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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Leading men in Bombay film-speak are referred to as “heroes.” The word means something different in India than it does in Hollywood, and when it’s spoken in lilting Hindi, (“heeeero”) it encompasses an entire culture’s vision of unironic idealism and reliability. The men here are not the aggressive Tough Guys of the masala action movies or the earnest Ever Guys in breezy romantic comedies. They’re the handsome matinee idols audiences long to see onscreen, reminders that male beauty is still present in a squalid, fast-paced world.

Matinee idols were a common mainstay of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the arrival of the Kapoor brothers, Raj and Shammi, signaled a new way of looking at the leading man. Influenced by the reigning Hollywood stars of the time (Clark Gable and Cary Grant) Raj Kapoor was a dapper, graceful presence onscreen. His frequent pairing with the enchanting Nargis made them the first iconic screen couple of Indian cinema. But Raj Kapoor’s real contribution was as one of the most innovative and commercially astute directors of all time. Inspired by the Chaplin’s comedic style - a melding of slapstick and the somber - Raj Kapoor directed and starred in


, a Preston Sturges-like on-the-road tale about a rakish Bombay street hustler and the idealistic schoolteacher who longs to reform him.


Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, the hits kept coming: Andaz, Awaara, and Barsaat, to name a few.  By the time Raj Kapoor retired from acting and focused solely on directing in the ‘70s, he revealed an uncanny ability to tap into the desires of the mainstream audience. He knew instinctively the kind of movies people loved to see - unrequited love stories, family melodramas of the love-against-all-odds sort - and was brilliant at making them. It’s not acknowledged as much these days, but the Bollywood of today owes a great deal to the inventiveness Raj Kapoor.  He, more than any other star or filmmaker, knew what a commercial powerhouse it could be.


Raj’s younger brother, Shammi, was a phenomenon in his own right. Few male stars in India have inspired the kind of hysteria that Shammi Kapoor induced when he’d swivel his hips and lip-sync to ‘60s Hindi pop. His Elvis pompadour, arresting attractiveness, and keen comic timing made him the reigning heartthrob of his day: part Ricky Nelson, part Rock Hudson, all verve and masala.


Dev Anand was the one of the early pensive, introspective leading men in Indian cinema. There was a Gregory Peck quality to his steady onscreen presence, particularly when he was serenading his costar with a melancholy ghazal, a controlled, lingering technique he mastered for the camera. It seems easy, but it is really quite difficult for most actors to simply look and be graceful. Dev Anand’s thoughtful performances and his inner sense of grace are rare qualities for most Indian male actors, many of whom are jaded by internalizing the day-to-day grind and hustle of living in Bombay.


Raj Kumar, like Dev Anand, made up the last of a handful of urbane, sophisticated leading men of the ‘50s. Raj Kumar reminds me so much of the great, now relatively unsung, matinee idol of the Hollywood silent era, John Gilbert. The similarities are uncanny—the chiseled, dark handsome, mustached face, the graceful sense of movement, and (in spite of the masculine presence) the almost squeaky, high-pitched voice (what finished poor Gilbert when the studios transitioned to sound). Raj Kumar is more famous now for being glorious arm candy for legendary actresses like Nargis in Mother India and Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (“Pure One”). It was his role in Pakeezah however, as the young nobleman who defies the wrath of his grandfather to defend and marry the woman he loves - a prostitute - that made him beloved to all.  It was the sort of Officer and a Gentleman type part that every sentimentalist roots for and remembers.  He was such a standard in Indian cinema that for years, from the mid ‘50s up until the early ‘70s, he epitomized the quintessential leading man.


Dharmendra was the first movie star to really exude sex appeal. It’s amazing that for the initial 50 years of Indian cinema, the popular leading men were of the elegant, sexless variety. The country’s conservatism preferred safe, reliable men, dapper in tailored kurtas who loftily recited Urdu love poetry and with quivering, feigned passion, railed about defending the family izzat (“honor”). But the by the late ‘60s, things loosened up as India joined the Sexual Revolution. Mia Farrow and The Beatles rocked out with the Maharishi, bras came off, pants fit tighter, Bollywood actresses frolicked in bikinis, and Dharamendra burst onto the movie scene with the charisma of Marlon Brando - simmering male sensuality. Physical presence aside, Dharmendra’s appeal was also that of a deft comedian, his earthy Punjabi rustic humor added playfulness and vitality to his movies, Sholay (“Flames”) and Seeta aur Geeta (“Seeta and Geeta”). Both starred his wife, Hema Malini). Even in his most conventional he-man roles, Dharmendra’s intelligence shines through to reveal a sly, vulpine knowingness behind the movie star smile.


