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The thing about The Duchess is that it’s entirely conventional. It’s a genre pic that plays out exactly as you would expect, with the requisite lush art direction and costume porn. The heroine is trapped in a society that doesn’t permit her to marry the one she loves but her big personality allows her to make her mark on society. Normal stuff for bodice-rippers, but ultimately I think this conventional and competent film is pretty good for the genre.

The Duchess is significantly better than the dreadful Elizabeth series. It’s more engrossing and accessible than the usual Jane Austen adaptation. But I think there’s a limit to how much I can like this sort of movie without it taking some risks and trying something different and The Duchess does not. It’s solid and adequate but nothing new.

Keira Knightley plays Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire in the late 18th century. Her marriage to Duke William Cavendish (Ralph Fiennes) is political with little personal connection between the two. William really just wants a male heir and generally ignores Georgiana otherwise. Her inability to produce an heir sours their relationship further, to the point of occasional physical and emotional brutality. Naturally there’s a strapping young man who captures Georgiana’s heart, Dominic Cooper’s Charles Grey. And you already know where this is heading: forbidden love, betrayal, a young woman rebelling against an aristocratic society that prevents her from determining the path of her own life.

I found the public Georgiana more interesting than her private dramas. She was a fashion icon of her time and a very vocal supporter and campaigner for the Whig party, making her a larger public figure than her husband. She was an intelligent woman fairly in tune with her society despite her place in the aristocracy. Maybe I liked these parts because they were a little different. I liked the political scenes more in Elizabeth too, but maybe just as a respite from the mind-numbing personal drama.

Knightley is getting some Best Actress buzz, which I guess is at least better than last year’s buzz for her role in Atonement. She’s gotten quite good at these period pieces and she is good here, though not spectacularly so. If she were to get nominated I would be okay with it though I’d be surprised if there weren’t five performances I end up liking more. Fiennes got even more buzz for his role that mostly required quiet seething punctuated by impressive rage and again I just found him fine. It just wasn’t that interesting. But now he’s going for Supporting Actor for The Reader so his role here will likely move to the back burner. Technical nominations in categories like Costume and Art Direction are expected and deserved.

In movies like this, the heroine generally gets married off to some man who she has little in common with. She’s a romantic, however, and pines after a handsome gentleman who, through class differences, she cannot be with. But she’s a smart woman and despite personal drama she makes her mark on the world. Often her mother is an important supporting character, a realist and strong matriarch who tells the heroine to buck up and get her head out of the clouds because she has certain duties to perform for her husband, country, and/or family. I want to see a movie about that mother for once. Why can’t the heroine be like pretty much every other aristocratic woman of the time and accept her role? Why can’t she understand the politics of marriage and use them in her favor? Why must she spend so much time brooding about love? It’d be nice to have a historical film where the woman can do her thing (lead her country, influence policy, head the royal court/her family, etc…) without spending much of the movie bemoaning her broken heart because, let’s face it, she probably doesn’t know anyone in her social circle who married for love.

I guess when it comes down to it, The Duchess is good assuming the restraints of the genre, but it never challenges those restraints, which I think limits its potential. I can’t help but compare it to Sofia Coppola’s unfairly-derided Marie Anoinette, which tried something different in terms of style, character, and plot. Not everything works in that film, but it’s always interesting and refreshingly different. The Duchess is already solid, I just wish it had some more interesting touches.

It’s a few weeks later and it’s time to check the latest Rachel Getting Married Index (RGMI).

The RGMI for November 14, 2008 is: 7.5.

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I think part of the increase has to do with Jared’s very good recent post, which served as a good reminder of all that works well in the movie. Anne Hathaway, natch. The way the film deftly provides atmosphere even in its mundane moments. The powerful emotional punch it packs.

I’m not sure I buy his theories on the noteworthy scenes where all rules on pacing get thrown out the window. Do these scenes serve a point? Sure. To some extent they’re quite successful. I think the point starts to fade when the timing gets all screwy. Hey this toast is sorta silly, what’s Rachel gonna do?! Let’s lose interest as we wait 15 minutes to find out! When Rachel’s awkward speech finally occurs, I agree it was absolutely cringe-worthy (I had trouble watching, to be honest), but the scene lost the build-up eventually. It’s interesting to ponder, however, because looking back I’m reminded more of character and mood and less about technique.

So Anne Hathaway’s pretty terrific, no? She’s absolutely Oscar material. Sometimes I become convinced that Hollywood popularity is based mostly on looks and then some beautiful actor comes along with a performance like this and I’m like, oh yeah, there’s more keeping me from an acting career than looks.

I’d also be interested to see if Bill Irwin gets much buzz for his performance. I’m not sure he is better than Hathaway because I think he has a tendency to ham it up a little too much, but he’s pretty much a scene stealer. There’s a lot going on with his character and by the end I felt for him but also felt pretty exasperated. Nice guy but would be a pain to deal with, I think.

So that’s the RGMI update for now. As we start getting into the meat of Oscar season I’ll be interested to see how Rachel Getting Married fares comparatively.

Oh, also, Bill Irwin is a trained clown and was in the video for Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Enjoy!

