PLAYING BY HEART - STILL CRAZY
AFFLICTION - HILARY AND JACKIE

PLAYING BY HEART

"Talking about love is like dancing about architecture" is the tag line that starts off "Playing By Heart," by writer/director/producer Willard Carroll ("Tom's Midnight Garden") and starring a large ensemble cast in a story about love and lifestyles in contemporary Los Angeles.

Robin's Review of 'Playing By Heart'

The elder "statesmen" of the players, Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery, are Hannah and Paul, whose longtime marriage is threatened with an unexpected illness and an old infatuation Paul had 25 years ago for a pretty member of the couple's production company.

Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files") is Meredith, whose motto is "I can still be wonderful person and NOT have someone in my life." That is, until she meets Trent (Jon Stewart, "The Larry Sanders Show), a persistent swain who is not discouraged by Meredith's negativity about the prospects of love.

Then there's loner Hugh (Dennis Quaid, "The Big Easy"), a barfly who tells his sad tale of woe to any woman (or drag queen) who will listen, especially after a lot of drinks. The thing is, every time he tells his story, it's always a different, wildly imaginative yarn.

In a nearby hospital, Mark (Jay Mohr, "Paulie") is dying of an unnamed, sex-related disease. His mother, Mildred (Ellen Burstyn, "The Exorcist"), joins him during his last days and the two try to cope with Mark's tragedy, his homosexuality, and recreate their battered relationship.

Gracie (Madeline Stowe, "Blink") and Roger (Anthony Edwards, "ER") are having a torrid, no-strings-attached sex-only clandestine affair in a local hotel.

Finally, Joan (Angelina Jolie, "Playing God") is bright, pretty, friendly and looking for love in LA dance clubs. She meets Keenan (Ryan Phillippe, "54"), a dour young man whose secret makes him keep Joan at arm's length. With her sweet, but strong-willed, persistence in capturinho find and fall for each other. Gillian Armstrong is a real stiff as Meredith, coming across as an uptight ice queen. The chemistry between her and Stewart's Trent is palpable and helps melt the ice. Comedian Stewart is a natural in a romantic comedy performance. Armstrong is developing into a fine character actor.

My favorite perf of all is by Angelina Jolie. As Joan, she is a sweet young lady who has a love for life that comes from the heart. You wonder why it takes Keenan so darn long to fall for this lovely person. Jolie saves the lame romance by sheer force of will. Ryan Phillippe's performance is lifeless and without any inner spark, just like in "54."

The rest of the story threads are without note, though through no fault of most of the actors. The compelling appeal of the affair of Gracie and Roger, the renewed relation between Mark and Mildred, and the bizarre behavior of Hugh is that you know that everything is going to come together. It does, too, in a nice tight package. Though the AIDS word is never used, the disease is prominent in two of the stories.

Director/writer Carroll has taken a bit too big a bite with his complex material. One or two fewer stories and a strengthening of the remaining ones would have helped the film considerably. "Playing By Heart" tries hard and sometimes succeeds - and Jolie is terrific. I give it a B-.

Laura's review of 'Playing By Heart'
"Playing by Heart" charts the romantic course of five seemingly unrelated couples in LA and a mother/dying son pairing in Chicago in an ever tightening spiral until they're all closely interconnected at the film's conclusion.

Gena Rowlands and Sean Connery are Mildred and Paul, a cooking show chef and television producer about to celebrate their fortieth anniversary.  Their 'perfect marriage' is darkened by Paul's inoperable brain tumor and Mildred's discovery of a picture of another woman in his desk.  The two are a splendid pairing.  Angelina Jolie is Joan, a club going party girl and aspiring actress with the gift of gab who becomes obsessed by the intensely quiet, blue haired loner Keenan (Ryan Philippe, "I Know What You Did Last Summer").  Jolie ("Playing God") is so much fun to watch in this role and so good that she elevates Philippe, who hasn't shown much acting ability to date.  Gillian Anderson is Meredith, a theatrical director who's become emotionally closed down due to past loves gone wrong.  She's wooed by architect Trent (Jon Stewart), whose persistence pays off.  Madeleine Stowe is Gracie, a married woman enjoying an affair with Roger (Anthony Edwards).  She wants no commitments while he yearns to become closer to her.  Dennis Quaid is Hugh, an oddball who approaches women (Patricia Clarkson, "High Art"; Nastassja Kinski) and drag queens (David Ferguson) in bars and spins a different wild tale for each.  Ellen Burstyn is Mildred, who's travelled to Chicago to face her son Mark's (Jay Mohr) gayness and impending death from Aids.

