Doodad Kind of Town

Movies Viewed from the Lazy Boy
March 30, 2008, 5:52 pm
Filed under: Romantic Comedies

Over the last several days, I’ve been nursing a nasty, lingering head cold -spending hours sprawled in the recliner, a blanket over me, a steaming mug of Thera-Flu in my hand, and a movie playing on the television. Here’s what I’ve been watching:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

I have three regrets about this film:

1) I wish I had seen it in a theatre. The cinematography is obviously amazing, but not experienced to its best advantage when letterboxed on a 27-inch screen.

2) I wish this film had been given its proper due when it was released in late 2007. Maybe it would have been in theatres longer. It disappeared from my local multiplex in one week, and I didn’t rush out to see it because I paid too much attention to Stephanie Zacharek’s wisecracking, dismissive review on Salon. Yes, it’s slow and long – but director/writer Andrew Dominik (and co-writer Ron Hansen, on whose novel the film is based) are more invested in creating mood and tone than telling a rip-cracking story. If you’re open to where the film takes you, there is an emotional payoff.

3) I wish Brad Pitt had been given more attention for his performance as Jesse James. Don’t get me wrong, Casey Affleck is great and completely deserved his Oscar nod. (Affleck really came into his own last year with this film and “Gone Baby Gone.”) But Pitt is equally impressive as the burned-out gunslinger, and a great foil for Affleck. There’s an unpredictability in Pitt’s acting; you hang on his every silence and wary stare with anxious anticipation (Will he laugh? Will he kill? Will he walk away?) – yet every choice he makes ultimately heightens and illuminates James’ weariness and increasing paranoia.

“2 Days in Paris”

A neurotic romantic comedy, that evokes Woody Allen’s late ’70s work, almost without trying. Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg have reached that point in their relationship where the romance has faded. Faced daily with each other’s foilbles and flaws, their nonstop banter is a series of tetchy exchanges, with occasional bursts of shared humor, if not warmth. Following a trip to Venice, they spend a couple of days with Delpy’s parents in Paris before returning to New York – days filled with comic mishaps and bickering, as Delpy runs into former lovers and argues with cab drivers everywhere they go, and Goldberg sees new sides of her that he can’t quite accept. Delpy (who not only wrote and directed, but cast her real-life mom and dad in the roles of her character’s parents) tweaks the stereotypical notions that both the French and Americans have of one another. (The French are obsessed with sex and art; Americans are culture-starved and eat too many fast-food burgers.) She also directly invokes the spirit of Woody Allen into her own role, by wearing a large pair of heavy, black-rimmed, Allenesque eyeglasses for long stretches of the film when she supposedly cannot find her contact lenses.

The film feels sprightly and light for most of the way, and it’s to both Delpy and Goldberg’s credit that their characters remain sympathetic and engaging, even as they argue, whine and put their less-than-likable sides on full display. The film turns melancholy in its closing scenes, offering insight into the challenges of true intimacy and the sacrifices we make to keep long-term commitments. But this change in tone doesn’t feel forced. Instead, it brings “2 Days in Paris” to a hopeful and satisfying conclusion.


“Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!”

This is some of favorite movie dialogue of all time. Nicholas Cage has never been my idea of a romantic film hero, and yet he completely wins me over with this passionate entreaty to Cher in “Moonstruck.”

I forgot just how much how I love this movie until I happened upon it on TV Land over the weekend. For me “Moonstruck” is one of the most charming and romantic films ever made, and it’s some of the best work that both Cage and Cher have ever done. Of course, the downside of watching movies on commercial television is that “non essential” scenes are too often trimmed so that the film can run in a two-hour slot with commercials. Missing from this showing of “Moonstruck” was the scene where Loretta comes home from her pre-date salon-and-shopping trip, pours a glass of wine, puts on music, and spreads out her new purchases – a sexy dress, killer red velvet heels- contemplating them and the reckless, romantic choice she’s about to make (going to the opera with her fiancee’s lovestruck brother.) It’s not a scene that advances the plot, but it heightens our anticipation of Loretta’s transformation, and the film suffers a little for its exclusion.

