Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.
As clever as it can be at times Flushed Away’s plot is still formulaically step by step. Step one: Introduce hero one Roderick St. James (Hugh Jackman) aka Roddy a pampered but lonely pet mouse who lives in a posh Kensington flat in London. Step two: Propel Roddy into the utterly foreign world of the city’s sewers by flushing him down the toilet. Step three: Hook him up with a cute renegade mouse named Rita (Kate Winslet) with a nifty boat who makes a pact with Roddy to take him back to his home in exchange for some riches she can use to help her extended family (32 brothers and sisters to be exact). Step four: Have the two of them then outwit the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen) mob kingpin of the sewer city Ratropolis after discovering his dastardly plan to rid the sewers of the rats. Step five: Happy ending. Not too complicated. We’ve got a mostly British A-list this time around and everyone sounds enthused to be indulging in the make-up free come-in-your-sweats fun of vocal work. Jackman infuses Roddy with the appropriate upper crustiness but who soon warms to his surroundings—and his new friend especially since he’s never really had any friends before. Winslet’s Rita is all pluck and spunk with a keen fashion sense and big mouse ears while McKellen’s malevolent frog is a big blowhard with a goiter. But as is the case with these animated films the side characters provide the laughs. There’s Toad’s main hench-rats—Whitey (a very deep-voiced Bill Nighy) an ex-laboratory rat who’s experimental shampooings have left him bald and an albino and Sid (Andy Serkis) a wiry weasel who is not nearly as tough as he purports to be. Toad’s French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) a cross between Jackie Chan and Inspector Clouseau is also hilarious. The best part however are the sewer slugs who don’t say much but rather add any musical accompaniment deemed necessary. Aardman Productions and DreamWorks the same folks who gave us Wallace and Gromit movies seem to have perfected the clay animation techniques and incorporated a lot more CGI. Flushed Away is definitely more polished than the W&G’s but the big teeth and general sardonic British sensibilities are all still there. The sewer life is visually bustling using everyday items to create their world such as the bad guys riding hand mixers as wave runners to chase after Rita’s boat. Plus the film is loaded with enough funny pop culture references to keep the adults laughing (thank YOU Shrek!) For example when Roddy is zooming his way down the water pipes he sees a yellow striped fish who asks “Have you seen my dad?” Nope there really isn’t anything inherently wrong with Flushed Away save for an overdone plot. Kids and parents alike should enjoy themselves.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.
With four days left before his execution notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback) Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless most of the movie is suspenseful the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause especially if like him and admittedly like me you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon even by academia's standards: he partied with his students talked about fantasy and desire in class and belonged to Death Watch a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard Gale was a borderline alcoholic and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process foregoing for example the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend fellow professor co-director of Death Watch and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex yet remarkably one-dimensional for most of the movie which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet too is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done old chap-ette) a mission and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical wailing waterworks--Winslet lucky gal has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe necessarily but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside though this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument we can--and by God we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say thank you Hollywood for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.
How To Write a Victorian Novel 101. First introduce a perfect family like the Nicklebys and place them in an idyllic country setting. Shortly thereafter the father/provider must lose the family fortune and swiftly die of grief leaving his family reliant on the charity of a cruel yet wealthy relative like Ralph Nickleby (Christopher Plummer) who should break up the happy family sending the eldest son--in the case of Nicholas Nickleby 19-year-old Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam)--to teach at a horrifying boys' school called Dotheboys while forcing his mother (Stella Gonet) and his sister (Romola Garai) to live in the dark miserable city of London. During this period of separation the title character should prove himself an upstanding and honorable gentleman rescue the unfortunate show mercy to his enemies fall in love and attempt to reunite his family and avenge the wrongs done to them. If the story is a comedy he will succeed and we will proceed--to the denouement in which loose ends are tied up a happy couple weds and the cast takes its bows.
Victorian Drama 201. A rule of thumb: the villains and the minor players are always more interesting characters than the ingénues and they will always receive the greatest ovation. Nicholas Nickleby is no exception to this rule. The soft-hearted good guys--Hunnam (Abandon) as Nicholas newcomer Garai as his sister Kate Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) as Nicholas' love interest Madeline Bray and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as the broken child Smike whom Nicholas rescues from the boys' school--humbly accept their plight and it's enough to make you want to shake their genteel little shoulders to force them into action. Mercifully Hunnam at least occasionally gets to fight back exchanging some heated words and even coming to blows with his enemies especially the utterly nasty Jim Broadbent (Iris) and Juliet Stevenson (Emma) as Mr. and Mrs. Squeers who run the ghastly boys' school with finely honed cruelty. Even Plummer (Ararat A Beautiful Mind) for all he's the big villain of the piece doesn't come off as evilly as these two. There are also notable performances on the comedic side particularly among the perfectly cast merry band of melodramatic theatrical players (Nathan Lane Dame Edna Everage and Alan Cumming) that Nicholas and Smike join on their journey home.
Making Victorian Movies 301. With its fairy-tale look fantastic sets and theatrical bent Nickleby hearkens back to the flamboyant dramas of the Victorian period (think Oscar Wilde)--its opening credits in fact are displayed on the stage of a Victorian toy theater. But stories based on novels like Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby obviously take a lot longer to tell than plays--and in their time they reached their audience in a different way. It often took weeks even months to read a full novel (or a serialized one) in Victorian Britain; families would gather 'round the fire for a few pages a night savoring the story making it last. Director/screenwriter Doug McGrath's (Emma) rendition of Nicholas Nickleby reconciles these two modes of entertainment admirably allowing modern moviegoers a chance to revel in the assured pace of the twists and turns Dickens chose to place in the narrative's path but abridging them in such a way as to make good theater. Despite the relative brevity of the narrative however McGrath doesn't rush us to the end; he seems to recognize that the best stories are all about the journey not about the resolution.