Friday, February 20, 2015

Effie Gray Movie Review: Fifty Shades Of 'Gray' ? Male Sexual Cruelty On Screen

While there may be a never ending procession of movies in theaters about artists throughout history having to suffer for their art, rarely are there sightings of the women in their lives made to suffer too. Often at the hands of highly creative but beastly mates, when it comes to the treatment of their female significant others.

Not that this reality is in any way a relic of the past. Men who are artistically inclined seem to be given a pass when it comes to the treatment of females. And most notably today in the ho hum attitude towards dubious distinguished dabblers in the arts like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.

Of course the opposing argument can be made that art should be separated from personality, however repulsive - or the dastardly deeds of its creators. But an ironic spotlight on the women they've abused historically while being showered with nonjudgmental accolades, might be welcome for a change as well, in movies.

And such could not be more the case than the splendid, lyrically and gracefully crafted and visually sumptuous as art in its own right, period biopic Effie Gray. Written by, co-starring and conceived with uncommon female sensibility by esteemed actress Emma Thompson, Effie Gray exquisitely places front and center this Victorian era woman (played by Dakota Fanning) who endured in emotionally imprisoned, sexless slave marital bondage, a union with the eminently talented but odious John Ruskin. In other words, a different Dakota's Fifty Shades Of 'Gray'?

Ruskin, played with supremely insufferable disdain by Greg Wise, was the leading 19th century English art critic and a prominent painter. He married Euphemia 'Effie' Gray, a provincial young Scottish woman and the child of a family friend residing in a former Ruskin residence. And oddly or rather perversely enough, herself born in the very room where Ruskin's grandfather committed suicide.

But Effie's giddy romantic notions soon turn to perpetual gloom, when Ruskin is filled with disgust on their wedding night by her exposed female body for the first time. Heartbroken but imprisoned in a marriage she cannot escape without scandal - not to mention that the union had been irrevocably sealed economically by her debt ridden family because Ruskin agreed to support them financially, which would then be terminated by divorce - Effie hopelessly suffers through this unconsummated marriage for half a dozen years. Which is further exacerbated by Ruskin's overbearing, contemptuous mother, played with elegant cruelty by Julie Walters.

But Effie finally gathers the courage to defy the oppressive dire circumstances of the day faced by Victorian women, through her friendship and support from a fiercely liberated confidante, Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson). All of which lends a novel historical notion to those many idealistically conceived visions of women in paintings back then, including Effie who herself often served as a model - that they were not only frozen in those frames, but locked up in their own lives as well. Or as becomes evident in the course of this visually resonant film in its own right and in Ruskin's own words, that rather than a beloved human mate 'consider me the luckiest of mortals, granted a muse.'

And though there could have been more deciphering and depth to Ruskin's character rather than bordering on a stick figure emotional villain - in contrast to Effie's vividly fleshed out portrait - some mysterious intimations linger throughout that he may have been a homosexual resentfully locked in a Victorian closet himself. Though the record beyond this film may speak otherwise, and suggest pedophilia instead. With some evidence that Ruskin first became infatuated with Effie when she was around eleven years old - and he in fact wrote a fantasy novel for her at the time, The King Of The Golden River.

And years after their divorce (whose records indicated physical disgust for her, and possibly upon the sight of her pubic hair) at the age of 39, Ruskin became smitten with another child, ten year old Rose La Touche. And when her family refused his request to marry her eventually, Ruskin suffered a series of mental breakdowns. Subsequently stricken with hallucinations after Rose's untimely death, which he obsessively experienced as conversations with the deceased object of desire.

And quite interestingly as a side issue to the film, is that the Ruskin scandalous divorce proceedings are said to have contributed to the now well entrenched perception of suppressed Victorian sexuality that precipitated the entire subsequent Freudian cottage industry direction of psychiatry. Yet a possibly wrongheaded perception, that could have been pedophilia suppression instead.

And in keeping with Thompson's breathlessly captured moments, however fleeting in some cases, is Effie's exchange with the Ruskin household butler George (Russell Tovey) before she effects her elaborate escape forever from her emotional incarceration there. Recognizing her secretive flight, he confides that his name is not really George, but rather John. And that Ruskin made him call himself George instead, because his imperious employer would not tolerate another John on the premises.

And the now defiant and enlightened Effie when George says he didn't mind, declares in a luminous moment of shared class and gender awakened solidarity, 'You should have minded - he took away your name.' As Ruskin did in marriage, taking away as with George, not only her name but her humanity.

And as an upbeat footnote beyond the solemn proceedings of the film, Effie Gray after fleeing her suffocating circumstances, eventually married Ruskin protege painter John Everett Millais. Who was not horrified by her body, and with whom she eventually bore eight children.