I also have a real fondness for John Mahoney, in a small but memorable role. As the hapless college professor who much-younger dates invariably storm away in the middle of dinner(usually after tossing a glass of water in his face), Mahoney is touchingly clueless and yearning. His brief scenes with Olympia Dukakis provide a subtle undercurrent of melancholy in an otherwise joyous film.

Light at the End of the Tunnel ! Things I’m Looking Forward To
March 26, 2008, 12:33 am
Filed under: George Clooney, Mathieu Amalric, Musicals, Sex and the City, Tina Fey

As I’ve mentioned several times recently, my job and the rest of my life have been kind of kicking my butt lately. I haven’t had much time to see movies or much to blog about.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. With Lent and Easter now over, my church choir commitments have lessened, and the work project I’ve been killing myself over is winding down.

At last, I can get back to the movies!!! And here are some of the things I’m looking forward to:

1. “Invitation to the Dance” Movie Blogathon

Marilyn over at Ferdy on Films is hosting a Dance Movie Blogathon from May 4 to May 10. Look forward to many fine and entertaining posts from fellow movie bloggers. I’ll be contributing a piece myself.

I want to be a dancer in my next life – ’cause in my current life, dance skills are among the talents I definitively do not possess. (During my years of community theatre performing, I heard one thing consistently from choreographers: “Honey, we’re going to put you in the back row.” I used to tell people I was the poster child for the American Society of the Dance Impaired.) Not surprisingly, I have great admiration for those who can do magnificently what I cannot. So I’m looking forward to everyone’s remembrances of great moments in the movies’ dance history.

2. “Leatherheads”

It’s a George Clooney movie. What other reason does a girl need? Opens April 4.

3. “Baby Mama”

If there was a Funniest Woman on the Planet award, Tina Fey would win hands down – and Amy Poehler would be one of the closest runners-up. Unfortunately, Fey didn’t write this one, but that won’t stop me from being there on opening weekend. (April 24)

4. “Heartbeat Detector”

A dark, corporate thriller that Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir calls ” ‘Michael Clayton’ on Nazi-grade Acid.” It stars Mathieu Amalric (of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and it sounds fantastic. Unfortunately, it may be a long wait; the soonest I could find a screeing of “Heartbeat Detector” is at the Chicago International Film Festival – in October.

(BTW – If you aren’t reading O’Hehir’s “Beyond the Multiplex” blog, you should start now.)

5. “Sex and the City: The Movie”

I have a confession to make: I LOVED “Sex and the City.” I even still watch the crappy, hacked-to-pieces reruns on TBS. I’ll concede that some of the criticisms of “SATC” are justified. Over its five-year run, it did devolve from sharp-edged, envelope-pushing social satire into a glossy compendium of Madison Avenue product placements. (I don’t think the name ‘Manolo Blahnik’ was dropped once in the show’s first season.) And Sarah Jessica Parker’s portrayal of Carrie Bradshaw ran off the rails towards the end, with her early edginess giving way to a dumbed-down shtick of incessant squeals, giggles, and bad puns.

But despite the characters’ too-frequent trips to Barney’s and Carrie’s overused “today, I had a thought…” voiceovers, there was some damn fine writing and acting in that series, and the four leads created full-bodied and indelible characters that I’m looking forward to spending time with again. “Sex and the City” made me laugh and cry – and, yes, also influenced my shoe-buying habits. And I’ll be in the audience on the movie’s opening weekend.

"Love Songs"
March 21, 2008, 8:37 pm
Filed under: Musicals

I first became aware of “Love Songs” from last week’s review on Salon, where critic Andrew O’Hehir dubbed it “Menage a Trois: The Musical!”

If only it were that much fun.

Director/writer Christoper Honore has concocted a dreamy, slight little pop operetta that apparently borrows heavily from the traditions of Truffaut, Godard and Jacque Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. I say “apparently”, because my own experience of those influential directors and films is spotty and incomplete. But I’ll pass on to you that background information (from O’Hehir’s and other reviews) in the hopes it may enhance your experience of “Love Songs.” Myself, I felt I was missing something.

