“J. Edgar”—Investigating the Investigator

 

Based upon a script by “Milk” screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” is a biopic of the controversial FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. In this spellbinding movie, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hoover, ages five decades, as he grows from an ambitious young law enforcer to the most powerful, controversial,  and intimidating FBI director the US has ever known.  Even presidents feared him.

“J. Edgar” depicts Hoover’s early career (the 1930’s), including raids on Communist “radicals” and organized crime, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and his most brazen surveillance for the purpose of destroying the presidency of John Kennedy, the career of Robert Kennedy, as well as that of Martin Luther King.  However, it is the secret life of Hoover that is the most compelling and successful part of the narrative, because the film tries to humanize him.  For a man whose life was devoted to extracting and exploiting the secrets of other powerful men and women, Hoover’s own secret life as a closeted homosexual takes central stage as the biography moves between his lifelong relationship with his protégé, Clyde Tolson (superbly played by Armie Hammer) and his domineering, demented mother (the always exceptional Judi Dench).

 

Hoover’s own obsessive-compulsive tendencies–his hidden psychic wounds– drive his relentless concern with his image and the image of the FBI.  Ironically, the primal image of the name “J. Edgar Hoover” today denotes government investigation gone rogue.

 

The structure of the movie and its cinematography, however, are the weakest elements of “J. Edgar”. The overdone flashbacks disconnect important events by decades–moving from the Lindbergh kidnapping to long scenes of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and then back to the Lindbergh kidnapping and trial. Eastwood shoots this story in a washed-out sepia color palette for most of the scenes from the 1930’s through early 50’s with more color added as the dramatic 1960’s emerge in the story. But these visual cues are not enough to maintain a seamless continuity of events. This is the best movie Eastwood has directed of the last four (the other three being “Changeling”, “Invictus”, and “Hereafter”) but not among the best he has done (“Letters to Iwo Jima”, “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”). Nonetheless, I highly recommend this movie for the actors’ bravura performances–especially DiCaprio’s, which defines his career to date.

***Possible spoiler alert!***The scene where DiCaprio dresses in his deceased mother’s clothes triggers a similar scene from “Psycho” and is well worth an Academy nomination in itself for DiCaprio’s chilling, wordless performance!


“The Mayor of Casterbridge”–A Victorian Drama for Today

Victorian values seem remote — the language is obtuse, the character development Shakespearean in complexity.  However, I adore Thomas Hardy.  As the master of labyrinthine plots, Hardy surprises when the viewer least expects it.  And the BBC/A & E mini-series, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (2003),  capitalizes on every deviant turn with brilliant acting, cinematography, and contemporary sensibility.

Hardy’s novel is immensely captivating in cinematic form.  “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is an astringent tale. The dark and mordant Michael Henchard, mayor of Casterbridge, (masterfully played by the underrated Ciaran Hinds) is deeply unlikable, a cruel, selfish drunkard who brutally humiliates his young wife and small child. But Thomas Hardy does not paint his characters in broad strokes of black and white.  His good and evil are much more complicated than that.  Personal failings morph into redemption and insight but devolve again into self-destruction and betrayal.  The pure-of-heart–Henchard’s wife Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May)–can forgive the unforgiveable and love unconditionally. Lucette, Henchard’s mistress (the excellent Polly Walker) has a more guarded affection. Donald Farfrae (the superb James Purefoy), a young ambitious Scotsman, arrives in Casterbridge and soon is taken into Henchard’s confidence.   Wanting to achieve what Henchard has, through cooperation not competition, Farfrae introduces a revolutionary technological invention for mechanizing wheat cultivation, further enhancing Henchard’s reputation as a shrewd and successful businessman. Soon Farfrae is a more compassionate and effective manager than his employer.   When Farfrae wishes to court Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard’s stepdaughter, the relationship with Henchard begins to unravel, and Farfrae’s own ambitions cast a shadow over his relationship with Elizabeth Jane and Lucette.

The viewer does not expect the ending that unfolds, hoping instead for redemption, forgiveness, self-knowledge. Hardy’s study of human nature and all its failings is soul-piercing and unflinching. In spite of being loved, can the tormented soul be rescued from drowning in self-loathing? The mood of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is wounded, ambiguous, and unforgettable.

 

“The Ides of March”–Beware, Beware!