Hrithik Roshan, one the most talented leading man of the last ten years, has been in danger of not being taken seriously simply because of his appearance—his green eyes, his lithe six-foot-something frame, his alabaster complexion and his chiseled, Greek sculpture features. He’s just too handsome to be true (He’s the real life embodiment of what Derek Zoolander deems, “really, really, ridiculously good looking”).  His debut film, the masala modern-day mythological revenge saga, Kaaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000, “Say This is Love”) stunned audiences with the presence of an actor who possessed the kind of kilowatt glamour rarely seen in most stars. On top of it all, his dancing abilities are the best of any Indian star before him.  The Fred Astaire-fluidity of his movements is so deft and graceful that Hrithik Roshan seems like a special effect, a celluloid phantom darting across the screen.


Saif Ali Khan was born into talent and glamour.  His parents represent everything rich and exciting about India: his mother, the celebrated ‘60s starlet, Sharmila Tagore, a descendant of India’s great national scribe and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and his father, “Tiger” Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and a prince who can trace his lineage back to the Mughals. It’s easy for any child of such illustrious parentage to become intimidated or complacent, and subsumed into anonymity within the family legacy, but Saif Ali Khan has carved out a niche for himself as an interesting and intelligent actor. After several mediocre, smiling, handsome-young-man parts, he struck gold with Parineeta (2005, “The Bride”) as the wealthy, spoiled son of an industrialist growing into his own humanity. He played the sinister Iago figure in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006) with the perfect amount of sexual charisma and malice, and more recently, the reluctant heir to a Rajasthani kingdom-state who finds himself reevaluating his morals to protect his father in Eklavya (2007).


Though the actors in this group are all unequivocally good-looking and charming, none of them are predictable. They’ve resisted the banal conventionality that can come with being an attractive star by broadening their range as actors, playing villains, losers, men difficult to tolerate or forgive. The entire country looks to them as a source of unwavering heroism, so venturing into challenging acting material is a bold risk that usually means.



Raj Kapoor, ‘50s



Shammi Kapoor, ‘60s



Dev Anand, ‘50s



Dharmendra in Yaadon ki Baaraat, circa late 70s


Hrithik Roshan, circa 2000



Saif Ali Khan, Parineeta, 2005


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Monday, Apr 30, 2007


While we here at SE&L typically hate those smarmy know it alls that throw their considered opinion in your face, we’re about to be guilty of the same thing. That’s because it’s a clear “I told you so” situation this week. In preparation for war with the big summer movies, the studios are pulling out all the stops, presenting prime DVD titles to compete for your expendable cash concerns. This Tuesday alone we have two major Awards season wannabes, a pair of meaningful mainstream efforts, and one of the most anticipated box sets in the history of the medium, among many, many others. These five releases by themselves indicate that the next 16 weeks will be a windfall of hotly anticipated offerings. The only problem will be finding the time to enjoy both the big screen and home theater experience. Whatever you decide, you shouldn’t miss the SE&L selection for 1 May. It’s an incredible cinematic statement:


Little Children


Imagine the David Lynch of his Blue Velvet period without the ugly underneath, or better yet, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People reshaped as a satire, and you have an idea of this amazing slam of suburbia by In the Bedroom‘s Todd Field. This lackadaisical look at how biology blinds people to both their feelings and their flaws represents one of the most insightful examinations of the human condition ever cast upon celluloid. It was also one of 2006’s most criminally underrated films, with some considering it nothing more than a soap opera with slight social substance. But buried beneath the sequences of sex and unspoken emotions lies a narrative unable to control its simmering contempt. Using the pedophile character played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley as a catalyst, Field forms an argument against getting lost in your offspring. While he recognizes the vile nature of such a pervert, he also blasts the parents who pretend that child safety usurps everything else in a community. The result is a conflict of interests that turns into an epic battle between hysteria and hypocrisy.

Other Titles of Interest


Alpha Dog


Justin Timberlake is such an industry made star that the leap from music to movies is not so shocking as it is standard operating procedure. What is dreadful is how amazingly lame he is as an actor. His first major performance in Edison Force was universal mocked, and his work in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan has been equally unimpressive. Oddly enough, critics had some good things to say about this kiddy crime story, including some kind words for Mr. N’Sync himself. For the sake of his career before the cameras let’s hope they’re right.

