Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Stephan Elliott's EASY VIRTUE and COURTING CONDI!!!
Published at: May 29, 2009, 7:45 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films you'll have to seek out if you want to check them out. One of them is actually worth the effort; the other…stars Jessica Biel. Read on…
Have you ever experienced a film that is clearly trying to make you feel more jubilant and saucy than you're actually feeling while watching it? It's filled with overdrawn characters doing things that aren't nearly as wild and crazy as the people in the film seem to think it is, and the result is a bunch of actors and filmmakers trying way too hard to entertain you, with mixed results at best? Welcome to EASY VIRTUE, based on the spirited play by Noël Coward (Hitchcock made a silent film version of the same play in 1928), and directed and co-written by Stephan Elliott (THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT; WELCOME TO THE WOOP WOOP).
Set in post-WWI Britain, EASY VIRTUE is the story of a aristocratic family that is quickly losing its luster. The laid-back Colin Firth plays the patriarch who is tired of playing the role of the snooty head of the house, while his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) carries the torch with relish, even though the family fortune is not what it used to be. When the family's only son, John (Ben Barnes from Prince Caspian) returns home newly married to Larita (Jessica Biel), a larger-than-life American pilot, who has wowed both sides of the Atlantic with her daredevil flying ways. John's two sisters at times take great inspiration from Larita and other times despise her for her loose morals and brash behavior. Scott Thomas's character can't stand her from the first second she meets Larita, while her husband is delighted to have a spark of life inside the household's otherwise dimly lit walls. What ensues is little more than a period-film version of "Three's Company" with mishaps and antics consistently winning out over style and substance. By the time the real heart of the plot emerges--the increasingly sweet and mutually useful relationship between Firth and Biel--the movie had long lost my interest.
There's no denying that this is the best acting that Jessica Biel has done on the big screen, but considering it's a toss-up between a movie with Freddie Prinze Jr., one with Adam Sandler, or this, that's not really saying much. There's a certain playfulness that kept me from falling asleep while watching the film but certain there's nothing here that really made me think about it 12 hours after it ended. Ben Barnes is an emotional dud, and his character's attachment to his mother and fulfillment of her every wish was not only unbelievable, but a little creepy. Scott Thomas is never bad in a film, but she's stuck playing a stereotypical British upper-class twit, and it's a waste of her considerable skills. Firth fares better than anyone as he tosses out great Coward one-liners under his breath with a master's touch. But other than Firth, there's not much here to go gaga over. Feel free to skip right on past this one, unless you are unable to resist the overwhelming desire to check out Biel's wonderful curves.
In one of what is sure to be a long line of documentaries about members of the President George W. Bush's inner circle of advisors and cabinet members (remember Bush's Brain about Karl Rove?) comes this truly original take on the standard-issue biography film from director Sebastian Doggart. Treading the line between doc and mock, COURTING CONDI is an often hilarious examination of the life of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice through the eyes of musician and sometime-actor Devin Ratray (he had a role as one of Macaulay Culkin's siblings in the HOME ALONE movies). Not caring an iota for Rice's politics, Ratray is madly in love with this woman for her beauty, her power, her confidence, and he decides (along with his filmmaker friend Doggart, a "Project Runway" producer) to trace her life from the racially divided community in Alabama where she was born to Colorado where she went to school and all points in between leading to Washington, D.C., serving first under George H.W. Bush and then his son.
As silly as this concept may sound, the end result is pretty solid. In between Ratray's ridiculous love songs (and accompanying music videos) proclaiming his love for her, we actually do learn a great deal about Rice, including some supreme educated guessing on her present-day attitudes toward torture, the war in Iraq, and, yes, even her sexual history...or lack thereof. I was surprised to hear that she was childhood playmates with one of the four little girls killed in the now infamous church bombing in 1963 Birmingham, an incident that profoundly changed her life. The film also features what I understand is the first and only interview with the former Denver Broncos player who was engaged to Rice in her college years. He sheds quite a bit of light on her attitudes about premarital sex or apparently even premarital French kissing; both were a no-no back then, and her former beau believes her attitudes haven't changed to this day.
From scholars and biographers, it is made clear the impact and influence that her minister father had on shaping her life, the fascination she had with all things Russian (she was first brought into the White House as an expert on the Soviet Union), her switch from Democrat to Republican, and the role she may have played in condoning the use of torture as an intelligence-gathering technique during the current war. It's a solid psychological profile of Rice that I would have not expected from a film that seems to get a cheap thrill out of making Ratray look like a fool for pursuing her. But as he learns more and more about her alleged misdeeds, Ratray begins to lose interest in the object of his affections. The scenes of him falling out of love with Condi seem pretty phony, but that never stops the film from being funny or informative. His ultimate goal to meet her (he tries the White House front gate, the entrance to the State Department offices, and the Watergate Hotel, where she lived at the time Bush was in office) is a frustrating one, but after a professional makeover and an intense encounter with a focus group that listens to his goals on this journey, things do begin to look up. I'm not going to ruin where this film ends up, but I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Although I won't go so far as to say that I was moved by Ratray's plight and search, I will say that Courting Condi is educational and never boring. I had a lot of fun watching this one.