  Is it possible for any political candidate to win and yet remain true to his or her original values?  Movies about dirty politics such as “Wag the Dog”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Primary Colors”, “Bob Roberts” and “The Candidate” (to name a few) has yet another winner in this category–“The Ides Of March”.  Based upon the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North,  “The Ides of March” explores new ground as well as covering familiar territory about media’s role in politics. (Willimon, by the way, worked on Howard Dean’s campaign for president).

With a star-studded cast, “The Ides of March” focuses on a press secretary, Stephen Meyers (the fabulous Ryan Gosling) as an idealistic media wizard who believes in his boss, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently running in a pivotal Ohio primary for the Democratic presidential nomination.  As the movie opens, Governor Morris is an uncompromising, idealistic liberal who believes he can make a difference. Meyers has obtained his prestigious job due to his friendship with Morris’ seasoned campaign manager, Paul Zara (underplayed subtly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The  opposing candidate, Senator Pullman, has an equally experienced campaign advisor, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti).  All those who are driving the campaign strategy are pragmatists–cynical and cold-blooded analysts– except for the young Stephen Meyers. Above all, however, Stephen Meyers believes mostly in himself.

Gosling yet again is the touchstone of the film, playing with a ferociousness and intensity we have seen in “Murder by Numbers”, “Lars and the Real Girl”, “Blue Valentine” and “Drive”. In the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Ohio primary, Steve is obsessively focused on the governor’s campaign victory.   Others do not register on his radar:  the young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), the New York Times journalist (Marisa Tomei), even his boss Paul Zara except when they  can support his move up the ladder. Personal and political ambitions are inextricably intertwined.  Motives are suspicious.  Mistrust and betrayal are inescapable. Concealment reveals to astonishing effect!

The 2012 US presidential campaign is  a year away, and yet many people seem already discouraged and demoralized.  Which raises the salient question about  political reality in the US today– If you’re too principled to play dirty, can you be a winner or is the game stacked against you?  Paul Zara (Hoffman’s character)–in one of my favorite scenes–complains that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who are not so scrupulous. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up.  They never figure out how to play the game themselves.  Perhaps a bit polemical, the movie’s theme remains the same:  the winner in the campaign game is the one with the biggest advantage–shaping the media and backroom payoffs for personal gain. Those who do not consider politics a blood sport shouldn’t play.

“The Ides of March” is a thoughtful political drama, which may not result in  box office success.  The story is not a narrative of hope.  However, the last shot of the film is well worth the price of a ticket in itself:  brilliant, chilling, and epitomizing editorial self-control.  No other ending could do so much with so little.  A masterpiece of restraint!

“The Help”– “Telling the Truth Can Be a Revolutionary Act”

Based upon the best-selling 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett, “The Help” is a vision of a divided America that is consistent, sometimes terrifying, in its insulting, insinuating dehumanization of African Americans. This movie is also easy-to-like –problematic but ultimately winning–and has now earned a huge $154.4 million in box revenues.

Skeeter (played competently by Emma Stone), a young white journalism major who has recently graduated from the University of Mississippi, has returned home to Jackson to find that Constantine (Cicely Tyson), who raised her, no longer works for her mother. As Skeeter tries to find out what happened to Constantine, she begins to see the reality of life in Jackson for the black residents who are a vital part of the white community’s quality of life. Aibileen (impeccably portrayed by Viola Davis), the heroine of the movie, tells her life to Skeeter who secretly interviews her at night.  Slowly other maids bravely come forth, at great personal risk,  to tell their stories of the  same suffering, the same humiliating circumstances on the cusp of the civil rights revolution.

Irony is often heavy handed.  For example, the Junior League’s fund-raising for the sake of “the Poor Starving Children of Africa” while treating the poor African-Americans of Jackson as if they were subhuman.  Minnie, another black maid, is defiantly humorous.   Played by Octavia Spencer who seems to be paying tribute to the maids portrayed in the 1930’s and 1940’s by notable African-American actresses with few options in theater or cinema, her bravura performance  adds a much-needed comic element.

The cycle of racism spins in too-familiar patterns.  The white babies the black maids raise become the housewives who insult them.  Only Skeeter is motivated to change things for those who have cared for her and her peers. One other young white woman in town, Celia (again, a superb Jessica Chastain of “The Debt” and “The Tree of Life”), seems to see the ugly truth underpinning the superficial beauty of the town.

