Almodóvar, Argott, Butterworth, Fellowes, Scorsese

Separate Lies (Julian Fellowes, 2005). Following his Oscar win for scripting Robert Altman’s exemplary Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes made his directorial debut with an adaptation of an an old novel by Nigel Balchin. The film focuses of a busy, distracted solicitor whose marriage begins to fray, a situation compounded when the death of a local man in a hit-and-run car accident brings secrets to light and sets everyone reeling into a series of moral compromises. The stuff of high drama is certainly present in abundance in the story, and with Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett at the head of the cast list, Fellowes has actors skilled enough to make quiet intense emotions into something compelling to watch. The end result is tragically drab, however. It’s a shoulder shrug of a movie right down to its ending which seems to profess complete ambivalence about everything that’s come before.

The Art of the Steal (Don Argott, 2009). Albert C. Barnes was a medical inventor who used the fortune he amassed to become an especially astute art collector, eventually assembling a personal gallery that rivaled that of any museum. Taking a dim view of the established community of elite art connoisseurs, typified for him by the smugly dismissive overseers of the nearby Philadelphia Museum of Art, Barnes displayed the art strictly and solely in his own estate, inviting in only those who he felt were prepared to make a commitment to properly learning about and appreciating it. He stipulated in his will that his collection be maintained in that fashion in perpetuity, a desire that was indeed honored for many years after his death in 1951. Argott’s documentary is about the concerted, almost conspiratorial dismantling of the protections that Barnes put in place for the collection that was his life’s passion. All the evidence is pulled together in compelling fashion as person after person testifies about the betrayal of Barnes’s legacy and wishes. Argott makes the film into the equivalent of a page-turner with each new revelation stirring fresh animosity towards those orchestrating the exploitation of the collection in the name of tourism dollars and transferred prestige. It seems a small matter in the description of it. The most telling measure of Argott’s film is that he manages to make it seem like malfeasance of the highest import.

Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972). Martin’s Scorsese’s second feature directing effort and his claim on being one of the esteemed alumni of Corman University is a wild-eyed romp through the radicalized subculture in 1930s, Depression-dampened America. Barbara Hershey, radiant and ferociously free, plays the title role, an instinctual rule-breaker who gets pulled into all manner of social revolt including some stylish bank robberies undoubtedly intended to evoke a cinematic sensation from a few years earlier. There’s an appealing flintiness to the movie and glimpses of Scorsese’s distinctive filmmaking personality here and there, but nothing that really indicates there’s a burgeoning genius at work here. That particular trumpet blast was still a year away. It’s at least loose and spirited enough to suit its subject.

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar, 2009). Even when he’s floundering a bit, no one produces films that are vividly alive like Pedro Almodóvar does. Broken Embraces is about a filmmaker still coming to terms with a past tragedy and it has a heady dose of meta-commentary embedded within in, most overtly in the film within the film that deliberately echoes the director’s 1988 hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. While ultimately a very different film, it’s difficult to avoid comparisons to Almodóvar’s other recent exercise in inside out filmmaking, the masterful Bad Education. It’s not that Embraces looks bad next to it; it’s that studying the two side by side helps illuminate precisely where the newer film slips off the dolly track. After some zippy introductions, Almodóvar gradually but noticeably stops infusing imagination into his story and starts falling back on rote characterizations, motivations, and developments. It looks great–thanks in no small part to the striking cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto–and Almodóvar is characteristically enlivened by the art of framing an image, but he lacks a similar passion for seeing his story through in a satisfying fashion.

Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth, 2001). There’s a pleasing luridness to this thriller about a lone British bank employee who orders a Russian bride from a sketchy website. Butterworth sets up his various plot details with care, but avoids the common trap of becoming too robotic about it. Everything proceeds with just the right dash of wit, even little laps of satire. It’s not necessarily difficult to see where all this is going to go, but it’s fun watching it get there. It loses some of that electricity as it proceeds, eventually petering down as it seems to run out of ideas, loosing its hold on logic in the process. The closing sequence has a particular sense of surrender about it. There’s no other good ideas so let’s just do this. As the Russian lovely at the center of the story, Nicole Kidman is pretty terrific. This is right in the phase of her career when she could conjure up inventive, unselfconscious performances at the snap of the clapperboard, and this fits in nicely alongside her finest efforts.

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