Movie Review: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

May 16, 2015 5 comments

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This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

After finishing both the Wolf Hall miniseries on PBS, and the two books from which it was adapted (Booker Prize winners both, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel), which I read pretty much in tandem with, or just ahead of, the miniseries, I decided to really overwhelm myself with some Tudor mythology. I rewatched the fantastic 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII (directed by Alexander Korda). Other interested parties should know that, in addition to being on DVD, the film streams at Hulu (with a Hulu Plus subscription) and for absolute free at archive.org.

The movie is the story of a former king of England, Henry VIII, the one we know had six wives in succession. This movie opens on the day of death of Anne Boleyn, wife #2, and continues through wife #6, showing how the different women drifted in and out of Henry’s life, how they pleased and disappointed him in their own unique ways, and how Henry, powerful as he was, never managed to marry a good woman and keep her. I love this movie, because I’m completely in the bag for any story set amidst the Tudors, especially the larger-than-life Henry and his iconic daughter Elizabeth I (who makes only small cameos in this film). (Well, that’s why we needed Cate Blanchett.)

The film is overall a bit sunnier in appearance than more modern palace intrigue films; the vogue now is to film inside cramped spaces lit by a single candle so everyone and everything is in shadow and we can understand how brutal it all was. The action is mostly concentrated inside, so we don’t get any jousts, though there are choreographed dances and a wrestling match. The relationships are the feature and the draw. But further, there is something odd and beautiful in the narrative structure that even after this, my third or perhaps fourth watch, I can’t quite put my finger on.

The story unspools strangely. The first scene (after the titles which give the viewer a brief orientation in Henry’s marital history) is an unlikely one: a gaggle of women, seamstresses or embroiderers, giggling over Henry’s bed and speculating what it must be like to sleep with a king. A double-edged sword it is, really, as indicated by this particular, a day when Anne Boleyn will be executed for treason, and when, once the death is verified, Jane Seymour will marry into her place. Being married to a powerful man means also being vulnerable to the man’s power.

In the first few minutes, we also get to meet the townies who are settling into the bleachers, primed and ready to watch Boleyn’s death, and an English and a French executioner posturing over who is more qualified to behead a queen. Then courtier Thomas Culpepper goes to fetch Jane at the king’s behest, and the two of them run, childishly, from one end of the palace to the other, to return to him. The odd playfulness of the moment renders it almost dreamlike. Certainly, it does not adhere to any sort of standard biographical film template (which may not have even existed at the time).

Anne, played by Merle Oberon, floats languorously through her few scenes, getting prepped for her death in the Tower (“will the cap hold my hair, when—when—“) and speaking philosophically about her death, all while seeming tragic and scared. The film draws a direct parallel from Anne to Jane by having Anne remark ironically (literally from atop her beheading block), “It’s a lovely day,” and then cutting to Jane, peering out a window and feigning cheerfulness: “What a lovely day!”

Henry finally appears something like 10 minutes into the movie, his voice knifing through the chatter of his servants, his stance in the doorway imperious. He barks at his advisors, but also lasciviously nibbles at the neck of Jane (played by Wendy Barrie) when she comes in. He’s a huge man and boorish, but also graceful and emotional. Though the Oscars were barely in their adolescence when The Private Life of Henry VIII came out, it did manage to claim a nomination for Best Picture and a win, Best Actor for Charles Laughton, who—Damian Lewis be damned!—is my quintessential Henry VIII, red hair or no.

We get another parallel here—a chilling one, where the film cuts from the man hammering away at the chopping block where Anne will lose her head to Henry, pressed up against the grating of his palace window, rhythmically tapping, impatient for the act to be done, the barbaric act he has put into motion.

Henry VIII: “Consider it [marrying for a fourth time]? I would consider it a victory of optimism over experience!”

Poor Jane Seymour is dispatched with quickly, as she was in real life, and the largest portion of the movie deals with Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). Fifth chronologically, she is second of the ambitious schemers, Boleyn being the first. She manipulates her way into Henry’s favor, secures herself the queenhood, but continues to carry on with Culpepper, to the detriment of everyone.