The stories work with varying degrees of success.  Most satisfying is Joan and Keenan's romance which becomes deeply poignant, even as it begins as quirky comedy.  (When they finally come together, Jolie is enirely adorable in pajamas, curlers and a head scarf).  Burstyn and Mohr ("Jerry Maguire") show their acting chops in an affecting mother/son reunion. When Mark challenges his mom to a truth or darre type game, she startles hi by admitting 'I never loved your father - not for a minute.'  'Wow - you're good at this,' he responds.  Gillian Anderson is proving to be a fine actress when she steps out from behind her Scully mask.  Meredith remains strangely compelling even though she's dour and frustratingly offputting.  Stewart dances around her gamely.  Madeleine Stowe has never been as unappealing as she is here and Quaid never manages to make Hugh seem like a real person.   Of note are Barley, Meredith's hugh Mastiff, and Joan's one-eyed cat Blanche.

"Playing by Heart" originally had the much more appealing and original title of "Dancing About Architecture" ('Talking about love is like dancing about architecture,' Joan tells us.)  In truth, it's new title reflects its quality more correctly.

B-


STILL CRAZY

In 1977, the mid-level famed British band Strange Fruit performed their last concert at the Wesbech Festival, where an electrical storm tore apart their equipment, illustrating the band dynamics.  Twenty years later keyboardest Tony (Stephen Rea), now a condom supplier in Ibiza, runs into a concert promoter for nostalgia acts who convinces Tony to reunite Strange Fruit.  Tony finds the band's old assistant Karen (Juliet Aubrey) and together they round up Beano (Timothy Spall, "Secrets and Lies") the drum player, Les (Jimmy Nail) the rhythm guitarist, Ray (Bill Nighy) the band's second lead singer and Hughie (Billy Connelly, "Mrs. Brown") their roadie.  Karen's old flame and the band's resident genius Brian is presumed dead and is replaced by the much younger Luke as a draw for a new generation.  The group goes on tour and befall their old rivalries and jealousies in "Still Crazy."

Laura's review of 'Still Crazy'
"Still Crazy" is a formula piece co-written by Dick Clement and Ian LaFrancis which reflects their earlier work on "The Commitments" leavened with a good dose of "Spinal Tap" humor.  While most audiences will have taken this journey before, it's made enjoyable by its fine cast and some truly funny moments.

Bill Nighy shines (Best Supporting Actor caliber shines) as Ray, the gaunt, foppish, insecure singer/songwriter who lives in an old English manse with his Swedish groupie wife/mother-figure Astrid (Helena Bergstrom). Speaking in a nasal English accent that sounds like Crispin Glover crossed with Quentin Crisp, Nighy alone would recommend "Still Crazy."  He has the amazing ability to be ridiculously pretentious and heartbreaking at the same time.

Billy Connolly nails several hilarious punchlines as the long-haired, randy Scot, Hughie, making one wish there were more of him in the film than there is.  Juliet Aubrey holds the whole works together as the woman who succumbs to her romantized memory of the past only to be abruptly reminded of the true nature of life  on the road with a band. Stephen Rea utilizes his hangdog looks to portray Tony as the musician long stuck on Karen.  Jimmy Nail, looking like Pete Townshend, is believable as the man who tries to keep Brian's godlike status alive while resenting and belittling Ray's role as the front man.  Timothy Spall provides the film with its broader, coarser laughs (and most dimwitted subplot) as the obviously nicknamed Beano.

The original music created for the film perfectly captures the sound of the time and is performed in an arc ranging from rusty to majestically tight at the movie's triumphant conclusion.  Director Brian Gibson ("What's Love Got To Do With It") has created a solid, if predictable, piece of entertainment with charm to spare.

