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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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Whit Stillman scores with a brilliant retelling of Jane Austen with ‘Love & Friendship’

LAF_1PosterDo we need yet another film version of a Jane Austen story? Before watching Whit Stillman’s wonderful Love & Friendship, I would’ve said no. After all, can audiences get anything new from a millionth rendition of a Jane Austen tale? Because of the saturation of Austen-related films during the 1990s, audiences can be forgiven if they approach Love & Friendship with wariness. But Stillman wisely eschews the more notable Austen works like Pride & Prejudice or Emma, and instead chooses to film a more obscure work, Lady Susan.

Austen’s Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, so Whitman – who wrote the screenplay on top of his directing and producing duties – had a rather daunting task: how to pull away from the novella’s format, expanding on the fictional letters, creating dialogue and scenes, while remaining faithful to Austen’s legendary wit and humor. He succeeds by mining in Lady Susan picking up some of Austen’s funniest and most savage social commentary. Those more familiar with Pride & Prejudice or Emma will remember that a hallmark of Austen is her ability to skewer social class hierarchy and gender roles with cutting, razor-sharp comedy.

Another bonus for Whitman’s choice of Lady Susan over the more iconic Austen work, is that its title character is a different kind of Austen heroine. In fact, she’s no heroine at all. Throughout the film, Lady Susan is a cruel, manipulative, and conniving character. Unlike Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, or even Emma Woodhouse, Lady Susan Vernon is a terrible person. But like any great anti-heroine, she is still compelling to watch. The plot, like all of Austen, is concerned with marriage – particularly, how marriage can mean independence and freedom for women, especially women of reduced economic stations. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a widow who is on the hunt for a husband for herself and for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She’s not looking for love, instead, she’s looking for financial security, as the death of her husband leaves her almost-penniless.

While staying at her in-laws’ home, she sets her sights on the handsome, but much younger, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who is immediately smitten. Who can blame him? Lady Susan is gorgeous and funny, and puts on a good show of being a kind and attentive person. Her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emme Greenwell) sees through Lady Susan’s machinations and wants nothing more than to have Lady Susan banished from the Vernon estate. The complication (there’s always a complication) is that Catherine has developed a soft spot for the brow-beaten Frederica. Catherine’s parents (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave) are also concerned and fear that their son will marry the notorious Susan, and plunge the family into social ruin and disgrace.

But Lady Susan sees these problems as minor roadblocks, and barrels through with her plans to have herself and Frederica married and financially secure. To that end, she nurtures the unrequited love that the wealthy Sir James Martin (a hilarious Tom Bennett) has for Frederica. The problem is he’s a class-A idiot (Reginald calls him a “pea brain” – and for some reason, the insult doesn’t sound juvenile or ridiculous). Frederica doesn’t want to have anything to do with Sir Martin, but her mother doesn’t care – love isn’t something that Lady Susan is preoccupied with. Someone as scheming and duplicitous as Lady Susan needs an accomplice. Enter Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan’s dashing American friend who joins in on the fun, despite her husband’s disapproval.

Because Lady Susan is a novella, Whitman didn’t have to do as much pruning as Deborah Moggach did when she had to squeeze all of Pride & Prejudice into two hours (as opposed to the nearly six-hour version produced by BBC/A&E). As a result of the brevity of the story (as well as its relative simplicity), Love & Friendship is breezy and moves at a brisk pace. Some of the stylistic choices Whitman makes are interesting – when introducing the characters, he sets up vignettes with the names and roles of each character – sort of like the opening sequence of a TGIF sitcom. It’s a great visual gag, and its an efficient way of getting a lot of backstory and exposition out of the way. And as with any British costume drama, the sets are stunning and the costumes are beautiful.

As with any Austen-adapted film, the casting is integral, and Kate Beckinsale is wonderful. Interestingly enough, Lady Susan isn’t the first time the actress essayed an Austen role: in 1996 she played the title character in an ITV adaption of Emma. Because the two characters share so many of the same traits, it feels as if Beckinsale’s interpretation of Lady Susan is akin to what would it be like if Emma Woodhouse was middle-aged. As Lady Susan, Beckinsale does a magnificent job of playing up the character’s odious qualities – but because she’s so wily and cunning, it’s a joy to watch her, even when she’s being horrible to the people around her.

And though this is Beckinsale’s shining hour, the rest of the cast all do some fine work. Sevigny, sticks out with her American accent, but is sly fun, and as her husband, Stephen Fry does a lot with what is essentially a cameo. And Tom Bennett is a comic wonder as the stupid Sir Martin, easily stealing his scenes, by playing up not only the stupidity, but the genial qualities of the character, which make him at once laughable and likable.

