Respect for Strong Performances, But Still Crave the Original

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015). USA/UK. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. With Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Michael Sheen.

Few film moments jarred me as much as Terrence Stamp in the role of Sergeant Troy menacing Julie Christie playing Bathsheba in the 1967 rendition of Far From the Madding Crowd.  I approached this latest portrayal with an open mind, yet that same brain kept flashing back to key scenes from the earlier version.  Vinterberg created a beautiful, bucolic countryside and maintained the literary source’s strong characters; however, the rhythm and sensibility strayed from the excellence of John Schlesinger.

For those unfamiliar of the film’s source material, Thomas Hardy‘s novel Far From the Madding Crowd published in 1874 centers upon a young modern, ambitious woman named Bathsheba whose sudden inheritance thrusts her into a powerful position as farmer.  She relishes inserting herself into male dominated spheres while neglecting her emotional awareness with male attention at times.  Critically acclaimed, Hardy’s fourth novel inaugurated his literary success after failed attempts initially with poetry.  It should be noted that Far From the Madding Crowd is not as dreary and pessimistic as Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).

Regrouping after the screening, I noted that the quiet moments were offset with narrative accelerations.  Vinterberg’s camera would linger on Bathsheba and Farmer Gabriel Oak’s faces to heighten the thoughts unexpressed behind the gazes.  Then resembling a jolt, a plot point would move swiftly along leaving the characters’ necessary slower scenes discordantly and falsely dragging the pacing.  In the 1967 example, Schlesinger had an hour’s worth more time to build the peculiarities of William Boldwood (Peter Finch) and level of devastation wrought by Sergeant Troy.  With Schlesinger, viewers inhabited the interiors and exteriors of the production and the characters in permeating ways.

It is counterproductive to contrast Christie and Mulligan’s beauty barometer because they are both gorgeous, and it reinforces the reductive critique of females.  Rather, I want to expound about why this choice role of Bathsheba is tempting.  Charming, cute, and formidable, Carey Mulligan exudes savvy and autonomy.  Her Bathsheba is pleasant and industrious. Once Julie Christie entered the frame in 1967, everything else blurs.  Mulligan is a dominant presence, but not as bewitching as Christie.  Frankly, Christie is so synonymous with the character that Mulligan’s arresting portrayal cannot be appreciated objectively.  In her career, Mulligan has selected caliber projects such as An Education (2009), Shame (2011), Pride and Prejudice (2005), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).  Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) continues her trend of complicated female characters and screenplays that are generated with great quality.  Gifted and discerning actresses like Carey Mulligan covet the Bathsheba role.  Not many cinematic releases do fulfill the satisfying range found in Far From the Madding Crowd, so I understand how adapting this novel again is worthwhile, but then I also posit could there had been a fresh or new story to bring to life.

Reviewing the male performances, Farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) is delectable to where Bathsheba’s marriage refusal seems partly disappointing.  In the original, Alan Bates playing Farmer Oak is a slower sell to Bathsheba and audiences.  In that way, Bathsheba’s learning curve feels more hard-worn.  In assessing the Sergeant Troys, the brooding sexuality of Terrence Stamp in his prime throws asunder the rationalism professed by Bathsheba.  Tom Sturridge had a hard act to follow, and his horrible treatment of Bathsheba is not as long suffering or psychologically disturbing.   Knowingly, this could have been a consequence of the shorten film length, yet Stamp always had this haunting quality.

While I wish film houses would find more notable material like Far From the Madding Crowd to support, I recommend audiences first view director Schlesinger’s magnificent 3-hour film starring Julie Christie (Schlesinger directed her debut in Darling), Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terrence Stamp.

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Welles: No One-Trick-Pony

The Trial (1962). FR/DE/IT. Directed by Orson Welles. With Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, and Romy Schneider.

The Trial (1962). FR/DE/IT. Directed by Orson Welles. With Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, and Romy Schneider.

What to make of The Trial (1962)?

There is a built-in mistrust in watching Orson Welles’s films when inundated with his early meteoric success as an omen to being cast off by the gods of favor.  It may be recalled that Orson Welles astounded audiences and critics with Citizen Kane (1941) and ventured unto the alien space for radio listeners during The War of the Worlds broadcast.  His popular success shackled his subsequent creative work with incessant comparisons.  Welles strove for complexity and ambiguity in what images and words meant to convey.  This stance is not embraced readily and became doubly disquieting in film adaptation expectations of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.  The surreal literary world that Kafka sharpened is wrought with frustration.  His characters cannot control their lives even as they followed the supposed rules.  Predictably in Kafka works, the anxiety increases as these protagonists become ostracized.  The intersection of Welles and Kakfa requires focus to determine its import.

