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Knight at the Movies:Grey Gardens; State of Play; Film note
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2009-04-15

This article shared 3452 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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Grey Gardens, one of the best movies of this year's spring season, isn't even in theatres. It's on HBO, debuting Saturday, April 18, and replaying throughout the month. Character dramas as complex, compelling and thoughtful as Michael Suscy's movie, a new feature version of the beloved 1975 documentary, are rare. Drew Barrymore, playing Little Edie Beale from ages 19 to 60, gives what amounts to a career-altering performance while Jessica Lange does a superb turn as her passive-aggressive mother, Big Edie. The openly gay Suscy, making his feature debut with the film, is off to a grand start.

The documentary captured outspoken, one-of-a-kind Little Edie with her outré fashion sense and dotty, controlling Big Edie holed up in their decaying East Hampton mansion ( the grey gardens of the title ) , along with countless cats, in all their wacky, heartbreaking glory—a modern-day version of Miss Havisham and her slavish companion, Estella. Through its many other incarnations ( two documentaries, countless books, a Tony Award-winning musical, this feature and probably a sitcom and opera yet to come ) the material has had a deep connection for gay men who perhaps recognize themselves in the conflicted but loving story of devoted mother and "different" daughter hanging on to their artistic yearnings in the face of reduced circumstances.

Each succeeding version has given us more of the backstory of the two women, and now with Suscy's script ( co-written with Patricia Rozema ) we finally have the most complete edition yet. The film uses the documentary as a framing device for all that came before ( and some that came after ) for a fleshed-out portrait of both women—covering the gamut of their stylish early days of prestige, privilege and promise to their claustrophobic lives mostly lived in one room of their rotting mansion—and the cultish celebrity that ensued after newspapers contrasted their reduced circumstances with that of wealthy and famous relative Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ( played by Jeanne Tripplehorn ) .

Suscy's movie offers Barrymore—and, to a lesser degree, Lange—the benefit of all the complicated backstory only hinted at in the documentary, and both turn in bravura performances. The dust-ups between the two join the ranks of other memorable movies with mother-daughter conflicts at their center—Frances, Postcards from the Edge, Terms of Endearment, The Glass Menagerie and, yes, when viewed from a certain angle, even Mommie Dearest.

Near the conclusion of this version of Grey Gardens Suscy gives us an imagined but very satisfying mea culpa scene between the two women, and shows Little Edie in triumph at the documentary's premiere and even a bit of her nightclub act that played briefly in New York after Big Edie's death. "It's all in the movie," a satisfied Lange recently told a New York Times reporter. Here, at last, all the questions the documentary left hanging in the air have finally found a home in Suscy's movie. And after decades ensnared in a lurid fascination with Grey Gardens, like Little Edie, I'm finally, peacefully, ready to move on.

In State of Play, a crack team of actors headed by Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams enact the story of a major newspaper struggling to survive under the guise of a political thriller. The film, directed by Last King of Scotland's Kevin MacDonald, is fast, taut and stuffed with murky plot points. But like other fast-paced, newspaper-centered movies—All the President's Men, The Paper, Deadline U.S.A., Absence of Malice and even His Girl Friday—it's the thrill of the reporting and putting the pieces together rather than the thrill of the chase that revs up the picture.

Crowe plays the experienced reporter who helps along feisty newbie McAdams. In years past this character would be a plucky upstart cub reporter, eager to show off her abilities to her cynical superior. Now, she's a blogger. The movie, more than anything else, is a chance for the filmmakers to put those Internet users—some of whom are so enamored of gossip and quick, dirty, career-destroying stories based on innuendo—in their place. "Look, this is a real story not open to interpretation," he lectures McAdams early on, and as she sees up close the dirty reality of old-fashioned reporting at work we know eventually she's going to come around and say something like, "This story is too important for readers not to feel newsprint under their fingers as they read it."

I have written for newspapers for over 20 years and I ain't thrilled about the wolf-pack mentality and anything-goes rules that some bloggers operate under thanks to the speed and ease of posting on the Internet, but Macdonald's movie really overdoes it, eventually losing its enjoyable thriller aspects as it meanders off into propaganda for the once-mighty newspaper biz. By the time State of Play ends—with Crowe filing one of those "weighty" time-honored stories ( albeit, without an editor giving it a look-see ) —I felt as if the movie was one giant product endorsement paid for by the National Newspaper Association.

Film note:

—Queer Cinema 101, the five week LGBT film series hosted by local gay film critics, continues Monday, April 20, with Todd Haynes' 1998 movie Velvet Goldmine, a Citizen Kane-like fictional look at the bisexual world of glam rock. The screening, hosted by Time Out Chicago's Film section editor and critic Hank Sartin, will be followed by a Q&A with audience members. The screening starts at 7 p.m. at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, in the Hoover-Leppen Theatre. A $5 suggested donation is requested; visit www.centeronhalsted.org or call 773-472-6469, ext. 245

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site.


This article shared 3452 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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