Stephen Fry

Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman)

Love & Friendship opens with some non-traditional portrait cards for its cast of characters. The actors all appear in the opening titles, but then director Stillman breaks out introductions to the characters. Along with some narration. There’s some narration early on, which goes away almost immediately. Because narration might show a little too much of the film’s hand and Stillman wants to play it real close.

Everyone’s character gets an introduction card–done with portrait effect nodding to silent film techniques–except Kate Beckinsale. She’s not just the lead, she’s the object of everyone’s attention, which almost seems like the same thing as the film’s subject. But not so. With another twenty minutes or so, maybe Stillman could’ve made Beckinsale the film’s subject, but Love & Friendship runs a quick ninety-four minutes. There’s only so much he can do and wants to do. Beckinsale’s character might be deserving of a character study, but Stillman’s making a comedy and a light one. So object of attention she remains.

Though Stillman does obfuscate just enough to keep Beckinsale unknowable. Though no one in Love & Friendship is exactly knowable. Most character development comes out in characters discussing other ones, revealing bits and pieces of gossip and backstory, which informs how discussed characters play out, but there’s always a wink. Chloë Sevigny’s role in the film is mostly just to be knowing. She’s the wink at the audience.

Stillman takes his time introducing characters and storylines. When the film opens, Beckinsale and sidekick Kelly Campbell are just arriving to mooch off some of Beckinsale’s dead husband’s relations. It’s set in eighteenth century English society, but a lot of the film’s humor relates to just how brazen Beckinsale can be. She’s got a title and no money. She’s got a daughter and no husband. She also provokes a lot of rumor and gossip, which the audience gets in on before Beckinsale even shows up in the film. Stillman lays the groundwork for introducing her–as sensationally as possible given the realities of the setting–but also for what’s going to come in the second and third acts. He doesn’t foreshadow. He goes out of his way to avoid it, instead relying on Richard Van Oosterhout’s precise photography, Benjamin Esdraffo’s score, and Sophie Corra’s awesome editing to package each scene in the film as a separate moment. The actors give the film a continuous tempo, not Stillman’s script. Stillman’s script is about the smiles, the laughs, the intrigue, but he relies on the actors to keep the characters going.

It’s important because he’s introducing new, important ones throughout. Even if they got a portrait card in the first act, a lot goes on in Love & Friendship and Stillman uses the device for charm and humor more than establishing the ground situation. The ground situation comes out in the dialogue, the actors deliver the dialogue. Stillman directs to emphasize each exchange. Occasionally with some eclectic composition choices, always with perfectly timed ones. Again, Corra’s editing is essential to the film’s success.

The acting is all great. Beckinsale holds it all together. With everyone talking about nothing except her character, she’s always the focus, even if she’s not in the scene. So when she does come back onscreen, she doesn’t just have to do the scene, she’s also got to bridge her absence and the discussed character or plot development. Beckinsale, Stillman, and Corra get it right every time.

Xavier Samuel is good as Beckinsale’s too young suitor, Emma Greenwell is great as his disapproving sister. Morfydd Clark is good as Beckinsale’s daughter, who should be looking for a suitor of her own. The relationship with Beckinsale and Clark ought to forecast where Love & Friendship is going to end up, but it doesn’t. Stillman doesn’t want any peeking.

Tom Bennett is hilarious as Clark’s suitor, a rich buffoon. Justin Edwards is quietly excellent as Greenwell’s husband.

Sevigny’s perfect in her bemusement.

Love & Friendship is a delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, beauteous, little, grandiose picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Whit Stillman; screenplay by Stillman, based on a novella by Jane Austen; director of photography, Richard Van Oosterhout; edited by Sophie Corra; music by Benjamin Esdraffo; produced by Lauranne Bourrachot, Katie Holly, and Stillman; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Emma Greenwell (Catherine Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Kelly Campbell (Mrs Cross), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring), and Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson).