What Love & Friendship proves is that even with multiple adaptations of varying degrees of fidelity and success, Jane Austen’s oeuvre can still be mined for some great entertainment. It also highlights just how funny Jane Austen is – it’s clear that writers such as Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Wendy Wasserstein, Lena Dunham, and Rob Reiner all have been influenced by Austen. Despite writing romantic comedies in the late 18th century, Austen’s interests as well as her sense of humor remain relevant and current.

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She was more than just Bogie’s baby: Lauren Bacall, a tribute

Lauren Bacall was more than just an actress or a Hollywood icon. She was the epitome of “movie star” – a charismatic woman who was as interesting and fascinating off screen as she was on. Though not possessing of the widest range, Bacall imbued every character she played with characteristic humor, grace, and sarcasm.

1940s Harpers Bazaar cover     Spotted by Howard Hawks’ wife, Slim, on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Bacall was a seeming overnight sensation. Her first film was Hawks’ 1944 noir classic To Have and Have Not. She was paired with Humphrey Bogart and the two fell in love and married, and their partnership was as legendary in real life as it was in the films. Bogart and Bacall made three more movies, including the classic The Big Sleep (1946, dir. Hawks). The marriage was tumultuous, fiery, and loving, but cruelly brief: Bogart died of cancer in 1957, leaving the actress a young widow and mother of two small children.

LaurenBacallMurderOrientBecause she allowed for her marriage to take precedence over her career. In an interview with Charlie Rose, she explained, “[he said] ‘if you want a career, a real career, then I’ll do everything I can for you, but I won’t marry you’…and I promised [Bogart] that our marriage would come first, and the the career, you know, would be second.”

Her promise guaranteed that her marriage was successful, but her career faltered because of her willingness to pass over work, especially roles that would require her to travel on location. By 1957, the actress was a symbol of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but she had to reassert herself as a living, vital actress. So, she plugged away making many films during the late 1950s and early 1960s, often slumming but ensuring that she was still on the minds of casting directors.

LaurenBacallTonyAnd though her film career stalled, she found a new career, reinventing herself as a Broadway star winning two Tonys for roles in Applause and The Woman of the Year. Renewed interest resulted in more roles in the 1980s, which eventually led to a late-career renaissance in the mid 1990s, thanks to her first Oscar nomination for Barbra Streisand’s 1996 romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces. Since that role, the actress’s career was varied and interest that included more stage work, television, writing, and film, even working on a pair of movies with indie legend Lars von Trier and guest-voicing on Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom Family Guy.

LaurenBacallBacall was the last of the great Hollywood stars – a product of studio grooming and talent. Through hard work, toil, and tutelage, Bacall was able to forge a career as a screen siren. Whatever limitations she had, she worked around and exploited her assets: her wit, charm, husky voice, and beauty. Because of her onscreen insolence, she projected an aura of toughness, matching wits with her male leads which included Bogart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, and Kirk Douglas. Off screen, the actress’s inability to remain quiet made her a popular talk show guest. She was almost pathologically candid, guarding Bogart’s Hollywood legend, while simultaneously slamming celebrity hypocrisy. When talking about Tom Cruise she groused, “Tom Cruise is a maniac. I can’t understand the way he conducts his life…When you talk about a great actor, you’re not talking about Tom Cruise.”

Though she was a legend, Bacall hated the title, equating it with being “past it.”She sniffed that the word legend connotes the past. She said of being called a legend, “No, I don’t like legend. I mean, I don’t like the category. And to begin with, to me, a legend is something that is not on the Earth, that is dead.”

LaurenBacallBirthAnd though she bristled at the sobriquet of film icon, work was a constant in her life. It was a constant in her life, and defined her life after her her marriages ended and her kids moved out of the house. It was her salvation, staving off feelings of loneliness (yes, even goddesses get lonely). Of work she wrote, “You work because you love it, because you want to and because you need to…It meant independence and being on my way to dream fulfillment.”

And because she was so strong and healthy (Entertainment Weekly wrote that because of her enduring strength and good health, folks thought she’d be around forever), she was able to work for a very long time, staving off retirement. “Why is it the American dream to work really hard when you are young so you can retire early?” she once asked. “Why can’t it be that you work for the love of it – or to get better at it?”

LaurenBacallDogvilleAnd she did get better. As she settled into character parts, she was freed from the yoke of “leading lady” status. She was cast as eccentrics, world weary divas, intimidating dames. She was able to forgo the glamour of her Golden Age days and indulge in some hammy scene-stealing in her old age. In her later films like MiseryMy Fellow Americans, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Diamonds or Birth she would march through her scenes, spitting out quips and one-liners with zeal and scene-chewing abandon. And while these parts weren’t diverse, nor did they tax her acting muscles, they felt tailor-made for the actress, and she was a consummate pro lending the films gravitas and biting humor with her presence. Once she was let go of the albatross of fashion plate, audiences discovered something appealing and wonderful about Lauren Bacall: along with being gorgeous, she was also a fantastic comedienne with what Jack Benny called “perfect timing.”