The extraordinary actress, Viola Davis (from “Doubt”, and the Tony award-winning “Fences”) infuses Aibileen with a dignity and warmth that fully reveals an exceptionally strong female character in spite of some of the caricature that her role could have conveyed.  “The Help” belongs to her. Even when the story drifts to the white women from hell –the Junior League Ole Miss debutantes epitomized by Miss Hilly (fiercely played by Bryce Dallas Howard), Davis’s performance lingers in the viewer’s mind, with  tough, wrenchingly vulnerable scenes with a pudgy, insecure little white girl at risk of irreparable damage. Another story is also a subtext, however.  Inside all these different homes, black and white, women with hearts and souls tended to the urgent matters of everyday life, like the care and feeding of children, and the seeking of approval from their husbands.  The white women are no happier than the black women, only meaner and more frightened by the impending change they can feel subliminally. No one voices their frustration with their circumstances except, in the end, the help.

This movie could have devolved into a cartoon of good vs. evil, but the actresses refuse to demean their characters by mocking them in such shorthand.  Only Miss Hilly and Elizabeth, the two most strident racists among the socialites, are virtually one-dimensional.  But these actresses find every possible nuance to show their neurotic tendencies, their fear of social ostracism and save their performances from being caricatures.

The era evoked in  “The Help” is not even fifty years ago but presents us with the painful recognition of the best and the worst of US race relations.

Update: For an additional article (November 9) about “The Help” which I wrote, go to the website www.womensmemoirs.com.

 

“The Debt”–Did We See the Same Movie?

In this remake of a popular 2007 Israeli movie, the genre label “espionage thriller” is an understatement.   The movie opens in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad agents Rachel and Stefan (married to each other but now divorced.)  Then “The Debt” moves quickly and chillingly between the 1960’s and 1997, in search for the Surgeon of Birkenau, a doppelganger for Mengele, the infamous Nazi general who masterminded the medical butchery of the Holocaust.

Helen Mirren, playing the courageous Mossad operative Rachel Singer, appears in 1997 for a book-signing celebrating her Mossad exploits retold by  her daughter Sara, who has eulogized her mother in a biography that recounts the heroic capture and slaying of Dieter Vogel,  Surgeon of Birkenau.  This is no typical role for Mirren but she is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  That alone makes this film a groundbreaking example for future roles for actresses of Mirren’s stature and caliber.

The story requires two sets of actors–three actors in their twenties who play the youthful Mossad agents of the 1960’s and the three who play the same agents in their sixties almost thirty years later (1997).  Sam Worthington (as young David) and Marton Csokas (as young Stefan), share an apartment with Rachel as well as romantic inclinations. Jessica Chastain (as young Rachel) is particularly outstanding since the majority of the film holds together centered on Rachel’s heroism.

It is true that the past leads to the present, and each flashback brings new interpretations of events, but regardless of the mixed and negative reviews some of you may read, the mystery behind the Mossad agents and Vogel are clearly laid out. In 1966, three Mossad agents – Stephan (Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain) – are brought together in East Berlin for a secret mission: capture Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the “Butcher of Birkenau,” and deliver him to Israel for public trial. Nearly 30 years later, these three gather once again to go back into the field after decades of retirement.

The gynecological scenes with the venomous Vogel in which Rachel has her legs in stirrups on the examination table are chilling.  They recall the fear of dentists that “Marathon Man” evoked or the terror of getting into a shower that “Psycho” elicited, but with much more subtlety. In a sneering scene that will be imprinted on the viewer’s brain for a very, very long time, two of the most horrific, unforgivable sentences ever uttered in a movie ring out cruelly from Vogel’s vicious mouth. These excruciating scenes are followed by others. Rachel spoon-feeding the bound Vogel is nausea-inducing in intensity and cunning.   These scenes are not for the faint of heart!

The ending is brilliant, if panned by some critics (not all).  I thought the plot surprised at every turn, keeping me guessing until the very end. What critics could find lame about this movie’s ending  flies in the face of reason to me.  I have not seen a movie about the Holocaust as riveting as this one except for “Sophie’s Choice”,  “Schindler’s List”, and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” but “The Debt” can’t be categorized in the same genre as these movies either.  “The Debt” is also much more than an espionage thriller like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I can’t believe critics who panned this movie saw the same film I did!  [Warning:  this movie can snap and stretch the nerves of the viewer.]

“The Fighter”–A Knockout

The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo).  However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”.  This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.

