Director Anthony Minghella, Dead at 54

As I write this, the details are sketchy, but it’s been confirmed that Oscar-winning film director Anthony Minghella has died at the age of 54.  At the turn of the millennium, Minghella was the go-to man for star-studded, moderately budgeted, profit-making, literary minded prestige films. 

In 1996, he achieved his greatest success with his film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.  The film will always hold a special place in my memory.  As a junior in high school, it was the first film I saw at the Ritz Theater in Voorhees, NJ, which at the time had just opened as the premier art-house venue in the Philadelphia suburbs.  Combining the epic styling of David Lean with the gritty sensuality of Bernardo Bertolucci, The English Patient left an indelible mark and won 9 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for Minghella.  1996 was considered the year of the independent film with the neo-classic Coen Brothers’ film Fargo and Mike Leigh’s insightful Secrets & Lies among those films competing with Minghella’s period piece.  The English Patient was the crowning jewel of that independent Hollywood mindset that was rallying against big budgets and small minds.  It represented the pinnacle of Miramax Studio’s prowess as the premier prestige film distributor, and it launched Minghella onto the A-list.  The film so infected the pop culture upon its release, that it was ironically immortalized as the film Elaine Bennis from Seinfeld will always hate.  She would’ve rather seen Sack Lunch! 

In 1999, Minghella delivered his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which featured some of the hottest young actors and actresses of the moment (Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and then relatively unknown Philip Seymour Hoffman).  The studio marketed the film as a classy, picturesque, throwback to the heyday of Hitchcock’s stylized VistaVision thrillers.  Knowing nothing of the literary source material and fooled by the clever marketing and rave reviews, I went to see the film with my mother at Christmastime while home from college.  About thirty minutes into the picture when we realized this was no lightweight Hitchcock homage, but instead a psychosexual thriller about a homosexual serial killer, it made for the most uncomfortable movie-going experience of my life.  Again, defying our expectations, and making his audience squirm, Minghella left his mark.

In 2003, Minghella tackled Charles Frazier’s ridiculously successful novel, Cold Mountain.  While the vapid romance at the film’s core and the often vulgar episodic odyssey of Jude Law’s character left many wishing for more restraint, the film is still memorable for some of the most well staged Civil War battle scenes ever captured on film and Renee Zelwegger’s Oscar-winning supporting turn as a fast-talking migrant farm-hand from Texas who befriends Nicole Kidman’s character.

Minghella will always be remembered for this trilogy of high profile literary film adaptations, but he also excelled with smaller films.  His 1990 feature debut, Truly Madly Deeply, featuring Alan Rickman as a dead musician who sticks around to comfort his grieving girlfriend, has developed a rather rabid cult following over the years.  His most recent film, 2006’s Breaking and Entering, in which he reunited with muse Juliette Binoche (whom he directed to an Oscar win in The English Patient) and Jude Law, barely registered as a blip at the box office last winter, but you can be sure it will be added to my Netflix queue now.

Many have dismissed Minghella’s style as overwrought and his successes overrated.  I’ll always remember him as one of the directors who most influenced my movie-going habits during my formative years as a film buff.  Minghella was a director of refined tastes and impeccable staging.  He was quite adept at making heavy-handed techniques seem naturalistic on screen and was never afraid to challenge an audience.  His style of direction has fallen out of favor recently in Hollywood.  Just look at how hard the recent Atonement (a film that owes a world of debt to The English Patient and even featured a winking cameo of Minghella) had to work to eek out its respectable $50 million dollar domestic gross and gain that coveted Best Picture nomination.  It will be directors like Atonement’s Joe Wright who will carry on Minghella’s legacy.  Minghella in 2008 seemed poised for his next evolution as a director and was talented enough to stage a comeback.  At age 54, he is gone too soon, and will be greatly missed.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Watch or Die: HBO’s John Adams

 **This was a post in progress. 

 Weekly updates appeared as each episode of John Adams aired Sunday nights on HBO.   

 

And remember, faithful viewers, Samuel Adams White Ale is the (un)official beer of HBO’s John Adams.  Real Patriots Drink Samuel Adams.

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*Above: Political Propaganda circa 1776.

PREVIEW: 

Ever since the demise of The Sopranos and Rome, the only thing even remotely worth watching on HBO (or on TV in general) has been the Mormon soap opera, Big Love.  Well, thankfully, the good folks at HBO have got their wits about them once again and will be unveiling the first two parts of their epic 7-part miniseries, John Adams this Sunday, March 16th. 

