Doodad Kind of Town

Where am I? What have I been Watching???
June 13, 2008, 12:34 am
Filed under: Blogging to China

I never meant to be gone this long. Honest.

And I really don’t want to write another post about how stressed and overworked I’ve been, although that’s the reason I’ve made very few appearances in the blogosphere as late.

So here’s are a few notes on what I’ve been watching in my (limited) spare time. I hope there will be more to come shortly.

As previously mentioned, I have a trip to China coming up soon. (In fact, two weeks from right now, I’ll be soaring somewhere over the north Pacific, hopefully sound asleep, on my way to Beijing.) Like any good cinephile, I’ve been preparing for my trip by rewatching the movies that made me want to travel to China in the first place.

“The Last Emperor” is certainly one of those. I first saw it in the spring of 1988 in a Tampa, Florida movie theatre. I was vacationing with friends in nearby St. Petersburg when a day of rainstorms pre-empted our beach plans, so we headed to a movie theatre to see the film which had just won the Oscar for Best Picture. Besides the boatload of awards it received, “The Last Emperor” is also famed for being the first film ever made inside the Forbidden City, the former imperial palace compound in Beijing. I was awed by the film when I first saw it, and vowed that one day I would visit the Forbidden City myself.

Rewatching “The Last Emperor” for the first time in twenty years, I was a little less awed. Not that it wasn’t a really good movie, but – to borrow a phrase coined by Rachel at Rachel’s Reel Reviews about “Amadeus” – it was “a masterpiece by the numbers.” I mean, it’s the kind of movie that practically hands itself an Oscar: stately, impeccably acted, filled with historical events and Big Important Themes, beautiful to look at, and with a soaring musical score that swells up on cue at key dramatic moments. It impressed me, it informed me, and it made me a little more excited about going to China. But it didn’t move me too deeply. Need I say that the disk I didn’t watch – the 3-and-3/4-hour, made-for-European-TV version – is still sitting in its unopened Netflix envelope. I just don’t have the heart to tackle this epic story again.

“Savage Grace” (currently available through IFC in Theaters) deals with themes of adultery, incest and murder . But for all that, it’s a strangely chilly, bloodless affair. It’s too dispassionate to be a cautionary tale and too removed from its characters to generate our sympathy.

It is, however, a true story, and that gives one pause. Julianne Moore plays Barbara Daly Bakeland, a former actress who married the heir to the Bakelite plastics fortune (played by Stephen Dillane). Dillane is a cold and cruel husband, stubbornly resistant to his wife’s flirtation and manipulative charms. So when a son comes along, Barbara focuses all her emotional neediness and longing on him. Eventually that son (played as an adult by Eddie Redmayne) becomes more of a husband to Barbara than his father was.

This is the kind of movie where civilized, articulate characters repeatedly enact a sort of emotional violence upon one another; their words are cutting and vicious, even if their behavior is otherwise impeccable. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t “All About Eve.” Eventually the verbal violence escalates into a shocking act of physical violence. Actually what’s shocking about that climactic scene isn’t the act itself so much as the incredibly deadpan way it’s portrayed. And that’s pretty much characteristic of the film as a whole. Moore and Dillane are supremely dysfunctional as both spouses and parents, but director Tom Kalin stages their scenes with no indication that we should either scorn or pity them. He simply observes their bad behavior without comment.

And that isn’t a particularly effective way of handling the material. There’s a startling scene late in the film which depicts an act of incest between mother and son at excruciating length. But that scene wasn’t one-tenth as powerful or shocking to me as was Angela Lansbury planting her sudden, impassioned kiss on Laurence Harvey in “The Manchurian Candidate.” “Savage Grace” could have benefitted from a similarly judicious hand with its sensationalitic elements.

Moore is usually skilled at playing women whose inner turmoil lurks just beneath a veneer of civilized charm (think “Safe,” “Far from Heaven,” even “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”), but even she seems at sea here. I never got a clear handle on what drove Barbara or where she went wrong, and I don’t think Moore did either. In fact, none of the characters seem to have an inner life to speak of, nor a clearly discernible motive for their actions.

I suppose a movie doesn’t always have to have a point, but it should have a point of view. “Savage Grace” suffers for the lack of one.

4 Comments so far
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Hey, PatI absolutely get it. Life often gets in the way of blogging (as well it should). But I’m happy to see you back!

Comment by Nayana Anthony

Pat’s back! I know what you mean about busy (though more for social and family obligations, rather than work). Last week was my husband’s b-day, next week is mine, and the week after that is our anniversary. Then we have a wedding to go to in another state tomorrow, so it’s a weekend out of town, just like it was two weekends ago. I sat down to watch “Beowulf” last night, not b/c I had a strong desire to see it, but just because I had it lying around and I wanted to get a review written to post this weekend whilst I’m busy. I feel so cheap.Anyway, thanks for the shout out and the warning against “Savage Grace.” Another movie to add to Moore’s list of characters living a lie would be “The Hours.” I must ask “Is she being typecast or as she simply settled into a comfort zone?”

Comment by Rachel

Few things in life should take a backseat to blogging, so don’t even worry about it.I remember seeing The Last Emperor in the theater when I was like 6 or 7. Don’t know why parents dragged me along to that, but I don’t remember much about it. Julianne Moore…yeah…not so much. AT ALL. Here’s a ridiculous character (and performance): her in Freedomland.

Comment by Daniel G.

nayana – Thanks, it’s good to be back!Rachel – Sound like you are busy -hope you have safe travels this weekend. As for Moore, I do think she plays these kinds of roles very well, so perhaps she is typecast. But I’d like to see what other tricks she has up her sleeve. I have the same thoughts about Glenn Close who, ever since “Fatal Attraction,” seems to attract a lot of coolly evil types. Again, she does those roles really well, but what else can she do?Daniel – I actually like Julianne Moore, but she does occasionally embarass herself. I’ve never seen “Freedomland,” but I thought her performance in “Magnolia” was by far the weakest in the movie. Her scene with Michael Murphy office was SOOO ridiculously overacted.

Comment by Pat

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