B

Robin's Review of 'Still Crazy'
Director Brian Gibson ("What's Love Got To Do With It?") creates a comeback fable of a 70's British rock band, Strange Fruit, in the ensemble film, "Still Crazy." Conceptually, like "This Is Spinal Tap," members of a formerly semi-popular band try to ride the nostalgia wave in the 90's and regain their former "glory." "Still Crazy" delves more into the inner personalities of its characters than the Rob Reiner rockumentary in the telling of the band's reunion and its trials, tribulations and successes. Comparison to other rags-to-riches films like "The Commitments" and "The Full Monty" is obvious.

The ensemble cast is solidly presented, with Bill Nighy, as Strange Fruit lead singer Ray Simms, getting the most kudos for a performance that is funny, pathetic and sympathetic. Ray is a middle-age man who has never let go of his past as a rock "star." Now, at the end of the millennium, Ray is in AA, still craves drugs and the good life, but doesn't have the talent to go it on his own - even with the help of his protective, younger wife, Astrid (Helena Bergstrom). At one point, while in Holland, away from home and Astrid, he mistakes an over-eater encounter group for an AA meeting. You have little hope for Ray's success until a near-death experience changes his life and the chances for the band's success. Nighy is the best of a good cast.

The rest of the players has Scottish comedian Billy Connolly leading the way as the band's almost-fairy godmother, Hughie, who does things like get the band a tour bus used by The Psychedelic Furs and still holds the stench of "fag ends and vomit" - a breath of fresh air for Hughie. Connolly is underutilized as Fruit's spirited roadie.  Stephen Rea, Jimmy Nail and Timothy Spall as the rest of the band are fully drawn characters. Spall, as the ne'er-do-well (with Inland Revenue, at least) drummer, Beano, provides the comic relief as he is being chased by the tax lady, he thinks - but it turns out to be something else, entirely (wink).

The formula rags-to-riches, regain-past-glories screenplay, by Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, is cleanly paced every step of the way. From the beginning, when keyboard player Tony (Rea) and Karen (Juliet Aubrey), the band's manager and surrogate mother, develop the germ of an idea to re-form the group, we know what is going to happen. The rocky beginning in getting all the former members to agree to reunite, the fits and starts of their early attempts to play again, and the eventual (and expected) success in the end are all by the numbers in their execution. But, all the pieces fall together in a pleasantly entertaining mixture that is nicely satisfying even if it does have an and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after ending. The journey getting there is where the fun is.

The original music is perfectly suited to the story, capturing the rhythm and tempo of the rock bands of the period. The original songs, "All Over The World" and "The Flame Still Burns," are memorable and pretty darn catchy. The concert pieces range from the comical to very dynamic and highly charged and are paced in synch with the story.

The nostalgia factor of "Still Crazy" should have good appeal for the rockers of the 70's who feel the same sentimental twinge as the band. It should also have a broader audience allure with its good-natured humor and song. I give "Still Crazy" a solid B.


AFFLICTION

Wade Whitehouse is a screw-up. The part-time sheriff of the depressed little New Hampshire town of Lawford, he is little more than a glorified crossing guard who blew his marriage to high-school sweetheart, is emotionally estranged from his daughter and has to take every demeaning job thrown at him by local entrepreneur Gordon LaRiviere. Wade's life goes from bad to horrendous as he tries to play detective and investigate the questionable death of an out of state businessman in a hunting accident, start a custody battle for his daughter and cope with his violent past in the guise of his abusive, drunkard father, Glen. Writer/director Paul Schrader ("Hardcore") brings the Russell Banks novel, "Affliction" to the screen, starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe and, straight out of retirement, James Coburn.

Robin's Review of 'Affliction'
The Russell Banks novel, adapted by Schrader, is the second of the author's works to be brought to the screen over the last two years. Aton Egoyen's terrific "The Sweet Hereafter" made an indelible impression with it's story of the tragic loss to a small town of most of its children in a freak schoolbus accident. The emotionalism of that story allowed the viewer to embrace the characters and feel the despair of those left behind. "Affliction" does not allow the viewer to get close to its tragic lead, Wade. His lack of self-esteem and undercurrent of uncontrolled violence make Wade a less than likable figure, keeping the viewer at arm's length. Both novels and their films are unrelenting and bleak. Of the two films, "Affliction" takes the prize for maintaining its dark edge to the very end.

