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Renée Zellweger is incandescent in third installment of ‘Bridget Jones’ franchise

Bridget Jones's BabyIn my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a beautiful, confident woman basking in middle-age glory. In the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Renée Zellweger is a glorious goddess. Beautiful, smart, and witty, this Bridget is far more self-assured than the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). And Zellweger plays her with dignity and maturity, even in the more slapstick moments (such as falling face first into a mud puddle, or being carried awkwardly by two men while in labor). While the third film is not the classic the first one was, it’s light years ahead of the mediocre stumble of the second film.

Bridget Jones fans will realize that unlike the first two films, the third isn’t based on a novel. Helen Fielding’s third Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy has a different tone and plot surprises that may alienate some fans. Instead, Fielding teams up with comedic writer Dan Mazer and Renaissance woman Emma Thompson (who has a hilarious cameo as Bridget’s dry ob/gyn) for a wholly new story that has Bridget dealing with pregnancy and romance.

Colin Firth returns as the taciturn and terse Mark Darcy, the man that seems so right for Bridget, yet so wrong. As in the first two films, Mark is often frustratingly stiff and uptight. Like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (the inspiration for Fielding’s works), Mark hides his feelings beneath a hard shell, constructed for self-preservation.

After a chance meeting at a funeral, Bridget learns that Mark is engaged to be married. We learn that in the ensuing decade after Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark had an on again/off again relationship which has ended sadly. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as she would’ve done in the first film, Bridget moves on with her life, partying with her work chum, TV host Miranda (Sarah Solemani), at a music festival. It’s here that we get most of Zellweger’s flair for physical comedy, as she stomps through sodden fields of mud in inappropriate white pumps, before face planting in a field of mud, only to be rescued by handsome American Jack Qwant (Patrick Demspey, charming). The two have a one-night stand, and Bridget leaves happy.

The rom-com gods have Bridget reunite again with Mark at a christening, in which she discovers that he’s leaving his wife. The two share a magical night and make love, and it’s lovely.

That is until she finds out she’s pregnant. The big mystery of the film is who is Bridget’s baby daddy, Mark or Jack? Both men are dreamy candidates and for Bridget it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Fielding, Mazer, and Thompson put together a funny film that manages to be appealing and light, despite its potentially-appalling premise. Though the summary sounds like a British take on Maury, it’s all handled with grace and dignity. And the movie’s funny. Funny as hell. There are great one-liners and even the most absurd situations (Bridget going into labor) are written with humor that we can overlook some of the implausibility.

At the center of it all is Renée Zellweger, who is gifted with a fantastic role, and matches it with a beautiful performance. Her Bridget is slightly bruised and her maturity gives her a hard-earned gravitas. There’s also a lovely poignancy to the performance – Bridget is going through a lot, being pregnant and single (and going through a “geriatric” pregnancy as she’s reminded repeatedly throughout the film), and there’s a slight feeling of melancholy to a middle-aged Bridget. She’s lived a lot and seen a lot and is better for it.

Being a thoroughly British comedy set in contemporary times, there are gentle nods toward the current climate in the UK – most notably in the characterization of Bridget’s mum, Pamela (Gemma Jones). Running for local office as a conservative, she quickly shifts to the left when learning of her daughter’s situation, embracing diversity and becoming a liberal candidate instead. This feels a bit like wishful thinking, but it’s a good way to remind viewers that Bridget Jones is a symbol and heroine for the underdogs: for the single girls, for the heavy girls, for the queer boys, for anyone who feels a bit left out.

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Molly Shannon broadens her range in Chris Kelly’s ‘Other People’

Image resultOther People is the kind of comedy that would fit into television in today’s landscape. Our diet for funny must include huge doses of tragedy. It’s a hilarious story dealing with a woman who is dying of cancer. Screenwriter Chris Kelly, newly-minted head writer of Saturday Night Live, took his experiences of watching his mother die in 2009, and took pen to paper and wrote this affecting and hilarious dramedy about a comedian who is suffering through his mother’s long and painful death.

Kelly’s onscreen persona, David (Jesse Plemons), is a comedy writer based in New York City. His career is struggling as is his personal life. David moves back to Sacramento for a spell to take care of his dying mother, Joanne (Molly Shannon). After torturous rounds of chemo, Joanne decides to stop, letting nature take its course. The household is fraught with tragedy, tension, and comedy. David’s dad Norman (Bradley Whitford) is a loving husband and father to daughters Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madison Beaty), but is distant with his son because he’s still hung up on David’s homosexuality.