My favorite of the wives is the fourth, Anne of Cleves, the oddest of odd ducks, an awkward but intelligent German noblewoman who agrees to be married to the great king, but then talks him out of consummating it, ensuring herself a favorable annulment settlement and status as the “King’s Beloved Sister” that she would retain for her natural life. The scene where Henry and Anne spend their wedding night playing cards is a classic—she beats him soundly, and Henry stalks out of the chamber, where multiple noblemen and statesmen are waiting to hear of the de-virgining, and are instead met with the interrogation, “Anybody got some money? Somebody get some money!” Anne turns out, improbably, to be a confidant for Henry. It can’t be an accident that this great role went to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife (and future Bride of Frankenstein).

henry and anne

The women are a great draw in this movie, but the true star here is the gruff, plump Laughton, virile in his character’s youth but increasingly grizzled as the years and wives wear on. (Those ever-changing embroidered initials over Henry’s bed mark time passed and new vows said.) Henry does awful things, and allows awful things to be done in his name; he is far from a pure soul. (The movie seems to want to position Culpepper, played by Robert Donat, in this role. It doesn’t really succeed at that, especially because his part in the Katherine Howard affair is never resolved in the movie.) But when Henry gloats and beams over his newborn son, he seems like a good man, just one stuck in a difficult situation. The character’s increasing age also brings increasing sympathy, and late in the film he describes feeling more peaceful, less inclined to fight and wage war over territory. Not really a factually correct facet of Henry’s history, but narratively, so very satisfying.

Remember When 30 Rock Nailed Its Final Season?

March 6, 2015 Leave a comment

I complained recently about one of my favorite shows, Parks and Recreation, going off the rails in its final season by taking its natural positivity and detonating it into continual happy endings so excessive they seemed like the promises you read in chain emails.

Now I want to remember a show that did pull off a kick-ass final season by pushing its characters into new directions (which they somehow rendered inevitable). That show is 30 Rock.

30 Rock - Season 7

30 Rock was renewed for its 7th season in 2012 with the understanding that its 13 episodes would be it for the show. This is, incidentally, the same arrangement that Parks and Recreation got for its final season, which was also its seventh. Perhaps 30 Rock was thinking further ahead; a lot of the plotlines that pay off in season 7 were set up in season 6. Of course, you could say the same about Parks and Recreation. Basically, both shows seem to have had the exact same advantages and disadvantages, and while Parks and Rec provided a sweaty, dubious final season, 30 Rock’s was concise, heartwarming, surprising (and still funny!).

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Parks and Recreation’s Final Season Was Not Its Greatest Ever

February 24, 2015 1 comment

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Tonight is the series finale of one of my favorite shows of all time, Parks and Recreation. Yesterday, Wired online posted this article by Eric Thurm: Why Parks and Recreation’s Final Season Was its Best Ever

I agree with the article that the 2-years jump executed by the final season was a good decision, creatively, allowing us to skip over both Leslie’s pregnancy and early baby years, and the adjustment period for her National Parks Service job. I also agree “Leslie and Ron” was the strongest episode of the season thusfar. And then we part ways.

The article opines that the season is a winner because it proves that change is happy and inevitable.

That’s what this last season of Parks and Rec has realized—it’s a celebration of beginnings in addition to endings, of the idea that there are always possibilities, even if those end up leading you back to the same people (kind of like a wedding!). … All the show needed to end on a high note was to allow all of its characters the chance to renew their vows.

The show has always embraced change, not just in this last season, but more importantly, the article overlooks a key point: the beginnings and opportunities that have been offered to these characters this season have vaulted the show far past its celebrated idealism, straight into la-la fantasyland. The show, always generous and warm, but also always grounded in a recognizable reality, has turned into the last moments of Grease, when Sandy and Danny’s car just takes off and flies into the air.

grease flying car

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The Hulu Algorithm Runs Wild

January 5, 2015 Leave a comment

hulu plus

First post of the new year! An attempt to begin to post regularly again.

A couple weeks ago, I fell asleep with Hulu playing an episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. When an episode is finished playing, Hulu will jump to playing something else its algorithm feels is tangentially related. Checking my history the following morning, I learned of the string of shows that played while I slumbered:

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: Amy Adams, Nick Offerman, Foo Fighters
You know when you put something on the TV to sleep to (if you’re like me, and you sleep to a playing television, even though everyone including medical professionals tells you it is the worst idea), and you’re out so quickly you’re like, I don’t remember seeing a SECOND of that. I was especially interested in both Offerman (whose new Netflix special I’ve only half-watched so far) and the Foo Fighters (whose Sonic Highways I’ve seen the majority of at my boyfriend’s house, and it’s excellent). Needless to say, I didn’t make it to any of those men, nor to Amy Adams, nor even to any first-quarter comedy sketches or recurring bits.

