The Morning After: May 14, 2012

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

Longtime Companion

When this film debuted in 1990, there were fewer than 50 films, television series and documentaries on the subject of AIDS. The pandemic was fairly widespread, but rumor, innuendo and misinformation about the virus was rampant. Although many of the films made previously had been quickly forgotten or rejected, Longtime Companion was one of the first major motion pictures to deal honestly with the crisis and resulted in a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Bruce Davison in the film. Looking back 22 years onto this film gives one a different perspective on the plight of gay men living with the fear of the AIDS crisis. The film doesn’t look too closely at outside perspectives from the unforgiving straight community, but the internal support structures that developed around what would soon become a defining issue of the generation.

Starting out in 1980 when the term AIDS had not yet been coined and the reports of a gay cancer were starting to crop up in major national newspapers (here it is an article in the New York Times that brings the characters’ attentions to it). Still living free and liberated, we follow nine men and one woman as they disparately pull together to form a strong, compassionate network of support as one after another of their number die to the virus. Told in short bursts each year through the 1980’s, we’re left to wonder what would have happened to them all had their been a cure. Today, people can live with the virus for years with the right medications and emotional support. Then, it was a different case. As the film shows in one particular year of the tragedy that any number of holistic methods, drugs and other remedies are employed if not to give the patient relief, to give them hope that they’ll live until the cure can be discovered.

And the film tries to keep things light, brisk and pointedly optimistic. No one dies onscreen, often they are spoken of the next year in the past tense after grieving and remorse have given way to acceptance. Only once are we given any emotional connection to the characters based solely on the passing of one of them, left lifeless in their bed while his friends fuss around his corpse, not in tears, but in shocked acceptance. Davison, who plays the titular longtime companion of a soap opera writer played by Mark Lamos, gets the one outwardly grief-stricken act and carries it off beautifully. But that isn’t to degrade the work of the other actors who give humanity and believability to each character they inhabit. While some actors haven’t managed to find major work in film since (Patrick Cassidy, John Dossett, Stephen Caffrey, Lamos or Michael Schoeffling), some notable names have emerged. Indie actor Campbell Scott continues to find work, including frequent appearances on television and on the big screen; Dermot Mulroney has had plenty of work throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s; Davison has had an impressive career, including a key role in the blockbuster X-Men franchise; and Mary-Louise Parker is an Emmy Award-winning actress. But as much as these fine thespians give to the film, two others share sole praise for the film’s successes.

Director Norman René only had two more directorial efforts on the big screen, but had been a successful stage director prior to the film. He died from the very affliction he had portrayed in Longtime Companion. He was 44. Frequent collaborator Craig Lucas wrote the script for Longtime Companion, he returned to Broadway to further acclaim. His partner also died of AIDS, informing his future work as well. Together, their stylistic approach to the medium left a fantastic result called Longtime Companion, a freeze-frame reminder of the harshness of AIDS and the community-based support that helped so many find peace before the end and helped inspire future generations to come to terms with and meet head-on the crisis that would soon emerge as a powerful subject in all manners of dramas throughout the 1990’s pushing acceptance and compassion for all those who had been pushed away by a fearful and grossly ill-informed society.

Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen returned to the Oscar race with force this year in his Paris-set film Midnight in Paris about a struggling film writer, hoping to find clarity in the gorgeous French city where so many of his artistic inspirations called home or visited with frequency during the Roaring 20’s, a period Allen seems to find himself most at home in (as evinced by his striking and fantastic predecessor Bullets Over Broadway.

The last time I was this impressed with Woody Allen was Match Point, seven years and six films ago. Before that it was the aforementioned Bullets Over Broadway back in 1994. Allen is very much an acquired taste. A lot of times, his over-analytic commentary can be a bit boorish, even pedantic. This is perfectly embodied in Michael Sheen’s character Paul in this film. An intellectual who knows everything and regales his friends and non-friends with assertions about the various artistic endeavors they spend time discussing. It’s the kind of broad, boastful bragging that has trademarked many of Allen’s most blatantly belligerent work. Yet, apart from this one character, Allen infuses Midnight in Paris with wit, charm and genuine laughs, something I’ve been hard pressed to find in his films for some time.

It’s clear Allen tries to see himself in Owen Wilson’s struggling writer, going so far as to showcase all of his own influences and inspirations, but a far cry from those luminaries has he been in the last twenty or more years with only occasional bouts of creative inspiration on their level. Every character here could be a living embodiment of some aspect of Allen’s personality from the braggadocio of Paul to the incredulity of Gil’s (Wilson) fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Even her mistrustful father (Kurt Fuller) carries a bit of Allen’s trepidations with him. Wilson hasn’t been this good in some time and it’s good to see him bouncing back from his unfortunate nadir a few years back. McAdams is passable but far inferior to many of Allen’s great muses, but the film really comes to life in the fantasy sequences as big name actors and lesser known thespians of all times come together to play the various figures that popular 1920’s Paris.

