A Quiet Passion: Emily Dickinson and Solitary Transcendence

**** (out of 4)

Towards the end of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a new “biopic” of the poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), there’s a shot in which Dickinson is shown lying on her bed. The mood is not a relaxed one; she’s just been struck by a debilitating series of seizures, and in the next scene, she’ll end up passing away for good. What’s striking about this moment, however, is the combination of the anguish on Dickinson’s face, the foreshortened way her legs stand out in the foreground, and the way the bed fills the center of the frame: taken together, the whole image provides a very close imitation of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s famous depiction of a dead Jesus in Cristo morto. It’s almost as though Dickinson, like Christ, has reached some form of transcendence through death.

Alas, if there’s just one thing Davies’ take on Dickinson teaches you, it’s that this transcendence is only attained after a lifetime of emotional and spiritual agony. Continue reading

The Lovers: The Hormonal Urges of Middle Age

** (out of 4)

The initial premise of Azawal Jacobs’ The Lovers is that the two protagonists, a married couple named Michael (Tracy Letts) and Mary (Debra Winger), dislike each other so much that they’ve each resorted to cheating on the other. If you were just going by the opening scenes, however, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that either of them really enjoys being adulterous. On Michael’s side, after all, the movie gives us an image of his girlfriend Lucy (Melora Walters) wailing inconsolably, all while he resignedly leans his head against a wall in the background. And on Mary’s side, we watch as she gives her boyfriend Robert (Aidan Gillen) an awkward, somewhat exasperated embrace outside her workplace. Add the fact that these scenes are filmed with meditative long takes, and you have all the makings of a reincarnation of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura: a story where everyone wants love but never succeeds in getting it.

First impressions, however, can deceive, and the turn the story subsequently takes shows why. Continue reading

The Lost City of Z: Dullness on the Amazon

(out of 4)

Movies about adventures in the wild have a long and intimidating pedigree. Well before Leonardo DiCaprio got himself mauled by a bear in 2015’s The Revenant, after all, you had Peter O’Toole floating on the desert sand in Lawrence of Arabia, Klaus Kinski glaring at his wearied soldiers in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Marlon Brando whispering about “the horror” in Apocalypse Now. Despite their vast differences in setting and historical period, each of these films spoke in some way to the power of human obsession, the insatiable desire people can acquire for an object or ideal that may not even be attainable. In those stories, the wild became something simultaneously fascinating and deadly, a place where great ambitions and schemes ran up against nature’s unsparing limits.

Unfortunately, whatever wilderness you encounter in the new “adventure” movie The Lost City of Z turns out to be anything but fascinating or deadly. Continue reading