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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Country is the first in a long series of roles that Jessica Lange would become famous for: the farm-wife/mother. It also was, for those paying close attention, the first outspoken political statement Lange would utter. As time would go on to tell, it certainly would not be the last. Her cause in 1984 was the plight of American farmer and the unjust practices of corrupt government agencies that strong-armed them into submission. It is a somewhat straightforward story by cinematic means, but the subversive ideas are epic in scope.


Hot off the heels of her double whammy in 1982 (Frances and Tootsie), Lange was able to use her status to co-produce and star in this unfettered portrait of a family struggling to make everything work. She is Jewell, the matriarch of a small family that depends on their land for income, only to be plagued by bank foreclosures and violent twisters. Dutiful, tough and fired-up opposite real-life partner Sam Shepard (the second of several successful, heated on-screen collaborations), Lange is relaxed and cautious with her creation and her care shows most assuredly in a scene where the family is out in the field during a windstorm. Her son becomes trapped under a gigantic pile of corn and her fury as she digs him out is nearly as powerful as the gale. Then, the next morning, its back to serving up pancakes with rollers in her hair as if nothing happened. This detail is effective because it shows the versatility a woman who must be ready for anything if she is going to survive this kind of life. There isn’t much room to fuss over something that might have happened to her hard-working son the previous night when there are babies to be fed and chores to be done and records to be kept.


Country doesn’t really pull any punches when it comes to the negative effects of the hard knocks taken by the family. Jewell and Gil’s marriage begins to disintegrate when he starts drinking and stops fighting for the farm and starts fighting with their children, physically and verbally. The homespun film conveys a seemingly ancient sense of community strength and respect for tradition along with an un-ironic sense of earnestness. The characters depend on each other, neighbors, family, and all. In a scene where Jewel and Gil agree to do a simple favor for a friend who they know is about to be run off his land by creditors, the two principals take a “less-is-more” approach with an unfussy reverence for individual privacy. They merely help him without asking for too much information.  In the hands of lesser performers, these clichés would have come off inert, but in the hands of pros like Lange and Shepard the conventions are fresh.


Lange somehow makes this woman endearing and actually functional, rather than a weak stereotype. She even manages to endow the character (that might have been envisioned as a nervous wreck or a melodramatic sap) with a wry sense of humor even in the face of repossession and the farm being auctioned off. It is a master class in social crusading and self-sacrifice that upstarts like Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Charlize Theron (North Country) likely obsessed over as part of their preparation to play similarly heroic roles.


Even though Lange may play the naïve, small-town woman up against crushing odds often, she makes Jewell’s confusion convincingly build to a cool, controlled rage. It is clear that the actress puts a unique stamp on her characters every time. By the time the town unites to stop the crooked auctions, led in their rallying by the wiser and empowered Jewell, the outcome is electrifying: she begins a climactic chant of “no-sale” that is so powerful it actually works. Pride and loyalty are two important values implied in the code of conduct for farmers used to this way of life. It’s a refreshing reaction of trust and kindness that make for the best kind of epics: the small ones that matter the most.


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Saturday, Nov 4, 2006


Since my obsession with Swedish film star Liv Ullmann has begun to, shall we say, blossom (or fester, depending on how you look at it) over the years, one film in her cannon has painfully eluded me: Jan Troell’s epic cinematic interpretation of Vilhelm Moberg’s novels, 1972’s The Emigrants (which has only been available to US audiences in a crappy dubbed video version or on laserdisc)
   
Happy days are here thanks to some anonymous seller on EBay, who happened to be unloading some strange, unauthorized version of the film, unedited, in its three hour-plus running time and complete with English subtitles rather than the English dubbing. I have truly found at least once facet of the Swedish film industry’s numerous Holy Grails!


Troell’s story beings in Smaaland, a rural community in southern Sweden, where the land has been farmed to its limits and prospects are dying out rapidly. Max Von Sydow’s Karl-Oscar has dreams of uprooting his large family to somewhere better, where the soil is good. Wife Kristina, played, of course, by Ullmann (who begins the film constantly pregnant, naive and deeply religious), is at first skeptical and then through a series of tragic events, decides a change is for the best. Joining them is Karl-Oscar’s brother Robert, who works as a farm hand for an abusive employer and his pal, Arvid. Kristina’s Uncle Danjel, a righteous man himself, his wife and his followers (including a bitchy former hooker with the proverbial heart of gold and her illegitimate child) soon decide to go with them as well.