Reviewing Welles’ The Trial (Le procès) is not a straightforward endeavor as the combined factors of Welles’s style and lack of editing, Kafka’s narrative premise, and Welles’s insertion unto the screen complicate reception.  Immediately in the film, Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is accosted early morning in his private quarters by a series of police gentlemen who fail to enlighten Josef about the merits or cause of this attention.  Josef acts righteous in his irritation and presume innocence for nearly a day.  The ripple effect of the unknown charges infect his professional work space and inspire worry in his family members.  Anger turns to anxiety as the spiral of confusion and individual powerless increases with every new wrinkle Josef learns about the justice system.  His agency is overshadowed in metaphysical and realistic ways as he maneuvers around looming statutes and shadows.

Welles assembled renowned actors such as Jeanne Moreau (The 400 Blows , La NotteJules and Jim) and Romy Schneider (Ludwig, Sissi: The Young Empress, Boccaccio ‘70) which lends weight to the inclination that entertainment is not the primary aim of this cinematic production.  Bookending the film, Welles recounts Kafka’s parable Before the Law about a beggar man waiting endlessly for a gatekeeper to permission his access to the law which is never delivered.  Lithographs accompany the retelling.  It is an uncomfortable and depressing tale that serves as the backbone to Josef’s labyrinth to learn of the charges, and in tandem, clear his name with or without the bureaucratic representatives.  In Welles’s communication of a brief Kafka tale, he underlines the desperation in the The Trial in a more plausible situation.  The society depicted is muted of music, art, or any signs of culture.  It is a stripped back setting that forbids any distraction from individual plight.

The paralyzing aspects to Josef’s destiny unsettle and do not abate for the two-hour run.  Instinctively, audiences will bemoan the tedium (heard several funny comments at Film Forum), but I could not ignore the nagging sensibility that we were expected to acknowledge the despair and limitations that to lesser degrees imprison our own lives.  I would not regard this film as one to invite laughter, to solve a puzzle, or to be used for background filler.  It is more accurate to state that its theme will resonate in life moments and prolonged tribulations.  I suppose there is an assurance in knowing profound minds opted to highlight this reality which connects us throughout time (side note: film earned award recognition).  Welles mastered Kafka and lest memory fails, F For Fake (1973) was a triumph as well.

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Pendulous Violence

A Most Violent Year (2014). USA. Directed by J. C. Chandor. With Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, and David Oyelowo.

Film titles as with book titles can tempt or dissuade a would-be audience member.   Simply the words within A Most Violent Year directed by J. C. Chandor conjured grotesque images I had years ago from reading reviews about A History of Violence (2005).  Yet, supportive and urging headlines from the likes of Eric Kohn at Indiewire had me reassess my initial hesitation.  When my friend presented film options one evening, I braced myself for A Most Violent Year to be seen and set in NYC.

Unfortunate gender conventions were challenged.  As has been evident, the spate of male anti-hero television (Breaking Bad, True Detective, etc.) has honed the eye and ear for imitators.  Certainly not all anti-heroes used female characters as cardboard cut-outs (i.e., Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad), but the easy narrative construction is to neglect the female voice and presence.  Tropes of men striving for power at the expense of family and decency is not a new trend.  Notably for this piece, The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and Scarface (1983) have done little to elevate this notion.  The woman characters solely exude sexual potency with the risk of betrayal.  Consider Sharon Stone in Casino or Scarface‘s Michelle Pfeiffer in how the memory sketches their image.  They are rarely their own person.  The fault lies in the screenplay and adaptation.  Pfeiffer and Stone have proven their acting ranges in other films.  Perhaps, because A Most Violent Year took another approach, I found myself more attentive to the rhythms among the characters.  Oscar Nominated Zero Dark Thirty‘s Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales is resolutely no one’s doll or decoration.  She manages the accounting books for her husband, Abel Morales (the wonderful Oscar Isaac) at Standard Oil.  The film reveals that her father had owned the business previously, but her husband had taken the reigns ostensibly.  While Abel would like to run a harmonious company in spite of the turmoil, Anna chooses preparation, and when necessary, action.

