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Laura Blum

Michael Powell's Stiff Upper Lip

You loved The Red Shoes. Black Narcissus almost made you become a nun. And, if you're like me, Stairway to Heaven is among your all time favorite movies. But have you ever seen a shot of their prodigious co-creator, director Michael Powell? Director Michael Powell

I hadn't until yesterday, when I ventured down to MoMA and caught the four-part documentary series English director and screenwriter Sally Potter cobbled together for UK's Channel 4 TV: Tears, Laughter, Fear, and Rage.

As le tout New York knows, mid-Manhattan's finest cultural shrine (not counting the penthouse bar at the Peninsula Hotel), is doing a Potter retrospective, and this heirloom from the 1986 hope chest is among the valued goods.

In the production, she asks a smattering of male and female types about lacrimal secretions, eruptions of happiness and other emotional stirrings. And while the eight-year-old boy advocating gender equality for cry babies stole my heart, and my laughter reflex tested positive during the Monty Python clips, it's Michael Powell who left the impression that won't easily be deleted. 

Such a measured soul. Such a force of nature. Those red McIntosh cheeks, those avuncular, crinkled eyes, that slo mo metabolism – that stiff upper lip! You haven't seen anything by Emeric Pressburger's creative collaborator until you've seen him rouse himself, after painstaking internal deliberation, indeed after entire glaciers have melted -- during which you could swear you've actually heard the neurotransmitters Morse Code discrete messages in his brain – and answer the question of whether Brits have stiff upper lips.

As the very dictionary illustration of self-restraint, with not so much as a crease in the skin connecting mouth and nose, the great man finally registers that yes, perhaps, and…he's…still thinking about it.

Watch, Read, Love

When you're in love, so is your bookshelf. One of the many splendors of sharing hearts is sharing recommendations of Great Reads. The mere fact that a title has captured your lover's soul invests it with magical properties often beyond any the actual book itself can reasonably be expected to deliver. No matter, because as long as it's an extension of your union it may as well be your baby, conceived by and in the Kodak Moment image of just you two.

So when a relationship dies, and with it, those cupid-slung lists of must-reads, it's a sad day not just for your love life but for your literary life as well.

All this to say, if you're suffering heartbreak or just between dalliances, don't miss The Pat Tillman Story. What does director Amir Bar-Lev's new documentary about the football star-turned-army corporal who fell to friendly fire have to do with romantic goo?

Emerson. As in Ralph Waldo. America's very own Transcendentalist philosopher, essayist and poet.

You may have read him at gun-point in high school, or even willingly gotten yourself into a college course with him and some of his 19th-century cronies on the syllabus. But you probably couldn't fully embrace him then, not like he deserves to be savored and relished and held to your bosom – as if the very object of your affections turned you on to him.  

Which is exactly what Pat Tillman does in the movie. The guy is so charismatic, so irresistibly adorable and cool, you can't help but fall in love. I defy woman, man or beast to remain impervious to his charms.

So when it comes out that this gravity-scoffing god, this Adonis from a Grecian urn, this Huck Finn of the Western wilds read Emerson, I took it as a personal whispering of sweet somethings: You gotta read Emerson! -- or, say, whatever Bill Clinton's billet-doux exhaled to Monica Lewinsky along with Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

Start maybe with the essay, "Self Reliance."  You know Emerson's general rap about resisting conformity, and will surely recognize the line, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But there's lots more where that came from. And if lately your instinct is telling you something or you've come up with a quirky idea, he's the go-to-guy for reassurance to take these voices seriously. 

Though it's dodgy to quote someone so devoted to self-direction that he shuns quoting, I'm such a fool for his essay, "Compensation," you simply have to have a taste:

"…The good are befriended even by weakness and defect. As no man had ever a point of pride that was not injurious to him, so no man had ever a defect that was not somewhere made useful to him. The stag in the fable admired his horns and blamed his feet, but when the hunter came, his feet saved him, and afterwards, caught in the thicket, his horns destroyed him. Every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults. As no man thoroughly understands a truth until he has contended against it, so no man has a thorough acquaintance with the hindrances or talents of men, until he has suffered from the one, and seen the triumph of the other over his own want of the same. Has he a defect of temper that unfits him to live in society? Thereby he is driven to entertain himself alone, and acquire habits of self-help; and thus, like the wounded oyster, he mends his shell with pearl."

Mends his shell with a pearl! My knees are jello.

But okay, even if you don't Find Waldo, at least check out The Pat Tillman Story. The film's hero may have a ring on his finger -- and he may be quite dead -- but his spirit is guaranteed to steal all but the most helmeted hearts.