Alice in Wonderland (2010, Tim Burton)

Alice in Wonderland has a number of balls in the air at once and director Burton–though he does show a good sense of them each while in focus–can’t seem to bring them together successfully. The potentially unifying elements–like Danny Elfman’s score or Mia Wasikowska in the lead–both fall short. For whatever reason, Burton doesn’t have Elfman design the score to be memorable; even when it’s competent, it just reminds of better Danny Elfman scores. As for Wasikowska, who’s utterly phenomenal whether she’s in nineteenth century England or the titular Wonderland, the film loses her too often.

And that loss of Wasikowska, even though it’s always to bring in the assorted cast of Wonderland, kills the film’s momentum. Alice has a very standard plot–Wasikowska has an unpleasant future waiting for her in reality, will her experiences in Wonderland somehow edify and empower her to deal with them? Even though it’s Alice in Wonderland, it often feels like Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton wish they were making Dorothy in Oz.

But when Wasikowska is on screen, she’s able to sell Wonderland’s generic journey. She’s got able assistance too. Johnny Depp turns the Mad Hatter into a wonderful character, acting against his makeup, and Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic as the Red Queen. Both Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover are painfully affected but they’re always opposite someone great so it doesn’t matter too much.

Wonderland’s a moderate success, but should have been a much greater one.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on novels by Lewis Carroll; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Mia Wasikowska (Alice Kingsleigh), Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Crispin Glover (Stayne), Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Timothy Spall (Bayard the Bloodhound), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Barbara Windsor (Dormouse) and Alan Rickman (Absolem the Caterpillar).


Super Clyde (2013, Michael Fresco)

The worst thing about Super Clyde is the blandness. For a while, it seems like Gregory Thomas Garcia can’t figure out how to make fat jokes and be sympathetic–he has to do it cheaply in the end–but there’s nothing to it.

Rupert Grint is geeky in the lead. He’s a geeky red-haired twenty-something who’s weird. It’s awful. He has two annoying siblings–Tyler Labine and Justine Lupe; they’re supposed to be nouveau riche dipsticks (more Lapine and Lupe, but still her too). Grint wants to do something significant with his new wealth.

Enter a bored Stephen Fry as Alfred to his Bruce Wayne.

The comic book influences–even though it doesn’t seem like anyone in the set decorating department paid attention to the references in Garcia’s script–are kind of neat. But they’re a lot more playful than the show itself.

It’s lame stuff. Real lame.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Fresco; written by Gregory Thomas Garcia; director of photography, Sharone Meir; edited by William Marrinson; music by Danny Lux and Matt Mariano; production designer, John Zachary; released by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Rupert Grint (Clyde), Stephen Fry (Randolph), Tyler Labine (Duke), Justine Lupe (Faith), Laura Ortiz (Jolene) and Carla Jimenez (Adriana).


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, Guy Ritchie)

I think Guy Ritchie has to be the last blockbuster director who still likes bullet time. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has so much bullet time, one would think it’s from the late nineties. Sometimes Ritchie uses it pointlessly–there are some fight scenes with it and it doesn’t work so well. In contrast, Ritchie also does an action sequence in profile without bullet time and it works much better.

The one time the bullet time is awesome is when Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (and their gypsy sidekicks) are on the run from some mechanized artillery. Ritchie and his effects people show the weapons working in (digitized) close detail, then zooming back (digitally) to show their effect. Sherlock is supposed to be a blockbuster… not sure having some amazing realization of historical weapons–for a limited audience–is the way to go.

The film’s a very long two hours. The story itself doesn’t fully get moving until about forty minutes into the picture, when Downey first meets arch villain Jared Harris. It gets boring at times, even showing signs subplots got the axe, but it’s always amiable.

Downey’s excellent, Law’s funny and Ritchie, except indulging a little much, does all right.

Noomi Rapace is nothing special as their sidekick, but Stephen Fry’s hilarious in a smaller role and Rachel McAdams is pleasant. Paul Anderson does well as another villain.

