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Forthcoming movies about literary analysis

October 12, 2011

Here is a movie I want to see:


It’s said that academia is a famously back-stabbing place owing to its small-potatoes stakes. “Footnote” sets out to reveal the navel-gazing elements behind the pursuit of arcane knowledge while laying bare the storms it creates when ego and father-son rivalry play their parts. Scripter-helmer Joseph Cedar shifts sympathies back and forth as frequently as he changes tone from jokey to bitter, skewering ivory tower blindness with some wit and, just occasionally, emotion. A tendency to overbake may distance some, as could the immersion in obscure corners of Judaica scholarship, though Sony Classics’ early Cannes pickup shows noteworthy confidence.

Target auds will undoubtedly be Jewish viewers and college towns, a not insignificant demographic, yet “Footnote” is unlikely to find the same kind of heavy “fest play as Cedar’s Silver Bear winner “Beaufort.” Academic researchers rarely make for dynamic screen material (unless there’s sexual hanky-panky involved), so Cedar goes to great lengths — indeed, too great — to turn editing and music into the driving force behind the pic’s liveliness.

Professor Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) worked for decades in semi-obscurity comparing corrupted manuscripts of the Jewish texts collectively known as the Talmud, with the near-impossible goal of preparing a version as close to the original ancient writings as possible. While Eliezer devotes himself to the minutiae, burying himself in the library or his study and barely publishing, his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) produces book after book on broad Talmudic culture. Father looks with disdain on his son’s intellectual pursuits as much as on Uriel’s constant need for the limelight.

In many ways Uriel is a more human companion to Michael Sheen’s pedant in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”: he loves to lecture, he soaks up the adoration of students and colleagues alike, and he needs to be right, at all times. While Eliezer toils away with little recognition apart from a lone footnote in a multi-tome work, Uriel has honors heaped upon him, which he accepts with a faux-humility calculated to set his father’s teeth on edge.

The script nails academic gobbledygook along with the viciousness of professorial rivalries, nicely realized not only via the father-son conflict but between Eliezer and peer Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewesohn, pitch-perfect), the latter a self-righteous, two-faced SOB who saw his career flourish by deliberately sidelining Eliezer. The pic’s best scene occurs in a tiny office into which Uriel is called after Eliezer gets news that he’s receiving Israel’s most prestigious award, the Israel prize. The awards committee is chaired by Grossman, and Cedar’s aim is unerring as he targets the insularity of the academic world along with the secret pacts and betrayals regularly concocted to keep rivals down. Tellingly, the scene is also one of the very few not propelled by music.

The sequence comes after a key though not unexpected plot twist, whose reveal occurs around the 40-minute mark. Uriel’s subsequent behavior shifts his character from merely a pompous egoist to more of what wife Dikla (Alma Zak) calls him — a nice guy who avoids confrontation. Viewers feel a surge of satisfaction when he finally does go on the attack, for the right reasons, which makes the character a far more rounded figure than originally presented.

With all his flaws, at least Uriel moves forward, unlike his father, whose recondite pursuit of an elusive ur-text is ultimately presented as blind intellectual masturbation no more useful than Mr. Casaubon’s unachieved “great work” in “Middlemarch.” Cedar’s impatience with Eliezer’s pursuits are crystallized in a well-written speech he puts in the mouth of the old scholar, in which the cataloguing of potsherds as opposed to the study of the vessel itself is proven to be all means and no end.

Despite the presence of Dikla, along with Eliezer’s wife Yehudit (Alisa Rosen), “Footnote” is a decidedly male-centric film. Structurally, the pic is divided into named chapters that make for cute markers but give it the not-entirely satisfying feel of a jaunty satire. Bouncy editing is intimately tied to Amit Poznansky’s score, the latter sounding like Stravinsky at his most playful and competing far too much with characters and themes. As in Cedar’s past films, corridors and doors play a key role, with Yaron Scharf’s tight lensing subtly responding to the notion of dividers and passageways.

Here is a movie I plan to skip:

938495 -Anonymous

Film festivals are always filled with “passion projects.”  Films that directors, producers or screenwriters have spent years or even decades trying to get made.  This year’s festival season has more then recent memory including Glenn Close scripted “Albert Nobbs” and David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” which playwright Christopher Hampton has been trying to get made for over 15 years.  A more peculiar entry to that club debuted this afternoon at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival in the Roland Emmerich revisionist thriller “Anonymous.”