Tops of a fine list are Corey Stoll as the unrepentant lover Ernest Hemingway, Tom Hiddleston (recognizable to most now as Thor‘s brother and nemesis Loki) playing here F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with his in-film wife Zelda played by Allison Pill. Kathy Bates is always compelling even in the most mirthless roles, but does her best work in a number of years here as Gertrude Stein. There are missteps such as a sorely miscast Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali leads that light roster along with several other no-name lookalikes whose presence doesn’t seem to add weight to the film other than to drop bounteous names of cultural importance including Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Van). It’s good to see Allen back in form, though whether this is another peak in a middling array of late-career features or a trend remains to be seen.

The Help

Set in 1960’s, Tate Taylor’s directorial breakthrough stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as a pair of maids working tirelessly for small wages in the households of white southerners during the days of the American Civil Rights movement. While these black maids perform Herculean labors to raise white children, few of them grow up to be much different than their parents. One exception to this trend is young Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) who has just returned to her hometown seeking the journalistic experience she needs to work for a prominent publishing house in New York City. While taking up the pen of a household advice columnist, she befriends Davis’ Aibileen Clark who agrees to help her write the article, but is ultimately asked to sacrifice more than she ever dreamed. Skeeter wants to write a book from the point of view of the help, telling their stories of frustration, joy and indignation at the sometimes fair and sometimes abusive relationships they lead with their employers.

This depiction of 1960’s Mississippi is not entirely sanitized, but is given a rosy hue that belies the more egregious elements of life as a free black worker in the Deep South during one of the worst periods for black rights in American history. Still, you get enough of a sense about how desperate and frustrated these maids are just from the nasty and sometimes cruel ordeals they must go through just to scrape together a few pennies to put a kid or two through college or put a meager helping of food on the table. Spencer and Davis deliver wonderful performances in the piece, each portraying an aspect to the many facets black women had to put forth in the period. Davis encompasses the selfless perseverance while Spencer digs deep into the righteous indignation and bitter recrimination that comes with standing your ground against those who would rather turn their backs while the KKK among others beat them down than lift a finger to help.

Davis and Spencer deliver career-defining roles. Neither bests the other in terms of dramatic heft of acting prowess, but Davis is clearly the more dominant voice in the film. Her performance is dignified and resilient, much like her character. Spencer is given far too many humorous storylines to stand on the same ground as Davis, but she performs these sequences with fierceness mixed with a touch of glee. Stone’s character is underdeveloped and she plays it the best she can, but it’s just the kind of personality that’s pulled from a modern sensibility and thrown into a period where it is far more bold than feels realistic. Stone has amazing talent and it peaks through here, but it’s just an underwritten role, which drags her performance down regardless.

Many films have focused on the harshness of these situations while showing the audience just how dangerous discrimination and mistreatment can be. Taylor’s film focuses on the lighter aspects, giving women whose lives were difficult and a constant battle for survival a type of revenge flick against those who would put them down. It works in that we’re to a point in our country’s development where many of these bigotries have been stamped out or at least pushed into the dark recesses of the vocal, but subdued fringes of our society, enabling us to put a little revenge into the hands of those who grew up not too far removed from this setting and celebrate when those who are the worst offenders get their comeuppance. Still, a rougher edge might have given the film added poignancy, though it wouldn’t have been nearly the crowd-pleaser that it was. As a piece of entertainment, it works on nearly every level. As a historical document, its contents are mostly sanitized to avoid inflaming old tensions or to simply gloss over our regrettable past.

The Blue Angel (English version)

There is little more to say about this film having now seen the simultaneously-filmed predominantly English-language film. The scenes and plots remain virtually unchanged, the only difference is in the majority of the language that’s spoken. It’s not hard to see now why Emil Jannings didn’t think he could make it in the world of Talkies. His heavy accent makes a number of his lines harder to understand whereas his costar Marlene Dietricth displays a brilliant command of the language. Few other actors in the film are able to duplicate that competence, making it even more challenging to understand the dialogue. Had I not seen the German version first, I would have been utterly lost as to the premise. And even with English being the primary language, there are enough scenes in German without subtitles that it further confuses the audience. This may explain why the English-language version wasn’t as well received internationally as the German version with subtitles.

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  1. Loved your review of Longtime Companion.

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