Tag: judy davis

Husbands and Wives

Husbands and Wives (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) wait for their friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), in their home so they can head out to dinner together. Gabe and Judy are expecting to eat Chinese food, but what they do not expect is to swallow the news about Sally and Jack getting a divorce. The couple discloses it so flippantly, Gabe is left not knowing what to think or say while Judy responds with a smidgen of hostility. This is a surprise to Gabe and Judy, to say the least, because they have always believed that Jack and Sally share a great marriage. Meanwhile, the divorce forces Gabe and Judy to inspect what does not work in their marriage and face the possibility that perhaps what they have, too, is beyond repair.

“Husband and Wives,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is a picture that is alive, so observant about human psychology and behavior, that looking at the way the characters move and react as well as listening to them speak and be quiet recalls the feelings of reading a novel so immersive, you keep wanting to know more about what happens next even after encountering the final word on the last page.

The four principal performers are not only equal to the task of creating complicated and fascinating characters, they are attuned to one another’s rhythms so no one shines more brightly than the other. For instance, I admired the way Davis allows Sally to be so shrill and controlling and yet at same time opening her up just a little so that we can feel the pain and shame that she grapples with for not being more thoughtful toward her former husband when he needed her most. Pollack gives Jack a certain level of exhaustion from constantly being corrected and criticized by his ex-wife. He is the first to decide to search for happiness, however he defines the word, and just when we think he has it, Jack starts to question the value of his newfound relationship from behind Pollack’s spectacles.

On the other hand, Farrow plays Judy almost like a mouse in voice and the way she scuttles about the apartment. And yet, arguably, she is the smartest of the four—most interesting in that maybe she is not even aware of it—because she has a way of always getting what she wants. Allen, sporting his usual but signature nervous energy, makes us feel for Gabe that even when the thought of having an affair crosses his mind, we do not hate him for it.

The screenplay treats each character like he or she is worthy of being understood. This is reflected in way Allen controls the camera during confrontations. When someone is being attacked with verbal daggers, we are behind that person’s shoulder to make it appear as though we are also being criticized. Then, when that person on the defense takes the offensive position, the camera floats behind the other character’s shoulder so we get to hear where that person is coming from.

All the while the focus is on the dueling faces and how their expressions change throughout a course of a fight. If I were the one behind the camera, I would not have done it any differently. This is because, at least for me, when I confront another person, my eyes go directly on the other’s face to see which of my words trigger the most response: To learn which ones hurt so I can use them again during the heat of the moment and, conversely, to learn which words not to use when things have settled down.

The picture has the courage to poke fun of itself, too. Gabe, a college professor, decides to let one of his most brilliant students, Rain (Juliette Lewis), read the novel he is working on. Though she claims to love what she has read, she criticizes Gabe, which is really Allen, the director, only under a different name, for his ideas especially how he perceives women. Rain’s assessment of the novel can be taken as a direct criticism of the film which is very smart because it is one step ahead of the thing I plan on addressing initially. That playful self-awareness adds an additional mirror alongside one already being held in front us.

“Husbands and Wives” is able to successfully balance quiet desperation as much as the expressions that demand attention. It stumbles a little toward the end, however, when it uses a storm as a symbol of intensity boiling from within each character as well as the washing away of animosities. It is an elementary storytelling technique and yet so heavy-handed that I am reluctant to say that the writer-director has gotten away with it. Still, it is astute about what it wants to say and perceptive about how we might react to it.

The Ref

The Ref (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the night of Christmas Eve, Gus (Denis Leary), a serious-minded thief, breaks into the Willard mansion and accidentally triggers the alarm. Although he is able to make it out of the estate, the town is already teeming with cops and so he decides to hold Caroline (Judy Davis) at gunpoint in hopes of having a hostage and a safe house for the night. Little does Gus know that Caroline and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey), her husband, are on the verge of divorce. They bicker about everything, from directions one ought to take while on the road to what should be done about their juvenile delinquent of a son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.). Gus’ patience is tested to its limits.

“The Ref,” based on the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, benefits from its fast-talking script, executed with enough swagger and verve to make the trials of a rotting marriage, too often tackled with a dead serious precision, appear equally funny and bittersweet. The characters may be miserable but we, the audience, are having a good time.

The first time we meet Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur, they are right on each other’s throats. It isn’t enough that one has to be right; the other has to be wrong. Surprisingly, it is not unbearable to listen to them because it seems like they really do share a history. For instance, in the marriage counselor’s office, the couple can barely look into one another’s eyes. And when they do, it is about delivering a point coupled with an aggression that may or may not be deserved.