LaurenBacallMirror

When (finally) honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with an honorary Oscar, the tribute read, “Bacall has amassed 50 film credits and maintained iconic status as the epitome of Hollywood glamour. In 1996, 52 years after making her screen debut, she was an Oscar nominee for her supporting role in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. That sultry voice, sly sophistication and skill with sparring dialogue seem undiminished six decades into her career.

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Robin Williams’ best onscreen performances

Robin Williams was that rare comic actor that could successfully do comedy and drama, and even frighten his audiences in thrillers. A manic and individual talent, Williams often performed like a one-man improve show, tapping into the vast and diverse population that lived in his brain. When allowed to riff, the comedian was able to tap into a free-association, stream of conscience form of comedy that demanded an agile attention from his audiences. Seemingly able to create comedy out of thin air, any subject presented to the man would often result in a few minutes of rapid fire comedy that would mine culture, history, pop culture, and politics.

As an actor, Williams strengthened his thespian muscles, going back and forth choosing comedic vehicles, but also testing his dramatic acting chops with more subdued fare. One he attained the kind of mainstream superstardom, he would often find himself in family-friendly pabulum that did nothing to challenge him as an artist. His later work was that of the sort of indulgent, money-making product that Williams sleepwalked through. Below is a list of Williams’ best performances – some of the films may not have been classics, but Williams still gave worthy turns. Even at his most pedestrian, Robin Williams was still a distinct voice in film comedy.

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The World According to Garp (1982, dir. George Ray Hill) – based on John Irving’s eccentric and sad novel, this early feature film was a surprise for Robin Williams fans used to seeing the guy in Mork & Mindy. It’s a dark and unsettling film, with a moving performance by a young Williams, on the cusp of megastardom.

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Moscow on the Hudson (1984, dir. Paul Mazursky) – the 1980s was a decade that was rife with stories of the impending end of the Cold War. With shades of Yakov Shmirnoff, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian musician who defects to the United States. Back when Maria Conchita Alonso was a bankable star, the era was rife with anti-Soviet fears, and Moscow on the Hudson worked as a pro-West bit of propaganda. With elements of drama, this fish-out-of-water comedy exploited Williams’ wonderful gifts of mirth and pathos.

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Good Morning, Vietnam (1987, dir. Barry Levinson) – Williams earned his first Oscar nomination in this war dramedy about a radio DJ who spins oldies for Armed Forces Radio Service during the Vietnam War. The setting is very heavy and could have tipped the film into mawkishness, but Williams strengths as a performer save the film.

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Dead Poets Society (1989, dir. Peter Weir) – Williams got another Oscar nod, this time stepping into a teacher drama. Rife with clichés, but Williams’ performance as the unorthodox English teacher of a prep school proves that the actor is able to transcend mere sketch comedy and give full-bodied turns. Williams’ expressive face – always seemingly on the verge of crumbling in sorrow – carried his acting.

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Awakenings (1990, dir. Penny Marshall) – Though costar Robert DeNiro was given the majority of the critical laurels, Williams proved to be wonderful opposite the legendary actor. As a dedicated and brilliant doctor, Williams doesn’t dominate with his usual busy acting, but remains a strong presence and never fades into the background.

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The Fisher King (1991, dir. Terry Gilliam) – Another Oscar nod, this time for playing a variation on the wise and twinkly homeless man. Again, despite the film’s constricting clichéd boundaries, Williams overcomes all these limitations with a truly splendid performance, moving and heartbreaking. With The Fisher King the actor cemented his status as cinema’s premier crying clown.

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Aladdin (1992, dirs. Ron Clements and John Musker) – One of Disney’s biggest animated hits, Aladdin was essentially a cartoon version of Williams’ concert work. As the Genie, a frantic, wisecracking blue genie, Williams particular gift for free form stand up comedy has been successfully transferred onto cartoon form. The movie’s got some of its own charms, but when Williams’ Genie is on screen, it has moments when it transcends mere corporate Disney.

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Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, dir. Chris Columbus) – Another family-friendly vehicle, but clever because of its surprisingly frank treatment of divorce. Williams stars as single dad Daniel Hillard who dons drag and gets a job as a nanny so that he can see his kids. Like his most popular comedic roles, Mrs. Doubtfire is a great excuse to let Williams riff. In one particularly funny sequence he joins Harvey Fierstein in a montage of various drag outfits. It’s a funny film, but there’s some great, unflinching look at the consequences of divorce.

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Jack (1996, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) – a strange little film with Williams starring as the title character, a little kid who is rapidly aging. Teamed with fellow comic powerhouses Bill Cosby and Fran Drescher, Jack is a syrupy melodrama, but Williams’ performance as a 10-year-old is lived in in its authenticity.

