Words and Pictures

Posted on June 5, 2014 at 6:00 pm

wordsandpicturesWhat a refreshing change to have a witty grown-up love story in the midst of summer movie season. Popping up in the middle of monsters, superheroes, and special effects is this endearing romance built around what Shakespeare (and George Orwell) called “a merry war” between two teachers that challenges the darker wars each is fighting with themselves.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches English at a prep school, very popular with his students and very good at getting the best from them. Once a promising poet, he has been unable to make any progress on a new book and his relationships in the community, with the school administration, and with his son are deteriorating due to his abuse of alcohol. The prestige he had as a writer “made it easier to forgive faults,” a school board member warns him. His sense of himself as a good teacher is what fuels his denial about his failures in other parts of his life, and keeps him feeling superior. He likes to challenge the other faculty members to word games, especially one involving coming up with five-syllable words for each letter in the alphabet.

A new teacher arrives. Her name is Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche) and like Jack, she is respected for her work outside the classroom as a gallery artist. (The paintings in the film were created by Binoche herself, who is an accomplished artist.) When she says she teaches art, Jack comments, “Hence the scarf.” When he tells her he teaches literature, she responds, “Hence the ‘hence.'” He feels awake for the first time in many years because like Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” he has found someone who speaks his language.  Jack talks too much. Dina talks too little, especially when it comes for the reason she is teaching and the reason she left New York and the reason she uses a cane, all of which are the same reason.

Or has he? He challenges Dina with a five-syllable “a” word: antihistamine. She responds “blahblahblahblah,” which, as he points out, is just four syllables, and, as he does not point out because he is intrigued by her, it is not a word. Dina believes that pictures are not just worth a thousand words, they are truer, too. They conduct a “merry war” between words and pictures because first, it captivates the students, and that matters to both of them more than they admit to themselves, and second, like the five-syllable word challenge, it gives them a witty context to explore some romantic feelings without getting too sentimental.  It can be arch and artificial, but it is smart and funny and Owen and Binoche are clearly enjoying themselves and we enjoy it, too.

Parents should know that this film includes strong language, some crude, sexual references and a sexual situation, painful family confrontations, illness, and some mild peril.

Family discussion:  Which do you prefer, words or pictures, and why?  How should the school handle a problem like the one faced by Emily?  What makes a great teacher?

If you like this, try: “Roxanne,” by the same director and “Dan in Real Life” with Juliette Binoche

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Interview: Fred Schepisi of “Words and Pictures”

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

Fred Schepisi is a soft spoken Australian director whose films include “Roxanne,” the charming update of “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Steve Martin, and the thoughtful drama about connection and disconnection, “Six Degrees of Separation,” starring Will Smith. His new movie is an endearing romance called “Words and Pictures,” starring Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as teachers in a posh prep school. He talked to me about the challenges of making a movie for and about grown-ups in a world of multiplex fodder and working with Binoche to bring her real-life skill as a painter to her character, an artist and art teacher.

How do you make a smart and witty grown-up romance in the middle of an audience that’s all about superheroes and explosions?

I guess that world doesn’t interest me all that much.

So it’s a challenge to get the financing?

Absolutely. You have to cobble all the money together actually. Curtis Burch did a extraordinary job on this one and in a way that most people don’t manage these days: just find of a whole group of people in Texas who are interested in quality movies and prepared to help finance it. So for once we kind of had the about half the money from private equity and that makes it easier for you to kind of look around for state rebates and what we refer to as foreign sales, you’ve got a real chance then. It was a credit to the Texas investors to go for it. I certainly hope that we will be able to reward them so they’ll keep going for it. There is a quality market out there. All across Europe there are people wanting to see good material as I think there are everywhere and the second challenge is making sure that you get it told there, get the word out there so that people begin to see quickly; which gives you the chance to last.

There are fewer and fewer outlets in terms of theatrical distribution for good material. So it’s kind of important to let the market know that’s where you are and what it’s about. And I think people are starting to discover that there is a whole generation out there that want good movies and will go out and see them.