Once again, against the odds (and itself) a Sherlock outing proves to be a diverting motion picture experience.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Ritchie; screenplay by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle; director of photography, Philippe Rousselot; edited by James Herbert; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Sarah Greenwood; produced by Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey and Dan Lin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr. John Watson), Noomi Rapace (Madam Simza Heron), Jared Harris (Professor James Moriarty), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Kelly Reilly (Mary Watson), Stephen Fry (Mycroft Holmes), Paul Anderson (Colonel Sebastian Moran), Thierry Neuvic (Claude Ravache), Geraldine James (Mrs. Hudson) and Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler).


V for Vendetta (2005, James McTeigue)

V for Vendetta is a film made by Americans about London. I mean, I can see how it’s all right, given it’s a big budget nonsense blockbuster, but there’s something so incredibly lame in the last scene of the film–I’m going to ruin it for you–the dead people, those murdered by the evil British state, are all united with the living people as the events of the film lead them into some glorious new future. Or some nonsense.

It’s obvious and lame. The scene could have been shot so it wouldn’t have been noticeable, possibly even have been subtle… instead, it’s like the end of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang but without the joke.

There’s a lot of okay stuff about the film. Natalie Portman isn’t terrible. She isn’t any good, but she isn’t terrible. Rose Byrne would have done a great job (a rewrite would have helped too). Stephen Rea and Stephen Fry are both fantastic. John Hurt is fine. Rupert Graves is good. I’m not sure why Hugo Weaving got the part of the titular character, since it’d have been a stuntman for most of it and there’s a mask and no performance, but whatever. His voice acting is clearly dubbed in, regardless of whether he had to wear a stifling outfit.

The script’s got some awful moments–as a police procedural starring Rea in the lead, it would have been great. McTeigue’s occasionally okay. The visual style is all flash, no substance.

It’s really quite bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James McTeigue; written by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, based on the comic book by Alan Moore and David Lloyd; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Dario Marianelli; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by Joel Silver, Grant Hill and Lilly and Lana Wachowski; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Natalie Portman (Evey), Hugo Weaving (V), Stephen Rea (Inspector Finch), Stephen Fry (Deitrich), John Hurt (Adam Sutler), Tim Pigott-Smith (Creedy), Rupert Graves (Dominic), Roger Allam (Lewis Prothero), Ben Miles (Dascomb), Sinéad Cusack (Delia Surridge), Natasha Wightman (Valerie), John Standing (Lilliman) and Eddie Marsan (Etheridge).


The Magic Flute (2006, Kenneth Branagh)

With the exception of The Tales of Hoffmann, I’m not really familiar with any other efforts to adapt an opera to film. I guess there are those Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptations (right?), but I don’t think of them in the same sense–the artistic one. Branagh’s The Magic Flute has more in common with his Hamlet then it does Hoffmann (and, I imagine, Phantom of the Opera).

Branagh sets his adaptation in a World War I setting–there are similar uniforms and trench warfare–to fine effect. The film opens with Branagh going wild with CG–something he does later–but he does it well. The film requires an indulgent suspension of disbelief immediately and it’s hard to get upset about the little CG butterfly. But after this strong opening, in the first act section, The Magic Flute falters.

Technically, the section is solid and all the singing is good. But the film introduces way too many characters in way too little time. Worse, the film takes a backseat to the concept here–the singers have English lines, but it’s frequently impossible to understand them. Whether or not any important narrative information is being conveyed doesn’t really matter–the impression exists, so it’s hard not to feel like one’s missing something. It isn’t just the unintelligibility, it’s also the way Branagh structures the first act. The Magic Flute feels very much like a gimmick–a filmed opera with CG; there’s technical competence–technical excellence, really–but without any visible artistic impulse.

Until the big trick.

