of the Fall
SYLVIA: Directed by Christine Jeffs. Written by John Brownlow. Produced by Alison Owen. Executive producers David M. Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Robert Jones, Jane Barclay and Sharon Harel. co-producer, Neris Thomas. Cinematography, John toon. Production design, Maria Djurkovic. Editor, Tariq Anwar. Composer, Gabriel Yared. Costumes, Sandy Powell. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, with Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon, Amira Casar and Jared Harris. Focus Features Release, 2003. R. 110 minutes.
Poet Sylvia Plath did not survive her passionate love affair and stormy marriage to poet Ted Hughes. Hughes was deeply marked by Plath's suicide. While both esteemed the creation of poetry above other intellectual endeavors, Ted was more successful early on, and his career determined where they lived and how well they lived. This was not unusual in the late 1950s, early 1960s when Hughes and Plath met and married. And although both parents cherished the two children they had together, daily care fell squarely on Sylvia. This, too, was of a piece with its time.
The paradox of the early 1960s is that it offered sex, fame and success to those who rebelled against orthodoxy, but it exacted a moral and social price from those who bought into its fantasies. It was as difficult to make a living as a poet in that time as it is now. But poetry was taken seriously at universities, and young poets were drunk on words. Plath and Hughes met and struck their holy and unholy bargain at this heady time. They would live together, write together and all would be well. But their lives did not work out that way.
Sylvia tells the story of these two headstrong individuals on a collision course with history, although most of its energy is spent on Plath, played to perfection by Gwyneth Paltrow. Daniel Craig brings Hughes to life as an ambitious, driven poet who took the adoration of women as his right. It was his Achilles' heel, the tragic flaw that brought him down. Plath also dreamed of being a famous poet, but her history of depression and attempted suicide made the stronger claim. They separated in September 1962. She killed herself in February1963, when she was just 30 years old.
The story of Hughes and Plath has long been a dark fairy tale for the literati of at least two continents. The problem with telling the story is that everyone knows how it ends. While John Brownlow's excellent script avoids the sensational aspects of her death, some critics say it also bypasses the nastier aspects of her personality. Although we see Plath consumed by jealousy, enraged and out of control in social situations, we do not see her put her head in the oven. We observe her preparations for the act.
Plath's most famous collection of poems, Ariel, was published posthumously. Her novel, The Bell Jar, was not published in this country until 1971. In 1982, Sylvia Plath was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Hughes was named Great Britain's Poet Laureate in 1984, and he refused to discuss Plath and their life together for 35 years after her death. In 1998 he published a collection of poems he had written over the years about Plath, Birthday Letters, which won the Whitbread poetry award. Hughes died in October 1998 at age 68.
I feel certain that Sylvia will not be accepted by those who blame Hughes, the philandering husband, for the too-early death of a writer beloved by feminists for her empowering poetry and prose. Likewise, the film will not satisfy those who believe that Hughes was martyred by Plath and maligned by her fans. The truth, if it exists, may be teased out of the poems left behind by these two great poets, eventually, but it is still too soon.
Profound depression is a serious mental illness, and writers and artists who work in solitude are especially vulnerable. Likewise, depression affects young mothers trapped at home with little children to care for, particularly in winter when they cannot get out. The potency of jealousy to unhinge us fades over time, but tragically, Plath did not live long enough to reach the liberation maturity brings.
Sylvia, now completing its second week at the Bijou, may not settle any arguments, but it may pique an interest to know more about Plath and Hughes. As a film, it is beautiful, heartbreaking and flawed, despite excellent performances. Highly recommended.
Real As Can Be
ELEPHANT: Written, directed and edited by Gus Van Sant. Producer, Dany Wolf. Executive producers, Diane Keaton, Bill Robinson. Cinematography, Harris Savides. Sound design, Leslie Shatz. Ensemble cast: Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Jordan Taylor, Carrie Finklea, Nicole George, Brittany Mountain, Alicia Miles, Kristen Hicks, Bennie Dixon, Nathan Tyson, Matt Malloy and Timothy Bottoms. HBO Films, Fine Line Features, 2003. R. 81 minutes.