The first part of the film, which details the brutal, infertile existence in Sweden is wrenching. The desperation, the hunger and the idea that only God can save them is depressing. When they decided to leave for America, I wanted to cheer. However, the decision was not without its consequences.


As the characters embark to what they believe will be a better life and world, the second half of the film takes off with a “can-do” spirit and optimism that is catchy despite the perilous journey that lay ahead for the poor, eager Swedes. They board a skiff bound for America and a treacherous, disease and famine-filled adventure begins. People drop from cholera and the plague. Food is contaminated. Oh, then comes the scurvy. It’s a bloody, barbaric trip to be sure. Several of the main characters come face to face with death. It’s amazing what people can survive and what they will actually endure to achieve what they desire – in this case, the freedom to farm on fertile land and the freedom to practice their religion unimpeded. You get the sense that this liberty is everything to them. The peril they put their families through is worth it though. It’s worth taking the chance to get to America. They have a purpose and will do everything and risk everything to fulfill it.


The third and final act of the film brings us to the US. Interestingly, part of this film was actually made here, shot on location in Wisconsin, Minnesota and in and around the Great Lakes. Once they get off the boat, the journey is still not complete. There are still trains to catch and more boats. When they finally reach the North, the viewer is given a sense that the Swedes have finally found a foothold toward their goal. Yet we also know that there is still much work that will have to be done.


The simplicity and straightforward storytelling makes the film seem very crisp and focused. I really got the feeling that this story was authentic, not embellished and cleaned-up. The characters fight with each other. They have some really ugly moments, but then they develop a wonderful sense of community and familiarity and there are some terrific, humane moments throughout. The photography of the film is just as direct: showing the natural elements of the journey (water, ice, earth, etc…) in their glory. The boat scenes show the water as being both menacing and gorgeous. The sets are quite minimal and this really highlights the acting and story.


Of course, the chemistry between Ullmann and Von Sydow is magical. Ullmann has that uncanny knack for building her characters from scratch. She begins as a sort of sheltered, fragile mother who isn’t strong enough to make it to the new world and she slowly weathers many terrible tragedies that make her stronger and wiser. She is supported wholeheartedly by her husband, giving the film a little romantic sheen.


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Friday, Nov 3, 2006


I am a man who loves a good costume drama. I said it, with no shame. Mary Queen of Scots, criminally unavailable on DVD, might not exactly be Merchant Ivory-material as far as the production values go but is a treat for fans of historical period films nonetheless.


Vanessa Redgrave received an Oscar nomination back at the start of the ‘70s for her portrayal of Queen Mary Stuart and it holds up as one of the actresses most unique achievements: it is a surprisingly inventive performance, deserving of its accolades. The story is really not innovative or well done for that matter, but the film is saved by the truly visionary work of Redgrave at the height of her powers.


In the late ‘60s she won two Best Actress awards at Cannes (and was Oscar-nominated as well) for Morgan! (1966) and Isadora (1968) and appeared in Michelangelo Antionini’s classic Blow Up. During this time she also became an outspoken political activist, an incendiary proposition for a performer to take back then. Bad press aside, the actress managed to carve a niche for herself in world cinema despite making a slew of enemies.


What essentially saved Ms. Redgrave’s ass was the fact that she was descended from acting royalty (father was Michael, sister is Lynn), as well as her genuine gift for putting a fresh, modern spin on classic characters such as Mary Stuart. Her character’s arc is quite dynamic: Mary starts out in France (Redgrave learned French phonetically for the part), a happy young queen in love who witnesses the death of her beloved husband. She is exiled to live in Scotland (photographed with an other-worldly opulence), where she is used as a pawn of the Catholic Church until finally she comes into her own realizations after many bloody, manipulated years on the throne.


