Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lady's choice: Valentine's Day Edition

For Valentine's Day, and for the second night in our bi-weekly Tuesday Lady's Choice Movie Night series, I had what may have been a first:

I started watching a movie without knowing what it was.

Okay, there was that time in that hotel when pressing a button repeatedly on a non-responsive remote control accidentally ordered us Balls With Fury. (Which we quite enjoyed.) But this was the first time someone had curated a movie-watching experience for me, without me knowing what it would be.

See, it was my wife's choice of movie again -- she chose two weeks ago, as you will recall from this post. Getting to choose again was to make up for the way I had dominated our viewing agenda in January, in my push to finish up my 2011 rankings. And she had a choice for Valentine's Day, but she wanted it to be a surprise. Which was quite possible, since the Netflix account is in her name, and she gets the emails notifying us which movies have been shipped. I did actually have a little Netflix business to transact on Monday -- I added The House of the Devil to our instant queue -- but I was sure to avoid the through-the-mail queue. And so moments before the movie started, I still didn't know what it was.

Really, I'd have liked her to carry through the idea one step further. When she saw that the title didn't appear on the DVD menu, she told me to open my eyes. I was familiar enough with the image in the poster above to immediately know what it was. Too bad, as I'd have loved the chance to see if I could guess which movie it was before the title actually appeared on screen. (Don't know if I would have -- I'd forgotten that Jane Campion directed this film until last night.)

Bright Star is beautifully shot and quite powerfully acted, I think. I've been a fan of Ben Whishaw since his admittedly minimalist performance in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and I sung the praises of Abbie Cornish back in this post. But the real surprise in terms of the actors was Paul Schneider, erstwhile of the first and second seasons of Parks and Recreation and the early movies of David Gordon Green. I had to look him up afterward to make sure he wasn't Scottish, because he did an incredible Scottish brogue. I also learned, to my surprise, that The National Society of Film Critics bestowed their 2009 best supporting actor award on Schneider for this performance. He had to share the award with Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds ... but damn, Waltz won everything that year, making the feat impressive indeed. (Of course, it also highlights the quirks of this critics' group -- Schneider didn't get an Oscar nomination.)

Despite its evident strengths, Bright Star was, however, too long and too slow. We'd had wine with our pasta dinner, and it was really dragging us down. We probably needed a 90-minute movie rather than a 120-minute one. But we also probably needed a movie that felt like it went somewhere a little faster than this one did, and brought us a bit closer to the characters than the proximity we achieved here.

But there was one moment that was absolute perfection, both in terms of the holiday and my personal cinematic interests. I've written before that I love what I call Wax Stamp Movies. These are movies that either actually feature letters that are sealed by wax (usually red wax), or have the kind of production design that would include such a wax-sealed letter. Set between 1818 and 1821, Bright Star is such a movie. In fact, there were a half dozen different instances of wax stamps appearing on screen.

One in particular stood out. Fanny Brawne, played by Cornish, receives a prank Valentine card from Mr. Brown (Schneider). It's given to her as a way of mocking her, as their mutual contempt is thinly veiled. But it has the effect of making the lovestruck John Keats (Whishaw) jealous. Anyway, this couldn't have been a more perfect moment for our Valentine's Day, making Bright Star an unexpectedly perfect choice for our second Lady's Choice Movie Night. So of course I had to take a picture of the paused image, which you'll see below.

Hope you had a great February 14th.

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