Thursday, May 27, 2010

Finding joy in the search for lost love

For anyone who's ever wondered what it would be like to reunite with a lost love, "Letters to Juliet" will provide a sweetly sentimental journey sure to have them leaving the theater feeling buoyant and cheerful. I felt all that and even had some sort of moisture pour from my eyes. All right, I'll admit I cried.
Hollywood romances often succeed based on whether the audience likes the characters and cares about their story. Amanda Seyfried, starring in her fourth movie in less than a year, plays Sophie, the fiancee of Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal).
The couple is supposed to be enjoying their pre-wedding vacation in Italy, but Victor is a passionate restauranteur and is busy spending his time visiting cheese and wine suppliers and attending a wine auction. This must happen in order to propel Sophie's part of the story, but it is distracting to be expected to believe someone would neglect Amanda Seyfried in favor of some Asiago.
While Victor's away, Sophie notices a group of women, some in tears, writing letters and leaving them taped to a wall outside. Intrigued by the site, she follows a woman who collects the letters in a basket. She learns the woman is part of a group called the Secretaries of Juliet, who take up the responsibility of responding to all the messages. Because the film is set mostly in Italy, Sophie is soon offered to stay for dinner and soon is joining the secretaries each day. Sophie finds a letter which rested inside the wall, hidden behind a brick for decades and decides to write to the woman who penned it in the summer of 1957.
This brings the letter's author, Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) and her handsome young grandson, Charlie (Christopher Egan) to Italy to find her long lost love. Because it's a movie, Charlie is British and has the dapper, "GQ"-reading appearance and charming accent to prove it. He of course, detests Sophie immediately, but the attraction between them soon becomes a focus of the story.
Describing "Letters to Juliet" doesn't sell the picture because it makes it sound like a dime a dozen romance only young people could enjoy. The truth is the movie is that rare and special film which, to use a film criticism cliche, will delight young and old alike.
I went to this movie hoping for a pleasant love story, but it exceeds expectations in the most important ways. Sure it has all the formula elements of these types of movies which typically turn me into a cynic. There is the lavish two-week trip to Italy, Sophie is a fact-checker at "The New Yorker", which satisfies the rule of a magazine employee in a romantic film and the two men Sohpie is involved with have accents, but these cliches make the movie even more endearing because I was so affected by the performances and story I didn't care about the imperfections at all.
What I did care about was seeing Claire finding Lorenzo after 50 years and when the two long-lost lovers are finally reunited it is a truly joyous moment. So joyous in fact, I didn't mind watching another movie outdoor wedding reception, because I was so happy for the characters involved.
Redgrave and Seyfried share an excellent scene in which Claire tells Sophie about her some of her favorite memories of her time with Lorenzo. She tells the story so convincingly viewers are likely to feel along with her and possibly recall their own youthful bliss.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

ON DVD: A welcome glimpse of reality on a hard road to Alaska


The more I think about "Wendy and Lucy" the more I like and appreciate it.
Of several standout moments in the film, the one most affecting and telling takes place in a small, confined space. Confinement could describe Wendy's economic state, since she has few options available to her. Trying to make her way to Alaska from Indiana, she tries to start her car, which also serves as her domicile, one morning and it won't start. While waiting for the auto shop to open, Wendy tries to feed her small dog Lucy, but only a few morsels tumble out of the bag of food.
Wendy keeps a ledger, in which she tracks her spending. She is seen deducting items of modest amounts and writing how much she has left. She may have enough to make it to Alaska.
She leaves Lucy outside a grocery store and goes inside and is caught shoplifting dog food. The overzealous young employee who takes her to the manager's office is insistent she be made an example of. He has a condescending and simplistic mindset and says coldly, "People who can't afford dog food shouldn't have a dog."
After being arrested, Wendy tells the officer her dog is tied up at the storefront, but she's taken to the station without Lucy and when she returns, her dog is missing.
The scene mentioned earlier takes place following an encounter while sleeping outside in the woods, while her car is in the repair shop overnight, during which she is awakened by a man who rifles through her belongings. After rambling on about people he's killed, he finally leaves. Williams plays the scene in which the stranger speaks to her as realistically as one could imagine it and throughout Wendy is cocooned in her blanket, quiet except for a slight whimper of fear, but what comes next is powerful acting.
She collects her few belongings and runs to a bathroom at a gas station, where she cries. She begins sobbing loudly and then her crying becomes the type of silent crying reserved for times of extreme duress. Sometimes when misfortune hits, it slows people down but isn't enough to induce tears. Other times people don't have the energy within them to cry and in an early scene Wendy almost cried, but abstained. Other times it is the only option, a bizarre and cathartic exercise of twisted meditation in which the severity of the crying serves as a respite from the troubles sending the person there in the first place. Williams acts this scene flawlessly and she allows the audience to take this emotional journey too, and everyone, Wendy included, feel relieved afterward.
So many movies feature characters with privileged and affluent lives in which they have high-powered, high-paying jobs and the only major problem is finding the right person to complete their vision of "having it all." "The Backup Plan", "Leap Year" and "When in Rome" are a few recent examples of this unfortunate formula. The latter two are the most offensive since they involve trips to Ireland and Italy, respectively. In "Leap Year" Amy Adams' character travels to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend and in "When in Rome" Kristen Bell is there to participate in her sister's wedding. This is of course, because in a time of double-digit unemployment everyone has the means readily available to jet off somewhere on a whim.
"Wendy and Lucy" is one of the most important films I've seen in a long time. The world needs more writers like Jonathan Raymond, more directors like Kelly Reichardt and more films like this in order to give a voice and representation to frequently ignored societal norms.
The future for Wendy is uncertain at the movie's conclusion. It's possible she'll land on her feet someday or it's possible she'll join the ranks of the chronically homeless, who too many people view as the result of a lack of personal responsibility. "Wendy and Lucy" wisely stays away from assigning any reason to Wendy's situation. The audience knows only where she is headed and that she maintains some communication with her sister, but not there is no specific event in her history provided. To do so would risk politicizing the movie and dividing the audience into groups blaming Wendy or blaming some aspect of society for her hardship. Just as nobody can explain the circumstances leading up to a stranger's homelessness, the audience can't pass judgment on Wendy. As a result, the story focuses on her struggle and only the hardest of hearts won't feel for her.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On DVD: A true story of true love


