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Monday, February 8, 2010

Reviews: Bright Star, Lorna's Silence, Whip It

A Woman's World

Due to the critical success of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), the awards/box office success of Sandra Bullock, and the prominence of films like Precious and An Education in the Oscar race, 2009 has been widely touted as a step forward for women.

I've recently caught up with three 2009 films that focus on women, 2 of which are my women directors. While these 3 films got almost no Oscar attention (despite one costume nod), what do they have to add to this conversation?

Bright Star (2009)

Director Jane Campion's Bright Star tells the story of the romance between Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, his neighbor who falls quickly in love with both this young artist and his poetry. This movie is nothing if not a poem of its own. It's filled with images that suggest poetry and metaphor. Some of my favorites include Fanny and John communicating through a wall, Fanny and her young sister creating a roomful of butterflies, and John Keats lying in the top of a tree. Along with these gorgeously photographed images is a beautiful score and the best costumes I've seen in a long time. The costumes aren't superfluous either. Designing clothes is young Fanny's artistic endeavor, and the movie takes it seriously as the way she contributes beauty to the world.

This movie belongs to Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne. In a movie with, it might be said, a rather slight plot, her emotional transformation takes center stage. She begins the movie young, sarcastic, and hostile to poetry. As she falls in love with John, we can see her entire being opening up. Ben Whishaw (one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There) is also very good as Keats, although his performance does not require as much transformation. I also loved Paul Schneider in his supporting role as Charles Brown, Keats' poet friend who is possessive of his friend's artistic integrity in the face of love.

As in her landmark film The Piano (1993), Campion has the courage to tell her tale firmly from the female perspective. She also uses every aspect of the film to suggest the emotional undercurrent. If you require a movie with a lot of plot or high drama, this is probably not one for you to see. It took me perhaps the first 20 minutes or so to really get into the mood and style of the story. Looking back, though, the emotional content of the movie comes through clearly, and I would love to watch its images and story again.

Grade: A-

Lorna's Silence (2009)

The Dardenne brothers, from Belgium, specialize in a hyper-realistic style of movie about those who live on the margins in modern-day Europe. Lorna's Silence follows this pattern. The movie details the life of Lorna, an Albanian woman living in Belgium who wants to open her own snack bar. With the help of local mobsters, she agrees to marry a Belgian drug addict to get citizenship. Then, in turn, she can marry a Russian who wants his own citizenship.

The first half of the movie follows Lorna's relationship with Claudy, the drug addict. What starts as a business transaction morphs into something else, a way for her to help someone in need. This section of the movie is quite good. I fully bought the developing relationship between the two and wanted to follow these two wherever they would go.

The film takes a turn towards another direction about halfway through. I found this turn to significantly decrease my engagement in the movie. That said, the movie does recover for a very powerful ending that is can be construed as both a triumph for Lorna and incredibly sad. The movie is worth seeing, but if you are looking for a good introduction to the Dardenne brothers, I recommend their movie La Promesse (1996). I saw it more than 10 years ago, and I can still remember its power.

Grade: B-

Whip It(2009)

The directorial debut of....wait for it.... Drew Barrymore is an exercise in girl power. And really, there's not better place for girl power than in the world of roller derby. Ellen Page plays Bliss, a Texas teenager whose mom (Marcia Gay Harden) wants her to win beauty pageants. On a trip to Austin, she discovers roller derby, fakes her age, and signs up.

The movie is very similar to other movies you've seen where young people follow their passions against the will of their parents (Bend it Like Beckham specifically comes to mind). From the first half hour, you could probably predict about 3/4 of what is to come in the movie. Nonetheless, the actors do their best to enliven the precedings. Page is good, and I especially liked Marcia Gay Harden as her mother. She is able to bring some sympathy to a role that would be easy to caricature. I also liked Kristen Wigg as a motherly figure on the roller derby team, and Juliette Lewis as a rival roller girl (put her in more movies please!). The movie is marred by one of the most inane love stories I've seen in a long time, complete with a terrible love scene set in a pool.

Should you see it? If you go in with low expectations, there are some fun moments and the cast gives it their best shot. But there are also a lot more movies that are more worth your time. Sorry Drew, but based on this film, a great director you are not.

Grade: C

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