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon: Ben Stiller, Brie Larson, Damon Wayans
The initial jump, to another episode of the same show I willfully chose. Good start. I don’t really care about these guests at all. Brie Larson is a promising actress, but she’s promoting a sexy-student role in The Gambler, which I think is probably beneath her.

Late Night With Seth Meyers: Christoph Waltz, Uzo Aduba, Greg Warren
This is a strange trio of guests. Greg Warren is either the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “long snapper” (REALLY? That’s a position? Is Wikipedia punking me?) or the stand-up comedian. The comedian is a more likely candidate for a late-night guest, though my boyfriend tells me Seth Meyers is a fan of the old black-and-yellow. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because I rarely watch Meyers’s show. Though I have affection for Meyers as a writer and as a personality, the show’s comedy bits rarely land, especially when Fred Armisen is behind them. The only real contribution the show has made to culture so far is Second Chance Theater.

Saturday Night Live: Amy Adams, One Direction
Already watched this when it aired live. It was a strong episode. Mike disappeared for the last 30 minutes, and later asked what he missed. I enjoyed recapping for him the lady singers sketch, ending on, “and then they all turned back into raccoons.” He laughed a lot.

Jimmy Kimmel Live: Mel Brooks, Christine Baranski
That’s a pretty good roster, but I don’t care at all about Kimmel.

The View: Friday, December 19, 2014
Here’s where the first wild turn takes place. I never watch this show. I’ve seen clips here and there and it’s sort of odious. Regardless of who is on the panel at the time, they all talk over each other and terrify their guests with scattered aggression.

Parental Discretion With Stefanie Wilder Taylor, “Breaking Dad”
This is some kind of mom-friendly variety show produced by a division of Nickelodeon called Nickmom (logline: “motherfunny”) (NO). In the capsule pic for this episode, the titular star is wearing pigtails, her mouth hanging open as if the screenshot has caught her in some kind of rant, or possibly just to indicate that she is a vulgar-but-lovable girl in the Sarah Silverman mold. Moms all over deserve better.

breaking dad

GMA Live: Thursday, July 31, 2014
Directly from the Hulu description: “Web-only extension of “Good Morning America” goes backstage after the broadcast. From pop-culture news to trending topics and lifestyle tips, GMA’s all-star team discusses the hottest stories of the day.” They apparently quit doing this, because this July episode is the most recent one listed.

Liars All (2013)
Some random thriller which enjoyed such a limited release that neither Metacritic nor Rotten Tomatoes displays any critical reviews of the film whatsoever. Rotten Tomatoes users felt that it was 21% worth liking.

And then I woke up.

Movie Reviews: The Sheik (1921)

August 20, 2014 1 comment

Though my work towards my MLIS degree has been taking its toll on my movie time, I am still working on watching the AFI lists to completion. I actually had to give a presentation last semester—3 minutes on any topic—and I chose to present on the AFI lists and my lengthy quest to dominate them. So now while I am on vacation (my last semester—woohoo!—will start in a week) I have been taking the opportunity to knock off a couple of list movies. My goal is to finish out one of the lists (probably 100 Thrills, which I’m closest to finishing) before the end of 2014.

the sheik

The Sheik is a silent film from 1921; Son of the Sheik is its 1926 sequel. Both were on the disc I got from Netflix, and both were less than 90 minutes long, so I watched both. The original film is the one the AFI recommended, on the 100 Passions list. It is one of the original desert epic love stories of the kind I avoid even now! (I had The English Patient on disc for—no lie—longer than 12 months and returned it without watching it.) But hey, <90 minutes.

Here’s my immediate problem with The Sheik being a legendary love story: it’s based on kidnapping. The female love interest, Lady Diana, catches the eye of the Sheik while they are both running around some desert city casino. Later, she is out in the desert with a guide who seems to be in cahoots with the Sheik and sets her up to get grabbed by the Sheik’s men, and then they hold her until she comes around. She stays in a luxurious tent and wears luxurious outfits, which the movie seems to think makes it a little more OK. But even by the standards of the 1920s, this entire endeavor is pretty offensive.

son of the sheik3

Anyway, the Sheik wins her over because there is a rival gang of bandits who see that the Sheik is traveling with a white lady, and they decide they will steal her away from her captors. And unlike the Sheik and his men, these bandits are bad guys. So the Sheik successfully fights the bandits, getting injured in the process, and Lady Diana is overcome by gratitude and love. Happily ever after!

