Dangerous Liaisons

First, it’s hard to believe this picture is 30 years old, it has more than stood the test of time. After some edgy, risky and well-received 20th century stories (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) director Stephen Frears brought us Dangerous Liaisons adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th century novel of the same name. Lush and sumptuous, this is a delight for the senses. Oscar-winning art direction, costumes and make up are like platinum settings for the bright, glittering jewels that are Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in this epic battle of the sexes.

Said to be the first psychological novel, the Oscar-winning screenplay from which it is adapted provides ferocious and deliciously timeless insight regarding relations between men, women and society.

Marquise de Merteuil: ” When I came out into society, I was fifteen. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while, under the table, I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn’t pleasure I was after, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with. And in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. ”

Close, in an Oscar-nominated performance manages to imbue this and many other vicious and bitter diatribes with humor, sympathy and intelligence so that what appears as very rigid and militant on the page becomes lively, piquant and on point when uttered in her character’s milieu. It is quite a spell-binding tour de force that horrifies and delights at the same time. Malkovich does fantastically well as her sparring partner, but this is Close’s film. Malkovich and Close are at their peak form and seem to relish the unpleasantness they unleash upon each other and everyone around them. Pfeiffer never looked more beautiful on screen and she is breath-taking and believable in a thankless role. Much as I hate to say it, however, Keanu Reeves seems unfortunately miscast in his role and while he seems to try his best it is difficult to look past his familiar persona. I suppose he is the flaw in an otherwise perfect jewel that shows its nature-made rarity. I’m a fan, otherwise, and will usually stand up for him.

Heady stuff, but make no mistake, as delectable as this is it is a battle to the death. Who will survive, and at what price? Throughout the picture we are kept at the edge of our seats as we marvel at these character’s machinations.

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Thoroughbreds

Just watched this on demand. It was surprisingly very good so I had to look up writer/director Cory Finley on imdb. Turns out he is first an up and coming playwright who admires Harold Pinter. Anyone who says that has my attention. This is a very well made neo-noir/horror starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and Anton Yelchin in his last role before his untimely, accidental death at age 27. The film is dedicated to his memory. Also worth noting is a compelling sound track by Erik Friedlander and beautiful cinematography by Lyle Vincent. This is one of those delightfully modern gothic tales that proves its point by turning conventional morality out on its ear. While it quotes from the masters cinematically it never falls back on tired old clich├ęs and so is gratifyingly fresh. His next film is Bad Education starring Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney. He didn’t write it, though, so we will have to see. Thoroughbreds is thoroughly entertaining.

The Childhood of a Leader

Now streaming on Netflix. This review contains spoilers, so be aware. Well-made film with quite a few major flaws. I really appreciated what the film makers tried to do with a fable to show how Fascist dictators came into being. Using an Aesop fable within the story was a bit too cute for me and the music, while very dramatic and quite good, was too heavily relied upon with high volume to impart high drama and foreboding. Also, one too many back of the head shots of the child used to build dread of him. Robert Pattinson is also under used in a problematic role in which in the end implies he is the real father of the child whose childhood we see three vignettes about and also the skull cap he wears at the end to make himself look like he has a shaved head is horrendously fake looking. Innovative use of the camera to convey kaleidoscopic chaos that is not quite earned by the understated story told before it. Because of the story telling problems this comes off as Haneke light. The psychological gravitas is just not there.

The Lovers

I thought I had seen this film before but it turns out I had it confused with something else. Saw it on Filmstruck today. This was Malle’s next film after he did Elevator to the Gallows and he made it specifically for his star, Jeanne Moreau. Considered quite scandalous for its time (by a bunch of sanctimonious hypocrites) it is actually very pure, innocent, lyrical, idealistic and romantic. Luckily, others understood it, especially other film makers of his generation and those who would shortly become film makers (Truffaut). By today’s standards it is very discreet and empathetic in its portrayal of a woman who is asking about her life, “Is that all there is?” Very bravely, she decides to follow her heart and begin a new life. Criterion has some very good extras including a short interview with Malle made right after the film was made and another interview made just a year before his death. Also, a couple of interviews done with Moreau during the same time frames show a fiery and bold artist who won’t be cowed by journalists or critics. What marvelous film makers they both were.