Emma Thompson, you rock.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Gemma Bovery Review: A Feminized Flaubert And Objectified Male In The Buff

A sort of satirically laced literary pseudo-biopic, French writer/director Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery may very well be posing the question, what if Madame Bovary had been written from a woman's point of view instead. Though this somewhat lunatic provincial romp playing out in the present seems to have more to do with an idealized sense of existence lived within the unbridled male imagination that literary obsession might lead to, as opposed to being anchored in the real world.

In a tall tale romance with possibly no less than four infatuated males crowded into a single love triangle, Fabrice Luchini is Joubert, a despondent countryside baker in a region where wine is apparently deemed the local anti-depressant. Having bolted from Paris with his wife and son to rustic Normandy after ditching a vocation for a publishing house annotating university papers 'that nobody will ever read,' Joubert doesn't exactly discover a sought after serenity in taking over his father's town bakery.

On the other hand, his new relationship making bread and exploring a novel sensuous connection between flour and flesh, and exacerbated by his hopeless fixation on Madame Bovary, bodes ill when a new and fetching British neighbor (Gemma Arterton) turns up with the uncanny name Gemma Bovery. Not to mention Flaubert having written the novel right there in the 19th century.

Which eventually evolves into the silently smitten Joubert leading an alternate double life between baker and lurker. And stalking his often imaginary object of literary desire, while eluding her clueless artisan spouse (Jason Flemyng) and a seductive law school matriculated boy toy (Niels Schneider) holed up in a local castle. And ultimately in a sense, an intertwining of this fanciful fable with the radically revised novel running all around inside this Flaubert impersonator's borderline hallucinatory head.

This is Arterton's second venture into graphic novel screen stardom, following Stephen Frears' Tamara Drewe in 2010, and with Gemme Bovery adapted from the likewise female perspective penned by Posy Simmonds in both works. And the concoction however pensive, is a delightful blend of magic and buffoonery. Not to mention a film finally where in sex scenes the woman gets to keep some clothes on, while the male is consigned to prancing around in the objectified buff.

Prairie Miller

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Lesson Review: Bulgaria/Greece Dramatic Co-Production A Class Act On Toxic Neo-Colonialism

Economic crisis cinema in these unrelenting hard times, even when simply subtextual to larger themes, has mushroomed as we've observed, into somewhat of a genre in its own right in this country. But European cinema may be catching up these days with their own end stage capitalism mass misery. And the Bulgarian combo domestic drama/moral thriller The Lesson [Urok] as revelation raises those bitter stakes with its post-Soviet, been there done that reverse requiem of despair under the domination of the dollar, kicking in as well.

And with much more than just classroom lessons to be learned, or maybe not, in the solemn and disturbing The Lesson. And like many other post-USSR films preceding this one edging back down memory lane, and possibly playing out as a kind of second thoughts cinema evolving across Eastern Europe ever since then.

That is, seemingly spontaneously precipitated as sobering reflection since the overthrow of the Soviet Union twenty-five years ago - and Eastern Europe turned into a vast, occupied US/Nato military parking lot. And that The Lesson is a Bulgarian co-production with a Greece currently in mass uprising, may in a more immediate economic and sociopolitical hindsight sense, be no mere coincidence.

Nade [Margita Gosheva] is a middle class mother and teacher of preteens, and reluctant family breadwinner married to a slacker spouse. Silently resigned to her fate and struggling to make ends meet translating documents into English for a company that keeps making excuses not to pay her, Nade is likewise an English language teacher - and in a telling narrative thread under the increasing Americanization under the basically unannounced occupation of that country.

While concurrent US values seem to have seeped into the culture as well, epitomized in the new predatory money lust and ruthless greed under the establishment of capitalism. And epitomized in a classroom incident that infuriates the normally passive Nade, when one student steal another's wallet and refuses to confess. Nor does anyone in the class seem to care, or offer witness testimony.

And as a woman who appears to still be imbued with the ethical sense of collective unity under socialism, a frustrated Nade insists that everyone among these indifferent students contribute a portion of their own money to the victim, to compensate for what was stolen. But even this mandatory gesture fails to comfort the teacher, who remains distraught and fixated on this troubling lack of humanity evidently afflicting the next generation.

But Nade is soon caught up in her own personal victimhood, when threatened with eviction and the auctioning of her home within a day for lack of payments to the bank in question. Thus begins a terrifying race against the clock alternately sorrowful and suspenseful quest. And at one point leading Nade in desperation to beg strangers on the street for money, and then reluctantly rolling up her sleeves and scooping coins out of a park fountain so she might run to the bank and avert the eviction within minutes of closing time. Though her troubles are apparently just beginning, as Nade herself is dragged down the rabbit hole of debasement and demoralization.