The racial politics are not terribly enlightened, either. Lady Diana sits by his bedside after the bandit battle, where the Sheik sleeps in one of those not-too-serious movie comas, and she remarks, so weirdly, that he has “large hands for an Arab.” (Firstly, is it a stereotype that Arabs have small hands? Or are generally small? What does one have to do with the other?) But then the Sheik’s English companion breaks the news to the Lady that the Sheik was never an Arab! His parents were European, had some desert encounter with the previous Sheik—he saved their lives or something—and then the previous Sheik, who had no sons, willed the title to this European boy. And he takes it on, going to live and rule over this lawless desert territory for some reason.

This backstory fits Valentino the actor, who was Italian and not Arab—not that Old Hollywood would hesitate for a SECOND to attribute a minority race to a white actor, mind you, there are a million examples. Here is a list of them, and they’re missing Katharine Hepburn playing Asian and Charlton Heston playing Mexican, off the top of my head.

But anyway, what’s really obvious about this moment in the The Sheik is that it gives Lady Diana permission to truly love the Sheik and consider him as a mate. The movie makes it very clear, as does the performance by the actress, that this is a moment of revelation for her. He is suitable now.

The movie does have some fine action, interesting sets and costumes. Agnes Ayres is lively and appealing as Lady Diana, though I was unimpressed by Valentino. Other than a few fight scenes, the Sheik does very little that is interesting to watch. Like many actors of his generation, Valentino makes a lot of big, broad faces. His role as the Sheik is still impenetrable. His acting doesn’t offer any indications of why he thinks kidnapping Lady Diana will be an effective way to win her, or whether he makes any reconsiderations of the choice once it’s been done. He seems to love her in an obsessed, heavy-breathing type of way. The reputation of Valentino as the king of romantic heroes was not fully justified to me by the performance here.

son of the sheik2

The sequel, which takes place 20-some years later, stars Valentino both as the original Sheik (barely recognizable under makeup and beard) and as the titular Son, not surprisingly a dead ringer for his father. A new young actress plays the love interest, while actress Agnes Ayres returns as mother of the Son, for which she received this charming credit:

son of the sheik

The plot is some mess involving a girl who dances for coins, whose father is part of a roving bandit gang. She has a secret romance going on with the Sheik’s son, and the gang finds out and tries to exploit the son or the sheik or something. And there is much battling, and some son stepping out of the shadow of his father, and so on. It was only fine.

The extras on the disc were fascinating time capsules. Valentino apparently judged a series of beauty contests all over the United States (and Canada) and then judged the national finals in 1923. Apparently he did this long and thankless job because he was under a promotional contract with a cosmetics company, a contract he took on to rebound financially from a divorce. Anyway, there’s a short film about the contests and lots of footage from the final pageant and the crowning of the most beautiful woman in America, Miss Toronto. Whoops. (According to that link above, Valentino was probably having an affair with Miss Toronto. Scandal!)

Another extra, terribly disturbing, is newsreel footage reporting on Valentino’s death at age 31. He died very suddenly (due to infections following appendicitis surgery) and at the height of his fame (Son of the Sheik came into theaters a month after his death). The newsreel includes footage of the funeral home and the body itself, lying in state. That’s not an image I can imagine seeing on movie screens now (for sure on the internet, and TMZ). You can even buy glossies of it on EBay.

I always think of Old Hollywood whenever anyone talks about TMZ or other abominations of modern media. We saw an example of this last week when ABC News buzzed the house of the newly-deceased celebrity Robin Williams with helicopters, taking footage of…what? What could they have hoped to catch on video? Ambulances? A medical examiner or coroner entering the house? The body being carried out, I suppose. Like that’s something we need or deserve to see. It’s gross behavior to feel entitled to that level of celebrity access, but it is most decidedly not new.

Re-Post: Black Friday and Liberal Judgment

November 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Note: This post originally appeared on Cultural Civilian last November. I’m posting it again because the topic is bothering me again. One of my favorite liberal blogs, Think Progress, is one of the worst offenders. “The War on Thanksgiving,” guys, really? How hypocritical is it for them to continually blast conservatives for their ridiculous “War on Christmas,” and then do this? I can’t even deal with it.

I’m off from work today, the day after Thanksgiving, and I have decided to do mostly nothing. The machine is washing my laundry, I’m eating leftovers, I’m watching DVDs. And I’m playing around on the internet, reading my usual round of blogs and Twitter links and nobody will stop telling me about Black Friday. Not just news of the GREAT! DEALS! I could get if I wanted to stir my still-pajamaed self out into the cold and crowds. But also about what an outrage it all is that Americans like to buy things, and to buy them cheaply.