While dealing with his mom’s illness, David is also nursing the demise of his relationship with Paul (Zach Woods). Throughout the movie, David is trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. He hangs out with bestie Gabe (John Early) whose tween brother Justin (J.J. Totah) is a fabulous drag queen. He’s also trying to make shape of his career – his Comedy Central pilot failed and he’s pinning his hopes on an ABC deal.

Films like Other People can crash and burn if not handled well. Chris Kelly wisely stays clear of the bathetic lachrymose that sunk films like Steel Magnolias or Terms of Endearment. Despite his personal stake in the story, he’s very unsentimental and unsparing when showing his viewers Joanne’s decline. As a director, he’s still a bit green. He hasn’t figured out a consistent way to blend the comedy and the tragedy – both highly pitched – in a way that feels organic. At times, he manages, but often the tonal shifts feel abrupt.

Casting a film like this is hard stuff because it’s a challenge to get funny actors who can match the demands of the script. It feels like the film’s populated by wall-to-wall comics. Even in smaller roles like family friends or coworkers, we folks like Paula Pell, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Retta, Lennon Parham, Paul Dooley, Nicole Byer, Rose Abdoo, as well as, the aforementioned Early and Woods. And lead Molly Shannon – an SNL vet – proves to be yet another, in a long list of comedians who prove to be sterling dramatic performers, too. Her trademark goofy mugging – all arms and hands splayed – is effective when Joanne is healthier and stronger, but she adapts beautifully to the more concise and contained restraints that Joanne’s decline brings – her expressive face can convey a multitude of emotions without needing a single word uttered. Plemons and Whitford match her note-for-note, but gallantly allow for Other People to remain Shannon’s show.

Kelly’s script gives up the story’s ending in the first scene. It’s a wise choice because expectations are matched, and therefore the audience isn’t waiting for a twist or a surprise ending, nor are they expecting some neat or pat resolution. Instead we’re left to focus on the relationships, namely that of David and Joanne. It’s hinted in one touching scene that his coming out wasn’t smooth, and it’s clear that Norman still cannot seem to accept having a gay son (in one sad scene, he’d rather wait outside on a dark New York street than go inside David’s apartment which he shares with Paul). Though, this isn’t a gay coming-of-age story. Instead, it’s a touching, tiny, indie dramedy that left viewers gasping for breath from laughing and crying.

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‘The Help’ is a messy jumble of a couple good movies and a lot more bad ones

The HelpThe Help is the kind of movie about the Civil Rights Movement that mainstream white audiences love, because that complicated and difficult time is spoon fed to viewers with the kind of optimistic that lets people think that a) racial discrimination is over, a thing of the past and b) wow, weren’t those white people nasty, I’m glad I’m not like one of them. Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is yet another in a long line of movies about the Civil Rights Movement in which a white protagonist takes center stage. We get to see the horrors of Jim Crow as well as the glimmers of hope through progress from the POV of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who aspires to be a journalist.

And that’s The Help‘s first problem. If we need another Civil Rights Era narrative film, then why do we need another one the centers on the experiences of a white protagonist? In the film Skeeter is the liberal conscious of the film’s white liberal viewers. She treats the maids kindly and is contemptuous of her racist friends. Viewers are meant to watch the film through Skeeter’s eyes and feel smug, like she, that they are not like the bad white people who wreak some awful havoc on the lives of the black characters.

As a character, Skeeter acts merely as a refreshing antidote to the bigoted atmosphere created by the other white characters, namely Hilly Walters Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the leader of the society of young southern belles. She rules in her kingdom with a cruel fist, casting anyone whom she feels is deserving adrift into social isolation. Her treatment of her friends is terrible, but her treatment of the black women in the town is criminal. And because she’s so powerful (though the source of her power is ephemeral), her legion of housewives dutifully follow suit. All except Skeeter, who remains the white moral center of the film.

But because this is about the Civil Rights Movement, we also are privy to the lives of the black characters – but not nearly enough. When we focus on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), then we have the kernel of a good film. Aibileen and Minny are best friends who support each other. And they need the support because they both work hard as maids: Aibileen for Elizabeth Leefoit (Ahna O’Reilly), a neglectful mother whose young daughter adores Aibileen; Minny, on the other hand, has trouble finding permanent employment because of her temper but eventually finds work with the town’s social pariah, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) – more on that later.

When Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are on screen, there’s some movie magic, namely due to the actress’ skills. The writing often lets them down: they’re tropes and little more, but the two women have a chemistry that transcends the limits of the film, and they create a beautiful friendship. I wish more of their lives together was explored because a film about how two women support and take care of each other during difficult times filled with social unrest would be an interesting one to watch. But we don’t get to sit and watch Davis and Spencer interact because the film is far more interesting in how white folks saw Civil Rights.

