Plenty

April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.

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Out of Africa

April 13, 2012

Out of Africa is a chronicle of the early womanhood of Danish author Karen von Blixen, based on her writings (under the name Isak Dinesen) and on biographies about her. The film traces the years approximately surrounding World War I, a period in von Blixen’s life during which she lived in Africa.

What a story it is, full of adventure, exotica, disaster, and romance. But what a frustratingly pedantic film version, with few flights of poetry.

On a sheer storytelling level, the film gets off to a good start. We see a glimpse of Karen (Meryl Streep) in 1913 Denmark, proposing marriage to a casual friend, the Baron von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). They’re not in love, but she wants his title, and he wants her family’s money, so they agree to the match.

Soon after, she joins him in Africa, where they establish a coffee plantation. Their idyll, during which she surprises many with her pre-women’s lib gumption, is broken when she contracts syphilis, a side effect of the Baron’s philandering. She goes to Denmark for a cure, and on her return to Africa, the marriage exists in name only.

That clears the way for her friendship with Denys (Robert Redford), a hunter who encourages her uncanny skill for telling stories. Soon he’s keeping residence at her house, for the few days when he returns between safaris.

This love story takes up the last 90 minutes of the movie—and as I examine the thumbnail synopsis above, it is difficult to believe that this film actually takes more than two-and-a-half hours to tell its story. But it does.

The problem is that, after the promising opening, director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) falls prey to the curse of the Big Movie Syndrome, in which ideas and events must be drawn out and overemphasized, so that the people who vote for the Oscars will be sure to notice. He pads the carefully constructed screenplay by Kurt Luedtke with countless shots of breathtaking plains and hills.

Most of this travelogue stuff is impressive indeed, thanks to the beauty of the continent and David Watkin’s handsome cinematography. The high point of this is a lovely sequence wherein Denys pilots his new plane for Karen, and they fly over an ocean beach, scattering thousands of pink flamingos.

But Pollack overdoes things. He doesn’t just put Karen in peril of a lion attack once—he does it three separate times. And he can’t integrate the importance of the war or the issue of native freedom in any sensible way.

Even more troubling, he hasn’t gotten his actors up to snuff. Redford, in what is essentially a supporting role, appears uneasy and distant. Streep is technically very impressive, but she doesn’t have the depth to reach the nitty-gritty of what must have been an amazingly gutsy woman. Together, they fail to strike sparks—both are inward-directed actors.

This all makes Out of Africa sound worse than it actually is; it’s not an inept film, and there’s a lot to look at and enjoy. But, given the material and the credentials of the filmmakers, it certainly is a disappointment.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

Perhaps you heard this went on to win the best picture Oscar? I would watch it again, as a big fan of Dinesen and a big fan of Africa on film. But I mean I thought some things needed to be said, right? And though Meryl Streep hardly lacks depth, I did think she missed a level, even if she’s still very good in the picture. Brandauer’s great, by the way, slinking off with the movie under his arm.


Heartburn

June 9, 2011

The last time Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep got together at the movies, the result was Silkwood, perhaps Nichols’ most casually assured film and definitely Streep’s loosest performance. It makes perfect sense that Nichols should direct Streep in her first comic role—and that she should pull it off quite effortlessly.

Actually, Heartburn is not your average romantic comedy—it’s more in the bittersweet vein of Woody Allen’s Manhattan love stories. But that still means Streep gets to engage in more funny business than she ever has—with considerable help from Jack Nicholson, the ideal actor to bring out her playful streak.

Heartburn is based on Nora Ephron’s best-selling novel about a New York magazine writer (Streep) who marries a Washington Post columnist (Nicholson), a fellow who turns out to be less than reliable in the fidelity department. Just before they’re to have their second baby, Streep finds out that her husband has been having an affair—a discovery that sends her into a crisis of faith and indecision.

That’s the skeleton of the plot; the film itself is full of wandering incidents in the lives of this couple and their friends. Ephron’s screenplay (she also scripted Silkwood) sketches the sorts of little behavioral scenes that Nichols excels at capturing: the pre-wedding sequence, when Streep refuses to leave her room and has to be coaxed out by a variety of wedding guests; a picnic during which the fate of all the unmatched socks in the world is debated; and the news of Streep’s first pregnancy, which is accompanied by the couple singing all the songs they can think of with the word “baby” in the title, their mouths full of pizza.

All of these scenes involve food, and eating is the central metaphor here: the consumption of food and the consumption of love. The motif builds so that the climax—Streep’s final gesture of defiance—is much, shall we say, tastier than it otherwise would have been.

While Ephron’s dialogue is keen and Nichols’ direction is supportive, there’s a sense of meandering in the film, especially in the second hour, when Nicholson drifts into the background. The film is told completely from Streep’s point of view, and Nicholson’s behavior is largely inexplicable.

Nicholson has his inimitable charm, although Nichols perhaps allows him to overmug in a couple of scenes (however, Nicholson does bring the house down with his singing in the baby-song scene).

The supporting actors are a fine, mixed bunch, although none of them seem to get enough on-screen time. Richard Masur and Stockard Channing play the couple’s best friends; Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo) is Streep’s editor; Steven Hill has a nice scene as Streep’s father (“You want monogamy? Marry a swan.”); Catherine O’Hara, formerly of “SCTV,” plays a gossip (“Thelma Rice had her legs waxed. For the first time. Need I say more?”); and director Milos Forman (Amadeus) has a tiny role in which he gives a memorably accented reading to a line I can’t repeat here.

Ephron’s novel was reportedly a transparent fictionalization of her marriage to and divorce from Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein. This means that Bernstein has now been played by two of America’s better actors: Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men and Jack Nicholson here. The guy may be unfaithful and a bit of a cad, but seems to be doing something right.

First published in the Herald, July, 1986

The filmography of Mike Nichols is a truly unusual subject. Heartburn sounds like a project that should have been a Nichols classic, especially with that lead casting, but it’s not particularly special beyond those comic highs. And yet, in something like Biloxi Blues, where your expectations might be ratcheted down quite a bit, he brandishes a real grasp of mise-en-scene and sense of place. Silkwood, for that matter, still feels like maybe his best movie, even if it doesn’t stand as a pillar of film history as, say, The Graduate does.