Here’s the deal: I’m poor. A lot of Middle America is poor. (And that’s where most of this Black Friday madness happens, and don’t think THAT isn’t why a lot of the media attention is negative, because anything Middle America does is quite backward and embarrassing; that’s the one thing that coastal conservatives and liberals easily agree on.) We’re in a recession, remember? Did the election not stamp this adequately into your psyches?

Two years ago, I gave up my cable TV because it was too expensive. I make do pretty well with Netflix and Hulu and DVDs. But someday, I am going to have more money, and then I will have cable and DVR again. And I will do nothing but watch TCM for a week. And I will think to myself, “I worked hard, and I deserve this.” Maybe I’ll buy a Roku, too. [Note: I have since bought a Roku, with a gift card and a 60% off Amazon Gold Box deal. It rocks.]

None of this will be the end of life’s problems. But that doesn’t mean the pleasure of it isn’t legitimate. There’s this segment of the liberal population that wants you to believe that the only real pleasures in life come from walking through the woods, or talking about organic tomatoes at a farmer’s market. (A lot of these people are on Twitter, of course, because smartphones are somehow exempt from being considered consumerist rubbish.) But all day I’m reading stuff like this, from the liberal Eclectablog, these smug manifestoes about not being part of the consumerist machine.

Here’s what I think: if I need a new microwave, and Sears has them, and they are marked down 70% on this one day, isn’t it in my best interest to go buy it on that day? Otherwise I don’t get the new microwave, which I may need. To not have a working microwave is not suffering on par with starvation, no. But it’s a serious inconvenience for someone who works a nine-hour day and dines regularly on leftovers and is simply used to having that machine in the house. I’m going to go ahead and call that need, because I’m not a person who takes pride in depriving myself of modern conveniences.

We are not all Wal-Mart marauders. A lot of people use this day to stock up on stuff they want or need for the year. To buy Christmas gifts for their families. And to maybe buy themselves a little gift as well, something that they ould not be able to budget for any other time of the year. Consuming goods, to a reasonable degree, is natural. We crawled out of caves and into houses, and began filling the houses with things. This is how we live. It does not need to be a tragedy.

I just read Babbitt, a classic novel of American behavior, about a middle-aged man who has achieved modest financial success and goes out of his way to make a show of it. He’s not a happy or fulfilled man. And in our modern, developed world, we need to be conscious of our wants and desires so that we don’t fall into this trap—this bottomless pit of wanting, craving, needing things, of believing that this next great thing is going to be the thing that is going to change my life! And then buying more, because guess what, it didn’t. And maybe it’s a slippery slope to get there, but it’s also a lengthy slope. We don’t become Babbitts overnight. I know people who have money, who still go out to the stores on Black Friday because they have made a sport out of finding the deals. And they are generous with the stuff that they find and buy. There are also people who have made it a family tradition. Most of these people do not need to be preached at about what is really important in their lives. This is just a day for them; it’s not a life philosophy.

I didn’t go out to the stores today because I’m a hermit and I dislike the crowds. But if I had gone out and bought some $25 sweaters (because I’m a professional woman who sometimes needs new clothes) or some $4.99 DVDs (because I love movies: they give me pleasure, they satisfy my constant need for narrative, and they are fun) I surely don’t believe I would deserve criticism for that.

Brief digression: it is necessary for me to acknowledge that we do sometimes have to apply social or moral considerations to consumer choices. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, ever. I think they’re a blemish on American society. I do fine without them (although they do fine without me too, don’t they?).

I also buy local, and American-made, whenever and wherever I can, but if the thing I want or need is not produced at all in America, I guess I’m still going to buy the version that got made in China. I promise that my next car will be American.  I mostly buy my nephews books because toys are so frequently foreign-produced. I will even buy American goods and services for more than I would pay for foreign goods and services—right up to a markup of about 20%, and then I’m out. At that point, I will have to say, “I’m sorry, I cannot afford this fine American craftsmanship.” And that is not my fault. Talk to the Mitt Romneys of the world about that one.

One last word, on the ever-increasing open hours at retail stores. People are protesting and petitioning that Target, for example, opened at 9pm last night, because of those poor Target workers who had to leave their Thanksgiving celebrations to go to work.

