), is dispatched in true Hitchcockian fashion in the first reel by his sleepwalking bride, who is having trouble getting adjusted to new meds prescribed by her distracted shrink (Law). The script, by veteran film scrivener Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant, The Bourne Ultimatum), is arch and cagey, and brimming with misdirection and sly reveals. It's not quite Mamet in the area of the double-cross but it's pretty darn close. I loved it. Highly recommendation but not for the kiddies.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Floyd Collins

Nearly 90 years ago, a Kentucky caver got trapped underground and the media carnival that sprang up around his entrapment led to a Pulitzer Prize for a diminuitive reporter named William "Skeets" Miller, who filed daily first-person dispatc...hes for the Courier-Journal throughout Collins' entombment. Floyd Collins died in the cave on Feb. 13, 1925, just days before rescuers were able to reach him. His tragic story was turned into a scathing film by Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole, in 1951 and an Off-Broadway musical in 1996. I've used Brucker and Murray's book about Collins, Trapped: The Story of Floyd Collins, in my classes.


  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...