At the outset, “Love Songs” is certainly charming and engaging enough. There are these three young people you see – Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), Alice (Clotilde Hesme) and Ismael (Louis Garrel) living and sleeping together in a playful, if sometimes uneasy threesome. Alice declares herself both asexual and attracted to Julie, Ismael professes happy adoration for both women, and Julie veers between a sophisticated acceptance of the situation and feelings of deep hurt. (Sagnier, who plays Julie, bears a passing resemblance to Chole Sevigny, and – like Sevigny, – seems limited to a small range of mopey, hangdog facial expressions.) Nevertheless, it’s all played with a bubbly Gallic sophistication. (In one scene, the three are lined up in bed, each reading a book. As the camera pans across them, we see the titles. Ismael reads “Perfect Happiness,” Julie reads “Voluptuous Pleasure,” Alice reads a sober tome titled “Politics.”)

But the tone of the film changes abruptly when (WARNING – SPOILER AHEAD), Julie dies suddenly outside a Parisian nightclub, turning a carefree evening out into a tragic one within moments. The remaining two-thirds of the film become a meditation on grief and mourning and the possibility of finding new love. And despite how promising that might sound, the latter part of the film is far less interesting. Gone is the fizzy chemistry between the three young lovers. Now we have endless scenes of the broody Ismael and others singing sad, wistful Europop ballads, often in grey and rainy locales -songs that all pretty much sound the same with fuzzy-headed lyrics that have no insights about loss or grief. Between the sad songs, the survivors attempt to form new relationships, and Julie’s older sister (Chiarra Mastroianni) practically moves into Ismael’s apartment in some misguided attempt to gain closure for both herself and him.

If you can hold out for the final scene, however, you’ll get the poweful emotional payoff this story demands. I won’t reveal the details, but the film ends with Ismael opening his heart to a new love, a memorable song (the new lover begs “Love me less, but for a longer time.”) and a heart-stopping visual image which beautifully encapsulates both the thrill and the risk of learning to love again.

A Quick Dispatch from Doodad Town
March 19, 2008, 1:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Between Holy Week church choir commitments and a killer load of work at the office, I’ve been too exhausted and stretched too thin to do much moviegoing or reviewing lately.

But I’m not ready to roll up the streets of this Doodad Kind of Town just yet. Here’s my lazy list of recent movie-related activity.

— On Saturday, my friend, Mary Ann, and I attended a Hollywood Collector’s Show. These events always take place in the meeting rooms of some local chain hotel. Distributors set up booths and sell movie posters, autographs, stills, books, and other collectibles. There are also a number of faded celebrities in attendance who will autograph memorabilia or pose for pictures – but only at a price.

Mary Ann managed to surreptitiously snap a cell phone photo of Erik Estrada (of TV’s “CHips” fame) without ponying up the required $20. But she didn’t have the same luck with Margot Kidder; the erstwhile Lois Lane politely told her “not unless you pay” before she could press the button.

Val Kilmer had been the advertised headliner amongst the otherwise mostly sub-D-list celebrities, but he failed to show. Besides Kidder and Estrada, the lineup consisted mainly of actors and actresses from TV shows of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

At past shows, I have chatted with 1940’s child stars Margaret O’ Brien and Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). I also once briefly met and shook hands with the late Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel (who was not a featured celebrity, but – like me – just there to shop.)

Mary Ann came away with a nicely framed Disney animation cell featuring Tinkerbell, while I brought home nothing but an autographed first edition of gossip columnist Liz Smith’s autobiography and a special edition DVD of “Mommie Dearest.” All in all, it was a bit of a bust.

— There’s a new batch of films on IFC OnDemand this month, so when I’m too tired to get to a multiplex, at least I can see something new. Unfortunately, I chose badly this weekend.

“Beautiful Ohio” – yet unreleased in theaters – marks the directorial debut of Chad Lowe (yes, that’d be the former Mr. Hilary Swank and Rob’s little brother.) It gives me no joy to tell you that’s it’s a strange, nearly incomprehensible mess. The fact that it hasn’t been released may be a mercy.

“Beautiful Ohio” is a coming-of-age story and a dysfunctional family drama all in one. Set in Cleveland in the early 1970s, it centers on the family of teenage math prodigy, Clive Messerman(David Call). We know Clive is a genius because he’s moody and sullen and his hair falls over his eyes and he speaks to his friend, Elliott, in what appears to be a made-up language. His sensitive younger brother, William (Brett Davern), both adores and envies him, and tries to keep everyone happy. Their father is an insurance salesman who fancies himself a failed poet or a failed intellectual or a failed something – it’s kind of hard to tell and I’m not sure even the screenwriter has a solid idea of what this man originally intended to be. William Hurt plays him as though he is perpetually stoned and in his own world (which makes the scene in which he actually does get stoned a bit hard to distinguish from the rest of his life.) Rita Wilson is the brittle, competitive mother, who pins all her hopes on Clive winning a state math championship.