But did anybody care about those workers in previous years, when they were getting up at 3am to open the store at 4? Is that any more humane? How about when they work until 11pm on Christmas Eve? How about the Memorial Days and 4th of Julys and Mother’s Days and New Year’s Days they work every year? Nobody complains about that—largely because of a thing called time-and-a-half pay, but also because that’s kind of the way retail works. I worked in a department store for three years during college and I worked all those days. I worked weeknights after school. I worked Saturdays. I worked Friday nights for an entire year because they really wanted me on the truck shift. I worked many Sunday mornings at 7am for the ad set shift. Once I worked an overnight shift for inventory. The point is this: when you work retail you get used to this. Same with people who work in restaurants and movie theaters and parks and anything else that people patronize when they’re not at work. (Let’s not even talk about the sacrifices made by doctors, police officers, firefighters, and other emergency response workers.) You get used to not being able to celebrate this or that on its designated day, or doing it earlier or later in the day. Dropping people’s presents off at their house the day after. Calling Mom on Mother’s Day instead of visiting and taking her out to lunch. People in your life will accommodate you on these things. If they don’t, you get new people to be around you, or you get a new job. Every single job in the world has its disadvantages. I just don’t find this to be an outrage worth protesting.

Oscar Movies: Dysfunctional Love Stories

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

silver linings playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

A strange case, Silver Linings Playbook. It’s basically a romantic comedy, a trifle that got this huge awards push for some reason (Harvey Weinstein) and thus masqueraded as something grander and more important than it is.

Now listen, I have nothing against proclaiming a romantic comedy as a piece of greatness. Romantic comedies are a crucial part of film history. It Happened One Night won a jillion Oscars back in 1935 and it deserved all of them. Annie Hall deserved its award attention in 1978. I am one of those secret Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture, 1998) supporters, even, because I think one, that movie is brilliant, and two, Saving Private Ryan is overrated.

That’s all right. Go scream and bang some dishes. You’ll get over it, and then come back.

I don’t know that Silver Linings Playbook is of the level of those other movies. It Happened One Night is special just because it’s a near-perfect filmic experience in an era when everything about film was newborn. It set precedents for romantic bickering, comedic action, pacing, movie star charisma, everything. Annie Hall is one of those defining-a-generation movies. (Mmmm, zeitgeisty.) Shakespeare in Love succeeds at comedy and drama, and has a perfect screenplay. (Perfect.) Playbook, on the other hand, does not have a perfect screenplay—it strains and is contrived in places. It is not heartbreakingly of its time. It doesn’t feel new about anything.

Here is what Playbook is: a really funny, genuinely romantic, undoubtedly well-acted, charming movie that we’ll all have forgotten in a couple years, but which you will not regret having shelled out a tenner to see. See, my secret is that I love romantic comedies. Despite being perpetually disappointed by them. The modern romantic comedy is terrible. It’s stupid. It’s sexist. It has Gerard Butler in it. Playbook is a movie that boldly proclaims, “A romantic comedy doesn’t have to be terrible!”

Somehow, everybody tried a little harder on this one. The hook is mental illness: Bradley Cooper, our main character, is a man who in his late twenties or early thirties (not sure if he’s playing his own age, or younger; there is some evidence that he is) is newly diagnosed as bipolar. He has a violent incident in his past for which he spent several months in a mental institution. In the opening scene of the movie, his mother has come to check him out, despite everyone’s anxiety that he’s not ready for the stresses of reality.

Cooper’s character, Pat, has convinced himself that he can overcome his own brain functions with exercise and positivity. He feels strong; he feels like he can take that bipolarity and just choke it dead. And I LOVE that the movie acknowledges almost immediately what a bad and erroneous idea this is. Pat goes back on his meds pretty quickly, because brain chemistry and state of mind are different things, something movies almost never tell you. His psychiatrist is also really good. Movie shrinks tend to be terrible; they say ridiculous things, they encourage their patients to do out-of-character, off-the-wall things because they live to establish plot contrivances. Pat’s guy listens, reacts, reframes.

(Beyond that, some of the things the movie has to say about mental illness are weird, at best. Other reviews can fill you in on that, because it didn’t bother me so much.)

Jennifer Lawrence sails in amidst Playbook’s biggest contrivance: healing through dance. Lawrence’s Tiffany, who is clinically depressed, in a self-destructive heavy-eyeliner kind of way, is a ballroom dancer, and she needs a partner for a big competition. Pat balks at being that partner, but Tiffany’s also a great manipulator and plays an emotional trump card. She knows just what’s important to him, and how to dangle it in front of his face. So he’s caught up, and we get a classic mismatched pair of misanthropes who will “improbably” fall in love.