Labor Day

I haven’t been so touched by a movie that I cried at the end in a long time. Finally got to see this on FX with commercials and everything, so not ideal but I was still so moved by this story. Based on a book by Joyce Maynard, famed very young paramour of J. D. Salinger. The screenplay is adapted and directed by Jason Reitman son of Ivan Reitman and stars Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith as the young Henry. Marvelous actors in bit parts here too: Tobey Maguire as adult Henry, J K Simmons as a neighbor, James Van der Beek as a police officer, and Brooke Smith as another neighbor. The three leads do an incredible job.

I have to admit, the story has some believability problems but I didn’t care as I found these characters so interesting and sympathetic that I decided things couldn’t be so impossible they could never happen in real life. The themes in the story are very compelling: massive loss and the grief and long term depression that can come from it, a spouse unable to bear it and walking away, a child half-abandoned who tries to take care of his mother, the coming of age of that child, a second chance in life for broken people and the lasting impact we can have on each other’s lives in both very short and very long time periods. It’s also a very welcome and beautiful look at how to be a good man even though you’ve made terrible mistakes. I do love a good story of redemption. Bring your Kleenex.

Night of the Iguana

I’ll watch anything written by Tennessee Williams just to listen to his poetic dialogue. This one doesn’t disappoint and I noticed this time that it has some slight touches of the surreal or dreamlike, referred to in the script as “on the fantastic level” versus “on the realistic level.”

Tennessee was a great artist who was able to share his demons with us and we could understand and have compassion for ourselves and others. His work did so much so elegantly in a time of serious repression/suppression and not without a little bit of humor, too.

Burton is a great anti-hero for Williams’ work and Deborah Kerr is perfect as Williams’ dignified and compassionate if down at the heel heroine. Ava Gardner does wonderfully in her fiery, salt of the earth role. Sue Lyon and Grayson Hall are fascinating as hysterical foils.

Dorothy Jeakins won the Oscar for best costume design! Directed by John Huston.

The Remains of the Day

A 1993 Merchant/Ivory production, nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning none as this was Schindler’s List’s year. I guess this film probably epitomizes what some would call Oscar bait, however I truly dislike that term as I feel it belittles artistic work that most of the time is likely sincere. The film is based on Kazuo Ishigura’s Man Booker prize winner’s novel of the same name.

Originally, it was to be directed by Mike Nichols and with screenplay written by Harold Pinter. One can’t help wondering how different the tone might have been given Pinter’s hatred for fascism and imperialism. Instead, we have Merchant Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay (while they used some of Pinter’s script he asked that his name be removed from the credits) which glosses over and romanticizes people’s shortcomings in the face of rising Fascism. Under their stewardship it becomes a story of unrequited love and regret after a lifetime devoted to unquestioning service.

When I first saw this I was quite moved by Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of lead character Stevens the butler. I admit I had some qualms as to his slavish loyalty to his Fascist-sympathizing Lord but I overlooked those in my romantic notions about dignity, devotion and service. Even when Miss Kenton tries to break through his facade of dignity in the scene in the library I was admittedly horrified by what seemed to be a violation of his person! Although I was of two minds in that it was sad to me that he could not come out from behind his facade.
Twenty five years later and it is no longer easy to overlook the pitfalls of fanatic devotion to a dignified facade, slavish loyalty and appearing strong or cool in the face of human warmth and frailty. So, when I first saw this film it seemed deeply romantic and sad, I now see it as a cautionary tale.
It’s a warning not to place strength and dignity above warmth and frailty. But in facing these times, it’s hard not become rigid and extreme in one’s reactions to what’s happening around us. The way I see it is that it’s a dilemma that I haven’t figured out yet because Fascists can’t be reasoned with or appeased.

Last time, for the most part, it was “over there.” Now it is coming for us from within. We still have the ballot box, but I wonder if we have the collective will to get there and if we do will it be tampered with? Either way, I expect this current administration will continue to advance its vile agenda.