It is curious that the actress would condescend to appear in such a seemingly straightforward historical romance, but she succeeds in seeing past the trite romantic clichés that riddle the script. The tawdry dime store love interludes of the film are its weakest points, but Redgrave manages to wring out some exactness in the mushiness. She is at her height in the more forceful scenes, showing no mercy to the husband and brother who have betrayed her, and accepting her fate as a religious martyr. The parallels between Redgrave and her character could be seen as laughable (Redgrave is obviously not a martyr) but she uses the hysteria directed at her real life to great effect. She was one actress who understood completely what it is like to be persecuted and vilified, like Mary.


Complicating matters is Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (played brilliantly by two time Academy Award winner Glenda Jackson, who knows a thing or two about rowdy politics herself and who also played the Queen in a PBS mini-series that same year). Elizabeth is torn between letting Mary, who is a queen by birthright, rule without interference, be kept in exile, or be killed. It is this cat and mouse game between the two women that keeps the story floating briskly by. Although there is no actual historical meeting documented between the rivals, the film imagines two secret interactions between them, which provides some great dramatic sparks just as the film begins to lag. Jackson and Redgrave look as though they are having the time of their lives trying to out-bitch one another.


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Friday, Nov 3, 2006


Revisiting Elizabeth, I am reminded of why Cate Blanchett’s fans are both rabid and justified in their love of this woman.

A formidable performer, Blanchett often finds her way into curious films with little to do (Bandits?). She also seems to have a gift for being the brightest light in any otherwise dull film (Veronica Guerin?). Her Oscar last year, on her second nomination for The Aviator, didn’t exactly come as a shock as she is seemingly beloved by her peers in the industry. And she was, after all, playing Katharine Hepburn in a Martin Scorsese film (And let’s face it: The Academy would have probably done anything to give Hepburn that final “fifth” Oscar).


What amounted to essentially a cameo in The Talented Mr, Ripley, in a role written specifically for her, added to her mystique while even in small gems like The Man Who Cried she managed to make her presence known despite little fanfare. In fact, the actress has pretty much made a career out of her presence, mystique and of course, her technical prowess all allowing her to fit easily into the skins of some of the world’s most prickly, unusual women.


After a bright leading role debut in Oscar And Lucinda, the Australian actress was given a gift most female performers throughout the history of cinema have relished: the privilege of playing Queen Elizabeth I. In an unprecedented move the exact same year, Judi Dench played the older, wisecracking Elizabeth in Shakespeare In Love, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Glenda Jackson, Jean Simmons and Bette Davis all set a royal standard before her, while Helen Mirren put her stamp on the role this past year. But it was the unlikely Blanchett that gave her Queen Bess an inner light that had been missing from the other women’s characterizations. If any of these various Elizabeths truly deserved to win awards, it was Blanchett’s powerful, willful monarch.


While the film may rely heavily on fiction versus history, it is nonetheless completely enthralling in its telling. Many historical biographical period pieces can end up as great bores, but this one succeeds on many levels. Shekar Kapur brings a vivid flourish to his direction, which detractors might call “flashy”, but it invigorates the genre and breathes a bloody new life into it. The grandeur and the sweeping, romanticized re-telling may rely heavily on the imagination of the filmmaker and the actors, but it’s so visually appealing and suspenseful that it is actually great fun to watch - despite some soapy moments. Elizabeth doesn’t shy away from the more risqué themes: war, brutality, patriotism, gender politics and especially sex and lust. It is also about one woman proving to her detractors that she can survive anything they throw at her, despite lying and secrets surrounding everything she does.


Beginning the story as a naive little girl who fears daily for her life (she is, after all, a Protestant), Blanchett disappears into her creation, blending a potent talent and sensuality with a steely royal gaze (in her early scenes, you can see the kindness in Elizabeth’s eyes, she is soft and trusting). As the film moves on, Blanchett’s demeanor miraculously changes and she becomes more in control and more commanding. It’s a really subtle transformation that culminates in the glorious final shot of Elizabeth’s pancake-made-up face, all bone white and emotionless. It is suggested she wore the extreme make-up as an homage to Mary, the mother of Christ, after gazing at a statue. She wanted to give her subjects something equally divine so she chopped off all of her hair and became that visage. She would never again allow her emotions to dictate her decisions. It is a chilling moment when she declares “I have become a virgin”, letting go of all of the mistakes and lapses in judgment and becoming what her country needed. “I am married to England”, she decried. She went on to make the country one of the world’s greatest powers.