The plot has Skeeter cook up a dangerous scheme of documenting the lives of the maids in town. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to tell her their stories – unvarnished stories of subjugation, humiliation, and class stratification. The risk is huge – the women could lose their jobs, even be victims of violence. Of course, Skeeter’s risk is low and that’s another problem with the film – the stakes are so low for Skeeter that though she’s supposed to be seen as a brave and inspiring figure, she merely comes off as privileged and a little opportunistic. When Hilly gets a black woman falsely arrested for theft, the other maids in town convene at Aibileen’s house and agree to have their lives chronicled, in hopes of exposing just how gross a life of servitude can be. We’re gifted with the briefest of montages in which the maids speak, but again, the film is more interested in Skeeter’s growth and development, so we don’t understand, see, or hear the indignities that countless black women had to shoulder just to ensure a better life for their children. We don’t get a sense of the violence or violation. It’s all skimming at the surface, enough to have most decent people offended, but not enough to really examine just how dysfunctional this kind of society really is.

Screenwriter Tate Taylor must’ve had a notebook bursting with ideas, because along with the Skeeter plot, the Aibileen and Minny plot, we also get the Celia and Minny show. In what is clearly meant to be a show of “love knows no color,” The Help also includes a story line that has Minny working for Celia, a beautiful, yet blowsy housewife who cannot seem to do anything. Plagued with a series of miscarriages, Celia is a pathetic soul – gorgeous, but dim. Kind, but naive. The women in the town eye her warily because she wears low cut dresses and totters around on high heels, and is married to Hilly’s ex, so naturally, she’s labeled a maneater, and the women guard their husbands jealously anytime poor Celia stumbles into the scene.

Minny arrives and  manages to shape things up, and predictably the two women overcome their racial, social, and economic differences to understand that they’re more alike than different. Minny becomes a surrogate big sister and mother to Celia because Tate Taylor doesn’t think there are enough black maids playing surrogate mothers to rich white women in film. The scenes between Minny and Celia all ring of treacle and feel contrived. Again, the only thing that elevates this to anything is the mighty work of Spencer as well as the beautifully-layered performance of Jessica Chastain, who channels a near-death Marilyn Monroe. Like her scenes with Davis, Spencer creates a solid bond with Chastain, though the writing is cliched with their scenes, that no amount of expert emoting manages to wrench their work free from the sap.

All of this happens with the Civil Rights Movement playing in the background. Taylor uses the events of the 1960s as a way to frame the story as well as to give the film some forward momentum. But little is done to engage with the event, nor do the characters have any meaningful connection to the events. When Medgar Evars is assassinated, we get a glimpse of what could’ve been. Aibilieen is ordered off a bus and fearfully flees in the night to get home. As a director Taylor crafted a solid sequence of scenes that end in Minny’s house. The two women grieve privately, shielding their young children from the brutal realities of the world, and whisper their fears to each other. For The Help to function as a serious film about these times, we need more of this, instead of a pouting Skeeter giving side eye to Hilly after the latter spouts off another string of racial expletives.

When The Help came out in 2011, it got some great reviews and made over $200 million in the box office. Spencer (deservedly) won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while Chastain and Davis were nominated (and the film was up for Best Picture, for some reason). It’s understandable that the film mainly was praised for its actors but the performances are impeccable. That is one of the many frustrating things about the film – along with its tone-deaf approach to race relations and history, the film wastes a very talented cast.

Click here to buy The Help on amazon.com.

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‘Woman in Gold’ tells an important story

Woman in GoldThe atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews during WWII have been well-documented on film. The Holocaust has been the subject of many narrative films, most of them concentrating either on noted victims or highlighting life in the camps. One of the issues of the Holocaust that isn’t discusses as thoroughly is the art theft perpetrated by the Nazis – countless works of art have been confiscated and stolen from Jewish families during WWII, and the few lucky who survived the Holocaust had to endure the refreshed indignity of valiantly doing battle in the courts to get their works back.

In Simon Curtis’ latest film, Woman in Gold, the work of art in question is Gustav Klimt’s famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The work’s subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was an Austrian socialite and a muse of Klimt’s (and possible paramour). Married to a wealthy sugar baron, Bloch-Bauer was a supporter of the arts and hosted salons in her spacious apartment in Vienna. The source of the conflict in Woman in Gold resides in Bloch-Bauer’s will which stipulated that the painting be donated to the Belvedere Palace. Bloch-Bauer died in 1925 and her husband fled Austria when Germany annexed Austira in 1938. His home was raided and his possessions looted, including Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which was acquired by the Belvedere Palace.

