directed by James Wan
At one point during The Conjuring, my friend Jen whispered to me, “I have got to stop screaming.” Well, no, you don’t. Why would you? Let it out. Let your screams cry out into the night because The Conjuring is unbearably terrifying. I had to do some deep breathing exercises during the film to calm the hell down. A couple was sitting behind us, and I heard the woman whisper to the guy, “So … you’re staying over tonight, right?” It’s that frightening. Anything having to do with The Devil is already frightening to me. The Exorcist ruined my childhood, for example. God is in the details, as always, and it is the acting/production design/camera work that makes The Conjuring so effective. The camera swoops along behind characters, or in front of them, so you ache to see what is outside of the frame. The Steadicam operator deserves an award. I loved the seriousness in which the topic was taken, which is important, since this stuff can often seem (and is) quite silly. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are just wonderful as the paranormal investigators (true life characters, the Warrens). You get the sense of their relationship, of their devotion to their work, to God, and to the people they try to help. But it is quite detailed, what both of them are doing. It’s subtle. Vera Farmiga’s costume design is superb. I remember Willem Dafoe telling us when he came to talk at my school that it was the costume and the teeth that gave him his character in Wild at Heart. The second he was in his get-up, he knew who the character was. The same is true here for Farmiga. She is elegant and odd, operating on another plane, always sensitive, and yet also somewhat distant. She is listening to echoes from beyond. And yet she doesn’t seem absent, or distracted. Just focused on a very unique level. Everyone else is great, too. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingstone, great, the five daughters, all excellent. In a film like this it is important to establish normalcy, quickly, so that it can then be disrupted and you feel that chaos. Here, the weirdness starts almost immediately – the dog won’t come into the new house – but James Wan and his cast manage to show us how this family operates, its concerns, its dynamic, very efficiently and effectively, so that when Mrs. Warren says to her husband, with a sense of desperation and urgency, “This is such a nice family …” you believe her. All of these details are the nuts and bolts of why the film works. For me, it’s always about character and emotion. If you don’t have that, I don’t care if the Devil is licking at your heels and you’re being set on fire from inside. I don’t care. The Conjuring is full with emotion and association, and the fear is palpable. The opening scenes, where the family starts to realize something is off within the house, before they ask for help, are terrifying. Seriously. Jen and I were crouched in our chairs, holding on to one another desperately, screaming randomly, and trying to calm ourselves down. It’s fucking scary.
I own this one, so I busted it out following reading A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel (which I raved about here). It’s been a Norma Shearer-heavy couple of weeks, yes? This film is beyond fabulous. I don’t even know where to start. There is the spectacle of it, let’s start there. The sets, the processions, the crowd scenes, the sansculottes rioting, the scene where the mob breaks into Versailles: amazing, incredible, terrifying, awe-inspiring. But, and this is key: even with the spectacle, the details of performance are not lost in the shuffle. I suppose this is why the movie is almost three hours long. There’s a lot to get in there. You can’t sacrifice the spectacle, but you also have to explain who all these damn people are, and what the hell happened. You know, what was it about that necklace scandal? How did that go down and what does it mean? And who was the Duke d’Orleans, and what was his deal? It’s all addressed (in a cursory way, yes, but it’s all in there. Sometimes the film does get a sort of flip-book vibe, trying to cover all the events.) The film goes from little Archduchess of Austria (Norma Shearer) being informed by her mother that she is to be married to the Dauphin of France to her final moment staring up at the guillotine as the mob brays around her. Norma Shearer outdoes herself. She has a couple of pretty bad moments, with practiced gestures, head tilts and melodramatic expressions of horror, but in general this is a very compassionate and intelligent performance. You feel for this poor young woman, lost in the intrigues of the French court, trying to keep her bearings. Robert Morley is phenomenal and heartbreaking as King Louis XVI, and his final moment in the cell when he tells his young son he will fix his broken soldier before the morning … suddenly, this buffoonish awkward figure takes on the aspect of a grandly tragic individual, highly dignified, a good man. Norma Shearer weeps and weeps (and she is excellent at crying, I do not scorn it) but Robert Morley DOESN’T cry in that moment and my heart shatters in a million pieces. It’s amazing how he (and the film) develops his character. He is clearly not ready to be King, he basically wishes he were a locksmith, and to say he is socially awkward is to really soft-pedal the situation. John Barrymore is hilarious and wonderful as King Louis XV, who cavorts with Madame duBarry in plain view, and then dies of smallpox. I love the expressions on his face as he watches the Dauphin bumble his way through a speech to his new bride. Joseph Schildkraut is fantastic as Philippe, the Duke d’Orleans, who basically wants to be King and tries to have it both ways. He courts the mob, hangs out with lowlifes, pays lip service to democracy, and also circulates at court, wearing lipstick and beauty marks and arched phony eyebrows. He tries to ride the wave of public opinion, in order to save his own neck. Fascinating man, and Schildkraut is both decadent and terrifying. Tyrone Power plays the Swedish Axel de Fersen, who was supposedly Marie Antoinette’s lover. He plays a crucial role here, as friend and would-be rescuer. The real man actually did come back to France, even though he knew he would be killed if he were discovered, wielding false credentials and did manage to sneak his way in to the Tuileries to meet with the Queen. Tyrone Power plays the part simply and sincerely. The near-escape of the royal family is so thrillingly filmed that I honestly think, every time, that they might make it. Even though I know they didn’t. The final scenes, when Marie Antoinette is finally ruined, are the best work Shearer ever did. She wears no makeup, and when I say that I don’t mean the Hollywood version of “no makeup” – I mean, seriously, it looks like she’s not even wearing foundation. And something has happened in her face. Some essential thread of girlishness has been snapped, some cord of hope/optimism has been broken. Watch her in that final section where she is carted through the streets of Paris in the back of the tumbril, dressed like a chambermaid. She glances around her. There is no fear or shrinking in her face/gestures, there is no “acting” at all, really. All recognizable emotion has been drained out of her. She looks around, observing the crowd, seeing the loathing and hatred, but none of it touches her. She looks almost humorous, but in an extremely sour bitter way. She is far above and beyond it all now. To say an actress is brave for not wearing makeup has always annoyed me a little bit, but I want to say that Shearer – who was never considered a classic beauty, and who had quite an uphill battle in many ways in being seen as a leading lady (many people just assumed it was because of her powerful husband), and who had one crossed eye, I mean, come on … Norma Shearer, knowing the sneers behind her back about her looks, her body, her eye, to allow herself to be seen without any protection … I do consider that brave. She is unvarnished, it’s more shocking than a nude scene. And she acts the hell out of it. All of those theatrical gestures and swoony head tilts are gone. She remains still, broken, un-beautiful, with sharp intelligent eyes, eyes full of hatred, irony, and awareness. And I cry every time the guards pull her son away from her. She fights like hell, the son fights like hell, the guards even look queasy at what they have been asked to do. It is not melodramatic. It is HORRIBLE is what it is. It is a remarkable performance.