Portlander Gus Van Sant's film about American high school shootings is patterned on the killings at Columbine, but the director takes reasonable creative liberties. Designed to look like a documentary, the film almost lulls the viewer into boredom as the camera follows various students through a typical school day. But we know a senseless massacre is coming, so the tension between dread and the daily grind builds. Anyone looking for answers to the inevitable "Why?" will not find them here.
Van Sant's choice of title refers to the parable of the blind men. Each examines a different part of an elephant and then imagines he understands the whole beast. The film is not theoretical. Instead, it is naturalistic, un-scripted and basically improvisational, with real high school students playing characters much like themselves. It was filmed in 20 days in November 2002 in a recently decommissioned high school in northeast Portland.
When we see (from the back) two boys in camouflage combat fatigues approaching the school, we expect the shooting to start in the next scene. But the sighting is a false lead. Van Sant takes his time to show the almost invisible web that connects the victims. While he shoots the same scene from the angle of each participant, as editor he does not show the scenes sequentially. The killing, when it comes, is brief, brutal and surprising — cold but personal.
The picture begins with a car weaving down the street that turns out to be driven by a drunk father (Timothy Bottoms) taking his son, John (John Robinson), to school. Thanks a lot, Dad. It's Van Sant's first red herring, because we expect John, this tall kid with flyaway hair to be a rebel. But no. John spends an hour with the principal, Mr. Luce (Matt Malloy), who stares at him silently. John looks back, clear-eyed and unapologetic. Later we realize John takes care of his dad.
Elias (Elias McConnell) walks to school with a camera. He asks permission from a couple of lovebirds to take their pictures in the woods. He works in the school darkroom with a girl who may be his girlfriend. Van Sant uses Elias to introduce other characters, whose pictures he takes.
Long tracking shots distance us from the impending tragedy by emphasizing the relative emptiness of the long hallways and the daunting size of the school. We are subject to the everydayness of school life, which is deceptive. Van Sant made this movie because eight fatal student shooting sprees happened in schools between 1997 and 1999, including Thurston High School's.
This film is unsuitable for anyone personally affected by the Thurston shootings. The film is fictional, but it cannot avoid the showing some graphic (but not gratuitous) images. Other viewers may be moved to compassion and shaken from the stupor of mass-media induced voyeurism by Van Sant's respect for the individuality of the young people he worked with. He creates a bridge into their world, an environment much more complicated than most of us remember from our school days.
The killers, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), seem as ordinary and average as any other kids. We don't see them as monsters until they are in the car, dressed and armed for the occasion, cooly discussing plans to pick off students in the hallways, cafeteria and school library.
Elephant refuses to fit into a narrative framework. But when it's over, you may wonder if we can ever truly understand the casual violence of the world our children have inherited. Now playing at the Bijou, Elephant is highly recommended for some viewers.
Cheaper By the Dozen: A remake of the Clifton Webb classic from the 1950s, Shawn Levy's version boasts a new screenplay and stars Steve Martin as the father of 12, who moves his family to the city. Bonnie Hunt plays the kids' mother. PG. Sneak at 4 pm 12/21. Cinemark.
Christmas Carol, A (1951): Vintage classic of the Dickens' story, complete with apparitions and a hearty "God bless Tiny Tim." Stars Alastair Sim. Appropriate for children and adults. At 12:30 pm on 12/20 and 12/21. Free. Bijou.
Mona Lisa Smile: Julia Roberts is an idealistic teacher and nonconformist at Wellesley in the 1950s. Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal are her students. Mike Newell directs. PG-13. Cinemark. Cinema World.
Radio: High school football coach (Ed Harris) shocks a Southern town by taking on a mentally challenged youth (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and developing a decades-long friendship with him. Also stars Alfre Woddard and Debra Winger; directed by Mike Tollin. PG. Movies 12.
School of Rock: Faking it as a substitute teacher, wild guitarist Jack Black turns elementary musical prodigies into a high-voltage rock band. Directed by Richard Linklater, it also stars Joan Cusack, Mike White and Sarah Silverman. PG-13. Movies 12.
Tupac Resurrection: Late rap artist Tupac Shakur, who was murdered in 1996, returns to the screen in music videos and interviews. Documentary directed by Lauren Lazin for MTV Films. R. Movies 12.
