Saturday, January 26, 2008

Savage Grace

2008 Sundance Film Festival

In 1972, socialite Barbara Daly Baekeland, former Hollywood model and wife of plastics heir Leo Baekland, was murdered in her London home in a well-publicized and shocking story that captured the public’s ever-morbid interest and fascination. The popular book, Savage Grace, was published in 1986, which was the basis for the screenplay and the movie. It’s the tragic tale of social climber who married above her class (Julianne Moore), an insensitive and unloving husband (Stephen Dillane), too much money that they didn’t have to work for and the poor boy who was unfortunate enough to have been born into their family (Eddy Redmayne, who was also in The Yellow Handkerchief, at Sundance this year).

Watching this movie is a painful experience. One reason is that it’s a terrible film. The other is that this is a wretchedly awful family. And from my scant research, it appears that screenwriter Howard Rodman softened the screenplay from the book and reality to make the each of the main characters a little more palatable. The only thing of redeeming value is Julianne Moore’s performance, although it pained me to see her in the role.

If you’re looking for something slow, meandering and depressing that still manages to be graphic, perverse and dehumanizing, look no farther than Savage Grace.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Yellow Handkerchief

2008 Sundance Film Festival
★ ★ ★

I’m always a little apprehensive about ex-con redemption films. They are generally predictable, and the emotional puppeteering is all too easy and familiar. And I must acknowledge that in The Yellow Handkerchief, there is more than a little of all that. But I don’t think that’s at the core of the movie. Rather, this is a story about three individuals, all lost and lonely, led by fate into a beat-up convertible, and finding themselves unexpectedly on a little road trip in post-Katrina Louisiana bayou country.

Award-winning German producer Arthur Cohn put together this project, and Indian director Udayan Prasad made some great casting calls. William Hurt is at the center as Brett, a just-released ex-con battling his demons (which are gradually revealed throughout the movie) and tenuously reentering the outside world. It’s a role that comes naturally to Hurt, more like his classics The Big Chill, The Doctor and The Accidental Tourist than his arresting departure in The History of Violence. Maria Bello shows up mostly in flashbacks, as the love of his pre-prison life. Eddy Redmayne (Gordy) and Kristen Stewart (Matine) steal the show as the youngsters who meet in a store, and find themselves moments later asking Brett to make them an unlikely threesome.

Prasad does a great job of sharing with the audience the unadorned emotions at play as these three feel each other out, and gradually get comfortable with each other. Of course there is tension, as Brett is older, obviously hardened, and something of mystery, and even more so when they find out he is an ex-con. But also anger, fear and disgust, before the softening. The strengths and weaknesses of each character are slowly exposed as their journey leads them in search of acceptance, hope and love. And talented cinematographer Chris Berges brings an eerie sadness to a Louisiana bayou country not nearly recovered from the ravages of Katrina.

The Yellow Handkerchief may move too slowly for broad public acceptance. But the pacing was even and the story never lagged. One might accuse the ending of being a little hackneyed (and one would be right) but that doesn’t dull the effect of a movie that leaves you smiling and optimistic about life.

Sundance Moment: Prasad, Cohn, Hurt, Bello, Redmayne and Stewart were all at the premiere. Best line was from Cohn, who said some people told him this was a “little movie.” “There are no little movies or big movies,” he repeated twice. Sundance philosophy in a nutshell.

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