The private life of a queen is appealing to fantasize about and Blanchett’s willingness to play her as worried, curious, and enjoying her reign is indeed brave. Her need for solitude and the cold reality of her actual lack of privacy are interesting touches, and though a tad melodramatic, the sexuality of the “virgin queen” is handled with provocative taste (One of my favorite scenes, which is quite heavy on atmosphere, is the one where Elizabeth is attended to by her ladies in waiting while a storm brews outside the castle. They peel away her layers and corsets as the thunder and lightning rings ominously in the distance. It is beautiful).


Blanchett also gets many great “actor’s” moments: Her first big speech about unifying religion is electric and the declaration that she is “no man’s Elizabeth” is properly aloof and powerful (“I may be a woman but I can have the heart of a man if I choose” might be the actresses’ most powerful and telling line in the entire film). The viewer can see Blanchett’s mind working on screen, the finely crafted wheels turning with every decision. A rare performer that can make viewers suspend their disbelief as they travel back to an unusual time in history, Blanchett makes her version of this infamous monarch more accessible than all of the other women who played her previously. This Elizabeth, while still true to her origins and legends, is given a new, modern perspective that never feels like a dull lecture on history.


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Thursday, Nov 2, 2006


Going into this film, I was completely unsure of any of the specifics, which nowadays is pretty great considering all of the readily available spoilers everywhere you turn. I knew it was a sort of love story, but what I got was something beyond my furthest dreams. I was bowled over and totally impressed with the scope and heart of this film.


The film beings innocently enough, in fact, at first I was rather unimpressed. A doctor living in Prague, played with cool sexiness (and big ‘80s hair) by Daniel Day Lewis, is thoroughly enjoying his bachelor lifestyle and his detachment from women. He has a special place in his heart for Sabina, a very sexy artist who he cares for deeply, even as she uses the good doctor every bit as selfishly as he uses her. Soon, the doctor meets a sort of simple café waitress, who he becomes irreversibly intrigued with. Not long after they meet, the two are married and the doctor continues his affair with the sultry Sabina, even as the Communists being to take over Czechoslovakia.


The premise is an old one, yes, but it really works, thanks to the extraordinary, sensitive performances of the three central actors. They put such honesty and effort into their work that any cliché or old convention is thrown out the window. They all play their roles with sexiness, humor and frankness. I was particularly impressed with the very under-appreciated Lena Olin, who is so hot it’s ridiculous. As Sabina, she is able to surrender to the carnal side with intelligence, longing and a spicy sweetness. She was born to play this role. Juliette Binoche also showed me a little of why she is so adored. Usually I am not her biggest fan, but she finds a nice niche somewhere in between being sort of childish and dreamy and being emotionally devastated. It’s probably the hardest role in the film and she comes off really nicely. Her character’s arc is the most dramatic, and she navigates the depths with perfect timing, genuine heartbreak and daffy humor.


Both actresses are not shy about the very erotic aspects of the film, which is wonderful. The nudity in the story is not distracting or out of context. It fits the characters and is essential to the plot, therefore making it the opposite of gratuitous. There is a really emotionally intense scene in which the wife and the mistress photograph each other in the nude that ranks among each of the actresses best work for it’s candor, wit, and exploratory nature.


The story, based on Milan Kundera’s prize winning novel, takes so many unexpected twists that it’s best not to spoil it here. Just when I thought the film would be about marital distress and sexual unhappiness, the Russian army came rolling through Prague to shake everything up and the principles move to Geneva to live in exile. Director Philip Kaufman captures the epic greatness of the story with a masterful, vivid visual expression. His love for the material is apparent. The structure is wonderful, the way the story casually unfolds and the leisurely pace in which everything is resolved. It is definitely a European “art-film” at heart, but one that will surprise you at every romantic turn.


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