The couple’s moments together are not spoiled by gratuitous sex scenes that would emphasize her body; instead, their interactions demonstrate two equals not only problem solving, but sharing what pitfalls have arisen.  The partnership has trust.  Anna conveys the weight of various threats to her husband, and he absorbs the feedback.  Abel will act in a manner befitting his character and ethos, but Anna protects him from his own limitations.  Abel is not diminished by his formidable wife either.  His business creativity and survival are enhanced by her participation.  Chandor has rattled the status quo cages.

The main plot of the film revolves about a desired oil port and storage area that would wholly crown one competitor as the most profitable and enduring.  Fulfilling the contract terms causes the tension and forces intersections with many rivals.  Abel Morales’s adherence to his principles are accosted again and again.  Menace rather than outright murder rampages plague the car and door frames.  Violence is rationed and felt more resoundingly in this controlled manner.  New York City in 1981 still had the muted browns and fashionable flare of the 70s, yet a grittiness is seeping.  Political calculation and strange bedfellows hopelessly intertwine.

Before this post becomes a tome, I’ll say A Most Violent Year nourished this cinemaphile in unexpected ways, and I encourage a trip to the theaters.

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Calvary, A Priest Sentenced

Calvary (2014). Ireland. Directed by John Michael McDonagh. With Brendan Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, Kelly Reilly, and Aidan Gillen.

The Catholic Church has become an easy target for comedians and politicians due to the number of molested children by protected religious figures.  Exact numbers will not be reviewed or cataloged, but importantly, an anger persists about how justice has not been forthcoming or stringent as the secular law would demand.  Common practice in earlier days had predatory priests transferred and the cycle would repeat.  In director John Michael McDonagh‘s powerful film Calvary, Father James played by the thoughtful and magnetic Brendan Gleeson places the sense of justice in a flawed light.

Stakes are established at the film’s outset.  Father James is listening to a confession behind a privacy screen.  In angry hushed tones, the lay person describes abuses he endured from a priest as a young boy.  An ominous portent is disclosed.  This man forewarns Father James that he intends to kill him on the following Sunday.  He readily acknowledges Father James is not at fault nor has been suspected of any pedophilia, yet believes that “killing an innocent priest makes more of a statement.”  The camera stays fixed on Father James’s face without any zooming or cuts during the whole confession and threat.  The sound of the sliding window door is heard and the screen goes blank.  Immediate associations went to Fred Zinneman‘s western classic High Noon (1952) where retired marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) faces a released convict hellbent on exacting revenge.  Under the false hope that the same town folks that he had protected will help defend him, Will ultimately has to contend with Frank Miller and his gang alone.  However, what made High Noon memorable is the tension and anxiety found as the clock continues to move forward to the prescribed time.  McDonagh uses a different device of earmarking the day as each new morning begins conscious that the audience is intensely bracing themselves for increased worry and possible conflict before the stated meeting at the shoreline.  Heightening the drama is the fact that Father James knows or is fairly certain of which individual in his small parish is looking to annihilate him.  Despite this information, Father James continues to carry out his spiritual duties and help people.

Adding another curveball to the plot is the backstory that Father James had not begun his career as a priest, but turned to it after the premature death of his wife.  A troubled and emotionally fragile daughter (Kelly Reilly) from that union visits her father shortly after the death sentence is pronounced by the unknown (to the audience) man.  It becomes quite evident that no character is without suspicion, and there is also a callback to the crushing economic fall in Ireland that cast majority of the Irish people into dire financial straits while the banks were able to extricate themselves from the astounding debt.

Gleeson as Father James embodies an honest man with vices of his own.  He is somewhat of a religious skeptic even though he looks to comfort those around him as a man of the cloth.  Father James has his own ire that humanizes the man acting as a priest.  It is a refreshing choice to do so.

Turning attention to the scenery, the waves violently splashing against the jetties communicates a relentless force while around the shore there is a spare austerity of life.  Father James may have people attending mass, but they all have their own criticism and disaffection from the Catholic Church.  McDonagh makes this picture more than merely about a murderous meeting and peels back layers rarely considered.  For instance, in analyzing Father James’s open manner and kindness, it begs the question if people are overwhelmed by sins committed to find the true intention of faith and operating in a forgiving way of themselves and others especially.  Stripping away how misguided people use and abuse religion in general, the core teachings had and has valid messages.