I love surfing movies and I had somehow missed this one. It’s the true story of Jay Moriarty, who became famous at 16 for wiping out at Mavericks and making the cover of Surfer magazine. This film is about the young kid Jay (Jonny Weston), living with his irresponsible single mom (Elizabeth Shue), no father in the picture, who seeks out a father figure in a grumpy dude who lives down the block (Gerard Butler). Said grumpy dude is obsessed with surfing, and takes off in his van at 4 in the morning to go surf the mythical “Mavericks” all by himself. A murderous break in northern California, Mavericks is filmed with spectacular and scary beauty. Not too much CGI necessary, these waves are freakin’ terrifying. Chasing Mavericks is typical in a lot of ways: young kid asks older dude to train him to be able to surf Mavericks. Young dude learns responsiblity, learns what he is made of. Older dude finds a reason to live, to go on, to hope. Etc. Butler is wonderful and strangely heartbreaking: you know that this character is taciturn to the point of damaging himself. Still waters run deep deep deep. His wife (played beautifully by Abigail Spencer) knows she cannot push her husband too far. He must be allowed to roam free, to be himself. He has no one else in the world but her. So we see the training sessions, we see Jay push himself to be ready to surf Mavericks, we see him fall in love, fight with a rival, worry about his mom, etc. etc. Nothing groundbreaking, really, but the formula works. It’s a sports movie. All of the elements are there. Mavericks is so frighteningly-filmed that you are already in awe of anyone who wants to surf down those skyscrapers. The fact that Jay Moriarty became famous for a wipeout is one of the beautiful ironies of the story, and also the knowledge that he died only a couple of years later, diving by himself … I suppose it would not have been a surprise to anyone who knew him. But it adds a bittersweet layer to the story. Interesting. I really enjoyed it.
directed by Andrzej Wajda
Clearly there is a French Revolution theme. Danton is a 1983 Andrez Wajda film, so we can imagine what the metaphor may have looked/sounded like to the people of Poland at that time. The Solidarity movement rising, Lech Walesa rising, reprisals and repression heating up, the edifice of power cracking, the individual against the state, you can see all that in the character of Danton, as played gorgeously and epically by Gerard Depardieu. Danton was a man of the people, a big drinker and rabble-rouser, a womanizer, with giant appetites, who also had a gift of making friendships and alliances out of affections/shared goals (as opposed to, say, the style of Robespierre, who worked in a way more solitary manner). The difference between Danton and Robespierre (who, of course, were allies at first) is one of the main thrusts of the film, as we see Danton start to be shut out and persecuted, as Robespierre rises. This is, of course, in general, the way it went, although Danton was no saint in terms of revolutionary violence. One of the things about the French Revolution is that at a certain point everyone was guilty for how it went down. I was pleased that that was at least addressed at the very end of the film when, on the way to his cell, a peasant reaches out and screams at Danton, “You’re the one who set up the Revolutionary Tribunal!” The Tribunal that had now turned on its leader. Wajda was bold enough to make that point, even as he highlights the martyrdom of Danton. Robespierre is played by the magnificent Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak, who is pinched, tight, often drenched in sweat (his nightshirts stick to him, the man is not well), and desperate. What a face. There is a fantastic scene in Robespierre’s personal apartments when Robespierre comes to see him (a huge event). Danton races around like a nervous suitor getting ready, demanding that another bouquet be brought in because “Robespierre likes blue flowers!” (A nice detail: Robespierre was a flower-lover.) They sit across the table from one another, old comrades, now both fighting for control of the Revolution. Danton has something Robespierre does not, the love of “the People”, and Robespierre understands/respects/fears his power. The scene is a lengthy one, and begins on a convivial note and soon log-jams. Both actors are in top form. In the final trial scenes, when Danton defends himself, he is legitimately hoarse (one can only imagine how strenuous it was to shoot that scene), and cannot speak above a whisper. It is akin to the famous filibuster scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I know that there were many arguments when the film came out, from historians, and French people, angry about the liberties the film took with the facts. But I think it’s pretty obvious that the facts were used in purpose of a larger goal, which was to point out the tyranny of the Soviet Union and the uselessness of trying to restrain the power of the Individual (as represented by Danton). Depardieu is compelling, ferocious, funny, charming, and he inhabits Danton like a well-worn sweater. A role he was born to play.