CINEMA: But How Was The Play, Mrs. Lincoln?

conspirator-movie-poster-550x814_1.jpgTHE CONSPIRATOR (2010, directed by Robert Redford, 123 minutes, U.S.)

IN A BETTER WORLD (2010, directed by Susanne Bier, 113 minutes, Denmark)

POTICHE (2010, directed by Francois Ozon, 103 minutes, France)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Even though he never appears on-screen, it’s hard not to think about The Conspirator‘s director, Robert Redford, while his new film unspools. Besides playing nothing but earnest, handsome heroes in his career, he is admired by many for his Liberal activism and founding of the Sundance Film Festival, a festival lauded for its support of independent film. Yes, the man’s philanthropy and good intentions are unassailable but the films he has made as a director, including 2007’s Lions For Lambs, have shown the glaring limitations of cinematic good intentions.

The Conspirator dramatizes the true story of what happened to those who conspired in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a story that would seem to be ripe for drama with a contemporary resonance. With the country still feeling the wrenching tragedy of the crime, the conspirators, like those poor souls living in a legal limbo in Guantanamo, were not given access to our legal system but instead were tried by an unfairly stacked military tribunal. The film shows Mary Surrat (Robin Wright), who owned the boarding house where her son (Jimmy Simmons) hatched the plot, whipped up in the public’s desire for vengeance although there’s little evidence that she knew of the crime.

Frederick Aiken (James Mcavoy of Atonement) is given the job of defending her in the role you could imagine a young Redford playing. He’s none-to-happy to be given the assignment, but you better believe that by the end he’ll have a realization of the basic legal idea that even those accused of the worst crimes deserve to be given proper legal representation. This predictable development is just one of many plot points that the audience will see coming from miles away, including Aiken’s attraction to Surrat’s pretty daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) and the dirty tactics used by the malevolent prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston, channeling his father’s gift for playing corrupt and powerful men).

All the elements for great drama are here, but I couldn’t shake the idea of Redford as a stiff, old history professor giving us a monotonal lecture while we sit uncomfortably in our school desks, doodling in our notebooks. He even throws away the assassination of Lincoln (stealing a few shots from Griffith’s Birth of a Nation), rushing through the crime in a hurried, undramatic manner so he can get to more stiff, legalistic dialogue from James D. Solomon’s colorless script. Redford isn’t subtle about the injustice that happened nearly 150 years ago, nor is he vague about its contemporary parallels (you’ll see suspects in familiar white hoods) but without passion, imagination, or outrage, The Conspirator makes for a pretty weak protest.

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The winner of this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, Danish director Susanne Bier’s In a Better World attempts to add political depth to the issue of in-a-better-world-movie-poster-1020551859_1.jpgviolence, revenge, and schoolyard bullying. While twelve year-old Elias’ (Markus Rygaard) father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is busy in a medical camp in Sudan, the boy is terrorized by bullies at his school. A new boy Christian (William Johnk Neilsen) arrives and violently rescues Elias from the bullying. With Anton too far away to help guide his son, Elias joins Christian as they begin a youthful exploration of their violent impulses.

Anders Thomas Jensen’s script paints a very believable trajectory, showing how frustrated kids process their anger, from self-hatred, to vandalism and, as things grow more serious here, into bomb-making. Meanwhile, Anton finds his own pacifism challenged while dealing with murderous warlords in Sudan. He tries to teach the boys not to return a bully’s violence in one grueling scene where he finds himself embarrassingly slapped down by a local neighborhood thug. No matter how drawn you are to Anton’s non-violent idealism, you can’t help by wrestle with your desire to see this thug slapped back.

Bier gets such nuanced performances for her actors, especially the troubled boys, that the film hardly needs its Sudanese subplot, which feels something less than organic. But maybe In A Better World‘s melodramatic war zone setting is what is needed to bring attention to the small scale but tremendously important issues of bullying and youth violence. It’s another film that wears its good intentions on its sleeve yet it earns points for not pretending that there are easy answers for confronting the world’s violence.

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potiche_movie_poster.jpgFrancois Ozon has his own self-empowerment message going on in his latest film Potiche but he keeps it peripheral to the film’s oh-so-light sense of fun. “Potiche” roughly translates to “trophy wife,” who is in this case the great Catherine Deneuve. She plays Suzanne Pujol, the wife of an umbrella factory owner who is quite chipper doing not much at all, while her “Type-A”, woman-chasing husband deals with his unhappy mistress and a factory of striking workers. When the stress sends him to the hospital, Suzanne ends up taking over the business and she finds a unsuspected aptitude in handling the factory and its disgruntled employees.

Set in 1977, Potiche’s sense of humor gives it the feeling of a 1970s TV sitcom, albeit with a wittier French heart. Suzanne’s love of business reawakens her spirit, as does an affair with an old flame played by Gerard Depardieu. Ozon’s story deals with kidnapping, infidelity, family dissension, and divorce yet he keeps the atmosphere as airy and light as a croissant’s crust. To tell the truth, I’m sure I would groan if this film starred say, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, but Deneuve and Dapardieu have an almost unfair hold on our attention here, making what is light seem almost substantial. Potiche hardly seems like a meal, but it is fairly satisfying all the same.

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