PICKS OF THE WEEK
An Education (A-)
U.K.; Lone Scherfig, 2009
Romance often burns brightest, intoxicates most deeply, and wounds longest in adolescence -- and An Education, this tale of a memorable and dangerous teen liaison in 1961 Britain, paints for us exactly the qualities that burn and lacerate hearts: catches much of the exhilaration, pain and sweet, all-consuming foolishness of just such a youthful, reckless love affair.
The movie, directed by Lone Scherfig (the Danish filmmaker of Italian for Beginners), both celebrates and laments the roses and thorns of young heedless love -- as it shows us teenage Jenny (played by the much-awarded Carey Mulligan), a brainy but fun-loving English honors schoolgirl and Juliette Greco fan studying for her Oxford entrance examination, who becomes smitten with the older, and effortlessly charming David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard), when he offers her cello a ride in his car during a shower. Soon Jenny has fallen in love not only with David's good looks, naughty smile and easy, urbane manner, but with the whole sparkling world he opens up for her -- an enticing and hedonistic realm of jazz clubs, champagne and flowers, country drives, "bright young thing" friends (Dominic Cooper as cynical Danny and Rosamund Pike as the sexy Catherine Deneuvish-looking blond Helen), of mysterious (and possibly criminal) activities, and, the pièce de resistance, a romantic excursion and possible deflowering in Paris itself.
Succumbing to the highs of this high life, Jenny is inevitably pulled away from her crucial studies and immersed in this scintillating affair, to the delight of her school chums, to the consternation of her dedicated teacher Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams), to the scorn of her haughty headmistress (Emma Thompson, who might have played Jenny in her own youth), and to the initial worry but eventual bedazzlement of her own parents Jack and Marjorie (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). David, quite a charmer, wins the latters' hearts too.
But An Education is there to teach as well as beguile us. Jenny's "perfect lover," like many potent romantic figures, may be too good (or too lovably bad) to be true --even with Paris, cool jazz and the Seine backing him up.
Unlike many movies about youthful romance, this one, based on real life (on Lynn Barber's memoir), doesn't fall head over heels itself. It doesn't propagandize blatantly for the young lover against her "stodgy" parents and teachers, and their uptight world. Since it's based on a true story, An Education has the sting and slap in the face of reality. It's a girl's tale told from a girl's (and a woman's) point of view -- not just Barber's, but also Scherfig's -- as well as a sympathetic man's: Nick Hornby of the similarly smart U.S. movie romance High Fidelity.) An Education was one of the surprise critical hits of 2009, nominated for three Oscars and eight British Oscars (BAFTA awards), including best picture and best actress (Mulligan) in both countries. And Carey Mulligan was a surprise hit was well, winner -- in the year of Sandra Bullock -- of the BAFTA best actress prize and many other critics' citations. (Extras: an excellent commentary by Scherfig, Mulligan and Sarsgaard; deleted scenes; featurettes.)
U.S.; Michael Mann, 2004, Dreamworks
Tom Cruise is an icy-cold, high-style hit-man. Jamie Foxx is the L.A. cabdriver whom the killer hires to drive him to a series of jobs on a single night. A great idea for a neo-noir, which unfortunately falls apart into gory formula and wild implausibility in the last act. Up to that point, though, it's Michael Mann at his most stunningly visual and kinetic, and a terrific change of pace for Cruise. Remember Magnolia? He can be a hell of a heavy.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Midsomer Murders (Set 14) (A-)
U.K.: various directors, 2007, Acorn Media
If you're partial to English village murder mysteries -- the non-hard-boiled crime thrillers sometimes called "cozies" -- and you've exhausted the various Agatha Christie-derived DVD sets devoted to the British TV adventures of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy-and-Tuppence Beresford, Midsomer is, as always, the place to go. "Midsomer Murders," the long-running British TV hit and a cult item over here, is one of the best of the breed, maybe the very best. (Its devotees include Johnny Depp.)
Based on the highly praised Caroline Graham mysteries, set in the contemporary British provinces, with Graham's urbane, psychologically trenchant and pretty well unfoolable hero, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) at the center of things, they're modern stories that preserve the feel of the classic Christies, crossbreeding them with the greater realism of the modern procedural mystery-crime shows (like America's "Law and Order"), while getting in plenty of contemporary Brit culture, character, sexuality, perversity and social comment.
