Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Viewless Wings of Poesy

The main thing you might remember about Jane Campion's largely underrated In the Cut was its erotic power, especially with Mark Ruffalo's New York cop licking all Meg Ryan's irritating mannerisms to kingdom come.

It was inspired casting, directing and filmmaking, playing as it did with notions of remembering what you saw and what you thought you saw.

The second thing you might remember was that the deliciously iconoclastic Jennifer Jason Leigh lost her head - literally.

Then you might remember that, in the end, Ryan's Frannie resolved the physical threat to her person by herself and returned to her cop lover, who had been cuffed to a heater during that time, the subtext of which we will not go into here.

You might also vaguely remember that Frannie had a thing about words in the subway train and, even less likely, you'll remember that she was a professor of writing.

Now the reason why I'm going on about this is that Campion's latest film, Bright Star, out on DVD now, is almost entirely dependent on words. Poetry, to be exact. John Keats's fine romantic poetry to be even more precise.

We have to listen to this film. Still, it looks as fresh and "organic" - Campion's stated intention and accurate description - in its execution as There Will Be Blood did.

Abbey Cornish as Fanny Brawne literally grows from a nondescript seamstress to someone who is irradiated by love for her poetic neigbour, Keats; and the scrawny Ben Whishaw manages to convey the poet's physical weakness and moral power in equal and impressive measure.

But film's poetry is not about pictures supporting words; it's precisely the other way around.


Love of a completely different kind features in Crazy Heart, with Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar for playing the role of a drunken, smoking, travelling and philandering country and western musician that requires a dramatic range, really, of about midnight to five past.

Bridges has done much better, but then who cares? He deserves the statuette not only for his talent and consistency, but also for proving the exception to the rule that Hollywood is filled with louts, idiots and egomaniacs.

The one thing that's going to change the itinerant Bad Blake, driving across the big country from one small town to another, of course, is a woman. And she comes in the guise of Jean, played with perfect charm by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her shy music reporter is refreshing and quite brilliant.

But when Bad makes one alcoholic mistake she drops him like the lump of drunken lard he is and is virtually unmoved when he proves himself to be quite done with the demon water. In fact, she turns out to be a bit of a groupie in the end, which kind of jars with her original, winsome character.

That is the only problem I had with this warm, impressive film by debut director Scott Cooper, pulling together landscape, character and song into a satisfying whole.

Look out for a great cameo by Robert Duvall, who also co-produced, and Colin Farrell, who didn't take a front credit for reasons only his agent might know.


The closest we're going to get to wild or illicit love is in An Education, out on DVD for quite a while now but worth mentioning for its excellent acting and strong Kiwi connection.

Many a schoolboy will know the dread of seeing the object of his desire being cruised by an older, working man in a sports car, oozing practised charm from his open window.

Every time I see a red Alfa Romeo Sprint I still get the heebee-jeebies, thinking back, so when Peter Sarsgaard appeared in schoolgirl Jenny's life I told my wife that he usually gets cast as a nasty piece of work with those sleepy eyes of his.

"But he's playing such a nice guy," she said. "So far," I grumbled. "And he's cute," she said. "Hmn," I hummed.

And of course he turns out to be a real creep, which is a pity, because he really does the English charmer rather well and it would have made a nice change from a career point of view.

But he was obviously brought on board to satisfy the demands of the American market and, of course, as David he delivers. Mulligan, as Jenny, didn't get her Oscar nomination for nothing, either.

In fact, everyone delivers a fine performance. Alfred Molina as Jenny's money-obsessed and hypocritical father; Cara Seymour as his more or less voiceless, early-Sixties wife, Marjorie; Dominic Cooper as David's equally sexy partner in "business"; both Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike cast against type as the disappointed Ms Stubbs and the flaky moll, Helen; Emma Thompson as the stern principal; and poor Matthew Beard as Graham, the clumsy, clunky schoolboy who cannot possibly compete against a man who has money, charm - and secrets.