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The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols) – long before marriage equality was on everyone’s mind, Mike Nichols’ remake of the French comedy, La cage aux folles is a surprisingly sweet comedy. Teamed with Nathan Lane as a gay couple, Williams takes on the rare straight man role and emerges with the most impressive performance. Lane takes on the flamboyantly effeminate role, while Williams gives a more sedate, subtle turn, avoiding gay clichés and stereotypes.

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Good Will Hunting (1997, dir. Gus Van Sant) – Williams won an Oscar for his turn as the widowed college professor who inspires Matt Damon’s genius savant. Not a great film and somewhat overrated since its release, Williams still manages to rise above the ho-hum proceedings of the Matt Damon-Ben Affleck script.

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Insomnia (2002, dir. Christopher Nolan) – As good as Williams was in comedy and drama, he also surprised audiences with successfully thrilling in neo-noir. In Insomnia, Williams stars as the suspect and seriously creepy writer in the Alaskan wilderness who is harboring the solution to a horrible rape and murder case. Shrugging off any of his adorableness, Williams normally beseeching face takes on a sinister cast.

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One Hour Photo (2002, dir. Mark Romanek) – As he proved in Insomnia, William was a find in the thriller genre. Freed from his family-friendly yoke, he allows for the uglier side of his talents to shine. Like many of his characters, photo technician, Sy Parrish is a bottomless pit of need – but instead of reacting with his impish humor, he’s glassy-eyed and desperate.

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Classics reviewed: ‘Suddenly Last Summer’

I have a strange memory of Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1959 drama Suddenly, Last Summer. I hadn’t watched the film for a long time and remembered liking it, even revering it. I watched it again last night and forgot just how uneven the film really was. None of the elements of the film: the writing, the directions, the cast, the cinematography gel together to make a cohesive work. Instead each individual component works on its own – not terribly well, by the way, to make a disjointed and highly mixed viewing experience.

***spoilers spoilers spoilers***

Taken from Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name, Suddenly, Last Summer is a mystery of sorts – a Southern Gothic whodunit. Montgomery Clift stars as the young and brilliant doctor John Cukrowicz, a former Chicagoan who is working on experimental lobotomies in a struggling New Orleans mental institution. The hospital’s facilities are dire – during a procedure in front of an audience, Dr. Cukrowicz had to contend with crumbling plaster and flickering lights, as the failing building was in need of some renovation. Cukrowicz is obviously great at his job, but is chafing under the severely limited resources in which he has to work. It’s the desperate need of the hospital that brings in the main plot point of the film.

Because the hospital’s in such disarray, its administrator, Dr. Lawrence Hockstader (Albert Dekker) is willing to take bribe money from the rich Mrs. Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) to pay for a new wing. In return, Hockstader hopes that Cukrowicz is willing to perform a lobotomy on her disturbed niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). It all seems like an easy fix – and when Cukrowicz visits Mrs. Venable, he also learns that she is mourning the violent and mysterious death of her poet son, Sebastian. It’s clear that the two had a special relationship that while not incestuous, it was rather codependent. In his death, he has become sainted – a brilliant young artist cut down before his prime. Mrs. Venable indulges in these moments of grandiose memories, building up a legend of her son.

The interview scene between Mrs. Venable and Cukrowicz is the first scene that I’ll go into with some length. It’s interesting, but ultimately it fails to deliver for a number of reasons. Set in Mrs. Venable’s insanely ornate garden which she likens to the “dawn of creation” the set design is pretty impressive. But the scene is undone mainly by Hepburn’s performance. As she goes on rhapsodizing about her dead son’s genius, the actress is a mess of all the Katherine Hepburn cliches and tics that people deride her for: her stuttering delivery, done in a braying lockjaw New England accent as well as her wildly overacting her scenes. She’s given little support by her costar who squirms impassively at her side, while she makes a mess of the whole scene.  Also the editing at certain points becomes a bit choppy – and it’s clear at times that when one scene cuts to another the actors are standing on different marks.

But there are some interesting spots that deserve some recognition, namely is some of the placement of the sets. In particular is the recurring image of a winged skeleton. It appears in a scene in the garden, with Clift and Hepburn bookending the ghoulish statue. It also appears later in the film in the climactic flashback when the angry mob kills Sebastian. I had to do some digging to figure out what a winged skeleton means – some saw it as the angel of death. When talking about her son’s death in the garden, Mrs. Venable maintains that her son died of a heart attack, but the winged skeleton may be letting us know there’s more. I was also wondering if Sebastian wasn’t buried in Mrs. Venable’s own Garden of Eden. It feels that the winged skeleton could be seen as a grave marker – a cross, of sorts – it marked his gruesome death, the statue looking impassively at the dying Sebastian, and it may be watching over his body. There’s nothing to suggest that Mrs. Venable kept his body at home, but it was clear that the skeleton meant something important – and it’s clear that the statue is meant to clue the viewers into realizing that her son’s death was no heart attack. The other interesting – though rather heavy-handed part of this scene is the Venus flytrap sequence, in which Mrs. Venable has to feed her carnivorous plant with expensively-procured flies (again, more on that in a bit).