I’m not sure it is a trick–I browsed the opera’s page on wikipedia but didn’t look too close–I might have just missed something. But there’s a reveal about halfway through the film, a little earlier, and immediately, everything changes.

Without trying to get through exposition–an impossible task given the storytelling techniques–Branagh and his cast get to immerse themselves in the material. It all gets very simple and very predictable and joyous to watch.

As the leads, Joseph Kaiser and Amy Carson have incredible chemistry, though the majority of their scenes are apart. Renè Pape is spectacular–he might have some of the best scenes. Benjamin Jay Davis, in the comedic sidekick role, gets grating rather fast. All of the singing is good, like I said before, as is the straight dialogue delivery.

That dialogue confused me, since I always thought operas were all singing, no dialogue. Here Branagh uses the dialogue sparingly and only in essential scenes. But there is one section at the end when I got impatient waiting for people to start singing again.

The Magic Flute has an iffy opening, a great middle and a long close. Not being familiar the opera, I don’t know if Branagh cut anything, but he should have done something with the ending. There are two or three false endings. Though they tie up all the subplot threads, the subplots aren’t important anymore after the big finish.

It’s hard to describe the middle of the film’s accomplishment; usually, artistry doesn’t show up late. It’s either present or not. But The Magic Flute is a different situation.

A lot of it is probably Branagh’s best work as a director–and it reminded me not to discount him.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Branagh and Stephen Fry, adapted for the screen by Branagh, English liberetto and dialogue by Fry, based on the opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, liberetto by Emanuel Schikaneder; director of photography, Roger Lanser; edited by Michael Parker; production designer, Tim Harvey; produced by Pierre-Olivier Bardet and Simon Moseley; released by Les Films du Losange.

Starring Joseph Kaiser (Tamino), Amy Carson (Pamina), René Pape (Sarastro), Lyubov Petrova (Queen of the Night), Benjamin Jay Davis (Papageno), Silvia Moi (Papagena), Tom Randle (Monostatos), Ben Uttley (Priest) and Teuta Koço (First Lady).


A Civil Action (1998, Steven Zaillian)

A Civil Action is somewhere in between a modestly budgeted Hollywood drama (you know, the kind they don’t make anymore unless it’s for Oscar season) and a wildly passionate–well, not art film, but it’s certainly something else. Steven Zaillian casts the film with a knowing grown-up indie eye (William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya playing a villain almost on par with Blood Simple, and James Gandolfini) but he tells the story in a truly (as truly as possible for the 1990s) filmic fashion. Sure, John Travolta’s reformed ambulance chaser is the film’s main character, but Zaillian concerns himself and the audience with the surrounding characters throughout. Even the film’s antagonist, Robert Duvall, is given some wonderfully engaging material. While Travolta’s lawyer learns, through the process of the film, to value the pursuit for the truth over the cynical dismissal of it, Zaillian never does–the film’s passionate about it’s content, totally sure of all its moves, but all of these moves are precisely calculated for an effect. They’re well-executed, well-conceived, but there’s nothing in A Civil Action I found magical. It’s a true story in that real sense. While Zaillian can do the great comedic bit of the bank manager thinking bankrupt Macy has got a gun, he can’t find a way to lie to the viewer. There’s no wool to A Civil Action–it’s an example of what Hollywood filmmaking has been doing well since 1924 or whatnot. Proof the recipe and casserole dish aren’t broken.

The problem with the film is the ingredients. It’s not a movie. Not a dramatizable film. Zaillian’s apparently not willing to sell out the truth to package it into something consumable. To some degree, he could have made A Civil Action a more satisfying tale about Travolta’s redemptive change, but it’s not about that change. It is a little, but it’s mostly not. He could have made the trial more thrilling, maybe made John Lithgow’s judge a little more treacherous, maybe made Duvall’s lawyer corrupt. Something. The experience of watching the film is incredibly satisfying and filling, but only because of how Zaillian tells his story. For example, he never gives the audience a shot of the redeemed Travolta. Instead, he leaves the audience off-balance, not stumbling, but certainly not on solid ground.