But there's a bit of a problem with the Oscar-nominated script by popular author Nick Hornby. If the 16-year-old Jenny can be ever so mature about how and when she is going to lose her virginity, then she is also ever so easily swayed by this man - especially when he makes an utterly outrageous suggestion as to how exactly she should lose her maidenhood.

Furthermore, Hornby seems to be suggesting that for Jenny to be happy she has to end up at Oxford University, has to be seen with another man at said institution, and for the first time she has to deliver a voice-over that feels like it's been tagged on at the end.

Brought to life by Kiwi producer Finola Dwyer, who was also justly nominated, this is a well cast, shot and directed film. But its ending kind of betrays all the reported hard work that went into its making.


And then there is life without love. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) spends more time Up in the Air than on terra firma. He fires people across the country and tries, as the saying goes, to make them look forwards to the trip.

He's smart, cynical, professional, and Clooney is so well made up that he looks as if his handsome visage is going to collapse into a mask of horrified middle age on the very next flight.

Problem is, he becomes boring because his life is so boring. He gives seminars on how to handle life, using the metaphor of packing the whole of that life into your travel bag.

Through his interaction with a theory-addled young graduate who actually becomes human, played well by Natalie Keener, and a fellow traveller, the almost Faye Dunaway-like Vera Farmiga, he comes to see the hollowness of his life.

Still he manages to persuade a future brother-in-law to marry his sister, played by Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey, because marriage is good, even though he doesn't believe it.

Finally he is told - and thus we are signposted - that he's going to have to choose between his non-committal bachelorhood and family. Those are the only two choices. To hell with a life of, say, the intellect, or starting a seafood restaurant in another country.

And because this is Hollywood we feel cheated that we've been watching this flick and are going to be given the standard ending - which is when director Ivan Reitman and Clooney hit us for a six.

They actually come up with a hard-hitting, uncompromising indictment of the American dream that makes an unpaid, long-suffering film critic's job so worth doing.

Neil Sonnekus

* On circuit at the moment is the seemingly self-explanatory Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts and no commas; and Cairo Time, featuring the husky bedroom voice and person of Patricia Clarkson. On DVD there is the apparent retch-fest Dear John and the not-so-well received Valentine's Day and The Time Traveler's Wife, among many others.

** Next week I'll be going extreme with The Human Centipede (mad German scientist), The [post-apocalyptic] Road and AntiChrist (pretentious Danish director). Hold your breath.


  1. As it happens I have seen all the movies in this week's blog. I was really looking forward to Bright Star, being a great fan of Keats. I have to say that in the end I was disappointed to watch a movie more about Fannie Brawne (imagined) than about Keats. I can see where Campion was coming from with her woman's point of view, but ultimately I was disappointed in how shallowly the film looked at Keats himself and his magnificent poetry. Incidentally, I do think that Campion should have received the first woman's director oscar for director of her great movie, The Piano. It was a better movie than The Hurt Locker.

    I went to Crazy Heart as a huge fan of Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gilhenhaaal (sp), but was rather disappointed in the end. The characters were simplified and the plot rather muddled in the end. And I have always been rather uncomfortable with the Hollywood idea of 60 something men getting with 20 or 30 something babes. I was, however, impressed by Bridges's singing. I did enjoy Colin Farrell - a vastly underrated actor.

    On the opposite end if the scale, I came to An Education a bit cynical, but ended up really loving it. Beautifully acted, and as the father of recently teenage daughters gone to Oxford, very evocative.

    Up in the Air I thought was just a terrific movie, really well constructed and entertaining, and Clooney is a magnetic actor, not just if you are a woman.

  2. Oh, and I should have said that Jeff Bridges should have got his oscar for The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Immortal!!!

  3. Thank you Andrew,the point you make about the older man and young woman in Crazy Heart is a very good one. I agree about The Piano and the acting in An Education too. But I think I was too soft on Up in the Air. I actually felt bored and would have stopped watching it if I wasn't supposed to review it, regardless of whether Clooney and Farmiga were in it or not