The collected performances, led by Nick Nolte, are nearly universally first rate. Nolte gives one of his best perfs, yet, in a gripping character study of a man at the bottom of the heap. Wade, with his job as "sheriff," has a false prestige in his own mind, but is considered, by most citizens, to be the trained errand boy for the town's financial leader, LaRiviere (Holmes Osborne), doing any grunt job that comes to his boss's mind. He also carries the baggage of the memories and emotional scars left from his abused childhood at the hands of his father.

Now an elderly drunkard, Glen, through neglect, allows the furnace in the Whitehouse homestead to break down, causing his wife, Wade's mother, to freeze to death. Wade, who kept his father at a distance since his abused youth, is now forced to face and care for his old tormentor every day. Inside Wade, just below the surface, lay the fear that he is cut from the same cloth as his "Pop." His actions - drinking, smoking dope, out-of-control temper, letting down his daughter ALL the time - all lead Wade to believe he is fated to walk in his father's footsteps, that he suffers from the same affliction as his father. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy as he makes himself screw-up, reinforcing in himself the belief that he's a loser. Wade's downward spiral is relentless, tragic and complete by the film's end.

Surrounding Nolte are a solid cast of veteran actors, with James Coburn pulling out all the stops in his portrayal of Pop. Seen in grainy, hand-held, home-movie style flashbacks, the younger Glen bullies Wade and his younger brother Rolfe in alcohol-induced rages which usually end in Wade being battered. When we meet Glen in the present, he seems a befuddled, harmless old man, following his wife's death, who needs to be cared for. As Wade and girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek) bring Glen around, we see that he is unchanged from his abuse-laden younger days. Also, like most bullies, he is really a coward. Coburn gives a noteworthy and powerful performance, even overshadowing Nolte in their scenes together.

Spacek gives one of her best performances in years as the waitress in a local cafe who loves Wade, but can barely handle him and his screwed up life. The inclusion of Pop into the equation drives Margie to the brink and forces her to flee for her own sake. Spacek lends the needed heft to what could have been a two-dimensional, loyal girlfriend role.

Mary Beth Hurt is unrecognizable, and quite good, as Wade's ex-wife, Lillian, who has to cope with his unreliability whenever she turns over daughter Jill to his custody, knowing the man can barely take care of himself. Holmes Osborne, and unknown in mainstream films, gives a solid performance as Gordon LaRiviere, the man who is working to control the town, and Wade. Only Willem Dafoe misses the mark as Wade's brother Rolfe. This is unfortunate, since his voice-overs are used to carry the story forth. His performance on the screen and in voice-over is dull and listless, much like his character's development.

Schrader's screenplay is a solid adaptation of the Russell Banks novel, capturing the bleakness of a winter-bound, economically depressed northern New England small town  mood and feel. The dialog is geared to show Wade in the worst light. When he declares himself "in charge" to his daughter, then screws up yet again, he meekly whines that it isn't his fault. When she asks him, "Whose fault is it? You're in charge!" Wade can't answer her.

The photography by Paul Sarossy, who did an equally fine job for Egoyan in "The Sweet Hereafter," provides a visual austerity that complements the story perfectly. Other techs, production design in particular, enhance the bleak, cold, hopeless mood of the dressed town.

I give "Affliction" a B+.

Laura's review of 'Affliction'
Writer/director Paul Schrader ("American Gigolo") has adapted Russell Banks' novel "Affliction" for the big screen with a strong sense of place - the harsh life of northern New England (New Hampshire).  Nick Nolte stars as Wade Whitehouse, a downtrodden local struggling to break the chain of violence that afflicted him as a child at the hands of his father Pop (James Coburn).  Wade tries to woo the affection of his daughter to no avail - she just wants to go home to her rewed mother (an unrecognizable Mary Beth Hurt).  Wade's frustration at not being the favorred parent causes him to hatch the insane idea of bringing a custody suit against his ex-wife.

