And the Academy Award goes to…

by Leonard G Heldreth

We examine a variety of films this month, from Academy Award winners to independent productions.

Mr Turner

Director Mike Leigh and leading actor Timothy Spall have worked together on six previous films, including Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy. During the filming of Topsy-Turvy in 1999 (a film about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado), Leigh began thinking about another nineteenth century artist, J.M.W. Turner, perhaps England’s greatest painter. In 2011, he hired a researcher and started the process of improvisation and character experimentation that would result in Mr. Turner.

The film focuses on the last twenty-five years of Turner’s life when he was already famous. The problem is, Turner led a fairly uneventful life. As one of his biographers wrote, “the only interesting thing about him is that he was the man who painted Turner’s pictures.”

The film covers the time of his father’s death, which devastated him, his developing relationship with the widow Sophia Booth, the move toward Impressionism in his painting and his death. Leigh and Spall do the best they can, but the emphasis is less on the plot than on the process of painting, the beauty captured by the photography and the slow accumulation of details that make up what is known of Turner’s life.

Turner approaches painting very professionally. He leaves many of the details of the job to his father (Paul Jesson), a former barber, whom he calls “Daddy” all of his life, and to whom he is completely devoted. His father shaves him, mixes his paints, travels to get supplies, tracks his expenses and shows his paintings to clients (often while Turner watches through a peephole).

The other person in the household is Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), a maid who constantly looks after Turner’s every need, including some of his sexual ones, and seems to be totally devoted to him.

A previous mistress and two illegitimate daughters make brief appearances asking for money, a friend visits to explain prisms and the effect of violet light on magnetism, and after his father’s death, he visits a house of prostitution, where he sketches the prostitute and weeps uncontrollably.

Other interesting scenes include a visit to the Royal Academy’s annual exhibit, where he irritates other painters by adding details to his finished works (a not unusual practice, apparently); a scene where he walks along a ridge, and three wild ponies come running up the ridge to him; and a scene where a locomotive blows a perfect smoke ring as it approaches. (The ponies and smoke ring were apparently gratuitous accidents.)

In the second half of the film, he travels to Margate to study the light and to sketch the waterfront and the ships going by. He rents a room from Booth (Marion Bailey), and after her husband’s death, he moves into her room. Sometime later, he sets her up in a house nearer to London, and she is with him when he dies.

Spall is exceptional as Turner, snorting and growling his way through the role, exploding to spit on his canvas and work it into the paint, staring enthralled at a scene as he decides how to paint it. He’s not a pleasant man or a kind one, especially toward some women, although his maid and the widow Booth seem totally devoted to him.

Spall manages to pull these contradictory elements together into a believable character, for which he won acting prizes from Cannes and the New York Film Critics.

While Spall is outstanding as Turner, the star of the film is the photography. Dick Pope used lenses of the ’50s and ’60s mounted onto digital cameras to give the color a slight shift to the reds and yellows that Turner favored, and the results are often breathtaking.

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish on first impression whether a scene is from a painting or a photograph until the camera pulls back to reveal human figures. A boat ride provides the inspiration for one of Turner’s most famous paintings, “The Fighting Temeraire.”

Despite his contradictions, Turner exhibited generosity near the end of his life. He left his maid and his widow friend provided for, and bequeathed the house in London to the maid until her death.

He received an offer of 200,000 pounds from a manufacturer for all of his remaining paintings, but he turned it down in favor of leaving his paintings, sketchbooks, drawings and other artistic artifacts to the recently created National Gallery, where they could be enjoyed by everyone. More than 2,500 items were included in the legacy.

Leigh’s movie about Turner is as sublime as his paintings and sometimes as ridiculous and conflicted as the man himself. If you care at all about art or Turner, don’t miss it. Mr. Turner received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design.

Still Alice

The plot and script of Still Alice, based on Lisa Genova’s novel, are not up to the level of Julianne Moore’s acting. Some excellent movies have been made about Alzheimer’s disease—Iris, Away from Her, Amour—but Still Alice is simply not in their league. What it brings to the table is a discussion of early-onset Alzheimer’s (genetically transmitted), told from the patient’s point of view, as much as that can be done in film, which is not a medium known for successfully conveying first-person point-of-view. It also has Moore.

Alice (Moore) is a nationally-known linguistics professor at Columbia, and lives with her husband John (Alec Baldwin), a research scientist, in a comfortable brownstone near the campus where she teaches. As the film opens, Alice is celebrating her fiftieth birthday, having dinner with her husband and three grown children in an elegant restaurant.

Everything seems perfect except for a little friction between Alice and her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who has dropped out of college to pursue an acting career.

In the next few weeks, however, the perfection begins to slip away as Alice suddenly finds it hard to remember certain words, forgets appointments and gets confused while jogging along a favorite route on campus. A visit to a neurologist brings the bad news: she is suffering from an early and genetic form of Alzheimer’s, and there is nothing to be done except wait for the inevitable, fairly rapid progress of the symptoms.

When her children are tested for the dangerous gene, one carries it, one doesn’t and the third refuses to look at the test results. Alice was not aware of a history of Alzheimer’s because her mother was killed in an auto accident while still too young for the disease to have appeared.

Alice carries out certain activities as she tries to cope with her deteriorating situation. She gives a talk to an Alzheimer’s support group; she creates a message to herself explaining how to commit suicide when she can no longer remember her birthday date; she urges her husband to take a year’s sabbatical to spend with her, but he has been offered a better job at another school, and she doesn’t want to leave the Columbia area.

This film can end in only one way, and Alice finally is unable to speak clearly enough to communicate. We are spared her approaching death.

