My thought on today

No. 41: “Quills” (2000)

“Are your convictions so fragile they cannot stand in opposition to mine? Is your god so flimsy, so weak? For shame.”
~~Marquis de Sade

In 1987, a photographer named Andres Serrano dropped a plastic crucifix in a jar of his urine and snapped a photo. The result, “Piss Christ,” snared accolades and secured grant funding for Serrano. That photo also ignited a firestorm of dismay, disgust and outright hatred, prompting some detractors to send death threats. Fifteen years later, he fired back a retort aimed at everyone who damned him a heretic: “I like to believe that rather than destroy icons, I make new ones.”

The Marquis de Sade likely had a giggle at that, since nobody exalted artistic hubris quite like he did. Such is the man Geoffrey Rush presents in “Quills,” a literate, sexy and unapologetically twisted adaptation of Doug Wright’s award-winning play. Rush’s devilish Marquis is many things in his own mind: a sexual dynamo, a proponent of free speech, a consummate artist. In the minds of his keepers at Charenton asylum, the Marquis is something else entirely: a head case in need of experimental treatments to right the wickedness of his mind. Rush turns in a dynamic and tricky performance that makes us believe the Marquis is both. The image of the writer huddled in the corner of his empty room, robbed of his clothes and quill pen, is haunting. Is the Marquis a martyr for his cause or a hack with delusions of grandeur? Maybe his true character can’t be painted in black and white.

Most of the people in Charenton, from the patients to the chambermaids and physicians, make their homes in the gray areas; that’s why “Quills” sidesteps preachiness and depravity. Closest to the Marquis is Madeline (an alluring, achingly naïve Kate Winslet), a laundress who hides his work in linens and smuggles the pages to a horseman (Tom Ward) and the printer. Her innocence makes her the perfect muse for the Marquis, who awards her starring roles in his work. His response to her beauty is less than chaste, prompting the priceless line “You’ve already stolen my heart … as well as another more prominent organ south of the Equator.” Madeline also catches the eye of Charenton’s overseer, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, the unchallenged master of Crushing Inner Conflict), who lets the Marquis produce plays but actually thinks little of his prose (he calls him “a malcontent who knows how to spell”). Napoleon (Ron Cook) orders the Marquis’ execution, but an advisor persuades the ruler to send Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a man with … questional techniques, to fix this reprobate.

Once Caine and Rush stand eye to eye, “Quills” turns into an exhilarating battle of wills. Though Dr. Royer-Collard poses as a righteous man, he gets a gleam in his eye when he attempts to torture the demons from the Marquis’ mind. The good doctor’s eyes give away the delight that his mouth won’t let slip. And the more the Marquis, equally crude and poignant, taunts him, the more the truth comes out. Dr. Royer-Collard isn’t better than the Marquis; he’s just better at hiding his fetishes. Rush plays up his character’s shrewdness to tremendous effect (it takes a sadomasochist to know one). Caine, in the meantime, does a terrific job of concealing all emotions, which makes him even more monstrous. There’s no villain so scary as the one who wields a Bible like an executioner’s handbook. Winslet and Phoenix’s heart-tugging would-be lovers, barely capable of repressing their desire for each other, discover the doctor’s intentions too late.

The sets, costumes and cinematography of Philip Kaufman’s “Quills” only serve to reinforce the immense power of the performances. Somehow art director Martin Childs and set designer Jill Quertier understand the soul of Wright’s play and the film; they understand the soul of Rush’s character, walled up in this festering madhouse, and they manifest his frustrations in colorless soiled dresses and muted, dank castle walls. Every inch of Charenton resembles a medieval torture chamber, notably the Marquis’ final holding pen. Though it may be dreary, he decorates it in such a way his drive to speak his truth can’t be ignored, and surely you won’t forget it.

No. 26: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

“We have decided how sad it is for others that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
~~Pauline Parker

The story of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, two New Zealand teens who killed Pauline’s mother with half a brick jammed in a stocking, is too strange not to be true. In “Heavenly Creatures,” Peter Jackson makes it stranger. He brings Borovnia, the elaborate fantasy realm created by unstable friends Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) and Juliet (Kate Winslet), to alarming life with castles and expressionless, life-size claymation-like creatures. That these two worlds will smash into each other is inevitable; what’s surprising is the way “Heavenly Creatures” makes the collision feel just as shocking as the day it happened.