All of the acting in the film is excellent, with Gandolfini probably getting the best role. Macy’s got some good stuff to do, so does Duvall, but it’s really all Gandolfini in terms of depth. Travolta’s performance is a little perplexing–to some extent, he’s doing the Travolta thing (that Travolta used to be able to do), but he’s expanding on it, much in the self-refrential manner of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, but more significant success.

The film’s probably not challenging to watch, but fully appreciating it requires a certain confidence in what Zaillian’s doing. Zaillian doesn’t start doing it right away–he obviously didn’t want moviegoers to get up and leave in droves–but, quite analogously, around the time Travolta accepts the case, the viewer has to accept the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Zaillian; screenplay by Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford and Rachel Pfeffer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Peter Jacobson (Neil Jacobs), Mary Mara (Kathy Boyer), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Stephen Fry (Pinder), John Lithgow (Judge Skinner), Dan Hedaya (John Riley) and Sydney Pollack (Al Eustis).


Cold Comfort Farm (1995, John Schlesinger)

Do the Brits have any major film movement? In the 1920s, the Germans had the expressionist movement. In the (what?) 1960s, there was the French New Wave. In addition to contributing more Greenhouse Effect-causing pollutants to the atmosphere, the United States has perfected the over-produced blockbuster. The British, however, have never really had a movement. There are some great (and good) British filmmakers, but the Archers never caused a revolution…

Cold Comfort Farm has no distinct style. It’s inoffensively directed, with a poor narrative structure, and some decent performances. It might be–obviously silly ones aside–Kate Beckinsale’s worst performance, because her character is as flat as an LCD screen. Rufus Sewell (whatever happened to him?) turns up with a similarly depth-less character. On the other hand, Ian McKellen has a lot of fun with his character. I always find it amusing when Ian McKellen’s good, since he’s since become such a ham (thanks, in no small part, to Bryan Singer).

So, while British cinema seems to lack any spectacular definition, Britain itself certainly contains quite a bit. There’s something charming about the British countryside, it’s a very definite setting and very obvious. Batman Begins used a British manor for an American mansion, something quite impossible. See, I’m even using words like “quite” and “definite.” That’s a bit of the problem with Cold Comfort Farm, it tries really damn hard to be charming. Even the theme. I listen to the theme and think, how charming. But that’s because of the theme, not because it’s the Cold Comfort Farm music.

Beckinsale improves (somewhat) throughout the picture, but she’s miscast. There’s no mischievousness, not even the hint of it, and the character needs some. Without it, she’s boring (and wholly unaffected by the momentous changes–though for good–she’s causing in people’s lives).

In the end, Cold Comfort left a defining plot thread undefined, something that gets it brownie points, but not enough to really change my opinion of it. Damn nice music though and British countryside. Shame about their cinematic output.

I realized, during the film, Britain’s best efforts seem to be in television, not film. Makes you wonder what PBS could do if nitwits weren’t trying to kneecap it.

Still, Cold Comfort is one of the last undefined films… Made in 1995, I don’t watch and think about that production date, something hard to do with current film output. Hmm. Maybe not “one of the last,” but certainly a fine example of an undated film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Schlesinger; written by Malcolm Bradbury, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons; director of photography, Chris Seager; edited by Mark Day; music by Robert Lockhart; production designer, Malcolm Thornton; produced by Richard Broke and Antony Root; released by Gramercy Pictures.

Starring Kate Beckinsale (Flora Poste), Joanna Lumley (Mrs. Smiling), Rufus Sewell (Seth), Ian McKellen (Amos Starkadder), Stephen Fry (Mybug), Eileen Atkins (Judith Starkadder), Sheila Burrell (Ada Doom), Freddie Jones (Adam Lambsbreath) and Maria Miles (Elfine).


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