Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Ehle’

Mel Gibson, Sean Penn

“THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN” My rating: B (Now on Amazon Prime)

124 minutes | No MPAA rating

Given that it was initiated three years ago by Mel Gibson’s production company, that its release was delayed by internal controversy, and that its director has insisted on using an alias in the credits, one expects “The Professor and the Madman” to be a hot mess.

Instead it is a fascinating slice of history and a moving tale of friendship and salvation. Plus it features one of Sean Penn’s greatest performances.

Be thankful the film was picked up by Amazon, where it will be experienced by far more people than would have paid to see it in a theater.

Based on Simon Winchester’s non-fiction best seller of the same name, “Professor…” stars Gibson as James Murray, a self-taught Scotsman who ended up leading a team that over 70 years produced the Oxford English Dictionary, an attempt to catalogue and parse the history of every word in the English language.

A genius with an almost encyclopedic memory when it came to language, Murray set up a system by which everyday British citizens from throughout the Empire could contribute postcard-sized analyses of words, quoting examples of their use in great literature.

His work created problems on the domestic front — Murray’s obsession with the project led to tension with the Missus (Jennifer Ehle). And he was forever being undercut by the titled snobs attached to the project, who resented Murray’s Scottish background and his lack of a university degree.

Murray is the “professor” of the title.  The “madman” is a veteran of the American Civil War, surgeon William Minor (Penn), who suffered from what today might have been diagnosed as PTSD, along with a good dose of schizophrenia.

Minor was convinced he was being targeted by an assassin; in Lambeth in 1871 he shot to death George Merrett, a man he believed was stalking him. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in an asylum.


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Chloe Grace Moretz


91 minutes | No MPAA rating

Fairness and honesty are virtues in everyday life.  Not necessarily in filmmaking.

With “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” director Desiree Akhavan adapts Emily Danforth’s novel about a teenage lesbian sent to a  religious-themed boarding school where she’s expected to redefine her sexual orientation.

With a cast headlined by the reliable Chloe Grace Moretz and Jennifer Ehle, the film promises a finely calibrated acting showcase. But something’s missing.

Given the subject matter, a director could take a couple of approaches. One could play it for satire, ridiculing religious bigots who believe you can pray the gay away. If humor seems too frivolous a way to approach such a serious subject, then there’s always the moral outrage route. Get angry.

“Miseducation…” finds a more balanced third way. The film attempts to honestly present the no-win situation in which these kids find themselves (they can only please God by hating themselves) without painting the staff and teachers as hateful bigots. It assumes that as wrong as their ideas may be, these educators/indoctrinators are coming from a place of genuine Christian concern.

Trouble is, such evenhandedness makes for anemic drama. With the exception of one hair-raising scene in which a male student (a terrific Owen Campbell) undergoes a total meltdown, the film is frustratingly low keyed.

Cameron (Moretz) is an orphan being raised by her aunt. She’s a typical adolescent rebel — marijuana and boredom and passive aggressiveness.


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Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle as the Dickinson sisters

“A QUIET PASSION” My rating: B 

125 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like most of Terence Davies’ films, “A Quiet Passion” moves at a glacial pace that taxes an audience’s patience.

Stick with it, though, and you’ll get Cynthia Nixon in the performance of a lifetime.

As poet Emily Dickinson, Nixon (most of us will always know her as the red-headed Miranda on HBO’s “Sex and the City”) plays a physically passive character.  About the most exciting thing Emily Dickinson does is leisurely walk through her family’s 19th-century garden beneath a parasol.

But beneath that civilized, socially-acceptable exterior there beats an angry heart, and periodically it surges to the forefront with dazzling results.

Davies’ screenplay follows Emily from her graduation from a girls’ school (in early scenes she’s played by Emma Bell) to her death in 1886 at age 55. With the exception of an opening scene set at the school, Davies film unfolds entirely in the Dickinson family home in Amherst, Massachusetts — fittingly so, since by middle age Emily was something of a recluse who devoted herself to her ailing mother.

She also devoted herself to her writing,  though Dickinson  died before her work was widely distributed.  Today, of course, she’s regarded as one of best poets this country ever produced, but during her lifetime she saw only about a dozen poems printed in local newspapers.  And those were heavily tinkered with by editors who disapproved of her creative punctuation and other eccentricities.

Film biographies of writers are usually odd affairs.  Nothing terribly interesting in a person scribbling with a pen or pecking at a typewriter.  Davies includes a few shots of Emily writing, but mostly he uses Nixon’s voice-over narration to read relevant Dickinson works.

What the film is really about are Emily’s interactions with her family and friends, and how they reveal her mind and personality. Some of these confrontations are genteel and measured, others volcanic.


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**** and ****

Michael Barbieri and Theo Taplitz

“LITTLE MEN”  My rating: B

85 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Suffused with somber wisdom and and delicate emotions, Ira Sachs’  “Little Men” is a terrific movie about boyhood friendship.

It’s also about conflicts in the adult world that can destroy that innocent and easygoing intimacy.

Thirteen-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz) is initially dismayed when his parents move from glamorous Manhattan to pedestrian Brooklyn and the building long owned by his recently deceased grandfather. Yeah, there’s more room in the rent-free second-floor apartment where Grandpa lived…but it’s Brooklyn.

He undergoes an attitude adjustment after meeting Tony (Michael Barbieri), whose mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia) operates a dress shop on the ground floor.

The kids complement each other nicely.  Jake is quiet and thoughtful; Tony is brash and confidant (and very, very bright).  Moreover, they share a love not only of video games but of the arts.  Jake is a promising painter and Tony has set his goal on becoming an actor.

Over time they set in motion plans to get into an arts-themed high school.

The boys are so tuned in to each other’s emotions and intellects (there’s just the slightest suggestion that Jake might be gay, but the matter is left hanging) that they’re late in realizing the conflicts developing in the adult world around them.

Jake’s parents — his psychoanalyst mother Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) and struggling actor father Brian (Greg Kenner) — discover that Leonor has been paying Grandpa a fraction of what should be the going rent on her storefront shop in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Leonor maintains that she and the old man were very close (just how close is a matter for speculation) and that he wanted her to have the space more or less in perpetuity.  Furthermore, she maintains she was more of a family to him than his flesh and blood across the East River.


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Gwyneth Paltrow...not feeling so good

“CONTAGION’’ My rating: B (Opening wide on Sept. 9)

105 minutes |MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s no shortage of big names in the cast, but the real star of “Contagion” is filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh.

His latest is a hypnotic juggling act, a carefully calibrated mashup of characters and situations that proves him a master storyteller.

This time the maker of “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Che” and “Out of Sight” (and, yes, the “Ocean’s” flicks) delivers a “what if?” thriller about a killer flu pandemic that puts mankind on the ropes.

“Contagion” paints a grim but fully-detailed picture of how we’d react in such circumstances, and it’s not pretty.


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