Thursday, December 18, 2014

Watch This: Love Actually

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Love Actually (2003)
Written and directed by Richard Curtis

If one were to list the film genres most frequently plagued by triteness and an overabundance of schmaltz, the romantic comedy and the Christmas movie would both certainly be near the top of that list.  Combining the two would seem like a surefire way to produce a stale, cloying, overly sentimental mess.  It may be somewhat surprising, then, that a film like Love Actually, a big-budget, sprawling ensemble romantic comedy with an all-star cast, essentially a rom-com/Christmas hybrid on steroids, should be such a delight to watch.

Much of the credit for this goes to screenwriter and first-time director Richard Curtis, whose career as the writer of the Black Adder and Mr. Bean television series, as well as the smash hit romantic comedy films Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), have made him a leading figure in British comedy.  The script is smart and genuinely funny, and the game cast members ensure that the sentiment rarely feels forced.  Unlike more recent holiday-themed ensemble romantic comedies like Valentine's Day (2010) and New Year's Eve (2011), which feel like engineered, lab-created paycheck vehicles for their star-studded casts, Love Actually feels fresh, engaging, and sincere, even in its grandest, that-only-happens-in-the-movies romantic moments.

The film depicts the love lives of a number of Londoners in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as their respective paths cross in a series of loosely interconnected stories.  Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) is an aging rock star, hoping to make a comeback with a Christmas-themed cover of a classic love song.  He makes no effort to hide his disdain for the blatantly commercial song, much to the chagrin of his manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher).  John (Martin Freeman) and Judy (Joanna Page) both work as body doubles in the movies, but their conversational ease on set, even during setups for nude scenes, does not lead easily to an expression of their romantic feelings.  Mark (Andrew Lincoln, looking far younger and less grizzled than in his role as Rick Grimes on The Walking Dead) is secretly in love with his best friend's new bride, Juliet (Keira Knightley), masking his longing with feigned contempt.  Awkward catering employee Colin (Kris Marshall), fed up with rebuffs from English women, decides to try his luck in the United States, where he believes his accent will make him instantly desirable to American women.  Recently cuckolded writer Jamie (Colin Firth) has come to rural France to work on a new book, and promptly falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz).  Their mutual attraction grows despite their lack of a shared language (of course, that doesn't really matter because they speak the international language).  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is recently widowed, and struggles to connect with his stepson, Sam (Thomas Sangster, whose elfin adorableness is so acute, it may actually cause physical pain).  They manage to forge a bond as Daniel helps Sam to woo a popular girl from school.  Daniel's friend Karen (Emma Thompson) is married to Harry (Alan Rickman), who is being tempted toward infidelity by the advances of his administrative assistant, Mia (Heike Makatsch).  Harry's employee Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with co-worker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), but her attempts at romance are hampered by her constant cell phone conversations with a mystery caller, who turns out to be her mentally ill brother.  Last but not least, there is the newly elected Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), whose attraction to his slightly plump catering manager, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon), is hindered by a misunderstood incident involving the visiting U.S. president (Billy Bob Thornton).

Despite this myriad of intersecting stories (did I mention that the Prime Minister is Karen's brother?), the narrative moves effortlessly back and forth among the numerous plot lines.  The bevy of characters and stories also means that the film makes for a breezy viewing experience.  With a running time of well over two hours, the film is far longer than average, yet nothing in the story feels like filler, and there are even a couple of storylines that feel underdeveloped (the Mark-Juliet strand in particular seems resolved too briefly and neatly).  Richard Curtis, never one to shy away from somber plot points (after all, a funeral does figure prominently in his best-known film script), wisely introduces some more serious story elements that, in less talented hands, might undermine the film's overall cheerfulness.  Instead, the film manages a sober and affecting treatment of infidelity and mental illness that never derails the overall mood.

The film's expansive cast is a joy to watch.  Hugh Grant, reuniting with the writer that gave him his breakout role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is charming as usual as the Prime Minister.  Emma Thompson also gives a terrific performance, particularly in the heartbreaking scene where she discovers her husband's possible infidelity.  The film's real standout, however, is Bill Nighy as middle-aged rocker Billy Mack, whose mischievous forthrightness provides some of the film's biggest laughs.