In the interview, Mrs. Venable asks that Cukrowicz treat her niece. Catherine was with Sebastian in Europe at the time of his death and returned an unwell woman. Holed up in a Catholic mental institution being treated for Dementia Praecox. The doctor immediately questions the diagnosis and presses Mrs. Venable to explain the symptoms which include incoherent babbling and “obscene” memories. When he finally meets Catherine, she’s willful and obviously very troubled, but Cukrowicz is not convinced that a lobotomy is the best option. He tries but is initially unsuccessful to understand why Catherine would be suffering from trauma-induced amnesia. This scene introduces us to Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor is an interesting choice to play Catherine because the actress has already played a Tennessee Williams character, Maggie the Cat in Richard Brooks 1958 classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which shares some of Suddenly, Last Summer‘s themes). In Suddenly, Last Summer, however, the script and the character call for Taylor to convincingly portray a woman whose sanity is highly questionable. It’s in this bit of casting that the film falters at time, because though Taylor is solid throughout most of the film, the necessary heights required for the rule are just beyond her grasp. And like Hepburn, she’s saddled with a rather unpleasant voice – discordant instrument that veers easily into a shrill tone that is barely listenable.

Taylor and Clift share their first scene together in the library of the Catholic institution. Catherine has spitefully put out her cigarette in a nun’s bare hand, thereby cementing her reputation as a dangerously violent patient. In fact there’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy involved in which Catherine taunts Cukrowicz, playing up the part of the mad woman because she’s treated as so. It’s in these heightened moments that Taylor’s limits are betrayed and she’s not quite convincing. But the scene still has merit if only because the two stars share a warm chemistry, cemented by their close friendship (Taylor reportedly used her box office clout to guarantee Clift’s casting despite the actor’s well-publicized alcoholism and difficulty in being insured). Because both Taylor and Clift are such recognizable and legendary icons, they don’t disappear into their roles – and instead it feels as if we’re watching Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift playing a scene together. The script doesn’t call for them to do much, and the smoldering passion that they were able to project in their first collaboration together (1951’s A Place in the Sun) has been replaced by a strange disconnect – mainly because Clift’s performance is so strange and unformed (he seems to be trying to work out his character in every scene, not content on a specific choice). The problem with casting big movie stars in roles like these is that if the actors don’t convince, their stardom merely distracts. With a stronger script, I’m sure Clift would have been able to salvage a more consistent performance, but as such, he’s merely reacting to Taylor’s bravura acting.

After their interview together, Cukrowciz begins to question the whole idea of a lobotomy. He takes her from the Catholic institution and checks her into his hospital – and this is where the film unintentionally approaches camp. In the depiction of mental institutions, Hollywood has struggled in maintaining an unflinching reality without going overboard in the sort of extravagant “crazy” that plagues most filmed institutions. Suddenly, Last Summer doesn’t avoid this trap, and we get all the popular cliches and standard tropes of mental institutions – shrieking laughter, unprovoked screaming, almost animal-like rage, and in one particular scene when Catherine is teetering on a catwalk over the male patients’ rec area, the film depicts the men as grunting, lascivious animals, grasping at her in unbridled lust and carnal desire – suddenly the mental institution cliche becomes the prison cliche.

When it’s time to finally figure out what happened to Sebastian and Catherine, we get the convenient truth serum which blocks any mental inhibitions in poor Catherine. Assembled in the garden along with Catherine’s aunt, mother, brother, Hockstader, among others, Catherine finally breaks through and describes why Sebastian’s death was so traumatic.

Earlier in the film, Catherine suggested that she and Mrs. Venable were used as “bait.” It was unclear what Catherine was referring to until this prolonged scene, dominated by Taylor’s unsteady voice as she recalls that Sebastian planned a grand tour of Europe, but decided that his mother was too old to be used as “bait” – and Catherine was brought on as his companion. It’s then that it becomes clear that Sebastian’s alluded-to homosexuality was in fact the truth. While in Spain, Sebastian used his gorgeous cousin to get the local young men to flock to them and then would exploit their poverty to solicit sex. It becomes unclear exactly how this arrangement devolved so quickly because the script doesn’t give much explanation, and instead has Taylor describe with increasing distress how at one point the two were surrounded by a gang of men, some of whom were playing makeshift instruments and swarming the two. Crippled with shame and embarrassment, Sebastian angrily shouts down all of Catherine’s suggestions of getting help, and instead he dashes off, running up a seemingly-spiraled road to the top of a hill. The men flock toward him like a group of angry birds (more on that image in a bit), and finally get him to the top and they pounce on him. When Catherine finally reaches the top she realizes that the men have started to rip him apart and eat him.