Both Hurt’s and Wilson’s characters are deeply unlikable, unsympathetic – and finally incomplete. They have plenty of actorly tics and eccentricities, but there’s no discernible subtext for their behaviors and no sense of a relationship history between the two of them. Call’s moody genius and Davern’s sweet, sensitive young man are similarly hollow characters.

And what the film lacks in thoughtful characterization, it does NOT make up for in plot. The screenplay seems to have been assembled in some alternative, bizzarro universe, very much unlike our own. Math contests improbably take place in gymnasiums with contestants sitting at desks in a small circle, and parents and friends watching from the bleachers in rapt attention as they struggle through theoretical equations. (Or whatever they struggle through – I always hated math myself.) Sometimes, though, spectators aren’t allowed at all. During one contest, Clive’s mother, brother and girlfriend (Michelle Trachtenberg) sit outside on the school steps shivering and clutching hot thermoses of coffee in the bitter Cleveland winter. Surely they could have hung out in the hallway?! )

For reasons that are never explained, Trachtenberg secretly moves into the Messerman’s basement, sleeping on a mattress and allowing William to sneak her food from the kitchen. No one seems to catch on – or to care, at least.

And the film’s “surprise” ending literally comes out of nowhere. It’s obviously meant to pack a huge emotional wallop, but all it does is frustrate and baffle you in a “where the hell did THAT come from?” way. (And the climatic revelation scene is particularly poorly directed, with a reaction shot of Clive that lasted so long, I thought my cable transmission had gone dead.)

And if “Beautiful Ohio” was written by space aliens, it was surely edited by a madman. There are some truly bizarre cutaways to reaction shots of Rita Wilson scattered throughout this film, most of which seem to have nothing to do with the scene they’re inserted into. One of the strangest occurs after the above-mentioned scene on the school steps. There is a direct cut from this scene to Clive working on a math problem at a desk, then an abrupt cut to Wilson – now indoors without her hat or coat and gazing intently, ostensibly at her son. But where the hell is she? It’s impossible to tell if she’s in the school or at home, and after this shot, we’ve cut away to a whole new scene.

There’s a germ of a decent film hiding inside “Beautiful Ohio,” but it would take several rewrites – and a director far more skilled than the novice Chad Lowe – to bring it to light.

"Doodad Kind of Town" Celebrates a Birthday!
March 12, 2008, 12:16 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It was one year ago this week that Doodad Kind of Town debuted in the blogosphere.

Although it was inspired by a line from one of my favorite movies (see my banner above), it was not initially a movie blog. It started as a collection of assorted musings and observations on everything from designer shoes and makeup to television news and Fourth of July parades.

But even when the posts started about something else, they tended to come back to movies. (See the parade post above – it started out being about the fourth of July and wound up as a review of “Sicko.”)

It became clear that what I really wanted to blog about was movies – movies I loved, movies I hated, movies that meant something to me or disappointed me. And I wanted to write about them in a very personal way.

So, in November, Doodad Kind of Town officially found its niche.

Movies were the first thing I ever really wanted to write about. As a young teenager, I used to sit at our kitchen table after the dinner dishes were cleared away and pound out reviews on my mom’s old, battered manual typewriter. No one else much read them, but I loved putting my impressions into words, and I dreamed that someday I’d be read. (My idols were Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael. Really.)

Sometimes when I write this blog, I feel like I am still that same movie-crazed kid pounding on the typewriter. Except, now, when I write reviews, they actually get read by other like-minded movie lovers. And, best of all, those movie lovers share their thoughts and enthusiasms with me in return. Being part of a movie-blogging community is a great, fun, rewarding experience I could never have imagined in my pre-internet adolescence.

So.. what do I have to offer the community today?

