Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Overcoming Obstacles To Love

No one ever said love was easy. Getting two personalities who have met, sparked, and found a mutual fascination to mesh over a longer period of time than their initial infatuation is hard work. Hard work indeed.

New relationships can easily be sabotaged by one of the partner's behavioral quirks. In I Love You, Man. the bride's habit of sharing the most intimate details of her relationship with all of her girlfriends not only rattles the groom (Paul Rudd), but causes some problems when she gets a taste of her own medicine. 

Occasionally there are other people who, for dysfunctional reasons of their own, may consciously -- or unconsciously -- try to subvert a burgeoning romance. In one of her hit movies (Notting Hill), Julia Roberts played the victim of her boyfriend's roommate's thoughtlessness. In another (My Best Friend's Wedding), she was a scheming saboteur. 

In Meet The Parents an overbearing control freak of a father (Robert DeNiro) tries to intimidate his future son-in-law (Ben Stiller). In Oklahoma!, a jealous rival (Jud Fry) threatens to kill the groom. Jane Fonda squares off against Jennifer Lopez in Monster-in-Law. Even pets can present an obstacle to marriage (Must Love Dogs).

How, then does a young couple manage to protect themselves from members of their extended family who are determined to undermine their future happiness?  Two films recently screened at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival examined this predicament with young lovers caught in radically different situations. The contrasts offered plenty of food for thought as to whether young lovers should hold onto the early wave of puppy love or cut their losses before too much emotional damage can be inflicted. Each film offered plenty of moments for doubts, second thoughts, and the sentiment captured in this lovely song from 1955's hit Broadway musical, Plain and Fancy.

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There are many ways to provoke a family war, but one of the surest is to marry someone the family has never met and then present her to your parents as a fait accompli. Marrying someone famous almost makes things worse. Brushing aside presumed social responsibilities when a family's fortune is at stake never fails to get the relatives on edge. In this clip from Rodgers & Hammerstein's version of Cinderella, Bernadette Peters explains why:

In the latest treatment of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue, Jessica Biel plays Larita, a famous American race car driver who has just married the young, impressionable, and obviously immature John Whittaker (Ben Barnes). The scion of a British family whose fortunes are quickly crumbling, John is very much a mama's boy. His control freak of a mother (portrayed by the great Kristin Scott Thomas) is one of those fire-breathing matriarchs who has always been used to having her way. The fact that her son married without consulting her (and married an American, to boot) is rotting her garters big time.

As one of the only men in his village to return from the front, John's father (played by Colin Firth) is suffering from the guilt of having survived World War I. Emotionally traumatized, he has withdrawn into himself as a way of coping with his wife's tendency to act like a shrew. When his son brings home a beautiful, sexy, and accomplished young bride he's more than content to sit back and watch his wife's authority be challenged.

Noel Coward was only 25 years old when he wrote Easy Virtue (his 16th play) in 1924. A young Alfred Hitchcock produced a silent film version of Coward's play in 1928. A surprisingly keen observer of human behavior, Coward once noted that "It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit." 

When the play was revived in 1999 as part of the Chichester Coward Centenary Festival (with Greta Scacchi starring as Larita), one of England's theater critics noted that:
"Easy Virtue is a marvelous reminder of Coward's ability to dynamite from within the high society he is generally assumed to have been celebrating. This is a savage attack on the hypocrisy of the early 1920s and the way in which it used Victorian standards, already outdated by war, to destroy the lives of those it could not control. The result is a psychological study of sexual repression and guilt and revenge, as the old certainties crumble at the advance of the jazz age."
In preparing the movie, the producers and director faced a curious challenge: How to remake Easy Virtue without turning it into a pure period piece. As the film's co-writer, Sheridan Jobbins, notes: 
"The original stage play is a melodrama, not one of Coward's signature comedies. When we were first talking about how to find a way into the comedy without being too heavy handed, Stephan [Elliott] paraphrased Coward by saying that 'Wit is a spice, not  a sauce.' That led to the defining style for our screenplay: Never try to out-Coward Coward!"
From its opening moments (including a delightful titles sequence), the film develops a style of its own. While the dowdiness of the Whittaker estate perfectly accommodates its matriarch's starchily repressed lifestyle, Larita's car, her wardrobe -- indeed everything about her -- is distinctly modern, metallic, and more mature than her provincial hosts could ever hope to be. Larita never stoops to conquer. Instead, she dares John's fussy family to rise to her level of brilliance and grace.

"We didn't want to make a period film," insists director Stephan Elliott.  "We wanted to make a modern film for modern audiences. So we tried to give it a really contemporary voice. As part of the look, we took a really '30s style to Larita. When she is in silver and white, she looks like the classic '30s movie star: stuck on Mars in this frayed, dying old world. Any bright colour that was around here, we got rid of it. Jessica is an alien arriving from Mars in a silver spaceship. That became a very interesting thing about the color palette."
There is much to admire in this version of Easy Virtue: Martin Kenzie's cinematography, Colin Firth's deeply masculine portrayal of a shattered war veteran, Jessica Biel's performance as a sex bomb who knows how to fight fire with fire, and most of all, Kristin Scott Thomas's characterization of the icy mother-in-law. Stephan Elliott's attention to detail is thrilling, to the point where you will want to see the movie again just to catch so many things that might have swept by too quickly during your first viewing.