Dreamgirls


It was poised to be the blockbuster event of awards season, a surefire hit that would earn not only critical praise and commercial success, but a boatload of Oscars as well. Apparently, no one told that to the Academy, resulting in a one of three ratio. Jennifer Hudson walked away with her mandatory Supporting Actress statuette, but Eddie Murphy and the film’s trio of nominated songs were shut out. Some even saw the snub as part of Hollywood’s continuing anti-minority slant. It’s up to DVD to save this film’s reputation, or prove the pundits right. 

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky


It’s cult film Holy Grail time as Anchor Bay unleashes this sensational box set from one of cinema’s most heralded and misunderstood outsiders. Featuring Fando y Lis, The Holy Mountain, and that amazing Midnight movie El Topo, this collection will have old fans foaming and new converts convinced that Jodorowsky is some kind of visionary god. Toss in a mountain of bonus features and digital extras and you instantly have one of 2007’s best DVD releases. 

The Hitcher (2007)


It’s obvious that Hollywood is running out of ‘classic’ horror movies to remake when they choose titles like this one to revamp. The original, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh has its defenders, but it was more notorious than noteworthy. Now, Sean Bean and a couple of no name kids make up the tenuous trio playing cat and mouse suspense games along the open road. Don’t expect much, and you’ll enjoy this generic genre effort just fine.

Mahogany


The second to last film in Berry Gordy’s push to have then girlfriend Diana Ross become a major movie star. Unfortunately, the most memorable aspect of this tale of a ghetto gal who works her way into the world of kitschy high fashion (this is the ‘70s, remember) is the title song. Otherwise, co-stars Anthony Perkins and Billy Dee Williams are wasted here. And then there’s the completely dated clothing Ross creates. This was Gordy’s folly from beginning to end.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Illegal Aliens


Some folks just can’t die with dignity. Apparently having one’s name dragged through every civil court between LA and the Bahamas is not enough. All that speculation on the manner in which you finally merged with the infinite didn’t satisfy the scandal sheets. No, that notorious non-entity Anna Nicole Smith had to go a leave us a final film to keep her tabloid temperature raging above boiling. Feeling like an obvious knockoff of that ‘80s entry Earth Girls Are Easy (except with the gender roles reversed), this is a turgid tale of some wayward extraterrestrials that come to our planet, morph into ‘smokin’ hot babes’ (the PR’s words) and try to protect the populace from an evil cosmic force. Anna, of course, is the bumbling dumb blonde member of the crew. Some who’ve already seen this film say it’s a sad send-off for a pseudo-celebrity who deserved better. Others like the fact that, somehow, Anna’s managing to get the last laugh.

 


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Sunday, Apr 29, 2007


Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.


So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.


This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:


Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer


Let’s face it – the original wasn’t some massive megahit. It did rather nicely for its studio ($155 million), especially for a movie very few people actually liked (Rotten Tomatoes Rating – a mere 26%). And up until the sequel was announced, many in the comic book fanbase felt that this entire franchise would end up a well deserved one-off deal. Now comes the inevitable follow-up (thanks in part to the success of the film on DVD and cable TV showings) and with it, a villain guaranteed to make audiences groan. Back in the day, the Silver Surfer was a misunderstood alien dude who came to Earth to wreck some havoc, only to fall into the whole peace and love vibe of the magical ‘60s, and end up a kind of counterculture convert. Here, he’s the T-1000 on a CG boogie board. While geeks have been salivating over the possibility of this character’s arrival from the moment the original Roger Corman adaptation of the quartet was released, it remains difficult to figure out just who’s anxious to see Michael Chiklis in a bad Ben Grimm outfit again (Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm? That’s another story altogether). Indeed, everything about this cinematic series feels second rate and underdone, which translates into very little blockbuster potential.

Live Free or Die Hard


Sorry Bruce, it just won’t work this time. Over the 12 years since the last installment in this series, you’ve done a wonderful job of dispelling your ‘action hero only’ mythos, and settled into a nice rut as a talented, reliable actor. Sure, you’ve certainly stumbled along the way (The Story of Us, Perfect Stranger), and your rocky personal life didn’t help matters much, but you did a decent job of leaving John McClane and his “yippee yay kay aye-ing” in your wake. So why pick him back up after all this time? It’s not like the latest generation of film fans has been eager to see you return to the agent against the. apocalypse format, and this latest idea (a supersmart computer hacker tries to give the entire world a crippling virus) is just so Y2K. And the choice of Len Wiseman as a director? PU! Come on, this is a guy whose been making werewolf vs. vampire films for the last four years – and when he’s done with you, he’s back to the paranormal with yet another installment in the Underworld franchise (this time out, it’s a prequel). Unless the stunt setpieces redefine the concept of action, this latest series installment looks dead on arrival.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry


This is clearly a case of a high concept losing sight of what truly makes people laugh. Now, if you get a bunch of drunken frat boys in a room together and tell them a slew of homophobic jokes, you’re bound to get some beer-soaked guffaws. But in our proto-PC society, where humor has to now walk a fine line between crass and considerate, something like this sloppy same sex stupidity can’t possibly work. Adam Sandler appeared to move beyond his arrested adolescence aura with Click, and for the most part, his fanbase decided to join him. But he has long stopped being the clown prince of the college crowd, and trying to reenergize your star status by making fun of gay men seems like a tricky proposition. Certainly you’ll draw the Neanderthals and those predisposed to prejudice as pratfalls, but there is something uneasy about the whole forced machismo and ‘emotions are emasculating’ narrative undercurrent.  Rumor has it that the studio ran this film by GLAAD before approving its release. It was also true that this script sat around for years, with many famous A-listers a tad antsy about how it would play in this supposedly enlightened post-millennial age. Here’s guessing it won’t.

Underdog


Talk about your animated sacrilege! Underdog may have been many things – a rhyme obsessed goody two shoes, a blind as a bat paramour for an eager Sweet Polly Purebred, a simpleton superhero battling less than capable crooks – but he was never, ever, EVER! considered to be real. Anthropomorphized and pictured in pen and ink, but no child ever thought he was an honest to goodness pup. So what do those dunce caps over in Tinsel Town try to pull on us? They figure that they can turn this entire project into a live action kiddie action film and no one will really care. They’ll even give the title character a hip adolescent swagger, turning him from a moralizing mensch into a skaterat with a tail. Didn’t these people learn ANYTHING from the whole Itchy/Scratchy/Poochie fiasco? You don’t mess around with the classics – even if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon the brilliant casting decision of Peter Dinklage playing villian Simon Barsinister. Belgian director Frederik Du Chau may have the proper family film credentials (he made the semi-successful Racing Stripes) but this pile of hound hashwey appears ready to crash and burn. Those who remember the old series won’t darken its big screen doors, and by this time in the season (mid-August), the wee ones are just worn out.

The Invasion


Reshoots months after a movie has wrapped are never a good sign. Reshoots helmed by a completely different director many months after a movie has wrapped is basically box office poison. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the dynamic German director behind the fabulous Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich was handpicked by Joel Silver to realize this more or less unnecessary update of the classic Body Snatchers as his first foray into big time Hollywood filmmaking. What he wasn’t prepared for was the meddling by the manic producer, an accident which sidelined one of his stars (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden Bond-ing of male lead Daniel Craig. With his cut delivered in early 2006, Silver decided to simply sit on it. Then, when V for Vendetta proved popular, he contacted director James McTeague to reform the film. He, in turn, brought along the Wachowski Brothers, and soon Hirschbiegel became a creative persona non grata. But all of this is really ancillary to Invasion‘s biggest problem – there are already three versions of this idea sitting out in the motion picture marketplace – and two out of the three are considered classics. With its tentative production rep and a legitimate legacy to live up to, this film can’t ‘replicate’ past successes.


During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.


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Saturday, Apr 28, 2007


For Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), the trip back to Pine Island is bittersweet. He’s married to Helen (Constance Ford), a woman he can’t stand, and raising a daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), confused about the difference between his permissiveness and his wife’s frigid primness. Moreover, the residential resort holds a lot of mixed memories for Ken. He was a lifeguard there in his youth, working for the Hunter family and wooing local lass Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire). Desperate to make something of himself, Ken left his love, and she wound up marrying the bumbling son of the owners. As an adult, Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) has squandered the family fortune and spends his days in a half-drunken stupor. Luckily, the couple has a conscientious son named Johnny (Troy Donahue), who wants to help as much as he can.


The reunion between the parties is problematic, especially with Helen acting extremely suspicious and the young people discovering a burning desire for each other almost instantaneously. Things come to a loggerhead when Ken and Sylvia begin an affair, a series of secret encounters that leads to the break-up of their respective families. Naturally, the teens are devastated, hoping to keep their love alive. But with the infighting and legal wrangling, feelings get deeply hurt. Even a new marriage can’t mend the damage. As they struggle to stay together, Molly and Johnny long for A Summer Place, somewhere they can go and be happy—and alone.