Jackson’s first few shots are designed to provide a portrait of hyperconservative 1950s Christchurch, then thrust us into the worst of the Parker-Hulme murder. “Heavenly Creatures” opens with idyllic scenes of Christchurch: wildflower-covered hills, whitewashed fences, quaint steeple-topped churches. This is a place where supper’s waiting on the table at 5, where words like “murder” are unthinkable. Abruptly the camera cuts to Pauline and Juliet, their faces covered with blood, screaming. With no context for their distress, Jackson sets a tone of profound unease. As “Heavenly Creatures” continues, the unease gives way to sheer horror as Pauline and Juliet’s obsession with each other grows. The two meet at school: Juliet, bright, pretty and self-confident enough to correct her French teacher’s grammar, is a new student. Pauline, played with spooky glowering intensity by Lysnkey, couldn’t be more different from her classmate. Shy and self-conscious about the scar on her leg caused by bone disease, Pauline exists in her own make-believe world. That makes her immensely attractive to Juliet, who wishes life could be a romance novel. “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic,” she insists. Listen carefully to how Winslet pitches her voice on this line; she sounds bubbly, but that cheer is tinged with mania, just enough to clue us in this friendship won’t be a beautiful one.

At first, Pauline and Juliet seem like a harmless enough pair, two dreamy teen girls swooning over tenor Mario Lanza and prattling on about Orson Welles. Then they are separated when Juliet has an attack of tuberculosis, and the friendship turns to what looks like romantic obsession. Soon they are so tangled up in each other’s lives that Juliet’s parents (Diana Kent, Simon O’Connor) and Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Pierse) start to wonder if … if what? In 1954 Christchurch, the word “lesbian” has no meaning except to Pauline’s doctor, who views homosexuality as a disease to be cured. Everyone agrees separating Pauline and Juliet is best; Pauline blames her mother alone and sketches a plan for her murder. No one, it seems, can or wants to understand how combustible the girls’ bond has become. But one line in Pauline’s diary says it all: “The next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd … yet how pleasing.” This frenzy has reached a point of no return.

How could two normal girls commit such a crime? There’s no answer, and Jackson and co-writer Fran Walsh don’t invent one. (It’s intriguing that Parker and Hulme, after serving five years in prison, went on to lead uneventful lives: Hulme found success writing crime novels under the name Anne Perry, and Parker changed her name and converted to Roman Catholicism.) His focus, Jackson has said, was to provide a humane look at what happened, and he does not demonize the killers; instead, he recreates their friendship and turns the fantasy world in Pauline’s journals into a mythical place using digital effects and actors in green latex suits. The result is striking (this is Peter Jackson) and menacing as the bottomless black eyes of the Borovnian creatures.

The visuals, however, are but part of the reason “Heavenly Creatures” gets under our skin. Lynskey and Winslet, both new to film acting in 1994, are astonishing finds. Winslet heaps on sunny smiles, but they are twitchy and preternaturally wide, like she’s one step away from completely losing control. With her eyes alone Lynskey projects menace beyond her 16 years. When she remarks “it’s a three-act story with a tragic ending,” there’s gravity in those words like you can’t imagine.

No. 12: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” ~~Clementine Kruczynski

If it’s true that the course of love doesn’t run smooth, it’s also true that our memories of that trip don’t follow a timeline. In the beginning, there are the obvious landmarks: the first meeting, a tentative investigation; the first conversation; the first kiss. But once affection sours, time goes full Cuisinart on those recollections, scrambling them so hopelessly we couldn’t reorganize them if we tried.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) experience this reality not once but again and again in Michel Gondry’s tender and achingly beautiful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film with a script that mimics the curious effects of time upon our memories of lost love. Here, the end and the beginning bleed together, and they also cloud the way we see everything in the middle because the boundary lines are loose and fuzzy. Charlie Kaufman, who penned the knotty script, seems intent on drawing us in by providing all the answers and letting us ferret out the equation.