From The Film Review Archives: Wah-Wah in The Bush

directed by Richard E. Grant
Ralph Compton, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Zachary Fox, Nicholas Hoult
[Reviewed May 5, 2006]
This semi-autobiographical tale will either remind you of your dysfunctional family or make you thank heaven you didn't have one, but either way the exceptional performances will vie for your heart share.

The long-time actor/first-time director begins his trip down memory lane with tweener Ralph Compton watching his mother bonk his father's best friend. From there the terrain tilts and slopes as mom flees and dad strikes up a volatile affair with the bottle. Set against Swaziland of the late 60s and early 70s, Ralph's happy/sad coming-of-age parallels the last throes of British rule.

What's the worst thing that happened to you as a kid? If you're Richard E. Grant it's a toss-up. Long before launching his name in Withnail and I some two decades ago, the British actor was rehearsing the human comedy in a boyhood wracked with reversals, many of which came from his father's drinking.
By now the subgenre of the alcohol-soaked descent is well known to moviegoers-a loved one, often a parent, heaps domestic abuse and Oscar-worthy emoting ensues. With his affecting visual memoir, Grant puts us through the familiar paces but also takes pains to leaven the despair.
As Wah-Wah begins, birds are circling over the Swazi brush in the shadowy light before dusk. Be worried, the score tells us, the sun is setting on Empire and independence remains an unknown. A car wends its way through the brush toward the scene of a trauma that will shatter 11-year old Ralph Compton (Fox)'s innocence and set in motion his struggle for sovereignty. Powerless from his backseat perch, Ralph is literally rocked by his mother, Lauren (Richardson)'s adultery and subsequent walkout on him and his father Harry Compton (Byrne), the colony's Minister of Education. As if these twin blows aren't enough for the introductory scenes, he's shipped off to boarding school and out of his heartsick dad's loving care.
Understandable, then, that Ralph somatizes stress in a silent roar, a tic that absorbs the shock of forces he can't control. This being 1969, he takes refuge in a world of puppets rather than pop an SSR. Will this vulnerable youth retreat into fantasy to have his own say or find his voice building intimacy?
It's a question that follows 14-year old Ralph (now played by Hoult) upon his return to find his father both married and an alcoholic. Former air hostess Ruby (Emily Watson), the new mother, gets an ambivalent hello, but soon wins Ralph over with her rebellious, egalitarian spirit. She's among the few straight-talkers in this overripe British outpost, where the "snooty baby talk" sounds like so much Wah-Wah to her American ears.
Leave it to a thespian to draw outstanding performances from his cast. Watson's mimicry of the Colonial upper crust is both on the money and good for some laughs, and her accent is nasally perfect. (Grant's wife was her vocal coach.) Given that Ralph is in virtually every scene, it's not hard to see why Grant held out for Hoult, who's had quite a spurt since About a Boy and The Weather Man and who nails the boy's psychic intensity.
Stepmother and son will further bond in mutual protection against Harry's off-character boozy rages. The movie's power, which smacks you in the gut, derives from this take on emotional violence as only half of the aggressor's truth and not to be confused with the loving soul allowed out by day when the demon possessor sleeps. Why on earth, you might wonder, wouldn't Ruby immediately bolt? — until Byrne reminds us in a career-crowing performance that Harry's as charming and decent in his sobriety as he is wrenching and ruinous on a bender.
Wah-Wah's boldest suggestion is that Ralph's emergence into manhood was accelerated on a night when his sloshed father pulled a gun on him. Harry will again bring Ralph closer to his essential self in a climactic — and historically accurate — confession later on. Just as in real life, Grant's alter-ego reacts to plot points of his father's doing. But is this any way to treat a movie protagonist?

As the narrative advances Ralph's coming-of-age cedes important ground to the unrequited love story of Harry Compton. What the audience starts to surmise is that such digressions are the scenic route through a personal past and not the express lane to dramatic story. Art so imitates life in Wah-Wah it sometimes verges on role-play.
The "write what you know" approach is more easily pulled off in the film's comedic scenes. Grant brings a wry sense of humor to the local expatriate fauna he knows all too well, and invites us to snicker at these incestuous hypocrites milling about in dapper white. But we also get a glimpse of their warmer colors as they mourn the impending loss of their African home and stage a production of Camelot for the new Swazi nation.