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David McCullough, HBO’s John Adams will attempt to take the same intimate look at history that made the two-part Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren and, like John Adams, directed by Tom Hooper, such a roaring success, while painting historical events across a sprawling gritty epic canvas like they did with the decadent Rome (which was essentially a 22-part miniseries) in hopes of bringing the past frightfully alive. 

Loaded with a cast of award-winning character actors and familiar faces (check out Danny Huston as Sam Adams, David Morse as George Washington, and Tom Wilkinson as Ben Franklin), and headlined by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams, HBO will give us a glimpse into the events leading up to the American Revolution and the first 50 years of American history.   For many people, their knowledge of this time period comes only from school textbooks or images from the ridiculous musical 1776 or more recently, the historically inaccurate Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot.  HBO has taken on the task of educating and entertaining, a dangerous gambit that could pay off in scores. 

Check out the full length trailer:

Official Site:

http://www.hbo.com/films/johnadams/index.html

For a complete list of cast and crew:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0472027/fullcredits

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REVIEW: 

After each episode aired over the course of six weeks, I posted a review of each part. Continue reading

A Review of Roger Donaldson’s “The Bank Job”

CAPTION: Saffron Burrows tells police, “Why, no, officer, I’m not smuggling anything in my cheek bones.” 

I’ll Throw a Brick at You!, 11 March 2008
7/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Sold to the American public as another D-level action pic staring Jason Statham, “The Bank Job” is actually a crafty British heist flick based on an incredible true story. The screenwriters deserve credit for creating a serviceable script with so many intertwining stories based on little actual evidence, conjecture, here-say, and conspiracy theories revolving around royal and political sex scandals, militant Caribbean drug lords, undercover MI5 agents, bumbling crooks, crooked cops, and double-crosses and cover-ups. It could’ve easily been a confusing mess, but providing the viewer pays attention, “The Bank Job” gets the job done as crackerjack entertainment.

Though aptly directed by veteran Roger Donaldson, the film does suffer from an overly salacious opening ten minutes designed to grab the audience’s attention, some shoddy editing, and an intrusively bad action-style music score. There’s also an attention to 1970’s period detail in the dialogue and clothes that comes across as caricature and adds an accidentally humorous undertone to the otherwise cold-as-ice affair. However, the details of the “truth is stranger than fiction” tale and the fun had by the ensemble cast make for a breezy way to spend a few hours.

Donaldson also has an eye for the ladies. Led by a smashingly gorgeous Saffron Burrows (looking like a European version of Michelle Pfeiffer circa 1992), the powerful women depicted in “The Bank Job” are far more than just eye candy. Statham is also fairly good as the head of the bank robbing crew, and when he finally throws a brick at a guy near the end of the film, it will put a smile on any action fan’s face.

Things get tidied up a bit too nicely in the end, where it seems only the really villainous characters have to face justice, but before the credits role, there are a series of real-life epilogued details plastered on the screen that make the viewer realize maybe this all really did happen. Now that’s a jolly good show.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0200465/usercomments-25

Bring Out “The Dead”

CAPTION:  Man dies from boredom on Dublin’s Ha’Penny Bridge while reading a very long novel.  *Photo courtesy of  Philip Pankov (www.philpankov.com) and www.thenocturnes.com.

Kurt Vonnegut once said of novels that “reading one is like being married forever to somebody nobody else knows or cares about.”

I couldn’t agree more while I find myself in a laborious relationship with The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl.  The novel is a fictionalized account of a Baltimore lawyer’s quest to solve the mystery behind the death of Edgar Allan Poe.  This is one of those books with an interesting concept ruined by the author’s insistence on telling the story in the static, unimaginative style of prose from the stuffy time period in which the novel takes place.  It’s makes for a dry, boring read.  Much like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, I fear I may never finish it.  I’m currently stuck at about the 100 page mark.  I should’ve known better when I saw Carr’s glowingly positive blurb splattered on the cover of Matthew Pearl’s magnum opus.  Though I find the topic of Poe’s death fascinating, reading Pearl’s novel makes me feel…well, dead.

And that brings us to James Joyce and “The Dead.”  Thankfully for every bad novel I torture myself with, there are dozens of short stories I can read in between chapters that are as Vonnegut once described, “Buddhist catnaps.”  Short stories provide perfect little meditative escapes from everyday life and respite from bad novels.  Occasionally, I come across one that reaches the level of art.  James Joyce’s “The Dead” is one such story.  It’s possibly the greatest short story I have ever read.  Continue reading