Leaving the spoilers out, ambiguity remains about the harm levied upon Father James.  In particular, the final scene blurred a few ideas, and for that, McDonagh deserves praise at this very strong film.  The Academy Awards should come calling for McDonagh and Gleeson.

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Step Aside Eddie Murphy, Guinness Stands Alone

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). UK. Directed by Robert Hamer. With Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, and Alec Guinness.

Black comedy flourished in Britain especially at Ealing Studios located in the suburbs of west London.  There, actors like the esteemed Sir Alec Guinness, David Niven, and the unforgettable Alastair Sim (best Scourge) took part in these films.  Film Forum offers a glimpse into this style as part of their Alec Guinness 100 tribute.  Launching the series is Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which Sir Alec Guinness dons multiple costumes to portray 8 different characters including a Lady heir.

Class tensions and misguided family obligations create the framework of how this plot is woven.  The technique of having Louis’s voiceover as confessional narrator illustrates how he managed to find himself awaiting the executioner’s noose.  Turns out this murderous man had an avenging mission.  His words quickly depict his origin story.

Louis (Dennis Price) is the only child to a cast aside highborn woman who chose love through an Italian “operatic” singer over a duty bound marriage.  The black humor reverberates throughout.  For instance, Louis’s father (he plays that character too) perishes as soon as he learns of Louis’s successful birth.  Dramas typically have the mother dying tragically, yet here it is the father in the nearby room.   The D’Ascoyne family holds firm on ostracizing his mother now forced to take a tenant to make ends meet.

Louis fosters a childhood friendship with the offspring of someone of a “profession.”  Seems that his mother can tolerate the notion with this burgeoning working class.  As Louis matures, he humbly performs roles as clerk in various stores, and then loses his mother.  Angered by the refusal by one of the D’Ascoynes to have his mother be eternally laid in the family crypt, Louis channels his ire into concerted killing.  Chance grants him access to one of the many D’Ascoynes that stand to inherit the fortune in a ladies lingerie shop where he works.  Louis is rebuffed by this D’Ascoyne, and rudeness is the lit fuse to commit Louis to his avenging plan.

In an astounding feat and a way to guarantee family physiological similarities, Alec Guinness portrays each D’Ascoyne that Louis must eradicate.  With precision and eery blackheartedness, Louis regularly crosses off D’Ascoyne by D’Ascoyne on his abridged family tree with great verve.  Louis ascends with each new death, and no matter that a few D’Ascoynes display contrition at how his mother was treated or extend kindess, Louis never falters or hesitates.  The murder scenarios are hilarious with a critique that the upper class lack a discerning mind or ability to assess character of someone.  Even while nobility are inherently supposed to possess attributes of high society, they manage to be blind to the lower ranks especially the upwardly mobile.  Manners is enough of an effective mask for proper duping.  Sir Guinness modulates the voice patterns, posture, hair and props to achieve variety of his characters.  His suffragette Lady Agatha was particularly amusing in her penchant for destruction and attracting police attention.

Seemingly triumphant, Louis is about to enjoy his spoils when the wife to a dead cuckolded husband accuses him of murder as her own form of revenge on Louis.  He had dumped Sibella (Joan Greenwood) for a highborn, and it is this same prejudice that limited his mother’s life that ultimately ensnares his freedom.

A playfulness and absurdity keep this macabre story in the realm of amusement.  Film Forum‘s series scheduled Kind Hearts and Coronets for June 13th & 14th, 2014, but I do encourage making time in another way to watch this film.  Alec Guinness 100 provides ample chance (until July 3rd, 2014) to view the talented actor in different roles before Star Wars stored his persona as Obi-Wan Kenobi for the next batch of film-goers.

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Exhiles within The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). US & DE. Directed by Wes Anderson. With Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, and F. Murray Abraham.

On the surface, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) plays with the absurd madcap tale against a dark, unforgiving political backdrop.  Yet, further research revealed that Wes Anderson‘s masterful film held an acute commentary about the world that the writer Stefan Zweig left abruptly.  Moreover, Zweig as a man echoed in the illustrious and scrupulous (when it comes to decorum) concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes).