"Affliction" uses the framework of a murder mystery to characterize the small town of Lawford and its inhabitants.  Wade and his best friend Jack both work for the town's wealthy realtor and selectman Gordon LaRiviere - Wade as the town cop (more of a crossing guard in reality) and both for the town's various needs such as snow plowing.  Wade's picqued when Gordon tosses Jack the plum job of hunting scout for a wealthy Boston businessman.  When the businessman ends up dead, ostensibly an accident, Wade's suspicions are aroused by Jack's story and the blood on his jacket.  Soon Wade suspects a plot to murder the man by his son-in-law and LaRiviere, who are buying up local land. (Wade has cause already to hate that son-in-law - while stopping traffic in a Christ-crucified-like pose for schoolchildren, the man sped forward in his BMW, almost hitting Wade, who was actually daydreaming.) Wade's younger brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe, who also provides narration), a Boston University professor who's used to Wade's late night confessional telephone calls, bolsters Wade's suspicions.

"Affliction" goes exactly down its inevitable path, but its a fine piece of work.  Nolte gives one of his best performances as the pathetic abused son.  Coburn is a revelation.  Out of retirement for this role, he projects both a doddering old man and a mean spiritted alcoholic. ('I brought the electric up,' he keeps mumbling when Wade discovers the old homestead unheated in winter and his mother dead in her bed.) Sissy Spacek hasn't been this good in years as Wade's tolerant and supportive girlfriend Margie.  She disappears into the skin of a home town girl.

The film's weaknesses lie in a couple of plot points.  Jack (Jim True) attacks Wade, shooting his vehicle, expressing a guilt which we later learn doesn't exist.  Rolfe inexplicably appears to be the agent of his brother's undoing.  Commendable are Anne Pritchard's production design and Paul Sarossy's cinematography.  Schrader has given us a more straightforward adaptation of Banks than Atom Agoyan's more mystical interpretation of Banks' "The Sweet Hereafter."

B


HILARY AND JACKIE

"Hilary and Jackie" is the story of English musical prodigy sisters Jacqueline (Emily Watson, "Breaking the Waves") and Hilary (Rachel Griffith, "Muriel's Wedding") du Pre.  Adapted from the memoir written by Hilary and young brother Piers by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the story is told first from Hilary's point of view, depicting her fame as a celebrated child flutist becoming overshadowed by Jackie's adult fame as a cellist, then Jackie's point of view, a far darker descent into madness due to the onset of multiple sclerosis.

Laura's review of 'Hilary And Jackie'
"Hilary and Jackie" is the feature directorial debut of documentarian Anaud Tucker which showcases two brilliant performances by Watson and Griffith in their characters' intensely close sister relationship. The film is a fascinating character study which challenges the viewer's initial perseptions with its Rashomon-like telling.

The film's first twenty minutes feature Keely Flanders as the young Hilary and Auriol Evans as her younger sister.  Their music teacher mother (Celia Imrie, "The Borrowers") initially favors Hilary. Her proclamation that Jackie can no longer play with Hilary unless she becomes as good as her spurs Jackie on to eventually overshadow her sister.  (Jackie is told at a young age 'Your sister's a remarkable girl - you must be very proud.' by a BBC radio announcer, a sentiment that's repeated exactly to Hilary as an adult by a journalist.)

The fabulous Emily Watson has the showy role as Jackie.  Initially presented as an insensitive, selfish, affected (she develops a strange continental European accent), childish (her proclivity to blow raspberries is carried into adulthood) genius, when Jackie's point of view unfolds Watson shows us the utter loneliness of a famous woman wed to her cello and ripped from her sister's orbit to tour Europe relentlessly.  Watson's ability to mimic languages (Italian, German, Spanish) even though she's spouting gibberish is both slyly funny and disturbing.  Watson also learned to play the cello and mimic Du Pre's style, shocking in its time, which could be compared to the way Tori Amos plays the piano.

Griffith takes charge of the more difficult role of Hilary, whose emotions are as buried as Jackie's are on the surface.  Griffith's love for her sister is thrown into turmoil when Jackie arrives unannounced at the country farm where she lives in bliss with her husband, conductor Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey, "Waterland"). Jackie is unabashedly jealous of Hilary's life and demands that she sleep with Kiffer, even though Jackie is married to Daniel Barenboim (James Frain, who costarred with Watson in the Masterpiece Theater production of "The Mill on the Floss"), a dashing pianist, in an attempt to mirror Hilary's happiness.  Hilary agrees, although she is devastated by her decision which causes a deep rift between the sisters.  They eventually reunite when Jackie's health fails due to MS (Du Pre died in 1987 at the age of 42).