Obviously, this tale is distressing for everyone involved, but most so for Mrs. Venable, who reacts to Catherine’s breakthrough by reverting to a strange, almost catatonic place in which Sebastian is alive and well. In her newly-demented state, Cukrowicz stands in for her son, and she begins to talk to him, calling him Sebastian, warning him to stay away from the hot son. She chatters on about how wonderful their relationship is, and how they’ll be a pair forever. Amid all of this, Catherine seems to have recovered, finally unburdening herself of this deep and dark secret, and she leaves the garden with Cukrowicz.

The pacing of the final reveal is too rushed, as if Williams was worried his audience would start to question the finale and its logic. I had so many questions – why were the marauding boys announcing their approach by playing makeshift instruments? Why did they eat Sebastian? Some of the violence made some sense to me – judging from the ages of some of the extras playing the boys, Sebastian was a rapist, so there is some justification (at least within the context of the film) of the violent death – had the death been just a hate crime or gay bashing, it would’ve been satisfying, but pushing it to the macabre point of having the boys cannibalize Sebastian I feel is a cheap way to titillate and horrify the audiences.

Because the film was based on a play (Williams worked on the screenplay with Gore Vidal), there are moments when the story’s stage origin intrude on the dialogue and action. The writing can be florid and oft-purple (this is especially true of Hepburn’s lines), but I was fine with that because some of my favorite films have been adaptations of plays. But because it is a play and a “serious picture” there is also some unsubtle use of symbolism and allegory – as well as bits of unintended irony, as well.

Earlier in the film, when in the garden, Mrs. Venable and Cukrowicz talk about Sebastian. As usual, she spins tales of loveliness and culture – but there is a dark undercurrent in her tales. When describing a trip the two took to the Galapagos, she talks about birds of prey swooping down on freshly-hatched sea turtles who are trying to make their way into the sea. It’s clear that the scene distressed her and initially we’re meant to understand that she was disturbed by the sight of a flock of birds so large that it made the sky black swooping down and devouring innocent turtle hatchlings.

 

Once the horrible ending is revealed, we understand that the grounds for Mrs. Venable’s distress is the deepseated knowledge (however much obscured by denial), that her son died a death not unlike the turtles. In a bit of cultural chauvinism and xenophobia, the men who descend on Sebastian are mostly dusky and swarthy and move in a controlled chaos, much like the flock of birds.

Another interesting question we should ask is how is homosexuality treated in this film? Both Williams and Vidal were gay as was Clift. And Taylor had a long history with gay men. Interestingly enough, though homosexuality in Suddenly, Last Summer is posited as an immoral character flaw that is synonymous with death. Sebastian is a mashing of two archetypes of homosexuals in film: the predator and the bon vivant. As the former, he goes to poorer countries and takes advantage of local penury to coerce men and boys desperate enough to perform sexual favors for him; as the latter, he’s shown as a witty cutup, who views his world with a perennially-arched eyebrow. When he indulges in his sexual proclivities he exposes himself to danger but he also exposes himself as a calculating, carnivorous being – like the Venus flytrap. His use of his cousin as “bait” to entice the young men implies that he was never interested in traveling with his mother for her company, but for her use as a female being – and when her utility ended upon age, he abandoned her for his travels with Catherine. And the mob of boys and men also align themselves within the sex=death narrative by showing that even situational homosexuality can lead one to barbarianism and murder. They performed homosexual acts and as a result have become animal-like in their brutality and uncivilized natures.

Interestingly enough, the film does do some clever compare/contrast with its two leading ladies. Both Hepburn and Taylor were celebrated beauties, and though Hepburn was older (52), she was still very good looking. However, the differences in age were exaggerated throughout the film especially in the oft-unforgiving closeups that highlighted Hepburn’s lines, freckles, and age spots – particularly when zooming in on her hands, which most believe are the best way to judge a woman’s age. Taylor, by contrast is at the height of her legendary beauty, and never looks bad – even when she’s in the throes of her madness. In the flashback scenes to Spain, Taylor is famously clad in a white swimsuit that quickly becomes transparent (by 1959 Hollywood movie standards, anyways), and her young voluptuous figure is shown. When she sits at the beach after doffing her swim cap, she sits on her needs looking very much like an idealized goddess.  The differences in costumes highlight character and mood as well – Taylor is dressed in somber, flattering black while Hepburn is done up as almost an eccentric with a feather-lined hat and voluminous, pleated skirts. There’s a starchiness to Hepburn that contrasts to the fleshiness of Taylor. Hepburn’s cheekbones jut out aggressively, casting tiny shadows of their on on her face and her somewhat exaggerated middle-age status almost renders her sexless, which illustrates Sebastian’s discarding of his mother in favor of his youthful cousin.