I blush to tell you that I have not seen an entire movie this week. I have been unable to finish watching two movies that I rented (for very different reasons), and fallen asleep for a good 15 minutes in the middle of another. (I blame that on having to get up too early on the first day of Daylight Savings Time.) So here are some “partial” reviews:

“The Duchess of Langeias”: Not only did I stop watching this movie after about an hour, I managed to fall asleep twice during the hour I was watching – maybe three times, I lost count. And this was several days before we set the clocks forward. It’s from French director, Jacques Rivette, none of whose films I have seen before, although I can identify his as part of the French “New Wave” movement of the 50s and early 60s.

Gilliaume Depardieu plays an 19th century French soldier who falls into obsessive love with a noblewoman who frankly doesn’t merit the intensity of his obsession. As played by Jeanne Balibar, Deparidieu’s love object is neither pretty nor interesting, but rather an ordinary looking, chilly, snippy bitch. There are lots of scenes with a broody, gloomy Depardieu sitting beside Balibar and telling her stories in which she feigns interest before dismissing him coldly. I’m no slouch at reading subtitles, but I could never figure out what the hell his stories were about. There was ZERO chemistry between them, and I had no stake whatsoever in the outcome of their relationship. It was a very easy movie to turn off, even after paying $6.99 for it through OnDemand. From what I’ve read online, audiences have walked out of theaters showing this film in droves, so I feel vindicated in my complete disregard for it. I may have missed something, but I’m not going back to find out.

Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer: My brother has been telling me about this one for years. “It’s really disturbing, but they don’t really show any violence,” is what he told me.

Well, bro’ must have a faulty memory, ’cause there is some violence in this film, although what I saw, admittedly, wasn’t too graphic. But then, I turned it off just before the one-hour mark, when Henry and his pal are initiating the murder of an entire family and capturing it all on video tape. That’s when it all got too creepy and awful for me. (Disclosure: When it comes to violent movies, I’m a total wuss; e.g. -during most of the shower room fight in “Eastern Promises,” I was holding my coat over my eyes.)

“Henry…” is actually a very good movie, and – as my brother will tell you – most of its creepiness is in what it withholds rather than what it shows. For example, you see Henry finishing his lunch at a diner and walking away – then there is an abrupt cut to a shot of a murdered waitress and cook draped over the counter. Michael Rooker, looking very much like the young John Savage, plays Henry in a understated, unspectacular way- with no apparent intensity or craziness- and he’s all the more terrifying for it. Some day, I may steel myself for watching the last half-hour.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Few things are as grating to me as watching a contemporary actress try to pull off a 30’s screwball comedienne role. I love Amy Adams, but even she can’t quite get into that Carole Lombard/Katherine Hepburn/Irene Dunne madcap groove, although she tries with all her might. Her forced giddiness in the first 20 minutes of so of “Miss Pettigrew…” wore me out, so much so that I escaped into a nap.

I don’t honestly know how long I was asleep. All I can tell you is it was daytime in the story when I first nodded off, and by the time I came to, Frances McDormand and Adams were dressed in evening gowns and heading out to a swanky nightclub. Interestingly, though, I was able to follow the plot from that point on without so much as a moment’s confusion – which tells me that beneath the film’s Art Deco’d, jazz-scored frenzy, not much was really going on. But not to be overly uncharitable: what I also woke up to was a considerably toned-down and touching Adams, plus some beautiful work by McDormand and Ciran Hinds. I definitely will get around to seeing the middle of “Miss Pettigrew…” someday.

Of Lent, Choir Rehearsals, and Disappointing Movies
March 6, 2008, 10:51 pm
Filed under: Musicals

Lent is the season of sacrifice, deprivation, and eating fish on Fridays.

And, if you are a member of a church choir, it’s also the time of year when you spend an inordinate amount of time in rehearsal. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday – each requires the performance of special music for the worship service, preceded by many hours of practice time.

And it’s not just the church choir. Friday night rehearsals have also begun for the community choir with whom I’m making an overseas concert trip this summer.

Let’s just say I’m spending more time in the alto section than in the multiplex.

When I have some down time, I’m likely to be relaxing with a flick on the small screen. But that hasn’t been a terribly satisfying pastime as of late. I’ve been re-watching movies I thought I loved, and finding they just don’t do it for me anymore.