Wes Anderson’s auteur hand is immediately apparent in the color palette which is a varying set that he adheres to in each cinematic creation.  The film opens with the camera framing centrally a cemetery with a young, unformed, nerdy girl perched beneath the open arch entryway.  She has come to pay homage to the “Author” at his memorial sculpture.  “Author” (Tom Wilkinson) comes into view to act a narrator recounting a special encounter at The Grand Budapest Hotel in the republic of Zubrowka.  Young “Author/Writer” (Jude Law) expresses curiosity about a particular guest Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) supposed to be the owner of the dilapidated establishment.  Mr. Moustafa proceeds to enrich the worn hotel with his first affiliation and a harried series of events during his time as a lobby boy named Zero.

Worthy of an Academy nomination, Ralph Fiennes as the concierge M. Gustave exudes the precision and refinement his guests represent and seek to maintain.  When not performing, his strict standards of excellence also lead him to impatience to anything vile or rude.  M. Gustave entertains the aging doyens of the bourgeoisie in delights beyond the sugary confections from Mendel’s.  These women return his attention with handsome gifts and access.  Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) is the audience’s introduction to one such benefactor.  Nervous and macabre, Madame D. convinced of her imminent demise should she return to her manor, implores to stay.  True to form, Madame D. pallid face and splayed body grace the front paper days later announcing her murder.  Out of loyalty and concern that she be tended to in refinement, M. Gustavo and his newly vetted lobby boy and sidekick Zero (Tony Revolori) rush to her estate.

Last-will-and-testament open questions draw a cast of characters to learn if the wealthy Madame D. proved generous to their pockets.  Feuding interests propel the film forward to determine rightful recipients.  M. Gustave becomes embroiled into these affairs, and Zero supports his mentor in the quest.

Both M. Gustave and Zero are without family.  Zero more blatantly is a refugee and viewed as a outsider in this mostly Caucasian republic.  Yet, M. Gustave is a man tied to rules of society and etiquette which may be assumed by any orphaned person.  It defines a culture to those that may not have a sense of community.  It is here that Stefan Zweig’s shadow is evident.  Austrian writer Zweig (b. 1881 – d. 1942) had achieved a foothold as German-language writer.  His writing gifts granted him distinction even though he did not have the lineage of someone like Thomas Mann‘s ancestry.  Yet with each whisper of violence and foreshadowing as it pertained to the growing Nazism in Germany, he fled farther and farther away from the events.  From Austria to England to the US and finally committing suicide in Petrópolis, Brasil, Zweig leveraged his literary network to continue his retreat from annihilation.  M. Gustave has the same sense of a specialized network to call upon in dire straits.   Both Zweig and M. Gustave have little in the way of weighty possessions to slow their frenetic movements and journeys.  Both had an expectation that proprietary would supersede negative forces from taking root and spreading.  Zweig firmly held hope that the German people would thwart the Nazi ideology.  It turned out that violence begat violence to subdue Hitler’s master plans.  M. Gustave also supposed that reason and appeal for rationalism would keep the wrong machinations at bay.

The decay and emptiness of Grand Budapest Hotel in the 1960s highlights that times swept away those older institutions even if undeserved.  The space itself contains the memories for as long as people remember.

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Depth in Simplicity: Enough Said

Enough Said (2013). USA. Directed by Nicole Holofcener. With Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, and Toni Collette.

My escapism via rewatching all of fast-talking and esoteric reference laden Gilmore Girls had me admiring creator Amy Sherman-Palladino‘s repertoire.  True to fashion, I carefully watched opening credits to each Gilmore Girls episode in my revival, and Nicole Holofcener’s name appeared as Season 2 episode 11 director (“Secrets and Loans“).  Sure enough, I recalled the understated and touching Lovely and Amazing (2001), so my interest was piqued doubly when an article praising Nicole Holofcener’s first feature Walking and Talking (1996) starring mostly fresh faces of Anne Heche, Catherine KeenerLiev Schreiber, and Todd Field plus the charming rental video geek Kevin Corrigan established the necessity of watching Walking and Talking (1996) before Enough Said (2013).  In a way, I wanted to establish a familiarity with her sensibility prior to engaging with the latest release that had an unavoidable emotional valve with the late James Gandolfini on screen and vulnerable.