Upon its release, Suddenly, Last Summer was feted with award nominations, though many of its makers – including Vidal, Williams, and Mankiewicz have pointed out its flaws and failures. Taylor and Hepburn inexplicably were nominated for Academy Awards, though both actresses have done far more interesting work. The film’s considered a classic, but I view it more as an artifact or a relic of a type of film that was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s: deeply psychological dramas, often set in the south, that are taken from controversial stage plays. The psychology in these films – and this includes Suddenly Last Summer – is often half-baked and vague with a smattering of research. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Suddenly, Last Summer, though it does have a strong reputation among audiences, so it’s with severe reservation that I recommend Suddenly, Last Summer.

Click here to buy Suddenly, Last Summer on DVD from amazon.com.

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Cult classics revisted: Renee Taylor & Joseph Bologna’s take on Shakespeare, ‘Love Is All There Is’

William Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet has been retold many times on film, most notably in 1961 as a musical with West Side Story, in 1968 with Franco Zeffirelli’s interpretation, and in 1996 with Baz Luhrman’s retelling. In 1996 Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna (the duo was Oscar nominated for writing Love and Other Strangers) took a stab at the great Bard’s tragic tale of the doomed lovers. In their take, Romeo and Juliet takes place in City Island, New York. The warring families are the Cappamezzas and the Malacicis, dueling caterers who must deal with their children falling in love. An all but forgotten comedy, Love Is All There Is is a minor entry in the Shakespearean filmography, done in by a lot of its mighty flaws.

One thing I noticed after watching Love Is All There Is, is just how much it influenced and predicted Nia Vardalos’ 2002 hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Like Vardalos’ script, Taylor and Bologna put together a tale that reveled and depended on ethnic stereotypes, namely Italians and Italian-Americans (specifically New Yorkers). The cast is crammed with character actors all of whom played either Greeks, Italians, Jews, or any combination of the three. Bologna stars with Lainie Kazan as the earthier Capomezzos. Kazan is the soulful and lusty Sadie (does Kazan play any other types of women aside from soulful and lusty?). She’s a superstitious woman who consults the local psychic (a loopy Taylor) to help her dormant sex life. Along with her work, Sadie’s life revolves around her genial son, Rosario (Nathanial Marston). Rosario, the scion to the Capomezzos catering empire, is playing Romeo in a local amateur production of Romeo and Juliet.

Paul Sorvino and Barbara Carrera play the snooty Malacicis, a Florentine couple who muscle in on the Capomezzos catering turf. When the local Juliet breaks her legs in a hapless accident during rehearsal, their lovely daughter Gina (Angelina Jolie, in an early role) steps in and soon Rosario and Gina fall in love. Predictably their union causes much pain and drama among their parents, who see the union as treacherous to their respective families.

Surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s work, if one is familiar with Romeo and Juliet, the the plot will be easy to predict. And even if one has been able to avoid the plot of Romeo and Juliet, rom-coms like Love Is All There Is are pretty easy to figure out: both Gina and Rosario will fall in love, but will face obstacles. And in the end, just as the families of Romeo and Juliet did, the Capomezzos and the Malacicis learn a lesson about love and tolerance.

Taylor and Bologna are a great duo – funny and talented, but they’re not the most skillful screenwriters. The skeleton of the script is good, but the duo would benefit from a strong script doctor to reign in the Borscht belt impulses of the couple. It’s easy to see that the film was supposed to be a Woody Allen-lite, Moonstruck type of film, but it got lost along the way in the explosive gaudiness of the film.

And poor Lainie Kazan. Kitted in her standard uniform of clashing colors and warring patterns, she plays Sadie Capomezzo like she plays every other character she’s ever played. It’s a shame because though she’s a limited actress, she’s an appealing comedienne, and her presence does manage to scratch through some of the hoary cliches and stereotypes that Taylor and Bologna fling at their cast. In her quieter moments, Kazan shows she’s up to the challenge of being subtle (or at least subtler), especially when she has a heart-to-heart with a parish priest about her fears of losing her identity once her smothered son leaves the nest.

The boisterous cast also includes a pre-View Joy Behar as a family friend, Abe Vigoda, Dick Van Patton, Connie Stevens, and William Hickey. Any direction from Taylor and Bologna seems minimal, as in it feels sometimes as if they just pointed a camera at the actors and shouted, “Go bigger! Be louder!” It’s Sorvino who gives the most memorable performance (faint praise, though) – his daffy, blustery turn feels improvised a lot of the time, especially when his Piero Malacici struggles with his English and his tortured American idioms (it almost feels as if he stepped out of a Christopher Guest film and wandered onto the set of The Nanny).

And Jolie? The sole actor in this group that would reach superstardom? How does she play the ingenue? She’s decent. The actress struggles with her Italian accent, and the script demands an elasticity of the character that Jolie couldn’t successfully sell. Initially a doe-eyed gamine, she turns into a harsh-voiced harridan, before devolving into a blubbering mess. It feels as if the producers knew that Jolie had star power because she got special billing (“and introducing Angeline Jolie”) but little of her performance her warrants any predictions of megastardom.

