Doodad Kind of Town

Labor Day Weekend Movie Diary, Part 1
September 5, 2010, 4:16 pm
Filed under: George Clooney, Kenneth Branagh

Friday, September 3:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

 Kenneth’s Branagh’s gloriously nutty take on the classic horror film proves to be a ravishing, if overdressed, period piece with feverish performances by (elsewhere) very fine actors who leave no piece of the gorgeous scenery unchewed.   Each and every scene is risibly overwrought, and Branagh fully indulges his penchant for grandiose, distracting camerawork.  (Fast-moving, 360-degree shots are used so many times that their dramatic impact is lost entirely, and you wind up feeling as though you are intermittently watching the film from a Tilt-a-Whirl car.) In one scene, the camera swoops in – apparently from the upper reaches of the stratosphere – to close in on a lone figure trekking across a vast expanse of Alpine snow, and it plays like a wintertime version of  The Sound of Music‘s prologue.  I half expected the character (Robert DeNiro as the monster, hamming it up behind stunningly grotesque make-up) to start twirling as the shot closed in on him and singing that “the hills are alive!!!!” The shot is breathtaking – and breathtakingly silly – all at once.  As is the rest of the film.

The Last Station 

Michael Hoffman’s comedy/drama on Tolstoy’s last days – and the fight between his wife and the members of the “Tolstoyan” movement over his will – is a vastly entertaining trifle thanks to the masterly performances by all involved.  Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy wears both his exhausted sadness and fleeting moments of joy with impressive lightness, while Helen Mirren finds layers of tenderness and grief within in a role that could all too easily have been played for shrill, comic desperation alone. 

But greatness from Mirren and Plummer is certainly no surprise, and between them, they’ve garnered enough award nominations for these roles to underscore that point.  Instead, I found myself admiring  another, unheralded performance in The Last Station. 

James McAvoy is a reliable and somewhat underrated actor whose gift for playing the thankless ‘witness to history’ role was well-demonstrated opposite Forrest Whitaker’s terrifying Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  Here McAvoy plays a young emissary from the Tolstoyan movement, sent to accompany Tolstoy is his final days to ensure that the rights to the eminent author’s works are passed to the Russian people rather than kept by his conniving wife.  Instead his character becomes a trusted and sympathetic confidant to both Tolstoys, and it’s McAvoy’s nuanced and generous performance that helps the audience to sympathize with and love both those characters, even at their most monstrous and irrational moments.  I’ve written before about “stealth performers,” the kind of actors whose quiet brilliance sneaks up on you in the midst of the more histrionic performances that surround them.  McAvoy is definitely one of those performers.

Saturday, September 4

The American

Surprise, surprise, surprise!!

George Clooney’s latest star vehicle turns out to not be a multiplex-friendly action/suspense yarn in the mode of the “Bourne” franchise, but rather a moody, contemplative European art film.  Much to the consternation of the audience with which I saw The American, I might add.  You could actually hear the murmurs of “What the hell?” as the audience shuffled out during the closing credits.  The dingbat couple next to me, who kept giggling through the sex scenes, actually got up and left at the 2/3 mark.  And they weren’t the only ones.

That being said, let us remember that European art films aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be, and though I admired the spare and calculatedly weary tone of The American, I found it a bit difficult to get through.  The film takes its sweet time establishing the day-to-day details of Clooney’s existence in a tucked-away Italian village.  His performance as a burned-out hit man working in secret is contained and controlled to the point of near-tedium.  The film put me in mind of nothing so much as mid-tier, late-period Antonioni.  Which is admirable, but still, you know, mid-tier as opposed to top-tier (i.e. The Passenger as opposed to Blow Up.)

One interesting feature: there is absolutely no musical score until near the very end, when it suddenly cranks up a run-of-the-mill, suspense-building musical underscoring.  This baffled me.  I asked my boyfriend afterwards, “Why do think they suddenly inserted music at the end of the movie?”  His reply? “To keep Americans awake and in their seats.”  He’s a smart cookie, that man.

Movies I Watch Over and Over: "Tootsie" and "A Midwinter’s Tale"
November 20, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Kenneth Branagh

So, I’m watching the new “AFI Top 100 Movies of All Time” special a few weeks ago, and there at Number 69 is one of my top “comfort flicks” – the Dustin Hoffman cross-dressing comedy “Tootsie.”

And there’s Dustin himself talking about the movie, and unloading the same pile of self-righteous crap that he was ladling out in interviews when “Tootsie” was released 25 years ago. Bear with me here, I’m quoting from memory, so this won’t be verbatim:

“I realized …. that I am an interesting woman. (starts to get a little emotional). And I realized that there are all kinds of interesting women… that I never got to know… because of this (a bit more emotional now) superficial, this outside that didn’t fit the ideal of what I was supposed to be interested in. (Long pause as he struggles to hold back the tears) To me…. that was never a comedy!”

