Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Sex beats crying any day

Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake Posted by Hello

Liam Neeson and Laura Linney as Alfred Kinsey and his wife, Clara McMillen Posted by Hello

One thing about going to see all of the movies nominated for major Oscar categories is that you end up seeing movies that you otherwise would not have seen in a million years. Sometimes you wander upon a wonderful surprise; other times you feel like you are seated before an endless instrument of torture.

While the critics simply adored Vera Drake, I found myself wanting to slit my wrists while watching it. Not because it is so depressing, but because I was so very tired of watching not much happen.

On the other hand, Kinsey was a surprisingly humorous biopic about the most serious of scientist’s deep inquiry into the true nature of human sexuality. I didn’t want it to go on forever, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Dutifully working hard to see all nominated films, Mom and I went to see Vera Drake on Sunday. Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, not Lovely and Amazing as I thought) is nominated best director and writer, while Imelda Staunton is nominated best actress.

Not that it’s a bad movie. Of course, it is not. But it is a dreary, interminable, difficult-to-understand-the-dialogue movie. The weather was grey outside anyway, and the movie was grey inside. And while Staunton gives quite a performance as Drake, it mostly involves her crying for about an hour and a half. Well, the first half she’s a perfectly lovely and happy person—mostly going about her life, doing her work, giving cup after cup of tea to the less fortunate and managing to somehow successfully matchmake her terminally shy daughter—but then things change for the much worse.

During a police interrogation, Drake is questioned about her practice of doling out abortion-inducing services for the past 20-plus years, and we are forced to endure what seems like hours of chin-quivering hysteria in which Drake cannot talk or answer any questions. I felt heartless, but I was thinking “after choosing to perform this highly illegal activity for most of her life, wouldn’t this woman be somewhat prepared that the police would eventually catch on?” And frankly, even if she wasn’t prepared, couldn’t we cut past the crying and get to the part where something happens?

OK, maybe I’m heartless. Probably I am. But it is this kind of film that makes me question my movie-going taste. Clearly, Vera Drake is critically acclaimed. But why? It’s a fine movie, but it’s so hard to sit through. At the end, I didn’t feel particularly educated or entertained. I just felt happy the movie was over.

I had a similar experience to this when Tina and I saw Affliction, starring Nick Nolte, way back in 1997. (1997! Seven years ago??!! How on earth is that possible?) We sat in a tiny and freezing theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle and just suffered. Again, it wasn’t a bad movie, I guess, although it sort of seemed bad to me, but it wasn’t an enjoyable movie.

After Vera Drake, I had low expectations for Kinsey, which told the life story of famed sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey, known to his students and loved ones as Prok (short for Prof. K). Oscar-nominated movies are often serious as a heart attack – not a glimmer of comedic light manages to get through. That wasn’t true with this film.

And that’s as it should be. Sex is funny. Not only is the physical act completely ridiculous, from an observer’s point of view, talking about it is also funny. Kinsey does a delightful job portraying the partnership of equals that Dr. Kinsey shares with his wife, Clara McMillen, known as Mac, played by Laura Linney.

Since You Can Count on Me, Linney has become a regular at these awards shows, and her performance in this movie demonstrates why. The performances in Kinsey, particuarly Linney’s and Liam Neeson’s in the title role, are understated and seamless.

In my view, Clint Eastwood took Neeson’s spot among the Best Actor nominees and it’s too bad. Eastwood is a brilliant filmmaker, but his role in Million Dollar Baby is vintage Eastwood – crusty aging guy shows that he has a heart. Neeson as Kinsey gives us nothing we’ve seen before from him. Neeson showed a different side as the noble Rob Roy or The Priest in Gangs of New York; in this movie, he’s an obsessed scientist who goes about collecting his evidence – whether it be wasps or human sex lives – with single-minded passion. He’s not really an exciting man, unless one finds intensity exciting.

Truthfully, maybe I enjoyed Kinsey more than Vera Drake because I was in a better mood when I saw it. Or maybe it was because I could understand every word of Kinsey and I got to laugh a bit. But either way, both experiences are what I love about going to see the nominated films – you never know what you are going to get, but you know you are going to see the best films the year has to offer. For better or for worse.

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