Love Is All There Is is the last writing credit for Taylor, who would go on to greater fame and acclaim as a scene-stealing character actress (a highlight was her Emmy-nominated work as Fran Drescher’s mom on The Nanny). Bologna as a screenwriter has been dormant for a long time, only now soon to release a new film Tango Shalom which will reunite him with Kazan. It’s not a big mystery why both writers haven’t been prolific – Love Is All There Is is largely forgotten, only a minor footnote, an interest only because of its early appearance of Jolie. I won’t go as far as saying that it’s a hidden classic – it’s far too ridiculous – but it does deserve some viewing, particularly on a Sunday afternoon on a basic cable channel.

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‘Russian Ark’ by Alexander Sokurov – a reaction

I titled this post a reaction instead a review because I’m not sure I’m qualified to review Alexander Sukurov’s 2002 arthouse classic Russian Ark. I saw it at the Siskel Center with a dear friend of mine, who has seen this film and praised it to the skies.

So the plot – as much as I can figure out – is about an anonymous European (Sergei Dontsov) who wanders through the rooms of the White Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. Clad in fitted black jackets and sporting heels that Prince would covet, the European passes through the different parts of the Hermitage Museum, while the camera is following him – the most noted aspect of the film is that it’s shot in one, long, continuous take – the whole hour and a half is one sequence. It’s pretty impressive, and my friend and I were trying to figure out how the camera was able to follow the European, and not look shaky or hand-held. Then I looked it up online and learned that the director was using a Steadicam – which sounds like a made-up thing, but is actually a camera that is a type of mount that keeps the camera steady (hence the name) even if it’s being operated by hand-held.

Obviously the rooms are gorgeous – in a way that’s almost too much. It feels a bit like the viewers are on a tour, and the European breaks the fourth wall to talk to the director, who asks questions and interacts with his main character.

During the tour, we not only see the beautiful rooms, but we also run into some historic figures including Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Tsar Nicholas I, Tsar Nicholas II and his family (including the doomed princess Anastasia). Catherine the Great, in particular, is interesting in the film – a somber, confused woman, who, in a haunting scene, emerges into a snowy courtyard with one of her aides and starts to run through the gardens, despite her weight and age.

Not only does the European observe historic figures, but he also interacts with some anonymous museum patrons – from various eras. He accosts a blind woman, and takes her to a gallery, where the two discuss Anthony van Dyke. The European also accosts a teenager whose lack of piety annoys him. The most poignant sequence has the European utterly charmed by a beautiful older woman who talks to the paintings, but quickly dashes away.

A lot of the film is fantastic shots of crowds – in one scene we see the Shah of Iran apologizing to the Russian court for the assassination of diplomat Aleksander Griboyedov (an interesting scene for me because the friend I was with has family in Iran). There are also lots of fantastic party scenes – the ball sequences are a wonder. There is some stunning choreography, which the European participates in half-heartedly.

I had some issues following the gist of the movie, though there is something very magnetic and watchable about Sergei Dontsov. He’s not classically handsome and with his spindly physique, cloaked in a long black coat, and mop of curly hair, he looks like he stepped out of a Tim Burton film. The European is understood to be a ghost of some kind, a survivor of some kind of unnamed accident. I found Donstov compelling and found myself drawn into his moody ruminations, despite the difficulty of the plot.

Would I recommend Russian Ark? Yes, I would, but with reservations – when you go to see it, make sure that you with a open mind – I mean, really open, as if you were scalped. I also suggest that you follow up Russian Ark with repeated viewings, because I still feel like I missed a lot.

It’s interesting that I went to see Russian Ark, because I have a weird view of the country right now because of all the anti-gay violence that has stemmed from the anti-gay law that passed outlawing gay-friendly “propaganda.” I don’t think boycotting Russia is a good idea, nor do I think it makes sense – how do you boycott a country? But it’s a great antidote to the ugly press Russia’s been getting lately – it’s a wonderful reminder of the beauty that Russia is capable of – the art, both visual and performance. And though the movie was hard to follow, I left with a full heart – as if I saw unadorned and unfiltered beauty.

Some great moments to note:

  • There is a great scene with Anastasia, dressed like a wood nymph, dancing  and giggling with other little girls – they dash through the stunning hallways with ballet-like grace.
  • I mentioned it in the review, but it bares repeating: the gorgeous moment when the European approaches the beautiful old lady (who must’ve been a dancer in her youth) and the two have a short exchange, before she dashes off with kisses in the air.
  • The final sequence is very well-done – the camera goes in a very tight close up with party goers as they patiently file out of the ballroom in a thick, crowded mob.
  • The costumes are stunning.
  • The original score by Sergey Yevtushenko is stirring and brilliant – I looked for the soundtrack and couldn’t find it (though his 2009 work for The Last Station is available on amazon.com).

Click here to buy Russian Ark on amazon.com.

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