There are several scenes of great beauty and startling revelations - the frustration that causes Jackie to mail her dirty laundry home from Europe (an act that is completely misinterpretted by Hilary), Jackie's central performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, Hilary and Kiffer spontaneously making love in the back of their station wagon in front of their country home, Hilary and Jackie dancing together in an Italian ballroom, Jackie's horror at her incontinence minutes before a performance.

The film's only real misstep is the inclusion of several fantasical moments which seem gratuitous.  Jackie, in a fit of spite, locks her precious cello outside in the snow only to awaken to its presence at the foot of her bed.  The adult Jackie appears to herself as a young girl.

Technical credits are first rate from the music to the reproduction of many European locations.

B+

Robin's Review of 'Hilary And Jackie'
"Hilary and Jackie" tells the story of classical music talents Hilary and Jackie Du Pre - one ordinary, the other extraordinary - and their lives, together and apart, until the tragic death of Jackie, at age 42, of Multiple Sclerosis. Young Hilary (Keely Flanders) is a budding, talented flutist who shows signs of genius at an early age. Sister Jackie (Auriol Evans) lives in Hilary's shadow of success until she decides to outshine her sibling by mastering the cello. Jackie leaves her sister in the dust as shematures into a world class musician, while Hilary goes the conventional route of marriage and family.

Following the prologue, the film flashes forward some years later to find Hilary (Rachel Griffiths, "Muriel's Wedding") falling in love and marrying the charming and forceful Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey, "Drowning By Numbers"), much to the jealous petulance of Jackie (Emily Watson, "Breaking the Waves"). Jackie, meanwhile, has attained international acclaim and is the toast of the concert circuit. On tour abroad, she lacks and misses the emotional anchor her family, especially Hilary, provides and seeks a replacement by marrying conductor Daniel Barenboim (James Frain, "Shadowlands"). The first half of the film concentrates on Hilary and shows Jackie in a purely selfish light.

Part two of the film takes on Jackie's view of life and we watch the talented, but fragile, artist suffer from lifelong insecurities and the emotional strain of her fame. This causes erratic and frightening behavior in the young genius that, at first, appear to be part of her selfish makeup. As time goes on, it becomes obvious that something is seriously wrong. When she is finally diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Jackie is almost relieved since it explains many of her physical and mental problems.

The screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce is based on the book, 'A Genius in the Family,' by Hilary Du Pre and her brother, Piers. The adaptation splits the story in two in a "Rashamon" style that gives two perspectives - Jackie's and Hilary's - of the events that take place in the lives of the sisters. The Hilary viewpoint paints the elder sister as a selfless, kind person who will give her sister anything, including her own husband. It also depicts Jackie as egocentric and selfish individual who believes that everyone, especially Hilary, owes her.

When the film switches over to Jackie's viewpoint, we see reasons for her behavior as the MS first rears its head in little ways, with more insidious effects taking hold over time. Part two shows the complex Jackie in a considerably different, and more sympathetic, light. With all the fame, Jackie still clings to her family - even sending her laundry to her family to be washed when toring in eastern Europe. Part one shows this as a selfish act. Part two shows it to be a cry for help from the lonely Jackie.

Emily Watson once again shows the acting mettle exhibited in "Breaking the Waves." As Jackie Du Pre, Watson gives a solid character study, taking on the performance style of the musician while building a tremendously complex figure in Jackie. Watson gives another stellar performance.

Rachel Griffiths has the less dramatic role as Hilary, but provides a believable anchor for her sister's plights. Hers is not as flashy a role as Watson's, so it may be overlooked. She does a fine job in any case.

Technically, from the dynamic camera work by David Johnson to the solid orchestrations and performances of the music, the film reps a solid achievement.

"Hilary and Jackie" is not a chick-flick, but a powerful family drama focused on the lives of the title characters. A good recommendation for classical music lovers, too. I give it a B+.


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