Celia Imri stretches the snobbery of High Commissioner's wife more than you'd credibly accept-research notwithstanding-but even she tries humility at Union Jack's end. An earthier, more huggable character is Gwen Traherne, the dumped spouse of Lauren's lover whom Julie Waters plays with big-hearted relish.
Miranda Richardson's Lauren, on the other hand, earns hardly a trace of our sympathy. Perhaps if we knew her better we'd applaud her for following her heart. Instead, her coming and going plays like pure selfishness, a charge which gathers weight even when the evidence isn't there.
Fans of nostalgia will appreciate the balance Grant struck between succulent social pokes and knock down, drag out dread. Greater cynics may deem the merry-making too obvious a thank you for feeling his pain. But what the hell?--there's nothing like a little happy kitsch to loosen the sphincter.
A quick note on tech credits before we go "toodle pip": Bravo to Gary Williamson and Sheena Napier, whose production design and costumes capture the era with lively panache. Patrick Doyle's score aptly charts the film's topography of moods, and Pierre Aïm's cinematography does a dazzling job of contrasting the inbred culture with the natural terrain. Whisky clear editing by Isabelle Dedieu keeps us trained on Ralph's point of view despite the script's shifting focus.
All in all, did Grant make you well up? If you're open to what goes on behind many closed doors, probably so. And that doesn't happen with every movie.

You'll laugh, you'll wah in this sentimental journey through Richard E. Grant's Swaziland boyhood as the son of a raging alcoholic and the narcissist who set him off.

From The Film Review Archives: The Bubble Bursts

directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Debbie Doebereiner, Dustin James Ashley, Kyle Smith, Misty Dawn Wilkins
[Reviewed January 2005]
Bursting open in 32 theaters this weekend, the inaugural film of Soderbergh's six-project deal with Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment will play to empty seats. It will also appear on HDNet Movies twice on opening night, January 27, 2005 at 9:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. ET.

In a move that breaks ground and possibly the theatrical bank, the HDNet Films-produced title (also a 2929 property) will be available on DVD on January 31st, 2006, courtesy of 2929's Magnolia Home Video. And it aired twice on 2929's Hi-Def cable channel, HDNet Movies this Friday.

Bubble isn't Soderbergh's first foray into cutting edge digital filmmaking. Released in 2002, full-of-it Full Frontal was. (His earlier film, Schizopolis, gave hints). Still, there's a swoon to be had in watching an A-list director trapeze from big name projects like Ocean's Eleven, Erin Brockovich and even Traffic to low-wire acts with a non-professional cast.

The movie begins with a shovel scooping earth by a cemetery. One murder and 90 minutes later, shoveling bookends the story. In his 15th film and second collaboration with screenwriter Coleman Hough, director Soderbergh suggests how, ashes to ashes, some of us fall down. Whodunnit isn't the issue. It's rather the whatdunnit that fills the frames.

As the title implicates, the real culprit here may be the insulation that small town modernity imposes on its inhabitants until they implode. For Martha (Doebereiner), a plus-size Midwesterner whose idea of "fun" and a nice way to "spend time" with someone is moonlight sewing as dad vegetates in front of the TV, the popping point came without her even knowing it.

Stuck with diminishing prospects of ever marrying, having a family or leaving the doll factory where she's spent years plasticizing humanity, our brave anti-heroine catches pleasure where catch can—in calories, in small kindnesses toward coworker Kyle (Ashley) and in a subhuman regime of denial.

Martha may complain she's "ready to get out of this area" since "there's nothing here" and "you can't make money in this joint," but her pact with mediocrity seems sealed. We don't exactly expect she'll be having sex in the city by Act III. Into this depressing breach steps a stranger...

Enter Rose (Wilkins), a rose by no other name. A single mom and a babe, this maven of airbrushing scatters Kyle's fog at first site. As Rose wedges in on Martha and Kyle's friendship, her sly manipulations flag the third wheel's concern. Rose may share Martha's struggles and disappointments, but something in the way the younger woman presses her advantage and dismisses her daughter's father as "just another bad decision" alerts Martha that this woman is angry, entitled and out to get what she wants at anyone's expense.

In fact, we see Rose do some not very nice things. She steals Kyle's savings, her motive for going out with him; she throws her date some weed as a sop, which she may have stolen from her enraged ex (Smith) along with his money. And she humiliates Martha, first in not telling her that Kyle was her date–the reason for having Martha babysit—next in making her feel invisible and ultimately in making a cruel mockery of Martha's attempt to establish connection.

When Rose is found strangled in her apartment the next morning, an investigation gets underway. To Soderbergh's great credit, we grill each of the suspects and replay their potential motives even after we're assured that Martha must be the killer.

Peter Andrews' digital camera lets us in on the reactions of each character, and jiggles our expectations of whom to stare down. Though occasionally off, the first-time actors mostly play American Gothic in a refreshingly understated and believable key. The you-are-there pacing further adds to the verité feel.

In what may be the most subtle climax in the annals of murder mystery, Martha simply has a flashback of her deed. Her membrane thus lifted, she's now free to reflect on her conscious and unconscious choices and ply her loneliness for answers. Jail bars or the isolation of self, choose your bubble.

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