A curious detour from his usual end of the world genre flicks, Emmerich has tried to get the Elizabethan era period piece made since at least 2006.  As he cobbled up enough financing for it he ended up continuing his blockbuster run with “The Day After Tomorrow,” “10,000 B.C.” and “2012.”  Many critics or moviegoers may wince at the idea of Emmerich fashioning a tale centered around the creation of Shakespeare’s greatest works (subtly has hardly been his strong suit), but it soon becomes apparent he’s not the problem with the picture nor why it took so long to get produced.  Simply, the screenplay by John Orloff centers on such a ridiculous scenario that no performance or direction can save it from the whole concept being just plain silly. 

“Anonymous” takes the conceit that Shakespeare never wrote his famous plays, but instead was the frontman for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, played by an almost unrecognizable Rhys Ifans. The artistically inclined De Vere, it seems, has been blackmailed by the infamous William Cecil (David Thewlis) advisor to Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) and also his father-in-law, from ever putting his name on his works or writing in public (Cecil believes theater is a sin in the eyes of god).  Itching for the world to hear his work, de Vere approaches middlebrow playwright Ben Foster (relative newcomer Sebastian Armesto) be the “name” on his plays (plus he gets paid for it).  At least that’s the plan until the charismatic and overbearing actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) decides to steal the credit (although, to be fair, Foster was hardly enthusiastic about the “job”).  As “Shakespeare” becomes more popular over the years, de Vere is able to enjoy his success as his own.  Unfortunately, Orloff has concocted a grand and completely unbelievable conspiracy that ties in de Vere, Cecil, Cecil’s hunchback heir Robert (Edward Hogg ready to race up and ring Notre Dame’s bells), the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), the Earl of Southhampton (Xavier Samuel) and a long lost romance centered around the Queen. 

In theory, Emmerich and Orloff could have fashioned an entertaining thriller, but within 20 minutes the entire picture’s storyline has become completely implausible.  Shakespeare is played as such a dufus, such a braggart, such a fool, such a 16th century frat boy that it’s impossible that anyone would ever believe he could write a letter let alone pen some of the greatest tomes in the English language.  It’s simply ludicrous and makes the entire movie mostly a joke.  And I won’t spoil it here, but an unnecessary “revelation” to de Vere at the end of the picture is stunningly even more ridiculous. 

Among the actors, Ifans does his best to give de Vere a soul, but most of the ensemble can’t elevate the melodramatic nature of the material.  The only one who escapes with her dignity completely intact is Redgrave.  We’ve seen a lot of different version of the Virgin Queen over the past 20 years on screen and on television.  From Cate Blanchett in both “Elizabeth” features to Judi Dench’s Oscar winning cameo in “Shakespeare in Love” to Helen Mirren’s calculating queen in the HBO mini-series “Queen Elizabeth I,” but Redgrave give us something else entirely.  Her Elizabeth, in the final years of her life, is slowly losing her mind as dementia creeps in.  One moment she’s aware of both Cecil’s devious scheming and another she’s bordering on insanity.  It’s a finely nuanced performance that only helps to put the spotlight on just how obvious and bombastic the rest of the picture is.

On one last positive note, Emmerich and his crew (including notable costumes by Lisy Christl) make the approximately $30 million picture look like it cost closer to $100 million.  And yes, that’s a compliment of some sort.

“Anonymous” opens nationwide on Oct. 28. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2011 8:54 pm

    “Anonymous” has the same problem as “From Hell” for me: the central twist at the heart of the story is so hackneyed it puts me to sleep just thinking about it.

    Having one of the several literary women of the Elizabethan age be “Shakespeare” would at least be a little fresher, not to mention add more women to the cast.

  2. October 12, 2011 9:17 pm

    I’m afraid I missed From Hell, but otherwise I completely agree with you Chuck.

    I’m definitely not a Shakespeare denier but re female authorship theories of Shakeseare: We were just talking about this. Here is what I wrote in that comment:

    “Also, several female authors have been theorized for the Shakespearean corpus, including Mary Sidney Herbert; and rather surprisingly, Amelia Bassano Lanier, who was also reportedly secretly Jewish. One highly innovative theater group, the Dark Lady Players, performs works based on the theory of female authorship. I’ve seen some of their performances and they are pretty wild — unlike the Shakespeare you are used to!”

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