Bad Santa: Directed by Terry Zwigoff. The story of two con men who go on a road trip to malls dressed as Santa and his elf. Rather than spread good cheer, the duo robs each establishment — a strategy that becomes complicated when they encounter an 8-year-old who teaches them the true meaning of Christmas. Stars Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, John Ritter. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Brother Bear: Disney tale of young man who is transformed into a bear and his adventures in the great Northwest. He picks up a bear cub and runs into a pair of misguided moose, or is that meese? Six new songs from Phil Collins, including one with Tina Turner. G. Movies 12.
Cat in the Hat, The: Mike Meyers stars as the outrageous feline who visits a couple of kids and wreaks havoc in the house while mom's away. Live-action comedy based on beloved Dr. Seuss book. Many parents and many kids can recite it by heart. With Alec Baldwin, Kelly Preston. PG-13. Cinemark.
Duplex: Drew Barrymore and Ben Stiller find their Manhattan dream flat but inherit a batty old woman who lives upstairs and drives them nuts. Directed by Danny DeVito, cast also includes Swoosie Kurtz and Harvey Fierstein. PG-13. Movies 12.
Elephant: Gus Van Sant directs a cast of non-professional actors, high-school students from the Portland area. Film has no narrative structure, no voiceover. Camera follows students on an ordinary school day until two boys unleash mayhem and murder. Van Sant's respect for his young actors and director's refusal to explain why school shootings happen make it exceptional. R. Bijou. See review this issue.
Elf: Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell as a human child raised as an elf. Mr. Claus (Ed Asner) and his chief assistant (Bob Newhart) send the lad to New York to find his biological father (James Caan). With Zooey Deschanel and Mary Steenburgen. PG. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Freaky Friday: Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohan, Mark Harmon, Harold Gould, Chad Michael Murray, Stephen Tobolowsky, Christina Vidal, Ryan Malgarini. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan play a quarreling mother and daughter who accidentally switch bodies. Ooops! Mark Harmon plays the mom's fiancé. Directed by Mark Waters. Highly recommended. PG. Movies 12. Online archives.
Gothika: Halle Berry plays a criminal psychologist who blacks out and comes to accused of murdering her husband (Charles Dutton). Now she's a patient in his hospital. Directorial debut of Mathieu Kassovitz. Also stars Penélope Cruz, Robert Downey Jr., Bernard Hill. R. Cinemark.
Haunted Mansion: Eddie Murphy stars in Rob Minkoff's (Stuart Little) ghost comedy, with Jennifer Tilly, Don Knotts, Terence Stamp PG. Cinemark.
Honey: Directed by Bille Woodruff. Stars Jessica Alba as a music video choreographer and Li'l Romeo, Mekhi Phifer. PG-13. Cinemark.
Last Samurai: Directed by Edward Zwick. Stars Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. In Japan, Civil War veteran Nathan Algren (Cruise) trains Emperor Meiji's troops in the way of the gun as they prepare to defeat the last of the country's samurais. But he is captured by the samurai (Watanabe) and learns about their traditions and code of honor. R. Cinemark. Cinema World.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Peter Jackson completes the film version of Tolkien's trilogy, seven years in the making. Stars Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Billy Boyd, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett. Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) plan to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, but Gollum — and the Ring itself — test Frodo's allegiances and his humanity. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) humbly accepts his kingship. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Love Actually: Written and directed by Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones's Diary), this romantic comedy stars Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Keira Knightley, Martine McCuthcheon, Bill Nighy. Great moments, fine ensemble cast. R. Cinemark.
Love Don't Cost a Thing: Directed by Troy Beyer. Stars Nick Cannon as teenager Alvin Johnson who tries to play cool by hiring a cheerleader to act as his girlfriend. Remake of 1987's Can't Buy Me Love starring Patrick Dempsey. PG-13. Cinemark.
Master and Commander The Far side of the World: Peter Weir brings the late Patrick O'Brian's best-selling nautical adventures to the screen with Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany as Dr. Stephen Maturin, ship surgeon and naturalist. Set during the Napoleonic Wars. Highest recommendations. PG-13. Cinemark. Online archives.