Again, so obvious, so done before. Still, dancing is always interesting to watch, and everybody in this film is basically excellent. Cooper manages to vault right over his usual douchey Cooperness. The buzz cut helps; he doesn’t so closely resemble Hangover guy. There was something else he did, though, that I really enjoyed. I don’t know how to explain it really, except to say that he was a serious guy who was also funny to watch. The character is hyper; he takes things to ridiculous extremes. To a degree, even his trials and tribulations are funny. The movie knows that, Cooper knows that. But Pat takes himself 100% seriously. And Cooper plays that contradiction: a dead serious guy, smack in the middle of a romantic comedy.

You know who else is great? Robert De Niro. There was a time when that didn’t need to be specified, but we all know De Niro’s kind of lowered his standards in the last decade or so. This character he plays, Pat’s dad, is not built from De Niro clichés, he’s not a tough guy. He’s actually quite a sensitive dude. He has OCD, and he is devoted to the concept of good luck charms. He thinks Pat is one of them, and uses that as a way to guilt Pat into spending more time with him (i.e., “The team lost, and you should’ve been here!”). Pat’s negotiations with his family—trying to rebuild those relationships and regain their trust—are as important to the story as the romance, and that gives the story a little extra weight.

Awards Attention: Though it was up for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and, weirdly, Editing, it was never really in the running for any of those. Playbook is an actor’s movie, so that is where bets were laid. Though the movie came away with one just Oscar, for Jennifer Lawrence in her lead role, there were four nominations—Cooper, De Niro, and Jacki Weaver as Pat’s mom had the other three.

Weaver had the least real chance; not only was she up against a powerhouse (Anne Hathaway from Les Mis), but she had a nothing role in this movie. She was nominated a couple years ago for a movie called Animal Kingdom in which she seemed equally underused until this scene at the end where she suddenly delivered this chilling speech that made you realize there was tons more to her character than you had initially thought. I kept waiting for something like that in Playbook, and it did not happen. De Niro, on the other hand, is doing something very special here—a very modulated, fidgety, improbably emotional tough guy. I thought he had a good chance, but it did not work out for him.

Bradley Cooper is, as I wrote above, just great in this movie, but he was up against Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, and never had a shot in hell. The best thing he’s going to get out of this is being referred to as “Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper” in movie trailers from here on out, which is not a bad thing for him.

As for Jennifer Lawrence, I watched The Hunger Games again this week, and—she made these two movies in the same year—I feel like her performance in Hunger Games was so much more intense than Playbook. The circumstances of that movie are just naturally more intense—being hunted for your life will do that—but it still seems like a problem. I don’t want to play into any stereotypes about acting—“there has to be tons of emoting in tons of intense situations or it’s not really acting!”—but the role here just seems slight, compared to others she’s done (Winter’s Bone has another great performance of hers, in another much more serious film).

Having said that, there were a couple moments in Playbook that I found impressive. Not the “I must be crazy!” diner freakout they used as her clip at the Oscars, which seemed overdone, nor the “schooling everybody in football stats” scene everyone assumed they would use as her clip at the Oscars, which was more about the writing than anything special in the delivery. But I loved her nearly-hyperventilating anxiety when she blows up at her sister for inviting Nicki to the dance competition, and the broken, longing looks she sometimes gives Pat when he’s ignoring her. And she danced real cute, and we all love her regardless, so congrats on the Oscar, Jennifer.

amour

Amour

This movie was in strong contention over at Tomato Nation’s recent bracket tournament for the bleakest and most depressing movies ever. It is a movie that many moviegoers—even those game for foreign films and/or Oscar bait—skipped because of its subject matter. It’s about an elderly couple, Georges and Anne (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), and their love which increasingly becomes painful obligation as health problems begin to plague Anne.

I read a lot of comments by people who specifically said they wouldn’t see any movies where grown-ups have to wear diapers. Well, guess what. There are adult diapers in this movie. It is Hard to Watch, much like the movie Tracy Jordan was in on 30 Rock. Anne loses her dignity in myriad ways that Haneke lays out to be as bracing as he can. It takes something that people so willingly ignore—the fact that our bodies age, deteriorate, and then die—and makes it everything, unignorable. Unless, I guess, you don’t show up in the first place.

The movie opens when both are in good health; they come home from a concert (they were classical musicians, formerly), they banter about bedtime. They are both trim and not badly-dressed and seem like models for fulfilling elderlihood (a word I just made up). Then Anne has the world’s creepiest stroke (Haneke has also directed some thrillers, and here and there it shows—quite effectively) and it all goes to hell.

