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Alexis Smith

Blu-ray: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Age of Innocence’

The Age of Innocence (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)

Criterion Collection

The Age of Innocence (1993) is not the only costume drama or historical picture that Martin Scorsese made but it is his only classical literary adaptation from the filmmaker that, all these years later, we still remember for edgy violence and cinematic energy. But even from the director of The Last Temptation of ChristKundun, and Silence, this film stands out for its grace and nuance in its portrait of social intercourse as formal ritual.

Adapted from Edith Wharton’s novel by Jay Cocks and Scorsese and set in 19th century New York City, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland Archer, a respected lawyer and respectable member of elite society who is engaged to the beautiful young May (Winona Ryder) but falls in love with her cousin, the worldly Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). The American-born Ellen has spent the best years of her life in the social straightjacket of the European aristocracy and arrives home a stranger under the shadow of scandal, fleeing a bad marriage to a philandering European Count. At first Newland extends his friendship out of duty to May but soon finds Ellen’s honesty and insight refreshing and exciting. As he observes how his own society marks her as outcast he starts to see his own complicity in a social world just as petty and judgmental as the one Ellen has fled. That very complicity puts him at odds with his passions when he’s instructed to talk Ellen out of divorcing her husband and into returning to a loveless marriage to avoid tarnishing the family name. The same contract that he realizes he too will be entering.

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“That’s the kind of hairpin I am”: ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Strawberry Blonde’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

In Gentleman Jim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Me and My Gal and The Bowery. Seen alongside The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.

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Review: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

Children have joined the cinema’s minorities, what with Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, Taxi Driver, Small Change, Bugsy Malone et al.; and if the movement has an on-screen leader it’s surely the extraordinary Jodie Foster. What, one wonders, will happen to this child in the next few years? Will the movies destroy her or will she prove too tough? Will she have a decent teens in spite of the media circus surrounding her? Her interviews reveal a bright, thoroughly sensible girl, and one keeps one’s fingers crossed.

The Canadian-made The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane isn’t the best film of her career to date, but it’s the most thought-provoking. Where do director Nicholas Gessner and scenarist Laird Koenig (who adapts his own novel with few changes) stand in relation to Rynn Jacobs, their 13-year-old heroine, played so superlatively well by Foster? Rynn is an intellectual child trying to live on her own, independent of family, school boards, adoption agencies or anyone else. Her father has taught her to avoid “them”, warning her of embourgeoisment; but now he’s dead (although nobody knows it but her) and she has to stand on her own against the forces of officialdom in the small New England town down the road from the lonely Jacobs house. She also, more pressingly, has to stand against the paedophile son (Martin Sheen) of a local bigwig. And what’s her answer? Death. Rynn has, before film’s start, polished off her own unpleasant mother with cyanide and stashed the corpse in the cellar. The bigwig—an inquisitive, patronising, rich and anti-Semitic real-estate lady (Alexis Smith), powerful on many a local committee—perishes quite accidentally when investigating unlawfully. The son finds evidence, tries blackmail and, at film’s end, notices too late the scent of bitter almonds emanating from his teacup. As he coughs and splutters, the camera just holds and holds and holds on Rynn’s angelic face, and the credits come up over it slowly, all the time without her so much as blinking.

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