Matchstick Men: Ridley Scott directs this tale of a couple of grifters working small-time cons, until personal issues arise. Stars Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, with Alison Lohman and Bruce McGill. PG-13. Movies 12. Online archives.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Antonio Banderas as El Mariarchi, now involved in international espionage. Costars Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp and Mickey Rourke. R. Movies 12.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Non-stop adventure directed by Gore Verbinski stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Depp sashays, Rush dissembles, Bloom fences and Knightley swashbuckles. Depp and Rush's over the top performances are great. Recommended. PG-13. Movies 12. Online archives.
Runaway Jury: Gun manufacturer's explosive trial stars John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz. Received some good reviews. PG-13. Movies 12.
Secondhand Lions: Haley Joe Osment is sent to his great uncles' rural Texas farm, where the city boy has much to learn. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine may have been bank robbers. Written and directed by Tim McCanlies (writer, The Iron Giant). PG. Movies 12.
Something's Gotta Give: Directed by Nancy Meyers. Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) is a New York music mogul with a libido much younger than his years. Also stars Diane Keaton, Amanda Peet and Keanu Reeves. PG-13. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Spy Kids 3D, Game Over: Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara continue to embrace the family business — spying — but this time the Toymaker (Sylvester Stallone) may be their nemesis. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino co-star. 3-D viewing glasses required. Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. PG. Movies 12.
Station Agent, The: Tom McCarthy's excellent film about three people with little in common who become friends was a surprise hit at Sundance 2003. Stars Peter Dinklage, who takes up residence in a rural town's old train depot and gets to know neighbors Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale. Acclaimed performances by all three. Highly recommended as one of 2003's best films. Bijou. Online archives.
Stuck on You: The Farrelly Brothers (Something About Mary) direct this story of conjoined twins Bob (Mat Damon) and Walt (Greg Kinnear), who move to L.A. so one can become an actor. They become a hit on a TV show starring Cher, but success threatens to drive the twins apart. Eva Mendes, Seymour Cassel and big-name cameos. PG-13. Cinema World. Cinemark.
Sylvia: Directed by Christine Jeffs. The story of celebrated American poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her turbulent marriage to a future poet laureate of England, Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). Ted and Sylvia were a sensuous, volatile and brilliant couple. who emerged as two of the most influential writers of the 20th century. R. Bijou. See review this issue.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Remake of Tobe Hooper's1974 horror classic is directed by Marcus Nispel, music video guru. Backwoodsy killer clan runs amok. Stars Jessica Biel, Eric Balfour and Andrew Bryniarski as Leatherface. R. Movies 12.
RELEASES ON VIDEO
Alex & Emma: Rob Reiner directs Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson in a comedy romance based on a short story by Dostoyevsky. Wilson plays a writer who has to finish a book on deadline or deal with gambling debts to the mob. Hudson is a secretary with ideas about his book. Also stars, Sophie Marceau, Cloris Leachman and David Paymer. PG-13.
Crime Spree (2003): Directed by Brad Mirman, stars Gerard Depardieu, Harvey Keitel and Johnny Hallyday (Man on the Train).
I Capture the Castle (2003): Directed by Tim Frywell. Stars Romola Gari, Rose Byrne, Bill Nighy, Tara Fitzgerald, Henry Thomas, Sinead Cusack, Marc Blucas. The Mortmain sisters (Gari and Byrne), their blocked-writer father (Nighy) and his second wife (Fitzgerald) live in a crumbling castle, but when two American boys (Blucas, Thomas) move nearby with their mother (Cusack), the girls' future looks brighter. R.
Rugrats Go Wild: Nickelodeon's animated diaper set meets up wit the Wild Thornberrys after being washed ashore to a desert island from a storm-wracked cruise ship. Directed by Norton Virgien and John Eng. Bruce Willis voices Spike the dog. PG. Movies 12.
Medallion: Jackie Chan action comedy co-stars Lee Evans and Claire Forlani. A mysterious medallion turns police detective Chan into a superhero, but the bad guys want it back. Gordon Chan directs. PG-13. Movies 12.
Next week: Beyond Reanimator, Northfork, The Order, Sex and the City, S.W.A.T., and Uptown Girls.