File:Adele Bloch-Bauer I Gustav Klimt01.jpgThis brief synopsis of the background of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is important because the story deals with Bloch-Bauer’s living relative, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), who upon discovering that her late sister was trying to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis, gets in touch with Randol “Randy” Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a young attorney, to help her make a claim for restitution – essentially, she and Schoenberg take on the government of Austria in hopes of getting back the Klimt painting. Predictably, the Austrian government stonewalls Altmann, as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is coined the Austrian Mona Lisa, and therefore losing the painting would be a huge blow to the country’s cultural standing.

But none of this is important to Altmann, who had to abandon her family when the Nazis racist policies posed a threat to Jews in Europe. The legal battle was long and protracted going all the way to the Supreme Court, before being settled by a panel of mediators.

Curtis’ ambitious film tries to do a lot in less than two hours. Not only does he cover the courtroom dramas, but he also includes flashbacks to prewar Austria, where a young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) grows up in a world of culture, art, wealth, and privilege. He handles the flashbacks well enough, but during the present time sequences, he has a tendency to leap through blocks of time – sometimes months at a time, during which we don’t know what happens. Understandably, this is because during a long, protracted legal case, there’s a lot of down time. But the result is it feels rushed, as if Curtis couldn’t be bothered to deal with the more mundane parts of Altmann’s life.

But Curtis’ periodically clumsy direction is only one debit. The other is the script, written by Alexi Kaye Campbell. He takes a large and sprawling story and admirably whittles it down to a sympathetic and inspirational David and Goliath narrative. In his hands, Maria Altmann emerges as a wronged heroine who is fighting to preserve her family’s legacy. Unfortunately, this makes the character a bit two-dimensional. Also unfortunate is Kaye Campbell’s decision to ignore the other members of Altmann’s family who survived the Holocaust – in particular her niece, Dr. Nelly Auersperg, who had mixed feelings about Schoenberg’s methods, and who was reticent about taking the Klimt paintings out of Austria. The subsequent events after the legal case caused an irreparable rift between Altman and Auersperg, and the two stopped speaking to each other. If Kay Campbell included these important details, a fuller, richer image of Altmann would’ve emerged; instead, on paper, Altmann is reduced to a plucky old lady, though Helen Mirren is able to flesh out the character more. What made Altmann so intriguing was her glamor as well as her wit – Kay Campbell managed to keep some of that, and Mirren’s strong comic timing allows for some of that humor to shine through.

Unfortunately, as the crusading lawyer, Reynolds is bland and doesn’t impress. He’s saddled with a strange character that is equal parts nerd, nebbish, and cipher, and cannot get over these flaws. He and Mirren share little chemistry, and their relationship tips into the cliched “spunky old lady/respectful young man” trope too often. As for the rest of the cast: it’s peppered with some familiar faces – Jonathan Pryce is unrecognizable as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Katie Holmes is wasted as Schoenberg’s saintly wife, and Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo as Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, but it’s Mirren’s show, and it’s a good vehicle for her to show off her considerable acting chops. Without her, the film would be an earnest, but ultimately failed attempt at highlighting a tragic chapter in world history.

Click here to buy Woman in Gold on dvd from amazon.com.

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Broadway vet Elaine Stritch invites fans to follow her in “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”

Stritch1The first thing I noticed when watching Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is that Stritch has a hell of a time getting ready for her shows. Age and declining health both conspire against her. The Elaine Stritch in Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary is not the same Elaine Stritch fans will remember from her recurring role on The Cosby Show, her triumphant one-woman show, or her appearances on 30 Rock. This Stritch is unvarnished and raw – and at times it’s difficult to watch. But despite the sometimes-intrusive peaks into her physical state, Stritch does manage to emerge from the film a survivor, only because she holds on to her irascibility like her life depends on it.

The film takes place in New York City, during Stritch’s run at the Carlyle Hotel, where she’s performing a Sondheim tribute show. She’s holed up in a tiny corner room, where viewers are treated to candid reflections on fame, family, friends, and aging (there’s even a priceless moment where Stritch is watching herself on 30 Rock, and then waiting for the congratulatory phone calls). While performing at the Carlyle, she also does stops on a mini-tour, opens a rehearsal studio in her honor, and makes repeated trips to the hospital when her diabetes wreaks havoc on her body.

Because Karasawa wants to show a “warts and all” story, we get scenes of a very sick Stritch that feel gratuitious and voyeuristic. When she has a diabetic attack and must go to the hospital, we’re treated to shots of a sedated Stritch sleeping, while her friends look on. We also get a clearly frightened and teary Stritch ruminate on death. It’s all very distressing to watch and sometimes feels at odds with the other scenes that show a heartier Stritch, who can still belt out a tune in her inimitible croak of a voice.