This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen.  And the story is a remarkable one.

There are actually two stories in one:  Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of  the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale),  who  could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of  a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.

Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”.  Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become.  Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance.   The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend.  Without Mark Wahlberg’s  understated acting, which  is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or  overreaching.

The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success.  Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.

“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels.  It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be.  It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque.  And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life.  The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.”  For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.

The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not.   Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate.  The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.

 

“The Fall” — A Mind-Bending Marvel

The visual splendor and breathtaking imagination of “The Fall” made me actually dream of some of the scenes, an experience I rarely have. Reality and fantasy blur into a magical realism that so dazzles the eyes, it suggests a psychedelic otherworldly, perhaps drug-induced journey. This movie is a magical, mystery tour–“The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen” meets “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”.

“The Fall” (2008) is two movies in one–and I don’t mean the story within a story that grounds the mind-blowing imagery. I mean the visual story: the sumptuous fantasy world of 1920’s Los Angeles. Filmed in Fiji, Bali, Brazil, India, South Africa, and thirteen other countries, I could have viewed this movie on “mute” and still have loved it! Captivating scenes of a butterfly-shaped island; a warrior shot so full of arrows he falls backwards on them like a bed of nails; an Escher-like staircase to nowhere; costumes with lotus-shaped headdresses and fan-shaped veils; russet-colored mountains with Crest-toothpaste aquamarine skies I thought were colorized; faces that melt into the mountainside, with faint, lingering shadows of eyes.

Genius for the understatement works its magic from the opening scene and continues through close-ups of a little girl’s hands, her vulnerability and innocence revealed by soft, seemingly boneless fingers. Footage of a massive elephant swimming in the ocean, with the cameramen shooting from underneath causes cognitive dissonance. The elephant had to be “animatronic”, not a living, breathing mastodon-sized pachyderm. But I was so wrong. Astounding, mind-boggling scenes trick both the eye and the mind.

But there is also an epic story to tell. Languishing in a hospital, stuntman Roy Walker (played by newcomer Lee Pace) is grievously injured from jumping off a bridge onto a horse far below. Not only is his body broken, but also his heart. To entertain the little girl Alexandra (the unforgettable Catinca Untaru, a six-year old with a soft whisper of a Romanian accent), Roy tells a fantastical tale of heroes, warriors, and a princess in scenes conjuring “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”. However, his ulterior motive is not to entertain a little girl in a body cast, but to coax her to steal morphine so he can “sleep”. A free-fall feast for the eyes, Roy’s drug-induced stupor is recreated by the stunning imagery of the tale-within-the-tale. Alexandra’s imagination becomes the catalyst for Roy’s story, and her purity and innocence ultimately overpower him. Roy is her perfect storyteller, she is his perfect listener, and together they imagine a new world–one of beauty and art…and heal.

Catinca Untaru is the heart and soul of this movie! She is so natural as the wide-eyed innocent child, I thought her dialogue was unscripted. Only the out-takes convinced me otherwise. Colin Watkinson, the cinematographer, in some sense shares the director role with Tarsem Singh because his portraits of art in motion are a parallel universe as addicting as the morphine that Roy craves. “The Fall” is, above all, visual storytelling. Without Wilkinson’s evocative visual effects, the narrative would not have flourished.

Unfortunately, due to delayed and poor distribution, “The Fall” did not reach the wider audience it deserves. With less than $4 million worldwide in gross receipts, this is a gross injustice! Treat yourself to this cinematic work of art and relish in its marvel and splendor!

View the trailer

“Blue Valentine” –Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This critically acclaimed Sundance 2010 darling features Michelle Williams (in an Oscar-nominated performance) and Ryan Gosling in a Generation X’s portrait of a marriage from hell reminiscent of Tennessee Williams’ classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and John Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence”.

Blue Valentine’s story is simple and straightforward. A young nurse, Cindy Heller (Williams) lives with an abusive father, an adrift mother, and cares for her ailing grandmother. She has endured a violent relationship with a high school boyfriend and has given up her dream to become a doctor. She meets Dean (Gosling) at her grandmother’s assisted living center and they end up rushing into marriage, knowing next to nothing about each other. They are both excruciatingly wounded and searching for an escape. Soon after her young daughter, Frankie, is born, they begin to lose their way.