It helps if you know a Kym.  Maybe yours isn’t dealing with any many personal demons and doesn’t attend court-mandated rehab.  Heck, maybe it is you, at least at certain times.  “Self-centered” isn’t an adequate description here, though it may be a start.  It is more how Kym looks for her role in any conversation, her place in any event.  That doesn’t necessarily mean bringing the spotlight around to her, even if that’s often the case.  It is that utter desperation to fit in, to be acknowledged (if not loved).  And it is a vicious cycle, where her attempts not to be noticed, but to be a noticeable member, just lead her to be pushed away even more.  A losing struggle to find normality.  So, I think knowing a Kym, someone who deep down, maybe way down, has good intentions, but whose attempts to fit in are manifested as a blatant attempt to grab attention helps with the movie.

I’ll get back to Kym/Anne Hathaway shortly (spoiler: when I spend a paragraph talking about how I get a character, I probably liked her), but I wanted to focus on three scenes, at least two of which probably elicited different reactions from my fellow Grouches: the toasting scene at the rehearsal dinner, the dishwasher-stacking scene, and the wedding reception.  And in case I don’t get to them at a later date, just wanted to toss some recognition the way of Jenny Lumet, the first-time screenwriter, and Rosemarie DeWit, who played Rachel.

The toasts at the rehearsal dinner went on an extraordinarily long time, and I loved every minute of it.  Here’s something extremely mundane; after all, who, really, enjoys hearing awkward speeches about two of their friends getting married, much less movie characters they barely know?  And the speeches were awkward, moving, poignant, silly, stupid, and everything else wedding toasts normally are.  In a different movie, I’d certainly agree that the scene went on too long, even if the point was to show how boring these things can be.  But as director Jonathan Demme shows us, the point of this scene isn’t to see people endlessly toasting Rachel and Sydney, it is to see Kym trying to handle people endlessly toasting Rachel and Sydney, desperately trying to plan a toast which will fit in.  It is going to sound ridiculous, but I was cringing on the edge of my seat for the entire scene.  Because Kym, probably surprised that this was a time for people to toast her big sister, was going to turn this ordinary event into a trainwreck.  We knew it and she knew it, even as she frantically clawed for ideas on how to give an ordinary toast.  And so, if you will, Kym is the metaphorical bomb under the table, and the suspense is generated by the other guests, who seem completely oblivious to the surely inevitable explosion.

The dishstacking competition is likely to be one of my favorite scenes of the year.  It is fun, funny, and disturbingly poignant.  Incredibly simple, the soon-to-be son-in-law good-naturedly mocks his future father-in-law’s ability to fit dishes in the dishwasher, a skill in which the old man clearly takes a good amount of pride.  And so, obviously, a competition is borne, egged on by close friends and family.  Ridiculous?  Absolutely.  Clearly part of the reason I love it.  But there’s also the juxtaposition of the insanity that is females planning a wedding with the much more masculine contest to see who can fit more dishes in a dishwasher.  It is absurd and yet honest.  The groom and father of the bride have gotten along swimmingly, but, after all, he’s the new generation, stealing away daddy’s little girl.  And amid all the chaos and tension of a wedding, here’s something they can do to just push everything aside.

And Kym even manages to get subsumed in the madness, at least for a moment.  But in achingly beautiful fashion, while being more helpful than anyone present, Kym manages to bring the entire thing to a crashing halt (Bill Irwin is so good for this scene, by the way).  Going from off-the-rails fun to tenderly sad, especially when it seems no one quite knows why Irwin is experiencing this sudden attack of sorrow, just made for tremendous scene, in my book.

Finally, the wedding reception, which took over the top to whole new levels.  it is pretty likely the scene stems directly from Demme’s experience as a director of music videos and films of live performances.  At the very least, it explains what Robyn Hitchcock was doing in the movie.  Here’s the thing.  I’m completely convinced the absurdity was intentional.  Sure, view it as a metaphor for how Kym sees the world: a myriad of strange and exotic cultures, none of which quite fit her.  But I saw it more as fun insanity.  I suppose I could make argument about how it is a statement on the interracial marriage.  Or a stronger one on how it continues the leitmotif of how music can influences emotions (seriously, music played a bigger factor in this movie than Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, I’d argue).  Mostly, though, I think Demme et al may have created a wedding where it is virtually impossible to not forget yourself and have fun.

To get back to, you know, Oscars, other than best actress, the movie’s been mentioned in at least the film and two supporting races.  Right now the only serious chance may be Debra Winger, but it shouldn’t be.  I think I’d be happy if the film surprises and picks up multiple nominations, but we can cross that bridge when needed.

Anne Hathaway is incredibly beautiful.  It’s just a fact.  But I think I’m managing to put that aside when I say that based on what I’ve seen so far, she absolutely deserves a nomination.  Kym is an incredibly difficult and complex character, and with Hathaway, she is sympathetic when she needs to be, but not all the time, because she isn’t always a likeable character.  At times, it is frustrating as all heck to deal with the Kyms of the world, and we might wish them away in the heat of the moment.  I enjoyed the character of Kym because she wasn’t all good or all evil.  She just felt like a person struggling (more than most, to be sure) to find her place.

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