While the film's opening and closing voiceover sequences feel a tad heavy-handed, the sincerity of the filmmakers, Richard Curtis in particular, shines through, making this a perfect romantic holiday film to watch cuddled up next to the one you love.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas hours

You made it through another semester! Merry Christmas!

Library hours for the coming weeks:

Saturday, December 13: 9:00-4:50
Sunday, December 14: CLOSED

December 15 (Monday) - 19 (Friday): 8:00-4:50
(NOTE: We will close from noon until 2:00 PM on Tuesday the 16th for the annual SHU Employee Christmas Luncheon)

December 20 & 21: CLOSED
December 22 & 23: 8:00-4:50

December 24 - January 2: CLOSED

Friday, December 5, 2014

Watch This: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols

Last month, American cinema lost one of its most celebrated directors in Mike Nichols, who passed away at the age of 83.  Nichols started out as a performer, first as part of the group that founded Chicago's famed Second City improv company, and later as part of the comedy duo Nichols and May, alongside the great comedienne and screenwriter Elaine May.  He then found his true calling as a director in the theatre, and would go on to win eight Tony awards for his direction over the course of his career, the last for a 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman.  Not surprisingly, when he became a filmmaker, his directorial debut was an adaptation of a stage play, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

And what a remarkable debut it is.  Nichols could be forgiven for helming a stagy, dry adaptation, but instead delivers an intense, captivating, and distinctly cinematic piece of filmmaking that establishes many of the hallmarks of his work: a confident, polished visual style that is rarely showy; a sophisticated treatment of adult themes; and great performances from his cast members.

The film centers on middle-aged married couple George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), whose relationship is defined by alcohol-fueled bouts of insult and verbal abuse.  George is a History professor at a small New England college where Martha's father is the president, and late one night after a faculty party, they host young Biology professor Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) at their home for cocktails.  George and Martha, already drunk when the film begins, have been at each other before the younger couple arrives, with George criticizing his wife for her hard drinking and lewd behavior, and Martha taunting her husband and attacking him for his lack of ambition.  As the night progresses, they draw Nick and Honey further and further into their web of manipulation and invective, and we see cracks in the younger couple's marriage as well.  There is recurring mention of George and Martha's son, a topic that leads to especially heated exchanges between the two of them.  All of this leads to a shocking final revelation at the film's conclusion.

When it was originally released in 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was groundbreaking in its use of profanity and its frank treatment of sexuality.  Nearly fifty years later, it still feels edgy, and it remains a more devastating portrait of marital discord than recent films like Revolutionary Road (2008) and Blue Valentine (2010).  Much of this can be credited to Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who wisely decided against a tame adaptation of Albee's play.  However, the film's success is due primarily to the work of the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom give career-best performances.  The ferocity of their portrayals can probably be attributed in part to their famously tempestuous off-screen marriage, but their commitment to their respective roles (Taylor reportedly gained thirty pounds for the part) is clear, and these are undeniably brilliant performances, with the quiet, subdued moments shining just as brightly as the intense verbal sparring.

Nichols would follow up his debut by directing the generational touchstone The Graduate in 1967, and would go on to direct gems like Catch-22 (1970), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Silkwood (1983), Working Girl (1988), The Birdcage (1996), and Closer (2004).  Over the course of his career, he would direct his cast members to an impressive seventeen Oscar nominations, a testament to his ability to work with actors.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? showcases two of the best performances from his oeuvre, and is rightly regarded as one of the most auspicious directorial debuts in all of American cinema.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

December DVD Spotlight: Directorial Debuts

Every film director gets his or her start somewhere, whether it's working in television, directing music videos or short films, working as an actor or screenwriter, or starting off by making a feature-length film.  With this month's spotlight DVD collection, we are highlighting auspicious feature debuts from some of the greatest directors of all time, alongside recent first features that (hopefully) herald a long and celebrated career in the director's chair. Our featured titles include:

12 Angry Men (1957), directed by Sidney Lumet
Blood Simple (1984), directed by the Coen brothers
Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles
Eraserhead (1977), directed by David Lynch
Hard Eight (1996), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
I Shot Jesse James (1949), directed by Sam Fuller
The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), directed by Frank Darabont
Thief (1981), directed by Michael Mann
Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967), directed by Martin Scorsese

Stop by the Learning Commons and check one out today!