Stritch2And it’s the stronger Stritch that dominates the film. She’s known for her short-temper and her allergy to bullshit – and it’s on full display in the film. She’s shown to have little patience for Showbiz fakery or puffery – when visiting an acting school to be honored with a rehearsal space,  she vetoes the first three choices as too big, before settling on a more modest and appropriate room. And she’s quick to berate the camera operator when he moves in too close (“Are we filming a skin commercial?” she barks), or if he misses something, like her post-show ritual that includes her dismantling a box of May’s English muffins (with a butcher knife), and leaving the garbage outside her hotel room door; after a quick dressing down, she reenacts the ritual for the camera’s benefit.

Those who have seen Elaine Stritch at Liberty know that despite her aversion to celebrity, she has some famous friends, some of whom turn up to offer their thoughts on Stritch’s enduring popularity: Alec Baldwin (one of the film’s producers) has some nice moments with Stritch at the 30 Rock canteen, as does Tracy Morgan (who shares his blood sugar level with her), and the show’s star/writer Tina Fey has some wonderful things to say about the actress, acknowledging her famed temperament (when describing the anticipation of Stritch’s arrival, Fey heaves a huge and apprehensive sigh), but also praises her idiosyncracies (“she doesn’t wear pants…”). The late James Gandolfini (to whom the film is dedicated) also appears as does fellow Broadway champ Cherry Jones. John Turturro has a priceless scene with Stritch when over dinner, she admits that she experienced an orgasm for the first time during a performance of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – his take is hilarious as he is momentarily stunned and unnerved, before he rallies and continues the conversation. She also pokes gently fun at Bernadette Peters at the end of the film, momentarily forgetting her name, before facetiously referring to her as “Nanette Fabray.”

Stritch3But beyond the kooky and assertive personality, there’s also the committed and dedicated artist – who, thankfully, doesn’t get pushed aside, in favor of the grousing Stritch or the ailing Stritch. She lives for her work, and it’s clear that she loves it – she hops on planes and performs in cabarets throughout the country. She also has a deep love and respect for the theater, elevating luminaries like Hal Prince, Noel Coward, and Stephen Sondheim to giant status. And she’s a brilliant song stylist, in vein of Lotte Lenya, who doesn’t necessarily have the most beautiful or versatile voice, but can convey a range of emotions: from bruised sorrow to arch sarcasm within one song. It’s the moments when Stritch is performing that Shoot Me shines brightest: her rendition of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy is terrifyingly sad, as she gets so involved in the song’s plot of a regretful and wasted life, that she can barely get through the showboating end without cracking into tears; and her performance of “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, takes the song’s original tone – humorous, but with a core of sincerity – and turns it into a sardonic and knowing tune that is positively soggy with irony. She barrels through “Everybody Says Don’t” from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, and the audience knows that Stritch relates deeply to the lyrics that encourage rebellion.

In fact, Sondheim seems to be a lyrical soulmate to Stritch, as he penned two of her signature songs, “I’m Still Here” from Follies and “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. In the former, the narrator is a warhorse of a performer, still holding on to her place in the public’s consciousness, but with a slipping grip; the other song is a funny take on the different social circles women fall into – and who absurd and transparent some of these groups are. Both these songs cater to Stritch’s strengths as a performer – “I’m Still Here” plays up her indomitable spirit, while “Ladies Who Lunch” displays her incredible skill with caustic song lyrics. Though Sondheim doesn’t participate in the film, he does show up in archival material – in a particularly fascinating sequence that shows a younger Stritch in the 1970s, going through multiple takes of “Ladies Who Lunch” trying to get it right. She and Sondheim both show a perfectionism in the clip, as they both appear unsatisfied with the various takes they hear. It’s an intriguing look at how Stritch, the artist, was formed. Other interesting backstage scenes show her rehearsing with her devoted musical director, Rob Bowman, struggling with a slightly dodgy memory, but eventually prevailing (with a little help from Bowman from time-to-time).

Those who see Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me will notice similarities between it and Annie Sundberg’s excellent documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. They’re both wonderful companion pieces as the two films show a couple of show business veterans who are unwilling (or unable) to step aside for the younger folks coming up; Stritch’s career has been predicated on her ability to survive the many lobs that life threw at her – from the death of her beloved husband, to her crippling alcoholism which cost her work, to her advanced age and illness – it’s why Sondheim’s song “I’m Still Here” works so well – it perfectly sums up Elaine Stritch – both the performer and the career.

Click here to visit the official Website of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me to get more information about the film.

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