However, the picture flounders a bit with its second act, jumping from one perspective to another which features sketches of cops watching a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart, a lieutenant being blackmailed, a man in a Santa Claus suit getting drunk, among others. Although each has comedic punch and each thread eventually ends up on the couple’s doorstep, it comes across forced. I wondered if it had been better if we knew nothing about the quirky characters in town and just surprised us once they rang the doorbell.

The film also employs slapstick which, except for Gus’ unfortunate experience in the mansion, does not work. Every time someone trips or falls, I winced out of embarrassment: I was aware that the script is much better than its desperate attempts to get a laugh.

The addition of the Chasseurs’ extended family is a gift that keeps on giving. Connie (Christine Baranski), Lloyd’s sister-in-law, is a laugh riot because she is so bossy to her husband and children. Whenever Baranski belts out that commanding voice, everyone pays attention. It works because it does not feel like Baranski is forcing her character to appear mean. Being tough is just a part of her personality. And not once did the reactions of Connie’s two children, mostly fear, fail to tickle my insides.

Although the material takes a familiar turn toward the end which involves the Chasseurs’ dirty laundry being flaunted to their extended families, it is never boring. And despite the overwhelming vitriol being flung across the room and into each other’s faces, it becomes increasingly obvious that happiness—in this case, happiness in a marriage—is like any other thing that requires hard work.

Directed by Ted Demme, “The Ref” offers some insight behind its dark humor. It made me feel grateful that Christmas Eve with my family and relatives is exponentially more joyous than what these people is ever likely to have.

Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) was an exterminator with a wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis), who was addicted to the yellow powder, pyrethrum, he used to kill bugs. Bill came home one day and saw Joan shooting the drug, in liquid form, into her breast. She invited him to shoot up with her and, because he was a writer and therefore had to be open to new experiences, he welcomed the opportunity. Soon enough, Bill was picked up by two cops out of suspicion for distributing illicit drugs, a mere cover so that Bill could be in a room with a giant cockroach that could speak. The insect revealed that Bill was an agent of the Interzone, that his wife was not really his wife but a rival agent. She was to be assassinated. Based on a novel by William S. Burroughs and directed by David Cronenberg, “Naked Lunch” was an imaginative trip down the zigzagging rabbit hole of the recondite subconscious. One could argue that everything that transpired around the protagonist was a mishmash of undeveloped great ideas that ended up saying not much. While I can agree to some extent, probably because of the fact that, admittedly, I didn’t understand it all, I found it absolutely invigorating because it was able to challenge me in a way that so few films have. It took pride in being wildly bizarre and violently shook the conventions of storytelling. Just when we started to believe we had a solid grasp about who Bill was and his constantly evolving mission, it changed gears, sometimes abruptly, other times gradually. We were forced to reevaluate, and thus it was tempting to get lost in the microscopic details. What was certain was that the film’s reality was divided into two: the human world and Interzone, which seemed to be located somewhere in the Middle East because the inhabitants spoke Arabic. Americans who lived there, like the mysterious Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife Joan Frost (also played by Davis), were convinced that, like most foreigners, Bill was there to have sex with willing younger men. Homosexuality was a common theme but there was not a trace of homophobia. In fact, being gay was considered a positive quality because it allowed certain flexibilities. Being open to experiences, not necessarily limited to sexuality, was tantamount to being powerful and free. There is undeniable truth in that. The bug convinced Bill, who claimed to be sexually ambivalent when asked by Kiki (Joseph Scoren), one of the Interzone boys, about his sexual orientation, to pose as a homosexual to gain important connections and find his way to the top of Interzone, Inc. But it seemed as though the more bridges he made, the less certain he became about his role as a spy and as a human being. Lastly, there was a vanity involving giant cockroaches and typewriters. Bill, a writer striving to be published, was assigned to write and submit a report about everything that happened on his mission. The typewriter transformed into a bug every time Bill experienced a creative high, oftentimes aided by a black powder, made from the flesh of giant aquatic Brazilian centipede, prescribed by Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). To claim with hubris that one could find exact logic in the happenings presented in “Naked Lunch” was to deny its fiery creativity. It demanded my interest as it dabbled with nightmares, hallucinations, depravity, and taboos, all enveloped in a delirium of dry at times dark humor.


Celebrity (1998)
★★ / ★★★★

A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.