The Lesson is as potent and gripping in its own way, as the iconic, trailblazing race against the clock 1950 noir D.O.A., as visited upon Edmond O'Brien's Frank Bigelow. But while D.O.A. involved an actual toxin that is frantically confronted, this bleak film's poison is more metaphorical as a component of perplexing survival, though no less penetrating and potentially irreversible - capitalism and socioeconomic corruption of the soul, despite one's best intentions.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Sundance 2015 Wrap-Up Report: Taking On Scientology At Sundance

**Going Clear At Sundance: The Real Deal On What's Going Down Behind Scientology's Secretive Doors. In his Sundance 2015 Wrap-Up Report, Indiewire chief critic Eric Kohn phones in to Arts Express on location in Utah at the Film Festival. With a look at the most controversial entry there, Alex Gibney's Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief. And how the Scientology cult has been intimidating film critics including Kohn, who dare to report on the documentary's exposure of member manipulation, physical abuse, and torture connected to a space deep within their fortresses - notoriously known as The Hole. While HBO has lawyered up with 160 attorneys in anticipation of doing legal battle with Scientology when they air the film. And, other Festival highlights ranging from white supremacy to the Black Lives Matter movement; the influence of Hollywood at Sundance when it comes to creative impulses versus creative control; and what audiences can look forward to  - or shouldn't -  from these Festival debuts during the coming year at the movies.

Listen To The Show Here

**The Devil's Violinist: Musician and solo performer David Garrett is on the line from LA to talk about his role as 19th century daring innovative rebel musician Niccolo Paganini in this biopic. A celebrity violinist himself, Garrett discusses becoming Paganini in every sense, emotionally and musically; marrying in his own crossover compositions classical and contemporary music; and who exactly is that violinist's devil and does he exist as well today.

**The Working Actor Studio: Jack Shalom in a conversation with Working Actor Studio director, Betsy Daly, about meeting the economic and artistic challenges facing struggling, aspiring actors today. And developing the necessary dramatic skills and tools there, including workshops in improv, scene study and musical theater. And, something rather intriguing known as stage combat.

Arts Express, airing on WBAI Radio in NY archived at, and on the Pacifica National Radio Network.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Queen And Country: National Belief System Without A Soul

The second recent movie about making war on Korea and the only one that gets it right without being ridiculous or repugnant - though not without its own satirically sharp observations - is John Boorman's simultaneously bold, bittersweet and elegant Korean War era British screen memoir. Or in other words when it comes to Korea, The Interview, you're no Queen And Country.

The film is adapted from a period in Boorman's own life back in the 1950's, when primarily perplexed young men were begrudgingly conscripted into the army. And to not only unfathomably fight other people's battles in an essentially anti-communist American war in Asia intent on cornering both North Korea and their Red Chinese ally - but to prop up the crumbling British Empire as well, in the distant colonialist realms of Africa and Southeast Asia.

Callum Turner stars as Bill in Queen And Country, a rebellious recruit in league with a rowdy posse on an army base, biding their time with pranks and awkwardly propositioning local women, until such unclear moment when they will be sent into inexplicable battle. Boorman grasps this opportunity to actually mount an incidental battle of his own domestically, ridiculing a military hierarchy ranging from nasty to nonsensical. And pulled off with malevolent glee by the likes of David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant.

And in the midst of the Cold War, Bill's cynical when not irreverent outspoken joint aversion to both 'war and the class system' sends him on a collision course with the military brass, and interrogation by a visiting team from the UK version of the CIA, known as MI5. Which only reinforces his distaste for a national belief system increasingly without a soul.

Boorman, with his incisive analysis of human violence in movies like Deliverance, also brilliantly conjures in a metaphorical narrative thread running through the film, petty, punitive squabbling by the military officers over a stolen clock on the base. Which encapsulates succinctly and rather sadly, the terrible, destructive rationale nations engage in, to perpetuate murderous wars on the planet.

And though Queen And Country never actually proceeds to Korean battlegrounds, there is no need to. As the story evokes the after-effects of the horrors of war right at home - and youth scarred and destroyed psychologically and physically in the process.

And with the title itself reflecting a sorrowful mood of endless and groundless war into the present time. And a confounding lack of confident leadership, conviction or direction, epitomized in the film with the sudden the death of George VI who never actually wanted to be king - and became so unexpectedly following the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII, in 1936. And, ensuing replacement with his daughter Queen Elizabeth, essentially by default.

Along with, in hindsight as a pall cast upon this narrative, that the United States imposed an economic blockade against North Korea these many decades, attempting to starve the country into submission. And perhaps as a vendetta as well, for the US not winning the Korean War. In which the US and its British allies killed one tenth of the population there - 290,000 North Korean soldiers and nearly three million civilians - for perhaps nothing more substantial than possession of a purloined clock.