Complicated, traditional plots are not the core to Enough Said nor any of her films.  More effective and poignantly, Holofcener relies on emotional truths and perceived truths to punctuate and layer the narrative.  The story pivots on middle-aged, divorced massage therapist Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who lugs equipment from client to client as she dreads the departure of her daughter Ellen (Tracey Fairaway) to Julliard.  Ellen and Eva have a harmony to their relationship that magnifies the sense of separation to be felt on both sides.  They acknowledge in small moments this turning point in their bond and dynamic.  Change is inevitable.

While Eva endures the solipsism of her clients babbling as she goes about her practice, she conveniently has a close friend in therapist Sarah (Toni Collette), which widens her daily grind.  Sarah and her husband Will (Ben Falcone) act as proverbial Charons to LA intellectual parties.  It is here that Eva’s predictable life gets rattled.  In quick succession, Eva meets poetess Marianne (Catherine Keener) and TV archivist Albert (James Gandolfini).  The former becomes a new client windfall as the latter endeavors to pursue Eva romantically.  Unbeknownst to Eva for a few weeks, Albert and Marianne’s comments about their respective exes become doubly confounding and no longer distant sketches upon the realization that Albert and Marianne had been married long enough to produce a daughter named Maddy (Ivy Strohmaier) also about to embark on the college chapter.  Having befriended lonely Marianne and smitten with Albert, Eva decides to keep both people in her life with neither of them aware of her common thread.  Naturally, such a charade cannot be maintained for long, but this is not the focus explored by Nicole Holofcener.  Rather the camera lingers on Eva’s sense of guilt and admitted conflation of how she views and speaks to Albert.  Marianne’s complaints when viewed anew by Eva carry some of her irritation yet mutes the complete scold.  Passive aggressive digs occur which injure Albert.  The honest foundation laid about shared woes in watching their children leave the nest and in how humor has masked displaying their true natures starts to loose footing.

Holofcener peeks into the marital problems that plagued Eva and her ex just as veteran married couple Sarah and Will bicker or critique each other.  Thematically, Holofcener elevates the everyday exodus of kids to college into how this impacts both sides and strangeness for those dating in the later years.  She also seems to suggest how much more principled these people become in the second Act as it relates to dating.  Essentially, adults have a better sense of what they want to tolerate in character and a forgiveness in the physical attributes is customary.

This mini review cannot omit the import of James Gandolfini as Albert.  Majority of audiences associated him with Tony Soprano or spoofs on that tough guy mobster; notwithstanding this, the late Mr. Gandolfini possessed a gracefulness of emotions and openness that breathed a new vantage upon which to appreciate him.  Observing comedically gifted Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini stripping away their familiar modes of acting to facing one another as wounded, kind souls warmed my heart.

Drawing from these actors’ strengths, Holofcener championed the interaction of people as centerpieces for a film and asks the audience to value the same in their lives.

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Soucriants By Circumstance

Byzantium (2012). UK/USA/IE. Directed by Neil Jordan. With Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, and Caleb Landry Jones.

Vampire overload was my first thought when I read about primary aspects to this film Byantium (2012) , but in being selected by NYTimes  Critics’ Picks, I reformed initial impressions.

Author Jean Rhys born in the Commonwealth of Dominica of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Quartet (1928) constructed the term soucriant using the witch vampire Caribbean folklore nomenclature of soucouyant.  According to legend,  a soucouyant “lives by day as an old woman at the end of the village. By night, however, she strips off her wrinkled skin, puts it in a mortar, and flies in the shape of a fireball through the darkness, looking for a victim. Still in the shape of a fireball, the soucouyant enters the home of her victim through the keyhole or any crack or crevice.”  Playwright and screenwriter to Byzantium, Moira Buffini seemed to hark upon Rhys uncanny ability to trace the inner despair and entrapment particularly of the female variety.  In doing so, Byzantium intermixed Gothic sensibilities found in Jane Austen‘s (b. 1775- d. 1817) Northanger Abbey and novels by Charles Dickens (b. 1812- d. 1870).  These women’s plight drearily echoes the atmosphere in the referenced literary selection.

Storytelling weaves the vampire thread into the cinematic production, but the manner in which reliable sources retrace the timeline stirred emotional connections to these outcasts.