And what was it like to work with Juliette Binoche on the art created by her character, who is struggling to adapt to physical limitations from rheumatoid arthritis?

I knew that she had painted in another film; I knew that she painted portraits. I did not know the extent of her talent and experience but I figured that if she had a love of art that would help even if she was faking; Which you know I expected we might have to do, as did the art department.

But it became clear to me very quickly that she is an extremely, diversely talented person and that it would be better if she did it all. So we decided together to go on a journey and certainly it’s very freeing that somebody’s actually painting rather than using a lot of trickery to make it look like they are. But she was prepared to go on the same journey the character has to go on, going from being a portrait painter to finding other ways of expressing herself. A few times we had to shift the schedule around as she hits certain points to give her a little more time to develop that, go further with it and get to a point where she and I both agreed that yes, this is the way to go, these are the artists who should be influencing us and then letting her find her own voice; some of which we actually did live on camera. Sometimes she would reach certain stages so then we would re-create them on camera and it was quite a journey and she was fabulous.

What was that rig that actually she took from another artist, that rig that moves the big brushes around?words-pictures-rig

We were excited about that because it was exactly right for somebody who’s got rheumatoid arthritis and can’t really hold a brush. It has no weight and just moves with the slightest touch. It’s the perfect thing to explore for that character and also an interesting way to watch somebody paint.

How do you come down between words and arts? Which side are you on on that?

Sometimes either one expresses something that the other can’t and therefore that makes it more powerful. I’m sure you know that when something is really brilliant in a particular media; whether it’s painting or whether it’s words on a page all words on stage, when it’s really brilliant it’s almost impossible to translate to the other media. It has a power of its own. But sometimes the things together have even more power and then there’s music and dance.

When you were growing up what were the movies where you said, “That’s something I’d like to do.” Did you watch a lot of Hollywood movies?

I was very lucky. Somewhere around the age of 14 or 15 I discovered what people referred to as “continental movies” as we call them in Australia. They were European and British movies. I think I went to them for more prurient reasons in the first place. What I found was these wonderful worlds I was transported to; and these wonderful ideas and that’s when I knew that’s what I would like to do.

And it was the 40’s and 50s, for me mostly it was the 50s but you were still seeing movies from the 40’s and then I belonged to film societies and used go also to what was in fact the oldest film festivals in the world, you’d see films from Japan and from Persia and from India and I was always transported about their ideas and the culture and the experience and the surprising thing for me was I always found something myself in them.

You were working with established, experienced actors and with teenagers on this film. Was that a challenge as a director?

A lot of your work is done in the casting, that’s probably the most difficult part and in a way half your job is done if you get that right. And sort of seeing if the chemistry is going to work between people and what it is that makes it work and encouraging that.

Actually all of the kids in the classrooms are from Canada. We tried not to cast the clichéd way. We used the “cultural diversity” approach and just let them be fresh, led them contribute, let them come up with the youthful way of doing thing. It was quite a lot of fun, it really was. And then we were lucky to get Christian Scheider, Roy Scheider’s son, to play Clive Allen’s son. He’s done stage things but that was his first film and he had just the right soul for the part.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to a film called “Olive Sisters,” set in Australia. It’s an Italian family who have come out and farm and grow olives and do their work and face the prejudices of people in the late 50s; prejudices about how they dressed and what the ate, and who they were. And next year, I am pretty confident we’ll be doing the film of the Broadway musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Oh, I love that show! Please promise to talk to me again when that one comes out.

Will do.

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Directors Interview

Killer Elite

Posted on September 22, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Like this year’s “The Devil’s Double,” this film would be much more satisfying and believable if it was not so self-serving in favor of the people telling the story. The oddest part is that the fight scenes are brutally, authentic while the non-fight scenes are laughably ridiculous.  While it says it is “based on a true story,” the book that inspired it is labeled as a work of fiction and has been discredited by family members of those involved.

