Wednesday, September 10, 2008

kanchivaram; easy virtue; gigantic

I took two days away from the festival to do laundry, start classes and see hana my puppy, but now I am back in swing. Once again, the day was led by a strong film - I started with Priyadarshan's Kanchivaram, about a silk weaver who promises his newborn daughter that she will wear silk on her wedding day. The working conditions among South India's weavers in the 1940s is such that no weaver can ever afford to actually weave silk for themselves. The high religious value of the culture to be married and to die in silk prompts the weavers to resent their fate. Tamil film star Prakah Raj looks a bit too flush, too full on the bones and healthy to be convincing physically for his role as the region's most prize weaver who steals silk to fulfill his promise to his daughter. However, his performance is delightful and moving, weaving past and present together (the movie is told largely through flashbacks) with stark contrasts in temperament and mood. This film is gorgeously shot; one of those wonderful festival experiences where you leave the cinema feeling as if you have tasted the food and can still feel the rain on your skin. Subtitled "a communist confession", the film also portrays the post-Gandhi rise of communism in South Asia as the weavers come together to improve their lot and Vengadam takes on their charge.

The only thing that is easy about watching Stephan Elliott's Easy Virtue, is gazing on the beauty of the cast. Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas and Colin Firth glide through this very breezy adaptation of the Noel Coward play and give it their best, but even they cannot save this frothy piece from looking and feeling like an art nouveau tour of English aristocracy. I am a huge fan of Scott Thomas, and its worth saying that even playing a thankless role, she can be electrifying. No one, and I say this categorically, can say as much as she does with an eyebrow! As the profoundly bitchy matriarch of a well-heeled family coping with the marriage of its prodigal son to an American "with a past", she manages to smile through all of her barbs in a way that conveys an inner pain and underlying loss, even while she is wholly unlikeable. That's just the quality of the person playing the role. Colin Firth, as the jaded father, has his usual moments of depth but he is not given much to work with here. The story really belongs to Biel, as the American newlywed caught in a vipers' den, trying to survive. It is hard to bring such superficial material to the screen - Coward is meant to be done without any real looking beneath the surface. An Oscar Wilde comedy can support that, but not a Coward one. Like Faubourg 36, the other film I saw set in the same era and with high production values, the director gets in the way of the material by being too much in love with what they are doing. The result is gag after gag, one-liner after one-liner that fizzles immediately after its sting more often than nought, because the camera is in the wrong place.

The similarity in directing styles was not the only noticeable comparison for me about Easy Virtue and Faubourg 36. Both films were screened at the Elgin. Today again, the theatre was empty and the audiences less enthusiastic. It became clear to me that not only is this theatre now the purvue of the donors; they are also being fed some of the pablum of this festival: easy to digest and without much depth. Is the festival not only ripping off its passholders - but also spoon-feeding its donors only movies it thinks they will enjoy? End of mini-rant 2!

Small, but memorable star turns have been one of the hallmarks of my festival so far. I mentioned Catherine Keener in Genova, and there are two that made me smile in Matt Aselton's Gigantic: Ed Asner and Jane Alexander. I guess it dates me to say "I remember when..." about these actors but great to know that they are still as strong as ever. I have always loved Jane Alexander - since first seeing her wonderful supporting performance in All the President's Men. I was working as an usher in Famous Players Theatres in those teenaged days, and saw that movie many many many times. I always made sure I was in the house for the scene in which her bookkeeper character reveals some of the first top secrets of Watergate to an anxious Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. In Gigantic, Asner and Alexander are perfectly cast as the parents of our hero Brian, played by Paul Dano. Dano is one of those actors, like Michael Cera, who has enjoyed sudden focussed interest because of recent work in large films: in this case Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood. He is a very compelling actor through very minimalist, naturalist style. He is joined here by broader comedy actress Zooey Deschanel as the unfulfilled daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur (played with glee by John Goodman) who comes to pick up a bed her father has bought. Like, Lovely, Still, I didn't have much expectation going into this, but also like that film, was surprised. The screenplay is too arch, too highly stylized, with everyone sounding the same and swearing exactly the same way and reaching too hard in places to be offbeat and quirky. Yet somehow, largely through the engaging performances of our leads and supporting cast, and assured direction, the film is unexpectedly moving. Brian's lifelong dream to adopt a baby from China starts out as a gag and becomes a way to finding the heart of the film.

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