But above all is the intelligence of Coward's writing, which tackles everything from the fading glory of the British upper class (whose minds and hearts remain stuck in the Victorian era) to the real-life compassion of a young American who freely admits to having helped her dying, pain-ridden husband commit suicide. Talk is easy. Virtue, on the other hand......... Here's the trailer:

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Some people might be surprised by my comparing Easy Virtue to a new film by Cruz Angeles which caused a lot of buzz at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. But consider the following. In Easy Virtue, the Whittaker family (as well as the society in which it once thrived) is losing its grip on reality. Clinging to a pre-World War I morality isn't solving any of its problems. Nor will things ever be the same again.

In Don't Let Me Drown we meet two immigrant families in New York that are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. One family's father is working in the ruins, searching for bodies among the wreckage. Another family lost its daughter in the terrorist attack -- a daughter whose life was filled with promise, but who will never come home again. As the filmmaker notes:
"Don’t Let Me Drown is first and foremost a love story about two teenagers, but it is also an intimate look into the daily lives and struggles of two ethnically different Latino families from Brooklyn. Stefanie’s family is a third generation Dominican family grappling with grief. Her parents are constantly battling over their conflicting ways of dealing with the death of their oldest daughter while emotionally neglecting Stefanie. The other family is Lalo’s, a first generation Mexican immigrant family who is here illegally and is struggling financially. Lalo is a “Mexi-Yorker,” an American-born Mexican teen with all the swagger and nuances of your typical Brooklyn urban youth. He represents the next generation of bonafide New York-bred Mexicans and it’s the first time we see one on film. But he is no different than the other mainly Latino Caribbean teens he hangs out with -- although they are always busting his chops about his Mexican descent."

Cruz has painted his portrait of young love against a background of fear, anger, bitterness, and desperation. Not quite a Romeo and Juliet for the post-9/11 world, his film does a good job of focusing in on the pressures confronting Lalo and Stefanie as they struggle to acknowledge their feelings for each other. 

Lalo is a good kid who is trying to do well in school, who worries about his family's finances, and who is concerned about his father's constant coughing each night when the old man returns home from working at Ground Zero. When Lalo is brutally attacked by Stefanie's jealous, abusive father (Ricardo Chavira) -- a macho fool who does not even know that a close friend is trying to put the moves on his underage daughter --  Lalo's wounds cannot squelch his feelings for Stefanie. Young E. J. Bonilla gives such a beautifully tender and natural performance as Lalo that one can easily envision him having a major film career.

As a young girl living in a family that has been devastated by grief, Stefanie (Gleendylis Inoa) is just trying to get through school. Each night she listens to the constant fights between her mother (Gina Torres) and her dysfunctional father, who cannot bring himself to talk about the family's loss and has an unfortunate tendency toward domestic violence. Stefanie's main goal is to finish school without getting pregnant or letting any emotional involvement sabotage her future.

How do two teenagers try to keep their love alive under such pressures? How does a filmmaker capture the tension eroding their families?
"Times were bleak when we started writing Don’t Let Me Drown. New York City was under post-traumatic stress," recalls Cruz. "The humanism that prevailed in the days after 9/11 had turned sour. People were jittery and suspicious of one another. There was fear, paranoia, sorrow, and anxiety. Media outlets were predicting potential massive anthrax attacks and people were frightened that subways would soon start blowing up indiscriminately. Then there were the insidious red alerts, plus the F-16 fighter jets and military helicopters that would frequent the skies. All this, along with the ramped-up presence of police, ambulance and fire truck sirens all over the city, created an atmosphere of hysteria. The world felt like it was falling apart.

Maria and I started writing Don’t Let Me Drown to escape this depressing and sometimes infuriating atmosphere. We wanted to create an alternative reality, to write a story where love and hope could overcome hardship. As writers, we needed to escape into a more uplifting reality. Yes, things were bad, but the folks on the street who were struggling were still trying to live their lives as the healing process paved its way. There was laughter to cope. There was hope in order to survive. And yes, there was love to feel like there was something to live for."
Don't Let Me Drown has moments of great humor, shyness, and tenderness. Its appeal creeps up on you and eventually wins you over (mostly due to Bonilla's deep brown eyes and Lalo's unrelenting sweetness). The most notable contrast between Easy Virtue and Don't Let Me Drown does not involve their physical surroundings or the emotional turmoil faced by their characters. 

One can't help but notice the huge difference in the vocabulary used by the characters in each movie. In Noel Coward's Easy Virtuethe script is witty, the delivery highly sophisticated, and the blows are delivered with surgical precision.  In Don't Let Me Drown, there is a poverty of language, a noticeable inability to express oneself, and its blows are delivered with wildly-swinging fists.

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