Actually, they roll with the punches first. She is partially paralyzed to begin, largely immobile all down her left side, but still is able to get around a little bit, generally using her husband as a crutch. He will grab her on her right, arms around her, and almost drag her around in half-circles, and that way she can move. It looks almost like slow-dancing, which is not a coincidence. We see her sitting in bed reading, holding and turning the pages both with her good hand. A former piano student of hers visits, and while he is uncomfortable with her appearance, she waves it away. (Even though the loss of a full hand’s functionality for a pianist is a real tragedy, one that the movie does not forget to illustrate.)

There is even one particularly funny little moment when some medical dudes bring Anne a motorized wheelchair and she tries it out in the vestibule of their apartment. She moves it a few feet forward, a few feet back, whirls it in a slow circle, all while Georges talks to her about something else. It’s the closest thing to freewheeling behavior you really see in the whole movie. They still believe at this point that they will weather this setback; that it will mean a different life for them, but not a worse one.

And it just gets worse and worse from there. A movie about eighty-year-olds with health problems is really only going to end in one way. What this movie wants to make clear, though, is that sometimes it happens slowly, and that makes it harder for everybody involved, especially for people who have previously loved each other as independent, self-possessed adults. Georges takes considerate care of Anne at every second, until he is forced to hire a nurse who can do some things he can’t. All through the movie I kept marveling, “He’s old too!” He must be tired, he must have aches and pains, but he makes everything in their life about taking care of her. He bristles at intimations from his daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) that Anne needs to be put away somewhere.

Trintignant is amazing, by the way. Riva got all the attention because her performance involves so much physicality (paralysis, plus looking less and less like a human as she goes on) but the resolve of Georges—that Anne deserves this commitment from him, even though it’s sapping the life out of him, too, even though her decline fills him with profound sadness—it’s astounding and done almost totally in the way he looks at Anne, or stares into space.

There is a strange moment, a line where Anne tells Georges that he “can be a monster sometimes.” It was in the trailer, which I saw a dozen times before the movie came out. She says it quite matter-of-factly, he doesn’t ask for clarification, they don’t discuss it more. Is she serious? Has he been cruel in the past? We just don’t see any evidence of that in the scenes we do see. There is one moment when he succumbs to frustration and slaps her, but it seems to be the result of intense fear and stress, and not a fundamental meanness inside him. Because of its placement in the trailer, I assumed this movie would be about an older man who has neglected his wife, and who has to step up (or fails to step up) when she becomes ill. But (other than that line) that’s not what we see here. It’s very strange. Maybe it’s just a line to remind the audience not to make assumptions. “We may be here now, but there were fifty or sixty years prior to this, and you don’t know what was going on then.”

Despite the devastating nature of the subject matter, there is beauty to Amour, too, in their beautiful metropolitan apartment if nothing else, but also in little moments when Anne and Georges are just coping as best they can. They do have “amour” for one another, and even though it’s a double-edged sword (that title just drips with irony), there is something admirable in sharing a life with someone literally until death.

Awards Attention: It won Best Foreign Language film, to nobody’s surprise. I think its placement in the Best Picture race (where it lost, of course) was mostly to prove to people that the Academy is cool and not in the pocket of Big Hollywood. It was never going to win that, of course. And I wouldn’t have voted for it for that, either, mostly because it’s such a small story; still, in thinking about what makes a movie a success, we can’t forget that telling a story that’s affecting and honest and deep doesn’t happen without some serious artistry behind the camera.

Haneke lost Best Director to Ang Li, who put tigers in lifeboats, and lost Best Screenplay to Quentin Tarantino. This is probably because no one ever stops speaking dialogue in Tarantino movies, while Amour was about 70% intense silence. I will say that Amour’s non-linear narrative (which begins at the end) was a very effective storytelling choice.

Finally: Riva was nominated for Best Actress. She lost the Oscar to Lawrence, but beat both her and Jessica Chastain for the BAFTA a few weeks earlier. As I said above, the physicality is the real marker of skill in this performance. She moves freely and easily, and then she droops on one side. And then her body becomes more and more maimed, and then her eyes become more and more vacant. She physically becomes a shell of a person. And while you can’t underestimate the effect of makeup here, Riva is really doing something that you need to be an actress with 60 years’ worth of experience to be able to do. (Hiroshima mon Amour, people. That was her in 1959.) Amazing lady, who at 85 must still be fully in control of her body to have pulled off this performance, so she’s already winning at the game of life. (Also, she has a César and something called the “Silver Goddess” from Mexico, and she’s still beautiful, so she’s doing OK all around.)

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