From the opening scene in which Dean plays with spilled oatmeal, licking it off the kitchen table with his five-year old daughter, we are acutely aware that he is stunted…not quite an adult, but a playmate that his daughter adores. Tellingly, he is siding with his child at the expense of the mother who has wearily thrown together a breakfast for them. With flashbacks between the romantic years and the desperate ones, “Blue Valentine” takes us on a journey of their rapidly accelerating heartbreak.

Not altogether a misfit, Dean is a young high school dropout, working for a New York City moving company and later as a house painter. He is a kind, keen observer, especially toward the elderly and the beloved family dog. Dean’s also a drunk. He tries to make a living, but mostly enjoys being with Cindy and their daughter, his only meaningful goals in life. But he gets it so wrong!

Cindy is trying to keep their family on more firm ground financially. She’s still attractive to other men and Dean can’t contain his jealousy. In the hope of rekindling their sexual life, Dean brings Cindy to a motel with a kitschy, pseudo-sci-fi decor, but there is no intimacy. Their marriage has collapsed in on itself and the sting in their relationship is visceral.

A previous scene, in which Gosling sings “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and Williams dances, foreshadows the wrenching pain to come. Bravely, they both struggle to keep their relationship together in spite of their own best interests. While Dean desperately desires to hold on to his family, his only keystone, he doesn’t know how and neither does Cindy.

Marriages are difficult, precarious, and stressful, and each has its own rhythms and secrets. Not even a deep knowledge of each other can guarantee a long and happy marriage. “Blue Valentine” sometimes succeeds in taking us to this far more honest – and less comfortable – place. One partner’s “best” may simply not be “good enough”.

The wounded and defensive natures of both main characters are powerfully portrayed: Gosling, when his anger is unleashed,–the self-protecting male fighting for what is “his”,–and Williams for the abandonment of her dreams. But these performances do not save this film. Even though their relationship feels real, the story needed to be more specific.

“Blue Valentine” ultimately misses the mark for not revealing both Cindy and Dean’s background. What happened to them in their pre-adulthood years? Why does neither of them have a safety net? These are two young people, tattered and torn, lunging for love as if they were gasping for air. I wanted to know why.

“Game of Thrones” — “Rome” Meets “Lord of the Rings”

Depending upon the viewer’s tolerance for over-the-top nudity and gratuitous violence (albeit infrequently), this Emmy-nominated HBO series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can be a guilty pleasure. An entrancing, seductive ten-episode TV miniseries, “Game of Thrones” is a compelling, carefully crafted drama about a mythical, magical medieval world.

Nicknamed the American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin has authored the best-selling fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Game of Thrones” is based on the first book in the series. Episode One opens with one of the most harrowing and genuinely cold-blooded scenes I can remember ever watching, especially for a fantasy drama. Amputated arms and legs are strewn across a stark, snowy forest glen, filmed overhead with slow, gliding camera movements. A man wanders from his two friends to discover the carnage but when the three men return, the body parts have vanished.

As is true for many sci-fi and fantasy novels, I needed an organization chart and a family tree for each of the main characters and his or her families–in this case seven kingdoms or clans struggling for the Iron Throne of Westeros, a medieval world facing an impending forty-year winter.

I don’t know if it was an intentional casting move to feature Sean Bean as a main character in “Game of Thrones” based on his previous role in “Lord of the Rings”, but the comparison between the two epics is obvious. In both epics all main characters are outliers. In “Game of Thrones” one character is a sole survivor of a family massacre, one is a bastard, one part dragon, one a girl who wishes she were a boy, to name only a few.

Some of the subplots are convoluted too, only to pull this viewer into its recesses. For example, one princess is forced to marry a king of a “barbaric” tribe but she is determined to understand her husband’s culture and eventually…and contentedly… fits into his society. The rape and pillage, not even subtly associated with Attila the Hun, allows the viewer not only to sympathize with the princess but also with her husband–no mean feat!

Arguments can be made that this series reduces some characters to racist or misogynist stereotypes. However, if the viewer focuses on the handful of intricately drawn portraits, especially those of the dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and the heir to the Stark clan (Sean Bean), moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve yet wish to transcend is clearly maintained.