What’s so wonderfully original and mesmerizing about “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” is that Joel and Clementine are in the exact same position we are. Both find themselves in an odd situation with the facts of the present, yet they have no idea how they got there. And it takes quite some time before we figure out how they did, either. Since their story can’t quite be told in a linear fashion, let’s start somewhere in the muddy middle: On an uncharacteristic whim, timid loner Joel skips work and hops a train to Montauk. The ride back leads him to meet Clementine, a chatty free spirit with unruly blue hair (“I apply my personality in a paste,” she offers brightly) who’s sure she’s met Joel before. There’s an unexpected connection that threatens to become more, and that’s when everything goes pear-shaped: Seems Joel and Clem not only know each other, they used to be lovers. The reason neither remembers this has to do with Lacuna, Inc., an odd little business run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) that specializes in erasing painful memories.

Additional stories funnel into “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” involving Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (the invaluable Mark Ruffalo), Lacuna’s memory-vanquishing technicians, and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Mierzwiak’s receptionist. Their lives intersect with Joel’s because they’re charged with erasing Clementine from his mind, and all three are so wrapped up in their own strange realities that they don’t realize Joel wants to stop the procedure right in the middle of it. Not that his protests matter, really; he’s hidden too far in his own mind to be heard. This makes his anguish all the more wrenching, for who hasn’t let heartbreak lead to a bad choice screaming to be taken back?

There are, perhaps, no appropriate words to describe what Carrey and Winslet bring to this bittersweet examination of love. The kooky plot requires them to anchor their characters in reality, make them human enough for us to suffer their hurts and feel their joy. Carrey quiets himself enormously to play Joel, a lonely man who guards his heart closely. Winslet’s more open but no less touching as Clementine, a woman whose flightiness covers a deep core of insecurity and self-awareness. Together, with their stirring chemistry, they make Joel and Clementine’s love story one of the greatest ever told. 

Worry not, though, that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is some kind of repackaged epic romance with a comedic twist. Elements of the universal exist, certainly, but with Gondry behind the camera this is love story that feels almost shockingly intimate. We catch glimpses of under-the-cover confessions, lazy afternoon strolls, early dinners uncomfortable in their cold silence — the things no one ever sees. All the shots are so gorgeously lensed, so precisely placed and edited, that what we have is a story told in scattered Polaroids. And sometimes it’s the snapshots, creased and smudged with fingerprints, we keep closest to our hearts.

Perfect for every part (part deux)

DISCLAIMER: Pay no attention to the voices in your head that may have told you this was going to be a definitive — or even vaguely highbrow — list of actresses who seem right for every role. These voices, which may have some really good ideas sometimes, will steer you wrong here in a blog where the author ranks both “Young Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” in the Greatest Movies Ever Made category.

Yeesh. Glad we got that out of the way. Now I’ll forge ahead to part two of my list, a tribute to the actresses who seem to make every character their own. Frances McDormand, of course, is our starter — and not just because Ebert said so. She’s a Coen brothers staple (she’s, uh, married to Joel), but she’s had an outstanding career outside Coenland that includes Oscar nods for drama parts (“North Country,” “Mississippi Burning”) and coming-of-age tales (“Almost Famous”). Whatever she does, she does well, and that makes her seem like a great new discovery every time I see her.

And the remaining nine actresses are:

