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Soul and inspiration: (l-r) Cornish and Whishaw in Bright Star.

This Wild Ecstasy

By Ann Morrow

Bright Star

Directed by Jane Campion

John Keats, the Romantic poet who famously died at a mere 25 years of age, seems inextricable from the popular image of him as a sickly aesthete who devoted every waking moment to poetry—for how else could he have produced such an astounding body of work? Yet Jane Campion’s quietly passionate, visually rapturous Bright Star interprets his final (and most brilliant) three years through his love affair with the girl next door: a seamstress he refers to as a “minxstress.” Her name is Fanny Brawne, and we first see them falling for each other at a party. Fanny (Abbie Cornish) is more concerned with her frock and the triple-tier mushroom collar she made for it than John’s recently published Endymion, and he teases her about her affectations as “a fashionable,” though he is stung by the attentions of the young swains who fill her dance card. Campion’s Keats (Ben Whishaw) is recognizable as a young man “confused by women,” but eager for the admiration of a pretty girl—as recognizable as the classically impassioned author of “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

Adapted by Campion from the biography by Andrew Motion, Bright Star is both specific to Keats’ writings and the commonalities of a thwarted love affair. When John and Fanny are introduced, in 1818, John is living with his friend and protector, Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Fanny lives nearby, in a country house rented by her widowed mother (Kerry Fox). After purchasing a volume of his poetry, Fanny is moved by the lines “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” though she is more impressed by John’s devotion to his dying brother, Tom. Campion keeps the focus on the domestic; the Brawnes’ strained finances are revealed by the fact that Fanny’s mother does most of the cooking. Yet a baked tart is photographed with equal importance as John’s pen and ink, and the gentle rhythms of a bustling household contrast lyrically with his austerity of purpose.

Scathing reviews, however, dash the poet’s hopes for an independent income, making marriage impossible. A more immediate impediment is Charles, who, somewhat rightly at first, perceives Fanny as a coquette (Schneider is magnificently churlish). He ridicules her attention to flounces and cross-stitches, and she replies to his increasingly scabrous criticisms with heated confidence. Campion won an Oscar for her screenplay of The Piano, and it’s likely that she will win another for this one. Existing apart from the salons of London (Keats’ admirers, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, are mentioned only in passing), John’s writing is viewed as indistinguishable from his relationship with Fanny. By rooting the story in Hampstead Heath—and the trees and glades that surround it—Campion gives the film an intimacy that defies the conventions of parlor-room dramas. A family outing to a sun-dappled meadow is shown as a joyous communion with nature, and a stroll down a rural pathway shows the couple in perfect sympathy. When John leaves for a sojourn in London, Fanny suffers physically: “When we’re apart, it’s as if the air is sucked out of my lungs,” she explains to her mother. Only later, when John succumbs to tuberculosis, do his words take on a greater importance in her mind.

To her great credit, Campion (and cinematographer Greig Fraser) accompany John’s recitations with visual splendor; a painterly frame of Fanny sitting alone in a field of heather, or John’s delirious rambling into a hedgerow do as much to reflect their individual turmoil. Though the inspired costuming (by Campion’s longtime designer, Janet Patterson) gives the film a look that is both authentic and startlingly colorful, it’s the stark, haunting score by Mark Bradshaw that is most descriptive of their doomed attachment. And that attachment is almost flawlessly enacted by Whishaw and Cornish; together, they seem as a natural and inevitable a pair as any seen onscreen in recent memory, yet they are equally vivid in their scenes apart, especially Cornish, who conveys an interior life as full of subtle ardor as John’s. In the end, though, it’s the words that give the film its rapture. “Poetic craft is a carcass . . . it needs to be lived through the senses,” says John. It’s a creed that Campion realizes beautifully.

Head Cheese

Zombieland

Directed by Ruben Fleischer

The titular Zombieland of this week’s most popular film is a kind of post-apocalyptic America in which flesh-hungry corpses rule the roost. A zombie plague has wiped out most of humanity; the world is a giant video game for the few surviving Homo sapiens, for whom the unifying M.O. is kill or be killed. (Eat or be eaten?) Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) delineates a series of rules for surviving the new paradigm. He’s a tight-ass, phobic dork, whose average Friday night consists of a marathon World of Warcraft session and a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew Code Red (a sly bit of self-aware product placement on the part of PepsiCo here). He sets out from his college in Texas toward Columbus, Ohio, where he hopes to find his family still alive. Soon he meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson, at his most Woody Harrelson-esque), a badass with a customized Escalade and a weakness for Twinkies. (They eschew real names in favor of towns: “Keeps us from getting too familiar.”) The two set on a killing spree that unites them with a pair of young women (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) and takes them in the direction of Los Angeles. This leads to an all-time-great cameo appearance (that your asshole friends have probably already spoiled).

Zombieland continues modern cinema’s obsession with fast-moving zombies, rather than the arms-straight-in-front walkers of the old George Romero films. These monsters are dextrous—they can find their way around obstacles, climb fences, hold on to moving vehicles. And unlike their celluloid predecessors, such as the ones that stalked the land in search of “braaainnzzzz,” these are right at home munching on, as in one of the film’s most colorfully grotesque scenes, a bit of colon. So suspense is thrown right out the window. The fast action allows for some excellent kill scenes, but there’s little substance beyond the surface splatter. That is to say, Zombieland is a monster movie for, and about (sort of), the A.D.D. generation. That’s not entirely a swipe: First-time director Ruben Fleischer has this thing stylized to a fault, from the slow-motion splashes and crashes of the opening credits to the pop-up titles throughout. It looks cool on the big screen, and might look even cooler on your Mac. But the script is thin on ideas: It’s attempting to be a cross between Shaun of the Dead and Crank, and it’s not as clever as either. Still, as one of Columbus’ rules goes, you have to “enjoy the little things,” and on that it can be said that Zombieland is both little and enjoyable.