A Summer Place is a movie about sex. And hate. Actually, it’s a film about the unbridled passions of ardent lovers separated, either by distance or design, and how they will stoop to all manner of anger-based schmaltz to realize their throbbing biological urges. Based on the scandalous novel by Sloan Wilson (also famous for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), this overheated sudser, loaded with more histrionics and innuendo than a tent full of Cub Scouts with a National Geographic, does almost anything to draw us in. It provides one of the most heinous, hissable villains of all time—a woman who has basically boiled life down to a series of prejudices, predilections, and presumptions. This porkpie shrew, expertly essayed by Constance Ford, is the kind of cow who makes you want to reach out into the screen itself and choke that smug smirk off her obviously overfed face. She delivers such devastating attacks on everyone in the film—her fragile daughter, her dour husband, the innkeepers of the vacation spot—that you wait in desperation for her well-earned comeuppance. In fact, you beg the movie for the moment where all the cards she’s carefully stacked against the rest of her brood come falling back on top of her. Unfortunately, A Summer Place doesn’t provide that kind of denouement. Instead, it has other things on its mind, issues involving carnality and its expression, both physically and emotionally.


If you weren’t aware that it wasn’t invented until the mid ‘90s, you’d swear the entire cast of this film was strung out on maximum-strength Viagra. Wild cats with biologically modified animalistic urges aren’t in this much heat. Our primary horndog is Richard Egan, playing the husband of the horrid housefrau mentioned before. His position as a lowly teen lifeguard was especially helpful in wooing the ladies, and as he’s aged into a man of wealth, he’s got lovin’ on his brain morning, noon, and night. Having never gotten over his affair with Pine Island local Sylvia, he despises his wife for withholding her prudish favors and preaches a kind of corporeal clemency to his hormonally hopped-up daughter. In fact, it’s safe to say that if he didn’t invent the hedonistic philosophy, Egan’s Ken Jorgenson was a staunch advocate of the “if it feels good, do it” mantra. As a result, his offspring, essayed with a syrupy strangeness by ‘50s cinematic chastity belt Sandra Dee, is simultaneously stunted and sizzling, ready to rock and roll once the right guy comes along, only to feel tremendous guilt afterwards. In essence, she’s organized religion without the burden of the “Big V.” Lucky for her then that Troy Donahue is in residence. The minute she meets him, it’s major lip lock time, with just a few cautionary words about “being good” before proceeding through the rest of the adolescent “bases.”


Naturally, all of this makes Donahue’s parents all the more unhappy. In fact, the filmmakers felt so bad for mother Hunter, played by Dorothy McGuire, that they had to put a glaucoma-level of soft focus on her just to keep the lust issues in check. In a scene guaranteed to give the casual viewer a compositional headache, Egan and his former love have an attic assignation where, half the time, you can barely make out the features on McGuire’s face. Granted, she was five years older than her costar, but the more unbelievable element was the film’s apocryphal timeline. Sylvia and her swim stud were teens when they made their “mistake.” He hasn’t been back to the island in nearly 20 years. He has a daughter whose 16, while she has a 17-year-old. Math majors out there will see that the McGuire, pushing 44, is trying to pass for mid-30s. Even worse, Egan, who looks like a bulldog beaten about the face and head with a case of bourbon and Old Spice, is also in his post-20s prime. Call it an old-fashioned casting conceit, but these two make youthful indiscretion seem positively prehistoric. And then there’s Arthur Kennedy. As McGuire’s husband Bart, this constantly inebriated loser is like old money gone to super seed. Aperitif glass permanently glued to his hand, conversational skills both enhanced and exaggerated by his constant snorts of booze, he’s supposed to be the unredeemable harlequin of this menagerie. His bon mots are aimed at making him seem witty despite his permanently pickled nature. He simply turns out as pathetic as a human can possibly be without resorting to stories of childhood molestation.


In the end, it’s all in service of cheese so ripe and sensationally stinky that we anticipate every amazingly aromatic moment of it. Writer/director Delmer Daves, whose pen was responsible for the whacked-out weeper An Affair to Remember and whose eye delivered Dark Passage and the baby-on-fire masterpiece Susan Slade, is an expert at making this kind of potboiler pulp percolate with sentimentality and spice. Not one for subtlety, he keeps his characters cranked over to “11” and never once stops to examine the authenticity of his moments. Instead, he takes the standard soap opera material and makes an elephantine opera out of the smallest situations. Preempting John Waters in the Christmas tree defilement department, and letting each face slap—and threat of medical virginity checking—sink in like an interpersonal war crime, he’s not just making a regressive romance picture. No, Daves is delving into the heart of human darkness, illustrating the actual ways in which people decipher and destroy each other. Rendering every conversation an experiment in socio-anthropology and reducing the slow sensual burn into an aberrant art form, the end result is an unapologetic campfest fashioned onto a cleaned-up copy of The Kinsey Report. You’ll hate yourself for loving every insinuation-laced minute, and the aftershock is akin to a hangover from too many bottles of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine. But you’ll be as happy as a casino-ed clam once it’s all over.