While watching "Heavenly Creatures" I became aware of a feeling and a mindset which both eluded me for so long I'd almost forgotten them.
It's a testament to the film's ability to vividly portray emotion that a viewer can watch what's on the screen, have something buried inside them stirred and then think to themselves, "I remember that."
The "that" I refer to is a period of time during youth in which all the complexities of the world are pushed aside as one is enveloped in a warm, safe and blissful blanket of infatuation. It's unlikely anyone inside this blanket looks at the future because they're so enthralled with the present and when the future is glimpsed, it is only happy and perfect, the way life is now. Nobody in this state imagines their world changing for anything but the best, and when something inevitably interrupts, threatens or even ends this personal utopia, it is devastating, crushing and bleak. "Heavenly Creatures" is a story of what two people did when their utopia was endangered.
Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey portray the real-life lovers Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who in 1954 New Zealand murdered Parker's mother because she stood in the way of their togetherness.
Winslet is now one of the industry's most revered and consistently successful actresses and the skill and truth she brings to her roles is evident in this, her first film.
Upon introduction in the film, Winslet is plucky and energetic, the light to Lynskey's brooding Parker. The two soon form a close and inseparable bond, which causes consternation and later fear as Juliet's father recommends a specialist for Pauline to visit because he's concerned an unhealthy relationship is forming. After consulting with Pauline, the specialist reluctantly and with trepidation tells her mother she may be a homosexual.
He appears to have great difficulty saying the word, which is more pushed out of his mouth than spoken.
When the girls are together, they venture into fantasy sequences and through the magic of special effects, their minds take them to a personal Utopia.
It is during these sequences the movie wavers slightly by veering off course from the central story of the girls. Yes, the sequences are meant to visually represent the joy and wonder the two feel together, but the scenes of clay figurines come to life are not necessary and eventually grow tiresome, stalling the story rather than enriching it.
Winslet does a superb job of inhabiting the role of Juliet and is thoroughly convincing as being so enamored with her companion she cannot fathom a meaningful existence without her.
The girls' parents do not understand their attachment and with the experience of age view this impending separation as a bump in the road of life, while to the girls it's the end of everything worth living for. An affecting scene has the two girls on the phone with each other, sobbing and trying to figure out a way to stay together. I found myself genuinely moved and the two actresses are perfect together in this wrenching moment.
It doesn't reveal a secret to write the true story's conclusion is not a happy one and when it comes tot he brutal conclusion it is shocking and gasp-inducing.
"Heavenly Creatures" is wonderfully unique, love story worthy of being seen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A few kinks to iron out


While Iron Man 2 has much of the same type of excitement and witty charm from Robert Downey Jr. as its predecessor, there is a lengthy section in the middle, devoid of action, which hits the theater with a thud off dullness.
This, along with a foible among many comic-book movie sequels of trying to fit in too many characters and therefore not having the time to adequately address them, makes for a film leaving the audience wanting more, but only because there isn’t a large enough helping to begin with.
Downey is perfect in the role and despite playing Tony Stark as a self-absorbed playboy, manages to maintain the character’s likeability and when he’s onscreen it’s a delight. The supporting cast is strong too, as Mickey Rourke plays Whiplash with a quiet, reserved menace, speaking only when necessary and plotting revenge against Stark in between. Scarlett Johansson smolders as Black Widow, a stealthy secret agent in the employ of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, who appeared briefly following the end credits of Iron Man. Sam Rockwell is a blast in another one of his signature sleazy roles as an arms dealer trying to duplicate the Iron Man technology for military use. Jackson’s appearance in the film appears to be two-fold. First, it continues to lay the groundwork for an upcoming superhero movie called The Avengers and the other is to allow him to engage in one of his patented banter sequences. Across the table from Stark in a diner, he speaks in his loud-voiced, hyperbolic intonation, which was funny and unique years back, but is now in the realm of self-parody. I don’t recall the specifics of the conversation because the scene serves more as an unintended distraction than a propelling of the story. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, Stark’s most trusted confidante and Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who later dons a specialized suit and becomes War Machine. None of the characters are entirely unnecessary, but with so many of them, they aren’t allowed to thrive. When Johansson finally is allowed to demonstrate Black Widow’s hand-to-hand combat skill during the film’s climactic sequence, it is exciting, but is too little too late.
This isn’t to say Iron Man 2 is an overall disappointing experience, but it does leave one with the feeling it could have been so much more.