Two nights ago, I decided to unwind by watching “Evita” on one of the specialty Encore movie channels. It had been several years since I’d last watched Madonna’s Eva Peron (to borrow a phrase from the original stage production’s advertising) “quietly seduce a nation.” In my recollection “Evita” was entertaining and visually compelling, and Madonna was pretty damn good in the title role. This time around, I found the movie still visually exciting, but I had a whole different opinion of Ms. Ciccone. I blame my dampened enthusiasm on all those choir rehearsals.

Let me explain:

I do not get paid to sing. I perform in these various choirs for free just ’cause I enjoy doing it. I’m not expected to be professional, BUT I am expected not to take a breath in the middle of a phrase. When the choir director says “Don’t take a breath between measures 45 and 46,” I don’t breathe there. As a general rule, you are not supposed to take a breath in a place where, if you were speaking the lyrics rather than singing them, you wouldn’t naturally pause. That’s one thing I’ve learned in over 30 years of choral singing.

Madonna, on the other hand, probably made a gazillion dollars to sing the role of Eva Peron. But she takes a breath after about every three words of every song. Why isn’t she held to higher standards than a lowly church choir alto?

For example, in the song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” Eva sings this lyric: “Call in three months time, and I’ll be fine, I know.”

If you were saying those words to a friend, you would not say them like this:
“Call in three months time (pause) and I’ll be fine (pause) I know.”

But Madonna sings them like that. Which is perplexing to me. With all the Pilates and jogging this bitch does, shouldn’t she have built a pretty capacious set of lungs? Why can’t she get enough air to get through a simple phrase like that?

All through “Evita,” the onscreen Madonna physically projects all the confidence and ambition appropriate to Eva Peron, but her singing voice doesn’t match her physical presence. You can almost feel how nervous she is when she has to get up to a high note. She generally sings like she’s afraid of the music, but determined to give it her all. Something organic to the character goes missing. (Patti LuPone, who played the role on Broadway, isn’t my favorite singer either, to be frank. But Ms. LuPone’s voice is properly trained and powerful, and she can attack a high note fearlessly – appropriate when you’re playing a woman who was fearless and ruthless in her bid for power.)

If you want to see how it should be done, pay attention to Jonathan Pryce, who plays her husband, Juan Peron. He is flawless. Both a far better actor and a far more comfortable singer than Madonna, he interprets his lyrics so believably, that you almost forget he’s singing. His style feels conversational, doesn’t draw attention to itself. You’re watching a character, a person – not a “performance.”

I had even higher hopes for “All About Eve,” which popped up on TCM over the past weekend. While I hadn’t seen it in many years, I remembered it fondly for its witty script and fantastic performances. (And here I’m going to assume you are familiar with this classic, so don’t expect a rehash of the plot.)

I’ll probably be crucified by classic film lovers for saying so, but – 58 years after its initial release – I don’t think “All About Eve” is aging so well.

For want of a better word, I found it flabby. Almost every scene lasted a good minute longer than it needed to; every point made in the dialogue was hammered home just one time too many (Margo is insecure about getting older! Eve is just trying to be helpful! A woman needs a man in her life to be fulfilled! I felt more bludgeoned by these revelations than entertained by them.)

And Anne Baxter’s performance seemed so overwrought and phony to me. Granted she’s playing a phony, and when her ruse is revealed late in the film, she starts being a bit more believable. But up till that point, I kept thinking “Why isn’t anyone catching on to her? These are smart people, and she’s such an obvious schemer!”

Ironically, one of the wittiest performances is also one of the most restrained. George Sanders, who plays the venomous critic, Addison DeWitt, is all relaxed elegance and well-chosen but memorable quips. He isn’t nearly as garrulous or overbearing as most of the other characters, but even in repose, he’s fascinating. And when he speaks, you listen. Sanders’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role still feels richly deserved.

So, perhaps the coming weekend will bring better cinematic experiences. Personally, I’m looking forward to “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” with wonderful Frances McDormand. I’m also hoping to make it to at least one of the following: “In Bruges,” “The Counterfeiters” or “The Band’s Visit.”

What are YOU seeing this weekend?