I have never been a “Dungeons and Dragons”, Tolkien, or “Watership Down” fan but this fantasy miniseries feels more like an epic history of mythological proportions, analogous to the retelling of the generational conflicts, political intrigue and betrayal in the “Rome” miniseries, also from HBO (2005). All the requisite blockbuster devices of bloody battle scenes, nudity, political corruption, and even humor are present in each episode. However, the superb writing, mostly noteworthy acting, and stunning cinematography contribute to the tremendous appeal of “Game of Thrones”. Like “Rome” or “Dexter”, there may not be a socially redeeming, “intellectual” component, but the story is addicting and highly spell-binding. This is no “Mildred Pierce”, also a strong Emmy contender (see my last blog post) yet the white snow and dark shadows of this story made “Game of Thrones” a winner for me!

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!

“I Love You Phillip Morris”– “Catch Me If You Can” With a Gay Twist

Let me start by saying I wanted to really love this movie starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. I was sitting on the fence on this one but no more.

This oddball movie is loosely based upon an improbable but true story of a gay conman/grifter, Steve Russell, who continually breaks the law to impress his young lover, Phillip Morris, in a small Texas community. “I Love You Phillip Morris” opens with Russell (Jim Carrey) on a hospital gurney, near death. Up until now he has led a life of pretense –a married policeman whose wife, Debbie (Leslie Mann), is a sweet, caring church-going spouse. But his near-death experience has made Russell realize he’s going to live life as an openly gay man who no longer sneaks out on Debbie at night. His newfound gay lifestyle involves lavish and luxurious habits, which he cannot afford on a policeman’s salary so he turns to a world of crime. Sent to the Texas State Penitentiary where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), Russell begins an outrageous con to free both of them.

Every time Ewan McGregor is onscreen, this viewer lit up at his performance. While Jim Carrey somehow always reminds you that he is first and foremost Jim Carrey, that does not hold true for McGregor who plays the love interest with subtle charm and none of the usual swishy, exploitative cinematic portrayals of gay men. Carrey sometimes feels to me as if he is satirizing Russell, instead of seeing his tortured nature. In one of the most moving scenes in the story, Morris confronts Russell who has implicated him in his crimes: “How does someone who doesn’t exist go on existing?” Morris doesn’t know him, because the chameleonic Russell seemingly has no core.

Even though the main character is a narcissistic sociopathic scam artist, I think he could still have been lovable as was Leonardo di Caprio’s character in “Catch Me If You Can.” But I found the story not persuasive as fiction, let alone truth, because the larcenous self-inventing Steve Russell is so hard to understand, let alone feel compassion for. Russell seems to be stunted, but his perpetual emotional postponement, even in the face of the man he loves, is never underscored. To see a more convincing portrayal of the gay man’s situation, I would go see “A Single Man” hands down!

Good actors, some over-the-top homosexual erotic scenes but a movie that ultimately doesn’t realize its potential. Too bad–could have been concomitantly hilarious and touching in almost every way!

“Rabbit Hole”–A Parallel Universe

Nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Play and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Rabbit Hole” was released as a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about six months ago (December 2010). This movie takes familiar territory and creates a classic.

Astutely named, “rabbit hole” refers to a bizarre or difficult state or situation. What gut-wrenching, reality-changing universe can be more brutal and painful than the death of a loved one? A metaphor for adventure into the unknown, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is no clear set of rules for a world turned upside down by grief . In a labyrinth of guilt, self-recrimination, tightly controlled rage and estrangement from oneself, there seems to be no escape.

The storyline is every parent’s nightmare–the death of a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) struggle furiously with the deepest of wounds after the death of their 4-year-old son, Danny. The once happily married couple finds themselves displaced. Their marriage on the verge of a nervous breakdown, in a house still infused with death. Where Becca finds pain in the familiar, Howie finds comfort. Their souls are dissolving and dangerously off track.

Becca’s loving but unintentionally inept mother (Dianne Wiest) has also experienced the death of a son and unsuccessfully offers comfort and advice but Becca reflexively refuses. Weekly support group therapy only increases Becca’s inability to heal. Howie finds solace in Gaby, a fellow therapy attendee (played with compassion by Sandra Oh) while Becca stalks a teenager who has written and illustrated a comic book, entitled “Rabbit Hole”, about a parallel universe where Becca believes “somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”

This cinematic character study redirects our sympathies at every turn. Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family. Anyone who has ever gone through the possessions of a deceased family member or close friend understands instantly the crispness in tone of voice, the touch of the clothing, and the memory of smell portrayed in several of this film’s most memorable scenes. Without flinching, the cast makes it clear that the wound beneath the surface never really stops hurting, but heals by degrees.