Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Paris to Venice to.... Chawton?

Near the end of the credits for “The Tourist” is listed the film upon which it is based -- a 2005 French film which is noted in Netflix as extant but not in DVD form: “Anthony Zimmer.” Its description fits the “The Tourist,” which just changed the original film’s French characters to British.

This version is …sweet. It was made to be fun, and it succeeds. Angelina Jolie is far from the smart stoic woman she was in “Salt,” and Johnny Depp far from Captain Jack Sparrow. As is appropriate in a film that tends toward the caper, the authorities are shown as excessive in their zealous quest for thief Alex Pearce, who stole a great deal of money from a British mobster (a chilly, realistic Steven Berkoff), who surrounds himself with Russian thugs. Said mobster’s name is Reginald Shaw. You just know, though, when he was a low level thug on his way up, he was called ‘Reggie.’

Ms. Jolie’s character Elise is allegedly British, and is the only link the authorities have to the whereabouts of Pearce, who’s been in hiding for several years with several billion British pounds of ill-gotten gains. The lead investigator for the Metropolitan Police, who consistently oversteps his bounds and budgets spending lots and lots of money with both French and Italian Interpol agents, is a frustrated civil servant named Acheson played by Paul Bettany. His complexion is as chilly as Berkoff’s, his thinness presumably having more to do with sleepless nights and excess coffee than any exercise regimen. And what does he want? The many millions in taxes Mr. Pearce owes, but more: He wants Pearce’s hide. Acheson’s boss is played by Timothy Dalton in a ragged acerbic style.

We watch the clownish police miss the good stuff – while watching the lovely Ms. Jolie walking down a Parisian street (wondering if she’s wearing underwear that day), they spot an innocent courier doing his job, and miss the interesting partial profile of another man watching Elise. We particularly notice him, of course, because we recognize him. Some minutes later, when the French police have gone off in an entirely wrong direction, we watch Rufus Sewall stroll away. Ah hah! says the audience. We don’t know what’s going on yet, but that’s Rufus Sewall, and it wouldn’t be Rufus Sewall if he weren’t deeply involved in this plot!

Like any good caper film set in Europe, we must take the train from one country to another. On said train, Ms. Jolie follows the instructions provided by her missing lover and picks a man of similar height and build as the missing Mr. Pearce. She easily sets him up for a chump. Said man is a rather sad sack Johnny Depp with bad hair, non-descript clothes, reading a paperback espionage thriller. He is an American, his name is Frank, which Ms. Jolie tells him in all the commercials is a bad name. But his last name is “Tupelo,” so now all I can think of is honey, and a cup of tea to stir it in.

The destination of the train is Venice. Perfection. Alleyways and canals, boats and precious architecture, light reflecting off dark water, and a society we gaze upon without wondering how it got there or what’s going on in those winding little alleys between the buildings that open onto the canals. Claustrophobia, paranoia, pick an ‘oia,’ and it can be put to good use in Venice. Elise invites Frank to join her on her taxi boat, and then in her hotel, where the missing Alex has provided her with wardrobe and jewelry befitting a rogue robber baron’s consort, the sort of people that go to balls in Venice. Unmasked.

Meanwhile, of course there’s a mole in the British police who informs the angry mobster that his goal is in Venice, and he knows the thief well enough to know where he’ll have put up Elise. Now they’re after Frank Tupelo, who is serving his function as the fellow Elise sets up to appear to be the plastic-surgery changed thief. Attack, rescue, attack, rescue, running, climbing, jumping, funny chase scenes in pajamas, people in boats, people falling in canals, all sorts of good fun. As expected, nay required, in any cops and robbers finale, everybody we’ve met shows up again. Including Rufus Sewall, of course.

The script is by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”), Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and the director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Unfortunately it doesn’t live up to the quality one might expect from the first two writers. Scenery by whatever deity you choose and old Venetians and Parisians is beautifully photographed by cinematographer John Seale. I'm not trying to throw in a spoiler, since I don’t wish to ruin any innocent fun some undemanding viewers might get from this film, but aspects of the story suffer from the same problems as Act IV scene ii (lines 380-384 of the 1914 Oxford Shakespeare) of “Cymbeline.” Or, of course, any story in which one (or more) characters are in disguise.

When does who know what? Don’t ask. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry on it. Just enjoy the ride.

I’m all for going out to the movies, despite the absurd costs, since there really is nothing like the big screen. Not to mention supporting the economy, supporting new films... Except when they’re retreads of old ones. (Unless they’re remarkably clever and imaginative retakes of old ones, like 2009's “Star Trek.”) In any case, if you would like to see a well written, well directed, and beautifully acted film, with a story that actually makes sense, I suggest staying home.

I just saw, quite belatedly, Masterpiece Theatre’s “Miss Austen Regrets” with Olivia Williams playing our beloved novelist, sharp, acerbic, funny, angry, clever, loving, sad, lonely, remarkable. Greta Scacchi is her elder sister Cassandra, and these two women sit together, silently or speaking, like sisters. It's a lovely thing to watch. Phyllida Law plays their ornery mother. With lots of hardworking, excellent actors, including Pip Torrens, Tom Hiddleston, and Hugh Bonneville, this film is a delightful reconstruction of Ms. Austen’s later years. In the film’s opening, she accepts then turns down a wealthy suitor, landing herself 12 years later in the Hampton “cottage,” Chawton, in which she wrote most of her novels. By this time the author of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park is famous, although her name is not, since it's not shown on the title page or anywhere else. What Miss Austen’s books do show is the depth of her understanding of her society, and particularly women’s place in it. In Gwyneth Hughes script, you’ll recognize moments that Miss Austen lived then put into her novels, you’ll laugh, you'll fume, you'll cry. As directed by Jeremy Lovering, the film is touching and gripping. For Jane Austen fans -- OK, it may be fair to say Jane Austen geeks -- the film is followed by some wonderful audio extras from Jane’s letters, her niece and nephew’s letters, and general reportage on the elusive author. If you’re not a big Jane Austen fan, you don’t have to listen. If you are a fan, enjoy. “Miss Austen Regrets” is well worth a rental -- have a nice cuppa and watch with a cat on your lap.

~ Molly Matera, logging off the computer, but leaving on the light. So much re-reading to do.

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