—John Brodeur


Bustin’ loose: Page in Whip It.

Sk8er Grrrl

Whip It

Directed by Drew Barrymore

Though it’s set in the rapidly growing women’s roller derby scene, Whip It (which refers to a impressively slick roller-derby play) is based on, at its heart, the eternal struggle between parent and child. In this case, it’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden as Brook Cavendar) vs. daughter (Ellen Page as Bliss) in a dried-up Texas burg near Austin.

Mom wants Bliss to compete in beauty pageants. Bliss wants to play roller derby. The 20th century vs. the 21st century. Both, in their own way, want to escape the humdrum of life in the burg, going to high school (17-year-old Bliss) and delivering mail (mom). While much of the film’s hook—and its entertainment value—is built around the rough-and-tumble roller derby matches, the film would collapse if the mother-daughter drama didn’t work.

It does. Page and Harden go at each other with absolute emotional clarity.

But more about that later, because the roller derby scenes are as entertaining as a punch in the face. First-time director Drew Barrymore has lined up a dream cast of tough girls, including famed stuntwoman Zoe Bell (as Bloody Holly), hip-hop star Eve (as Rosa Sparks) and perpetually snarling Juliette Lewis (as Iron Maven), and turned them loose in a flamboyant, DIY world of skill and style—boosted, of course with a healthy shot of good-natured violence. Based on Shauna Cross’ novel Derby Girl, roller derby is convincingly presented as part self-empowerment tool, part hell-raising good time.

Page is an underestimated talent, mostly because Juno didn’t require her to be much more than a smartass. Here, she’s as convincingly uncomfortable trying on gowns for beauty contests as she is freewheeling and self-assured when on skates. The real surprise in the cast is SNL vet Kristin Wiig, who conjures up emotional reserves she hasn’t previously had an opportunity to use.

The main problem with Whip It, though, is that it tries too hard to please, too hard to be fair to all the characters. Someone has to turn out to be an asshole, don’t they? The other problem is the shambling script—which has characters that seem to have wandered in from Napoleon Dynamite and other clichéd indie-film “classics”—and the shambling direction.

But first-timer Barrymore gets the big confrontation just right, because Harden and Page are that good. (And their reconciliation scene is even truer.) This makes everything OK.

—Shawn Stone

Pants Not on Fire

The Invention of Lying

Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson

It’s always interesting explaining to your child why sometimes telling a lie isn’t such a bad thing. “Grammy, I love the crocheted pullover with the Day-Glo kitty cat!” and “No, Dad, you don’t look that old,” being two of the sorts of white lies we spout when not doing so would result in hurt feelings and (in the case of Grammy) recrimination. The movie The Invention of Lying plays with this idea, going so far as to create an alternate universe in which everybody blurts out the truth, no matter how painful. Anna (Jennifer Garner) matter-of-factly informs Mark (co-director Ricky Gervais) that there’s positively no hope for a potential pairing, as his gene pool would certainly wreak havoc on the perfect children she’s guaranteed to have. Even ads are to the point: Coke’s tag line is “It’s very famous,” whereas Pepsi’s is “When they don’t have Coke,” and a sign in front of a nursing home screams “A sad place for hopeless old people.”

As the movie begins, Mark is being fired from his job as a producer of historical narrative-type films about the 13th century. Seems his work, detailing the Black Plague, is just too depressing. Coworkers played by Tina Fey and Rob Lowe casually inform him that working with him has been among their worst life experiences, and they’ve always hated him. It’s amazing that he’s able to rebound with a blind date with Anna, but as a helpful waiter observes, it’s clear that she’s way out of Mark’s league. Things change when, on a sudden impulse, Mark lets slip a lie, resulting in a financial windfall. Emboldened by his discovery that untruths can be beneficial, he weaves a stunning vision about the afterlife to a dying woman, whose nursing staff are so moved that they begin to spread the word about Mark’s messiah-like pronunciations. Suddenly, everybody on earth wants to hear what Mark has to say, buying into it even when he proclaims that the secret to the afterlife is printed on Pizza Hut boxes. He informs somebody that he’s black, and the guy responds, without missing a beat, “I always knew it.”

Fame and fortune find Mark, but he still can’t score with Anna, who asks him if his newfound status changes his genetic makeup. The movie, which is uneven at best, plays fast and loose with the Hollywood staple of the sloppy good-guy loser winning the impossibly gorgeous and accomplished girl, but we’re left to wonder why in the world Mark would still want somebody so vapid and overly concerned with appearance. The Invention of Lying is an uneasy melding of Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty, as it moves its central premise into the area of religious satire, culminating in Mark’s image replacing that of Jesus on the cross. One wishes that the immensely appealing Gervais would have stuck to the satire and wicked black humor, rather than muddy the waters with the romance. Given that nearly all of the characters in the movie are highly unlikable, including Anna (although Garner is dead on), it’s a strange decision. In the end, the uneasy pairing of cynicism and sentimentality that make up The Invention of Lying is its downfall.

—Laura Leon


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