Barnaby (as played to bloody perfection by Nettles) is a great detective: smart, intuitive, gentlemanly, savvy about everything, but also a little seething and on the edge. His sidekick in the early shows is young Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey). Now it's Jason Hughes as Detective Sergeant Ben Jones. And Barnaby's wife Joyce and daughter are also still around, played prettily and wittily by Jane Wymark and Laura Howard.
These are prize shows, all produced by Brian True-May. The settings are gorgeous, the cinematography, direction and acting mostly razor-sharp and fine. And there's a special reason to get this most recent of the later sets, dating from 2007. Nettles has announced his impending retirement -- and this is one show that really won't be the same without its star -- and supporting cast. It's reassuring, though, that Midsomer County, which must have the highest murder rate of any provincial area in England, won't have its population completely depleted or incarcerated before Chief Inspector Barnaby finally retires. (Extras: Caroline Graham biography.)
Included: Death and Dust, Sarah Hellings: Late-blooming romance mixes with murder in this tale of love and death and hit-and-run, Midsomer-style. Picture of Innocence, Richard Holthouse: A darkly comic look at the way murder disrupts a photography war between the fussbudget, punctilious, old-style-film conservatives of the Luxton Deeping Photographic Society, who favor as their subjects things like trees and kittens, and the young digital camera Turks more partial to fast snaps and scantily clad models. They Seek Him Here, Hellings: Murder on a movie set, as Midsomer becomes the backdrop for the location shoot for a new production of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Death in a Chocolate Box, Holthouse: Barnaby becomes a suspect himself in this noirish nightmare about a murder spree that starts in a local halfway house for ex-convicts, cursed by long-ago crime and by deadly chickens coming home to roost.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Sherlock Holmes (B)
U.S.; Guy Ritchie, 2009, Warner Home Video
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fog-bound, spellbinding adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson were among the magical books of my childhood. "The game's afoot!" "Elementary, my dear Watson." "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time." I even invented my own counterfeit Holmes and Watson -- called Nicholas Spencer and Omar Atkins -- and starred them in a series of adventures, written from the third grade on. Ah, as the Sherlockians say, "though he could be more humble, there's no police like Holmes!"
Here, whether we like it or not, we have a sort of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, thrust by Guy Ritchie into a spectacular cliffhanger adventure yarn that might seem more appropriate for Batman and Robin or the incredible Fu Manchu. As played, rather eccentrically but likeably by Robert Downey, Jr. (cocaine?) and Jude Law, Holmes and Watson are joined by Rachel McAdams as "that woman" Irene Adler, and they all race around London, kicking and kung-fuing away, battling supernatural villains, throttling giants, knocking over and pre-launching ships, swinging from crumbling, half-erected towers and otherwise proving that, in the world of Hollywood and Guy Ritchie, nothing is elementary.
The movie starts absurdly, with Downey's unshaven and slovenly Holmes (cocaine?) somersaulting and drop-kicking a bad guy. But soon Downey, who projects as much intelligence as any current Hollywood star, begins cracking some Sherlockian riddles with dexterity, deducing whole reams of biography from a mud stain or two, and proving that he's not just a pretty face or a martial arts head-banger. Law is a little acerbic for my taste; he's so rough with Holmes, he seems to be in charge of his pal's drug rehabilitation. And McAdams manages to resemble Joan Collins' skinnier niece, while suggesting also the very talents that allegedly won Joan the nickname "The British Open."
Sherlock Holmes is astonishingly well-designed and stunningly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot), and I actually think it's Richie's best picture. But that only goes to show how little I liked the others (Lock, Stock excepted). Still, however good Downey and Law may be at times, the memories of Basil Rathbone's Holmes and Nigel Bruce's Watson are in no danger. Nor is the stature of Billy Wilder's unhappily compromised and mutilated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. (Extras: illustrated commentary by Richie; documentary.)
The Road from Coorain (B)
Australia; Brendan Maher, 2001, Acorn Media
This beautifully scenic coming-of-age tale, set in the 1930s and afterward on a New South Wales sheep ranch, is based on the autobiographical chronicle by Jill Ker Conway, the tale of her childhood on the farm and her gradual break from the past and her tight-knit, tragic family. The landscapes are hot and bewitching, the psychology sometimes tormented. Road won eight Australian Film Institute TV awards, including best feature, best script (Sue Smith), best direction (Brendan Maher) and best actress (Juliet Stevenson), and numerous other prizes as well. Katherine Slattery is very good as the brainy but unsympathetic Jill; Juliet Stevenson is remarkable as her mother Eve, a seemingly indomitable woman who cracks. (Extras: Conway biography and Stevenson filmography.)