Monday, April 06, 2015

Mixed Message on Marriage: Effie Gray, Gett & Let's Get Married

Funny thing: I didn't realize I was doing a theme day until I was roughly halfway through. When Saturday started, my aggressive movie plans for that day were all about expedience: Effie Gray was only opening in West Newton, which meant that if I wanted to see a movie with a lot of people I liked, with one of them also writing the screenplay, I was seeing it that day, what with the difficulty in getting out there without spending a fair chunk of change and time on the commuter rail. Then, hey, I hadn't been able to fit Gett in while it was at the Kendall, so I might as well make it a double feature, and then take the bus into Kenmore Square to see Let's Get Married at Fenway, because being let out of work early on Saturday made Furious 7 in Somerville the most convenient option that night.

Oh, and I'm also doing laundry and the like, so the first time I'm sewing movies together comes when somebody in Gett mentions that "Mr. Turner gave him this painting", and my mind leaps back to this marquee above the door:

Yep, the people in one movie playing in a room make reference to the characters in another sharing that screen. No way to work The Imitation Game in, I'm afraid, but that was the coincidence that struck me until I sat down for Gett, saw one of the same trailers I'd seen in front of the day's first movie, and watched a long, hard fight to divorce kick off. Then it occurred to me that while Effie Gray had concluded before a court fight could start, the one followed from the other thematically, and at any rate, I would be spending the entire afternoon watching women try to escape miserable marriages.

So how do you follow that up? With a Chinese romantic comedy that features five couples, albeit with only two or three actually getting married during the film, although four of the women get to try on a wedding dress. And, you know, that's really not a bad way to go about it. It makes for a heck of a palate-cleanser after the bitterness of the previous movies without negating them, especially since there is divorce going on inside this movie - modern China is apparently much more tolerant of such things than mid-1800s Britain or Israel.

Imagine seeing them in the other order, though - the bubbly happiness of a romantic comedy followed by a bleak picture of the vicious battles to be rid of each other that the marrying couple has to look forward to. No, thank you, I'll take them in this order.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of the West Newton Cinema's marquees, check this out:

That is a six-screen cinema advertising 13 movies, leaving off Paddington (only playing weekend mornings), and the Belmont World Cinema screening playing Monday night. That is a full house. Remember this place in a few weeks when the downtown multiplexes with ten to twenty screens are showing something like a half-dozen films because there's so much pressure to get everyone in opening weekend.

Also, I kind of want to see "Home-Wrecking Crew"; it sounds like a sexy but ultimately sweet comedy about pretty young things hired to destroy marriages for one reason or another. Maybe one of them becomes friends with the wife of the person she's supposed to seduce while another falls in love with her target just because he is so honest and devoted.

Effie Gray

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2015 in West Newton Cinema #6 (first-run, DCP)

There is much more to the life of Euphemia "Effie" Gray than the film bearing her name presents; it limits itself to what are likely the three worst years of her life and maintains so tight a focus that the motivation behind the people making her miserable is rather opaque. It's easy to be disappointed in the picture for that, as it makes watching it a tremendously frustrating experience, but from another perspective this serves as a strength: This is likely how the situation was, and too often still is, with nothing vaguely resembling explanation for the cruelty involved.

We meet Effie (Dakota Fanning) at nineteen, recounting her life to her sister Sophie (Polly Dartford) as if it was a fairy tale on the eve of her wedding, albeit one where she met her husband-to-be - famed art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) - when she was a girl of twelve and he was rather older. Ruskin seems completely disinterested on her wedding night, and never attempts any sort of intimacy, often being casually cruel. The situation - and, likely, the tonics dispensed by Ruskin's mother (Julie Walters) - take a toll on Effie's health, which doesn't show much signs of improving until the couple take a vacation in her native Scotland, with up-and-coming painter Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) along, commissioned to paint Ruskin's portrait.

Where does this treatment come from? Screenwriter Emma Thompson clearly has some ideas, and occasionally gives the viewer hints, but she and director Richard Laxton leave our anything that might be explanatory enough to let Ruskin off the hook. It is just who he is, and Greg Wise plays the man with a sort of flatness; he's so self-centered that he barely gives Effie a thought. He presents intelligence but not empathy, and though he becomes colder as the movie goes on, it's seldom so overtly monstrous that he loses the sense of being a puzzle.

Full review on EFC.

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2015 in West Newton Cinema #6 (first-run, DCP)

If one has no other praise for Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, say this about it: Probably no movie ever made gets more mileage out of the "X Months Later" caption than this one. In some ways, that's sibling directors Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz's best filmmaking weapon here, although they use everything else at their disposal as well to make a potentially dry film downright riveting.

The film could, apparently, start with such a caption, as this is the third film to feature co-director Ronit Elkabetz as Viviane Amsalem, with the previous establishing her and husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian) as separated. After three years living apart, she want a divorce, but this is not a simple procedure of civil law in Israel - it involves rabbinical arbitration and is almost impossible to manage without the husband's consent. Elisha does not even show up at the first hearing, and while Viviane has engaged to lawyer Carmel Ben Tovim (Menashe Noy) to represent her, Elisha eventually brings his brother, Rabbi Shimon (Sasson Gabai), in only reluctantly.

To look at the way the Elkabetzes stage Gett, one would almost think that it would work just as well as a play; it takes place it two or three connected rooms that are sparsely and simply furnished, and the camera work is relatively simple. And yet, that is decidedly not the case; those frequent cuts from one time period to another with the location and cast staying mostly constant are something only film and television can really do. As the film goes on, they select more first-person shots, especially as the lawyers questioning those offering testimony become almost horrific figures.

Full review on EFC.

Let's Get Married

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2015 in Regal Fenway #8 (first-run, DCP)

Let's Get Married is the third Chinese film based upon a popular television series in roughly as many months to get a simultaneous American release, although I can attest that no prior experience is necessary to enjoy it. It's probably not a transformative new take on the story, but it's an enjoyable little four-pack of romantic comedies.

Most of it takes place in Beijing, where Ye Wenwen (Gao Yuanyuan) manages a bridal boutique. She's just had a visit from her ex-boyfriend Li Jianfeng (Ming Dao) and a demanding bride by the name of Wang Ke Er (Mo Xiaoqi) who insists upon wearing a display model that dressmaker Chen ZhenXuan (Jiang Wu) will have to alter. It's also where Tian Haixin (Tamia Liu Tao) manages a hotel and is married to its duck-obsessed chef Gao Dapeng (Wang Zijian), although that may be threatened as Haixin is being offered a new job and is ambivalent about her new pregnancy. It's also home base for pilot Ling Xiao (Ryan Zheng Kai), whose girlfriend Guo Xiaolei (Ivy Chen Yihan) is a security guard and impatient waiting for him to propose. One flight takes violinist Wen Yi (Haden Guo Biting) to Italy where she is entered in a contest, although she meant to come as part of a couple. Then again, tour guide "Luca" Li Xiang (Jerry Li Chen) seems pretty fond of her.

The four stories don't intersect nearly as much as one might expect - Wenwen's shop actually can't serve as a hub until most of the stories are nearly over, after all. None of the stories are particularly complex, actually pretty close to being two-person love stories, with the ones that could turn into triangles keeping the third vertex well out of the picture. Most tend to introduce the situation with director Liu Jiang seeming to hope that the audience won't notice that the stories aren't exactly moving forward as he cuts between them, sometimes keeping things on the back burner for long enough that the viewer is apt to wonder just where some of these people have gone.

Full review on EFC.

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