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Friday, Apr 27, 2007


Liv Ullmann is one of the most talented, visionary, and literate performers in modern acting’s history. She also happens to be a hopelessly addicted to Henrik Ibsen’s simple and eloquent play, A Doll’s House. Throughout her long, illustrious career, the plum role of Nora has lingered in her work, making her (in this writer’s opinion) one of the actresses to best equipped to navigate the tricky depths and glossed over surfaces of this complex character.


Ullmann, who like Ibsen is Norwegian, has said she has a strong connection to Nora. There are many similarities between the actress’s real life and that of the character: she had a long, ongoing relationship with a much older, semi-controlling man (Swedish director Ingmar Bergman), her fame and personality were largely related to her relationship with Bergman, and as a performer, Ullmann is always putting on appearances like Nora; she has many great, fascinating layers. As Ullman puts it:


“This woman, who uses and manipulates those around her while at the same time wanting to help and love them, refuses to do something she feels is morally repugnant to her when the decisive moment comes. It is beyond her imagination to conceive of exploiting the situation when Dr. Rank declares his love and begs to give her the money she so badly needs… When she finally sees, she also understands the anger she feels over everything that is false between them is directed just as much against herself as against him. Her responsibility was as great as his. She hopes that the change will also take place in him—not for her sake, but for his own… In the first acts Nora is not just the songbird and the squirrel; neither is she pure wisdom and feminine strength in the last.”


Her first appearance as Nora would, technically, have to be in the early 1970s, as Marianne in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film is a thinly veiled, more modern version of Ibsen’s domestic epic. Scenes tells the story of a brutally unhappy couple examining their relationship; he is older, she seems easily controlled by him. Like Nora, Marianne must put on appearances for the couple’s friends and the general public.


By the end of the film, Marianne comes into her own. She finally lets her strong personality shine through, allowing her marriage to Johann disintegrate in the process. As Marianne says in the film “For my sisters and me, our entire upbringing was aimed at our being agreeable”—something that could also ring true for Nora. It’s as though she is able to, for the first time, be on her own without the punishing influence of her overbearing husband.


One other interesting detail of note is the fact that Scenes takes place mainly in the mundanely decorated living room of the middle-class couple. It’s a nice representation of the couple’s bourgeois normality. Early on in the film, Bergman even has Johann and Marianne returning from a performance of A Doll’s House as if to really drive his point home.


Many Swedish film scholars would argue that Ullmann has played versions of Nora in just about all of her films with Bergman. In efforts such as Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, and even in Cries and Whispers, she essays variations of the sheltered woman-child wife, each creation seemingly fragile but ultimately steely.


Ullmann originally played the stage role of Nora in its native Norwegian language, and said she found it incredibly difficult to transition to English when she brought an acclaimed version of the play to Broadway in 1975. Nonetheless, she managed to overcome the language barrier with an acute, complex performance. The actress explains some of the challenges in working in both languages:

“Performing ‘A Doll’s House’ in a foreign language, after having played it in Norwegian is extremely difficult for me. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. Read and read. Make a lot of changes in the translation because Nora’s words are so full of meaning for me. I know them so well, and I think the English translation has missed a lot of what is Nora’s distinctive quality.


One of the problems I have is ‘washing’ the Norwegian text from my head. It is essential for me now to think in English and I cannot leave the Norwegian associations behind me, I will never be able to manage this.


Here, I have to acquire a new set of images, a new grid of references; Nora in New York can never be the same as Nora in Oslo.”

In her later life, as Ullmann left her relationship with Bergman, she abandoned acting for a new career as a stage and film director. Her long-planned big-screen version of Ibsen’s play was never realized, but it was set to star Kate Winslet as a Nora for the new millennium, and co-star John Cusack as Helmer. It is a damn shame that this Doll’s House expert was not allowed to give us yet another brilliant interpretation of this classic. After all, she knows this material better than anyone. She lived it.


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