Opening the film, buxom and gorgeous Clara (Gemma Arterton) shimmies and dips into a hungry man’s eager lap in a strip-club.  In reaction to the lustful patron’s unauthorized grabbing, she manages to bloody his nose in her escape.  Fiery and without scruples in thieving the bar’s till, her intended trek home is interrupted by a pale, blond man whose accelerated pursuit of Clara demonstrates a physical strength unexpected and beyond human limits.  On the surface momentarily, he has Clara captured and inquires about her keep Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan).  Clara is protecting someone unknown to audiences still.  She beheads the oppressor, informs Eleanor about leaving the area, and without much hesitation torches the flat.  Eleanor’s response echoes and laments at another change of venue.  Memory and mirage foretell a biography unspoken and hidden in Eleanor.  Even while existing in modern times, she labors in 19th century cursive manuscript Clara’s history and casts them into the wind in crumbled pages fearing what this information can unsettle.

Eleanor strolls the night in solitude while Clara uses her overt sexuality for money and lodgings.  Her interaction with these clients shows an expertise that solidifies knowledge that years of experience had been garnered.  Clara reports that Eleanor is her sister and recounts for sympathy Eleanor’s orphanage background to the latest mark.  Eleanor rebels against fabrications whose truth communicates absurdity to the listeners thus validating the easier tale by Clara.  Eleanor’s words are viewed within a psychological framework whose acceptance for the most part rely on men.  The personality juxtaposition between Clara and Eleanor enrich the film.  Their fights belie love and kinship.  Being hunted in every neighborhood in the simple sense of special detectives, but also prey for men’s sexual appetites marginalizes and strengthens their bond.

The past remains afoul on Clara and Eleanor.  The missing pieces begin to align in how and why present day Clara and Eleanor behave in a skillful manner that shall remain absent from disclosure here.  Do keep in mind that humor is not absent from this work, and it is a testament to Moira Buffini and director Neil Jordan at the marvelous masterpiece they have sired.

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The Barnes Foundation Re-imagined in Philadelphia

Walter and Leonore Annenberg Court. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Probably close to 15 years ago, my mother and I wandered into remote Merion, PA to experience The Barnes Foundation.  Bookings had to be confirmed two months prior due to the strict number of daily visitors.  This advance seemed to hold also true for the transplanted Barnes collection on the Ben Franklin Parkway in attempts to recreate the Museum Mile of NYC with PMA, PAFA, The Rodin Museum, and now the Barnes.

Regrettably overdue, I shall explain the visit and comment about a deplorable decision physically realized on May 4, 2013.

The looming ceilings and airy space thwart the dwarfed Barnes quarters replica devoted to his idiosyncratically arranged collection.  A wide hall separates a modestly sized gallery room outlining the genesis of UPenn alum Alfred C. Barnes‘s [b. 1972- - d. 1951] wealth via Argyrol (used to protect newborn babies against gonorrhea), which allowed a robust 35 year man to become a millionaire after selling his successful enterprise.  Following that financial ascension, his relative youth permitted spirited pursuit of art that intrigued him.  The cultural and artistic status quo did not mirror his aesthetic sensibilities, and as a result, he cornered an untapped market and capitalized on rash investors who needed to unload material goods to cover worthless stocks post the Great Depression.  During his formative years in 1921 prior to the crash, he commingled with Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein who introduced Barnes to Matisse and Picasso.  The former would adorn his physical home walls in special commissions.  His life was incredibly learned and determined.  Married from 1901 to Laura Leggett, they shared an ability to focus in areas that removed the marking of hobby to their endeavors.  She developed the Arboretum and horticultural program that linked the original landscape in nature’s assemblage in harmony with his housed collection.

This side gallery served as a necessary penance for dissolving Barnes’s will after ‘legally’ eroding the written words for many years.  My post about the documentary Art of the Steal details this process.  Then this seemingly permanent gallery has been re-purposed for temporary exhibits.  Case in point, Ellsworth Kelly (darling of former PMA director Anne d’Harnoncourt) works shall occupy the walls supposed to be celebrating the collector.  Where is the justified uproar?

Walking to the main section that is inch by inch duplicated from the Merion dwelling, one is transported to the collector’s sentiments and painting play.  In that moment, one can almost forget the transgressions and imagine exploring the original.  Visiting this collection for a second time allowed me to ration my attention to the second floor that can be breezed through out of first floor art fatigue (Renoirs aplenty), but I planned accordingly.  This is an entree to be savored  twice.  Delights and rewards could be found in George Rouault‘s paintings [image below] and noticing smaller works from distinguished artists.  Sketches are the best windows in the artists’ freedom in line and expression.