Moore is excellent throughout, subtly portraying the decline in Alice’s cognitive abilities and her gradual detachment from her family and the everyday world. Kristen Stewart is fine as the youngest daughter, Lydia, who turns out to be the best of the children in coping with her mother’s decline.

Alec Baldwin is interesting as a husband who is torn between the options of remaining with his wife for her last year (even though she probably won’t know he is there) or of taking the new job, with its opportunities for the future, and leaving her with the children and the care providers.

See the film not for any new insights into Alzheimer’s disease but for Moore’s sensitive and nuanced acting. She won the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress.

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood has made a film of Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper. The film itself is remarkably non-political, not blatantly in favor of nor against the war in Afghanistan. Jason Hall, the script writer, has apparently eliminated some of the more implausible incidents in the book (e.g., the fight with Jesse Ventura) and eliminated or softened many of the jingoistic and racist remarks.

The result is a close look at a man who was very good at shooting people and who put his talents to work in the Army, compiling the most documented kills of any soldier.

For someone who hasn’t read the book, the main sources of tension in the film are whether Kyle will outlast his four tours of duty, and whether his marriage will survive his growing addiction to his Army career. Most of the film is a succession of scenes in which Kyle shoots people, beginning with a woman and a young boy who are carrying explosives toward an American convoy.

These scenes alternate at regular intervals with scenes in which he is home with his wife and, later, two children, and she tries to convince him to come home and stay there. Another thread running through the film is the dual between Kyle and an enemy sniper who may have won medals in the Olympics.

Bradley Cooper is excellent as Chris Kyle and Sienna Miller is fine as his wife, Taya. The battle scenes are convincing and harrowing, as Kyle, shooting from rooftops, provides cover for the men advancing through the streets.

I did not know the ending of the story and was surprised by it, and I won’t spoil it for those who plan to see the movie. American Sniper has stirred a lot of controversy as people read their own values into it. When in Japan, I felt obligated to tour the Hiroshima museum and to face the results of the war there; in the same way, I felt I should see American Sniper. It shows how violence and war can change even a man who is very good at them. It is as much a Clint Eastwood movie as Unforgiven.

American Sniper was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. It won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

Life Itself

Steve James, the director of Hoop Dreams, started this film about Roger Ebert when Ebert believed he was cancer-free, but what started out as a loose adaptation of Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, became a chronology of his last months of life, as the returning cancer quickly destroyed him. While he was given six to sixteen months to live in the original prognosis, he lasted only three months.

Although the documentary concentrates on the end of Ebert’s life, it shows, through still photographs and interviews, his time at The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois, where I first encountered his writing, and at The Chicago Sun-Times, which became his home base. It was there he won a Pulitzer Prize for his film reviews. The documentary includes clips from the “Sneak Previews” and “At the Movies” periods and covers the ongoing conflict between Ebert and Gene Siskel.

The film tries to give a rounded picture of Ebert, who, like most humans, had his weaknesses. It acknowledges his fight with alcohol (he met his wife Chaz at an AA meeting), and was often short with people he didn’t want to see. Some famous directors—Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, among others—and other celebrities offer their comments.

Overall, it’s a reasonable documentary about one of the most influential movie critics in the media’s short history. I wish, however, they had spared me the shots of Ebert having his throat suctioned, of his drinking nourishment through a hole in his throat and of the surgical disfigurement that took away most of his throat and lower jaw.

Although he requested that these shots be included, I’d rather not remember him that way. But see the film if you enjoyed Ebert’s reviews or used his comments to pick what films to see. There was no one else quite like him.

Da Sweet blood of Jesus

Spike Lee’s last film, Oldboy, was a remake of a 2003 South Korean film originally directed by Park Chan-wook. His current vampire film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is a remake of Bill Gunn’s 1973 film, Ganja and Hess. I have not seen Gunn’s film.

Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a wealthy scholar and art collector, is attacked by his assistant and house guest, Lafayette Hightower (Elvis Nolasco). Hightower uses an Ashanti ritual dagger, and although Green fights off his attacker, he is critically wounded.

When Green wakes up, the life-threatening wound has healed, but he has developed a desire for blood, seen in Lee’s film as an addiction. He finds Hightower has committed suicide, and he stuffs the body into a freezer.

When Hightower’s wife, Ganja (British actress Zaraah Abrahams), shows up, Hess says Hightower has disappeared, Ganja says “That’s great,” and before you can say “Vampire,” they’re both naked in bed. The plot ambles along as these two discuss various subjects, in fairly stilted dialogue. Ganja finds her husband’s body in the freezer and screams.

Hess’s white servant, Seneschal Higginbottom (Rami Malek), is harassed and then killed by Ganja, who now craves blood also. Then Hess invites one of his ex-girlfriends for lunch (no pun intended), and the two women suddenly need to have showers in which they revert to that cliché of Hammer vampire films, a soft-core lesbian encounter, before one kills the other.

The film is bookended by scenes of rousing gospel music set in a black Baptist Church presided over by Bishop Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd), a minister whose favorite biblical texts emphasize the blood and body of Jesus.

Also impressive are the opening credits in which dancer Charles “Li’l Buck” Riley performs his “jookin” dance moves in various Brooklyn locations.

The film ends with two beautiful women, one naked, standing on the beach. Are both dead? Are both vampires? Are both confused about what they are supposed to be? I certainly was.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a strange variation on the vampire genre, and that difference may make vampire film fans sit through it once, just to satisfy their curiosity.

—Leonard G. Heldreth

Editor’s Note: All films reviewed are available on DVD from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at www.marquettemonthly.org

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