"The Other Boleyn Girl"
March 2, 2008, 6:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“The Other Boleyn Girl” wouldn’t have been my first choice for weekend multiplex viewing, but I succumbed to peer pressure. And apparently, I was alone in my skepticism, because our huge, stadium-style auditorium was nearly sold out on Saturday night.

We were, in fact, forced to sit in the third row of the front/floor section. And that meant the movie would have to be twice as entertaining as usual, in order for me to get the past the discomfort in my neck from craning to look up at the way-too-close screen.

“The Other Boleyn Girl” did eventually engage me enough to get me past my physical discomfort. But it took awhile.

I felt like we were off to a bad start when, in the opening scene, Sir Thomas Boleyn (Mark Rylance) sums up his younger daughter’s marriage prospects thus: “It takes more than fair looks and a kind heart to get ahead in the world.”

I’m no historian, but I’m fairly sure that phrases like “getting ahead in the world” (with its suggestion of a “rat race” and “climbing the corporate ladder”) were not in the common parlance of the early 16th century. That led to my first eye-roll of the evening, although I will admit it was a bit nit-picky of me. “Getting ahead” (in the sense that we understand it) might not have been on the agenda in the 1530s, but gaining power and prestige through marrying one’s daughters to men of wealth and influence was certainly a concern for some noblemen.

And that’s what this film is all about – men using their womenfolk as pawns in the quest for power. The machinations of Boleyn and his scheming brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk (David Morissey) are particularly offensive to modern sensibilities. It’s the Duke’s plan to offer Boleyn’s elder daughter, Anne (Natalie Portman) as a mistress for Henry VIII, who is unhappy in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Doesn’t sound like a plum assignment to me, but Anne is assured that she will be provided a suitable husband when the king tires of her, plus the Boleyn clan will get in good with the man on the throne. Well, what girl could refuse that?

Anne willingly acquiesces to her uncle’s plan once she lays eyes on the hot, young monarch (Eric Bana). But after she inadvertently offends him, Henry takes a shine to her to her younger sister, Mary, (Scarlett Johansson), a shy, compliant newlywed. It’s Mary then – and not Anne – who is summoned to court to keep the king happy (Mary’s husband is sent off somewhere to keep him out of the way), and the entire Boleyn clan accompanies her. Mary truly loves Henry, and even bears him a son. But during her confinement, Henry gets bored and his attentions wander to back to the bright-eyed, sharp-witted Anne.

It’s apparent early on that every character has a narrowly defined, stereotypical role to play, and no one is encouraged to venture outside his or her assigned box. Johanssen’s Mary is the Bland Good Girl, Portman’s Anne is the Clever, Saucy Vixen. Kristin Scott-Thomas as their mother is the Virtuous Worrywart; her brother, the Evil, Power-Hungry schemer; and her husband, the Spineless, Easily-Led-Astray F*ck-up. The one character who should have been commanding and powerful – King Henry – is just barely interesting. As played by Bana, Henry doesn’t have much in the way of charisma or vitality. He just barely perks up when one or the other of the comely Boleyn belles is around. You almost long for a Charles Laughton-esque caricature of the fat, bellowing monarch with one hand on a turkey drumstick and the other cupped around the breast of a serving girl.

Of course, there are historical inaccuracies. (Every costume drama has them.) In real life, Mary wasn’t the saintly, virginal one – she’d had lovers before her marriage, and was probably older than Anne as well. It’s also telling that Cardinal Wolsey – a major advisor to Henry and the chief negotiator for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine – is nowhere to be found in this film.

Those kinds of omissions are usually made to keep the focus on the love story, but there isn’t a decent love story to be found here. What makes “The Other Boleyn Girl” ultimately quite entertaining are the performances of the actresses – the men don’t give them much to work with, but these sisters are doing it for themselves. Admittedly, Johansson has the more thankless role, and, although her performance is heartfelt and touching, she isn’t given much space to move her character beyond the Good Woman archetype. (And though her ‘fair looks’ are praised throughout, she is actually allowed to look very plain.) But Portman makes a meal of her role; any sparks that fly between her and Bana are largely the result of her delicious line readings and her ready, wicked smile. Given a moment to break our hearts, in her final scene at the chopping block, Portman’s terror and regret are palpable. Almost single-handedly, Portman prevents “The Other Boleyn Girl” from being just another opportunity to catch a nap at the multiplex.