  • Amy Adams — Amy, Amy, Amy. My love for Amy dates back to “Junebug,” when she proved a bubbly chatterbox could have depth. Then again, she gives depth to all her distinctive characters, from the serious bit parts (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) to fairy tale musicals (“Enchanted”) to smart-dumb comedies (“Talladega Nights”). She just can’t keep her darn light hidden.
  • Penélope Cruz — When Almodovar introduced Cruz in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” the world fell in love, and so did I. Inevitably she got thrust into numerous romantic comedies, but then she dared to go off the grid, take serious roles (i.e., “Elegy”) and, in “Blow” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” shred the notion that she was just some Spanish Sandra Bullock. 
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal — There’s just something about Gyllenhaal. It’s not that she oozes sexuality (she does) or that she’s possessed of a strange otherworldly kind of beauty (she is). No, I think it’s that she’s willing to get naked, physically and emotionally, to find her characters. From mainstream parts (“World Trade Center,” “Dark Knight”) to the really bold stuff (“Secretary,” “Sherrybaby”), she goes all in every time.
  • Milla Jovovich — I’ll catch hell for including a supermodel here, and I know it. So Jovovich started off as a hot action starlet and not an Oscar contender — what of it? She’s got real acting chops (she lit up the screen in “Dummy” and “You Stupid Man”) and she’s not afraid to take on parts that are fun and funny and action-oriented. Laugh if you must, but Milla’s more than a pretty face.
  • Queen Latifah — Enter controversial choice No. 2. You may be tempted to think I chose her to fill some sort of racial quota. As if. Dana Owens ended up here because she deserves to be. Here is an actress who has spent too long making terrible movies bearable (“Bringing Down the House”) and too long playing sidekicks (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Give her a lead in something like “Last Holiday,” “Chicago” or “Set It Off” and she’ll surprise you. She’s got versatility, and it’s about time Hollywood gave her more opportunities to show it.
  • Laura Linney — Linney’s the best actress who will never win an Oscar. Why? She’s too good at being plain people, and plain people rarely get gold statues. Still, that hardly means this versatile actress plays one character over and over. She does something a little different every time, sometimes stepping out of the indie box (“Breach,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). She’s one to watch.
  • Kate Winslet — Kate Winslet’s the silver screen equivalent of a extreme athlete. She’s totally unafraid to take chances, consistently picking parts that involve emotional or physical nudity. As a result, she’s done erotica, fantasy (“Heavenly Creatures,” her big break), literary adaptations (the best was “Little Children”) and everything in-between. She’s just astounding, pure and simple.
  • Renee Zellwegger — This cherubic Texan has picked some doozies in her career (re: “New in Town”), but she always rises above the most derivative scripts. Bonus: She’s fearless in the face of the unknown, be it musicals or Civil War-era fare, and she attacks every part with enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm when it’s backed by real talent.

As always, bloggers, I await your suggestions…

Quick Picks: “Revolutionary Road,” “Last Chance Harvey”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- with equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

“Revolutionary Road” (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon)

Deferring dreams, poet Langston Hughes warned us over half a century ago, is a messy, even explosive business. Nowhere is that truth more evident than Sam Mendes’ gorgeously lensed, powerfully acted “Revolutionary Road.” In fact, Frank (DiCaprio), a dissatisfied businessman, and April, his deeply unhappy wife, have a powder keg of a suburban New England 1950s marriage — she wants a new life in Paris and will do anything to make it happen; he wants the change, too, but lacks the guts to leave the comfortable, settled job and life he knows. All that dissatisfaction translates into an atmosphere of unrelenting tension and despair communicated beautifully by DiCaprio and Winslet. DiCaprio finds the right mix of uncontrollable anger and wordless despair in Frank, a kind of Everyman who doesn’t like to look back but can’t quite move forward, either. He won’t be honest with himself, the mentally ill son (a superbly caustic Shannon) of a neighbor harshly points out, so he’s just stuck. As for Winslet, well, this might be the best acting she’s done (which is really saying something). She’s equal parts bitterness and vulnerability as April, and her eyes alone — sad but anxious, like those of a deer trapped in headlights — are enough to make “Revolutionary Road” much more than some whiny diatribe on suburban life. This one hits right where it hurts: the heart.

Grade: A

“Last Chance Harvey” (Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson)

It’s perhaps not an accident that Hoffman plays a commercial jingle writer in “Last Chance Harvey,” a quietly charming romantic comedy that at times, most unfortunately, seems like a clever commercial ruined by loud, formulaic music. On second thought, no, that’s exactly what Joel Hopkins’ movie is. That’s a pity, too, because actors don’t come much more likable, charming, or deserving of a leading role than Hoffman and Thompson. Still, “Last Chance Harvey” isn’t quite a lost cause, probably because the aforementioned leads make — pardon, ahem, the pun — beautiful music together. Hoffman is Harvey, a divorced, failed jazz pianist-turned-jingle maker in London for his slightly estranged daughter’s wedding. At Heathrow, he meets Kate (Thompson), a survey taker who’s just weathered a really, really bad blind date. There aren’t sparks, exactly, but there is a conversation that, Roger Ebert might say, “threatens to continue for a lifetime.” The words turn into new friendship, then genuine affection, then trust, then love. The chief joy of “Last Chance Harvey” is watching that slow, satisfying bloom — and Hoffman and Thompson are up to the task. Hoffman nails Harvey’s moving transformation from dejection to hope, and nobody covers stark vulnerability with awkward humor quite like the divine Thompson. Seeing them stumble, then walk tentatively into romance feels like a breakthrough, and one bright enough to counter the “dramatic plot points” and cutesy background tunes. They don’t make romantic comedies like this anymore.

Grade: B+

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