Oh, for the love of God…

Every time Hoffman cranks up his “I understand women” sermon, I begin to wonder if he actually saw the movie he’s talking about. ‘Cause his character, Michael Dorsey, actually walks off into the sunset at the end of the picture…. with JESSICA LANGE! I’m thinkin’ that the fact you can fall in love with an angelically beautiful, non-threatening, doe-eyed blonde probably does NOT, in and of itself, earn you a feminist badge of honor. Your average chauvinistic schmo could do that. (Now if he’d fallen for the middle-aged soap opera producer played by Dorothy Belack, that might be worth the cover of “Ms.”)

And, frankly, it’s not like his female alter ego, Dorothy Michaels, isn’t getting any action. Plenty of men find her more than interesting; by the film’s 11th hour, she’s practically beating ’em off with a stick! (She gets a marriage proposal and a serenade beneath her window on the same night! From two different guys! Ladies, when’s the last time that happened to you?)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Tootsie” is no more about gender politics than “Broadcast News” was about broadcast news. It’s a brilliant romantic comedy, with some delightful observations about actors and what they do for their craft. It’s also a little bit about how badly some men treat women and the reasons women put up with it – but no one is putting on armor and waging a “battle of the sexes” here. Despite what Hoffman says, “Tootsie” is a comedy.

By now, I’m sure most people know the plot: Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey is a notoriously difficult actor, so unemployable that he resorts to dressing in drag and auditioning for the part of a female hospital administrator on a soap opera. He wins the part, and soon falls for his co-star (Lange, who is all sweetness, softness and light). And there begins his dilemma: he has the role of a lifetime, and doesn’t want to risk losing it – but he also wants Lange.

Hoffman is funny as hell, but his Dorsey character is just as much a self-serious blowhard as he is in real life. So thank God there is a terrific cast of supporting actors who balance out his heavy-handedness with a light, goofy touch. Terri Garr, his neurotic actress friend, and Bill Murray, as his deadpan-hilarious playwright roommate are especially funny.

And the writing – oh, God, the writing! It’s intelligent comedy heaven! Written by comedy greats Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart (with, according to IMDB, uncredited contributions from Barry Levinson and Elaine May.) That’s a ‘dream team,’ folks. Remember Michael’s outburst to his agent (after being fired from playing a tomato): “I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber… I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass.!”

Of some of Dorothy’s feminist outbursts on the soap opera: (fending off an unwanted kiss from a doctor) “I will run this hospital with my head, not my lips!” Or this advice to a nurse who’s been sexually harassed: “I think I’m gonna give every nurse on this floor an electric cattle prod, and just instruct them to just zap him in his badoobies. ” Ever hear lines like that on “All My Children”?

Come to think of it, Hoffman has a lot of ‘outbursts’ in this movie.

On a kinder, gentler note:

Another lovely, warm-hearted film about actors and what they go through for their craft comes from British director Kenneth Branagh, in one of his (undeservedly) lesser-known efforts.

“A Midwinter’s Tale” is the daft and delightful story of a ragtag little troupe of actors struggling to mount a production of “Hamlet” in an old country church on Christmas Eve.

Shot on a shoestring in black-and-white, with a mostly star-free cast (Joan Collins and Jennifer Saunders have cameos), this film was made just prior to Branagh’s super-sized, 4.5 hour epic film of “Hamlet.” It must have given him a nice, happy little warm-up to the gargantuan task awaiting him. (Many of the actors in “A Midwinter’s Tale” also appear in “Hamlet.”)

I have several years of community theatre acting experience (and one church-basement Shakespeare production, “Henry IV, Part 1,”) behind me, so this movie is a bit nostalgic for me. Ah, the frantic nights spent finishing the set, the actors who never quite learn their lines, the worry that no audience will materialize. Been there, done that. And yet, there is no feeling quite so magical as when the show opens, and everything inexplicably falls into the place: the seats are filled, the laughs come in the right places, the applause happens – it’s just magic.

“A Midwinter’s Tale” is about that magic, but it’s also about the ridiculousness of it all. Noel Coward’s “Why Must the Show Go On?” plays throughout an opening montage of audition scenes which are pretty much on a par with the audition scenes in “Waiting for Guffman,” if not worse. Once the play is cast and rehearsals are underway, Branagh gives pretty much every character a chance to make an ass of themselves, and every possible set/casting/costume/acting mishap to take place. But a happy ending is in store, and every character eventually gets his or her chance to shine.

Branagh’s love for theatre and the people who create it imbues this film with a gentle sweetness of spirit that is hard to resist. “A Midwinter’s Tale” is the perfect little cheerer-upper for anyone’s bleak midwinter.

(Photo credits:,