Bonus points: There is a smartly designed free App offered in 4 languages that invites visitors to key-in selected works for extended audio information without the burden of renting gear if you have your iPhone or iPad.  iPad users can snap a flash-less image to retrieve the curated notes.  Maps and basic museum information are also contained within the App.

Safe to say that for seasoned art purveyors, the treasures at the Barnes Foundation do not disappoint or wane.  Under the mission statement of art being available for all, I find no fault until precedents are established against the clearly defined wishes of the individual from which public joy springs.  Removing this issue from consideration, The Barnes Foundation is a must destination for Philadelphia locals and tourists.

Clown in a Top Hat (1907). Watercolor on paper. Georges Rouault. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA.

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Spaces Around People’s Empty Core

Every Love Store is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (2012). Written by D. T. Max

Few instances elicit a vocal response on the CNN news ticker, but on September 13, 2008 which fell on a Saturday, I murmured an audible, “No.”  David Foster Wallace had died by his own hand the previous night.  Amidst the inane celebrity dribble that inundates the masses, I quietly mourned the loss of a great mind whose writing talent I had encountered through a Book Club selection of Infinite Jest.  Coincidentally during the prior evening, I had championed his prose to several family members.  Pausing my reading due to the near impossibility of completing by the Book Club meeting in August 2008, I returned with a vigor following his passing as if on a respectful quest.

David Foster Wallace predicted many technological wastelands that critics bemoan with fractured attentions and social ticks resulting from the internet.  Other than his accidental foresight that wanted to address the lack of interior fulfillment, his syntax and renderings of the misused and truthful examples of sharp irony catapulted him from his peers.  He revealed to readers, before it became vogue, the inner lives of addicts and recovering addicts in programs.   In particular, the overlap between the emptied young tennis players striving for rankings to the former addicts contending with minute by minute sobriety demonstrated acutely the pervasive voids acquiring more members partly due to modern life.

From there, I read his non fiction pieces and fiction short stories alike in Oblivion, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (adapted to film by US The Office’s John Krasinski in 2009), and his debut novel The Broom of the System.  In 2010, Santa or my mother gifted me his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College bound in a friendly hardback book.  Naturally, D. T. Max’s biography provided an appropriate compendium to DFW material consumed.

Reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (2012) where character Leonard Bankhead is Eugenide’s ode to the deceased literary giant then months later this biography submerged the private made public persona of DFW.  The unshakable phantom of depression hounded him from high school years that made deadlines a daunting prospect and any limits on words or pages something to be exceeded as almost a defiant position that restrictions beyond his mind and body were to be disregarded.  Effortless, DFW could excel in any subject area even if extra hours where required in the quantitative domain.  This stance to outpace others at Amherst and elsewhere was also the same mechanism that induced tailspins.

His inventive writing style shifted to sincerity that he followed in his own recovery program.  At the same time, his initial approach of ignoring the reader transformed into a moral mission once Infinite Jest (1996) reached the masses.  The reason why DFW could craft the spaces outside of people so well and be mostly remembered for this was tied to his own insistence to find strength outside of himself to carry on.  His roundabout preaching that decried the “entertain us” plea highlighted a major fear in himself once the distractions and productivity ceased.  Lauded and referenced repeatedly in later years, Infinite Jest‘s specter placed an insurmountable onus for his next novel The Pale King.  Incomplete, it was published posthumously in 2011 and would have been a remarkable feat to impose dry subject matter of IRS protagonist and story as a way for readers to push through the boredom to a spiritual nirvana.  He would not have the opportunity to finish however.

Relationship entanglements with females consisted of motherly types (when not flights of passion) to substitute for his own mother and could act as a caregiver in his depressive states.   His wife had a son from her first marriage and being a visual artist did not compete in his literary landscape.  DFW rushed courtship, but in Karen L. Green, toxicity and 13th stepping did not apply.  Ostensibly, he had managed a stable setting until doctors recommended trying another drug in place of the 21 year use of “dirty drug” Nardil.  Finding a replacement drug treatment is a treacherous course that requires patience as it undermines the patient’s resilience and sanity.  After years of struggle and being hallowed out in this painstaking process, DFW decided to remove himself from this world.

Biographer D. T. Max researched extensively and followed as closely as he could manage the circuitous route to DFW’s publications and frequent changes of location along with mindsets.  Any fan of DFW will be adequately pleased with this account.

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