The shadow of the pearl earring

firth johannsonThis weekend I had the opportunity to see current cinematic work from onetime costars Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson (again) – pictured at left while they were promoting their film Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2003, with Johansson looking noticeably younger – she was only 19 at the time!

While I saw Johansson’s latest film Under The Skin first, followed by Gambit with Firth, I’ll discuss them in opposite order, as I feel there is more to say about Under The Skin.

So, Gambit. Umm… not quite sure why I caught this one, aside from it being one of three films that were all showing at the Birmingham 8 last night that I was interested in, and I arrived too late for the other two…so I found myself in Cinema Two sitting down for a British comedy, written by the Coen Brothers.

Firth, who seems to have had a case of “I’ve won the Oscar, now what?/how do I live up to these high expectations?” (IMO) over the past few years, stars as Harry Deen, a meek art curator in London who, with an elder colleague (Tom Courtneay) comes up with a high – concept scheme to dupe his boss (Alan Rickman) into believing a piece of fake art is real. They decide that their plan will have to work with the cooperation of a frothy Texas belle (Cameron Diaz…) who comes to London after their initial legwork – and the stage is set from there. Among the featured actors, the film also includes supporting work from Stanley Tucci, doing a slight variation on his Devil Wears Prada character that generated a career renaissance, several Japanese actors, and a bizarre cameo from veteran actress Cloris Leachman.

Given this level of talent, why is this film receiving a tiny US release 18 months after it premiered in the UK? I can’t give specific reasons here, but I’m sure that the film did not turn out the way the producers might have been hoping for. It seems an oddly difficult sell, in that it’s supposed to take place in the modern era but clearly wears its 1960s origins (from the original movie) on its sleeve, and Diaz and Firth don’t really gel well as an onscreen couple.

To confound matters further, Firth’s “good guy” plot proves to be less interesting than the angle afforded to Rickman’s character, and Rickman chews up the screen in a portrayal not that far away from his real self, based on how I observed him on one memorable instance at a London theatre in 2004, which would be a great blog entry sometime.

Once her character is allowed to calm down, Diaz acquits herself solidly, though I found it hard to shake the seeming incongruity of seeing her very American presence alongside two very British actors.

Everything comes to a head in the film’s best sequence, an extended interlude at London’s Savoy Hotel (where I once attended a terrible yet oddly memorable theatre performance that would also be worth a blog entry) where all the characters collide and engage in the most heightened forms of physical and situational comedy. British actress Selina Cadell, who taught some of my classmates in our London theatre acting program, also appears in this part of the film.

I haven’t mentioned the Coen brothers contributing to the script – and they are the sole credited screenwriters – and I guess I felt that the dialogue was sharp, but not stupendous, and especially with their high profile involvement I wonder why they are not saying more about the project.

This may well be a case of more intrigue existing behind the scenes than what the audience sees in the finished product. I’d say it’s highly likely that the film will quickly appear in DVD bins as if it just floated there. But the film’s Wikipedia page gives some insight into its troubled production history, and while the actors probably won’t say much (if anything) about it, I’m sure it will take its place as a curious career anomaly for Firth, Diaz and Rickman.


I think I’ll save a post on Under the Skin until tomorrow….



One-Two Punch: An Iliad & The Counselor

I seem to be gradually re-gaining my frequent theatregoer routine, which is definitely a positive development. For some reason my filmgoing routine has been in overdrive these last several months, often seeing 2 films per week – I ought to have chronicled them more immediately but might try to do a reverse chronological list before the year is out.

I returned to the local Performance Network Theatre a few nights ago to catch An Iliad, their season opener that will be closing this weekend. I found the show to be the most impressive one I’ve seen there yet, and while I’ve only been to 3 or 4 productions there so far, it was a welcome reminder to pay attention to what the company has to offer, as my previous impressions had been more mixed.

This Iliad was a one-man show, and the narrative traced the familiar mythological story, adding some contemporary touches towards the conclusion. I found actor John Manfredi’s performance to be consistently engaging, even though individual moments tend to stand out more in my reflections on the play than the piece as a whole. There were many intriguing uses of set and light design that seemed to be some of the most versatile I had seen on stage in a long while. For example, the stage appeared to be sparsely illuminated by a series of search lights, but those same lights came on and off at very specific times throughout the narrative. Sound design also added a perceptive layer through use of a record player, recorded music and many individual LPs on stage that banded together for a late plot point. And I can’t forget the set as a whole, which used the entirety of PNT’s wide rectangular space to its maximum advantage.

Yesterday I ventured over to the Quality 16 (definitely the oddest named cinema I’ve ever been a regular patron of) to catch new release The Counselor. In retrospect I’m not sure why I rushed out to see this film, but suspect a glitzy advertising campaign and good memory of seeing previous New Mexico/Texas-based Cormac McCarthy (and Javier Bardem) film No Country for Old Men might have contributed to the “want to see” effect. Unfortunately this did not live up to the strong standards of No Country.

McCarthy’s first film script sees him exploring familiar bleak themes of life and death in an arid and lonely landscape. Unfortunately character motivation remains vague throughout the film, and the layered plot is never completely nor clearly unfolded. The featured actors fare inconsistently, and I felt particularly disappointed to see Penelope Cruz regressing to a glorified supportive girlfriend part that might have been more common for her earlier in her career. On the other hand, Cameron Diaz turns in a scenery-chewing performance in multiple ways, though looking noticeably older on-screen – I realize I haven’t chosen to see a new release of hers since The Box in 2009, which only drew me in because it was filmed in my home region of Massachusetts. Of the three primary men in the film, Javier Bardem fares the best, again playing up character eccentricities (a similar approach was seen in Skyfall last year) to create a memorable screen presence.

Two better known in the 90’s Latino actors (John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez) appeared in cameo roles, making me wonder what they’ve been up to the last several years. And the technical makeup of the film impressed me, but that’s not a surprise coming from the skilled hands of veteran filmmaker Ridley Scott.

Next up on my film list is clandestine Disney documentary Escape from Tomorrow, playing a very limited engagement at the Michigan Theater this week.