It opens in 1980, with the world in unrest and an oil crisis.  Danny (Jason Statham), ex-special forces, works various dangerous jobs with his long-time ally Hunter (Robert De Niro) until he decides to leave it all behind and have a new, peaceful life in Australia.  But he gets pulled back in when Hunter is kidnapped by a sheik who wants Danny to hunt down and kill the men from British forces who killed his three sons in an armed conflict in Oman.  But Danny can’t just kill them.  The sheik wants taped confessions from each and then Danny has to make each death look like an accident (which of course makes it impossible, 30 years later, to say that the accidental deaths were not really homicides).  Danny gets the band back together, with, of course, one newbie just to act as a wild card, and goes after the sheik’s three targets.

But  in this nasty, brutish world, everyone’s a bad guy; it’s just a question of degree.  While Danny and his group are going after the guys who killed the sheik’s sons, the guys who think those guys were the good guys go after Danny.  And while all of that is going on, the desiccated old men sitting around in  expensively  furnished board rooms are moving them all around like chess pieces, with even less regard for whether they get knocked off the board.  These are the “feather men” (because of their light touch) who like some third-rate Batman villain actually leave their calling card to let the men who do the actual killing know that they’ve been there.  Just to make sure we get the point, the old guys in suits actually say things like, “What we did there was questionable,” “We all know our people went too far,” and “We’re businessmen and bankers now.  We can leave no trace of our activities.”  Meanwhile, the guys who kill people (as opposed to ordering other people to do it) say things like, “Killing is easy.  Living with it is the hard part.”  So we know they have feelings, get it?

Statham is always a pleasure to watch and De Niro is superb as the man who has given his life to adrenaline and rough justice but is loyal to his friend and his family.  The fight scenes are not the usual choreographed carnage but believably rough and exhausting.  There are some nice shifts of allegiance back and forth and some good points to be made about how behind the killing is profits from oil.  But the whole premise becomes increasingly ludicrous until it falls apart.


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Action/Adventure Inspired by a true story Spies


Posted on August 26, 2009 at 8:01 am

What do Egyptian launch codes and a new frozen pizza topping have in common?

They’re both secrets that are of value to both those who know it and those who want to know it. Where there are secrets, there must be spies. Where there are spies, there must be counter-spies. And where there is conflict, there must be some sparks.

Writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has produced another sharp, twisty, and very stylish thriller, this time with romance and a bit of stardust. The result is a top-notch date movie for grown-ups.

Julia Roberts plays Claire and her Closer co-star Clive Owens is Ray. They meet at an American embassy 4th of July party in Dubai and it is not clear whether their opening exchange is flirtation or something a little more professional. The same can be said of the subsequent encounter, leaving one of them triumphant and the other feeling used and embarrassed. As we go back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle come together. Once spies for the CIA and MI6, Claire and Ray move on to the more-lucrative career of corporate espionage and perhaps the even-more lucrative career of working for themselves.

Gilroy gives the film a bit of a retro gloss, with a soundtrack that has a 70’s flavor and sleek camera effects with sliding boxes reminiscent of the original “Thomas Crown Affair.” Roberts makes a welcome return to the screen, looking less willowy and more curvy. Owen, most often seen in movies glowering or cynical, is more natural trying out a Tennessee accent than he is trying out a smile, but he has a sure sense of timing that makes the best of Gilroy’s clever banter. This movie sparkles with witty exchanges, and the back-and-forth time shifts in story-telling reveals just how much every word of that dialog matters. The stakes are not as dire as in “Michael Clayton,” but that is part of the fun, watching former top spies use all of the resources available to track down information about items sold in a grocery store. More fun is seeing how two people whose careers depend on not trusting and not being trustworthy test each other and themselves to see if they can build a lasting connection. “Duplicity” may refer to a double-cross, but this movie is double-entertaining.

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Drama Romance Spies
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