Rex Reed Reviews JANE EYRE, BLACK DEATH, ELEKTRA LUXX, & 3 BACKYARDS

JANE EYRE

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in "Jane Eyre." Courtesy Focus Features.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jamie Bell, and Judi Dench
Director: Cary Fukunaga

With the great 1944 version starring Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, and a perfect supporting cast easily available on home video to buy or rent, nobody needs a sixth remake of Charlotte Bronte’s Gothic Victorian novel, published in 1847, but filmmakers just can’t resist the camera-ready thrill and romance of Jane Eyre. So it’s back to the Yorkshire moors, the birdlike stirrings in the unloved heart of the orphaned Jane, the creepy mansion of the brooding Edward Fairfax Rochester, the mystery of the screams in the night and the secret horror locked away in the attic, and the rest of the familiar territory already worn thin by the heavy feet of not only Welles but Colin Clive, George C. Scott and William Hurt. This one is workmanlike and nothing remarkable, but compared to the rest of the junk polluting screens today, it’s an elegant and welcome antidote.

It’s directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose only previous feature is Sin Nombre, written by fledgling newcomer Moira Buffini, whose only major credit is Stephen Frears’ dreary comedic flop Tamara Drewe, and it stars, in the title role, young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, who made her American film debut as the daughter in last year’s The Kids Are All Right. None of them has the kind of experience to tackle material with the scope of Jane Eyre, and unfortunately it shows. The extravagant, polished and highly superior 1944 film, directed by Robert Stevenson and written by Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, showed a dark, malignant side of Bronte. The new one aims more for pathos and passion. The highlights of the lengthy novel still outline the story of an abused orphan, cheated out of her inheritance and subjected to the snobbish indifference of a vicious aunt (Sally Hawkins) who ships her off to a grim and imposing institution called Lowood, a miserable prison of cruelty run by a heartless monster named Brocklehurst. But the details of Jane’s tortured childhood are too sketchy to have the same moving impact as the earlier versions. The Dickensian fate that awaited the children at Lowood is barely mentioned, and Brocklehurst, the sadistic schoolmaster so memorably played in 1944 by the terrifying Henry Daniell, is barely mentioned. Worst of all, I miss the children—-Peggy Ann Garner as the young Jane, and the overwhelmingly appealing moppet Elizabeth Taylor as her fatally ill friend Helen—whose life-altering friendship is not remotely explored here. I especially miss the enchanting Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s lonely French ward, Adele. The early part of the story is brushed over like a bad vacation. The screenplay is recklessly devoid of details—how old everyone is, where they came from, how they feel about their fates. Gratefully, a group of fine performances take up the slack. As the missionary who rescues Jane from near death on the moors, Jamie Bell is such a virile young screen presence that it’s hard to remember him as the boy who played Billy Elliot. Eventually finding a position as companion and governess to little Adele at the imposing Thornfield Hall and an immediate attraction to Rochester, the estate’s thorny, glowering master, Jane’s virginal innocence and blunt austerity do not convincingly mix with his manic-depressive unhappiness as their ardent affection intensifies. As the brooding, toxic Rochester, the Irish actor Michael Fassbender is a sexy improvement over the mumbling Orson Welles. He’s less ferocious, he speaks clearly, and plays Rochester as a sort of second cousin to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights with primal lust lingering just beneath his hands-planted-firmly-in-the-lapels demeanor. His is a performance of studied arrogance masking a restless, romantic libido—a sealed-off Svengali waiting for his Trilby. Ms. Wasikowska’s Jane is so modest and subdued that when she arrives at Thornwood Hall, she turns into a bloodless wimp who falls too easily under the spell of her master. Then when her anxiety and awe turn to love, it’s not entirely persuasive. Leave it the great Judi Dench, as the warm, compassionate housekeeper, who brings levity and reason to the proceedings and raises Jane Eyre above the level of Masterpiece Theater.

The dialogue is often so arch and formal it needs translating (“Stay your wandering, at a friend’s threshold” means “Come in”), the direction heavy handed and improvidently corny. Still, it’s grimly fascinating in ways that won’t lull you to sleep. You gotta hand it to Charlotte Bronte. 164 years since she gave hyper-kinetic Victorian schoolgirls their first sleepless nights, she’s pulling them in all over again. What’s next? An all-male version with Charles Busch and Cheyenne Jackson?


BLACK DEATH

Sean Bean in "Black Death." Courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

Cast: Sean Bean, Carice van Houten
Director: Christopher Smith

Unbearably violent and curiously pointless, Black Death is a German horror film in English with an international cast, set in everybody’s favorite year, 1348 (uh, yeah) about everybody’s favorite subject, the bubonic plague (talk about box office!), and filmed in everybody’s favorite medieval vacation destination, Sachsen-Anhalt and the surrounding forests of Lutharstadt (Castles! Monasteries! Moats! Give us more for our euros!) In the production notes, one of the many producers, Phil Robertson (The Last Station), explains the reasons he thinks the film will enthrall younger viewers: “Death and poverty were rife…I think all kids love exploring this stuff…they want to know what the Black Death was, what was it like to live surrounded by rats and filth.”

Be that as it may. The only real reason to see this morbid, often unwatchable misery is the central performance by the versatile and amazing British actor Eddie Redmayne. He played Julianne Moore’s troubled, incestuous son in the alarming true story of murdered Bake-Lite socialite-heiress Barbara Baekeland in Savage Grace, and won a Tony award as artist Mark Rothko’s personal assistant, muse, and chief critic in the acclaimed Broadway production Red. From his hacked haircut to his crude potato-sack rags, he looks every inch the role of a 14th century monk named Osmund, trying to stay alive and hold onto his sanity and his religious faith as the plague ravaged Europe and killed off half the population. Osmund’s Christianity and belief in God are tested by his sexual obsession for the girl he tries to save from pestilence by sending her to a safe place that turns out to be a hell on earth. So many contradictions, plus the constant physical endurance tests he goes through, make for a very demanding role. Mr. Redmayne finds contemporary relevance in every aspect of the film and emerges triumphant while he tries to stay alive to the end.

His odyssey begins when the word spreads of a village in the marshes rumored to be untouched by a plague more pitiless and destructive than war. The Bishop sends Ulric (brawny Sean Bean), a fearless and very devout knight, to investigate. Osmund the young monk from the far corner of the map where the miraculous village is located, agrees to act as guide. He soon discovers he’s really leading a gang of murderers, rapists, and thieves who are also fanatic Christians on a mission to rid the world of the Devil’s disciples, called “necromancers”. What they don’t know is that Osmund also has a secret agenda—to find the girl he loves. Through a landscape that resembles a massive funeral pyre, they see men flogging themselves with whips, women burned at the stake for witchcraft, and tell-tale signs of the fatal pandemic on people everywhere—growths the size of eggs bulging from their necks. When they reach the village, the benevolent citizens mask a demonic evil ruled by a witch named Langiva (bringing us, once again, into contact with the electrifying Carice von Houten, the Dutch star who sang big band jazz and agonized her way through Nazi-occupied Holland as the unforgettable heroine of Paul Verhoeven’s epic war saga Black Book). Langiva is a thankless role, but this is an actress who can even make the heart of darkness look inviting.

There are a lot of stabbings and beheadings, but the motivations of all concerned are never clear. You groan and hide your eyes as each new medieval torture is introduced, desensitized by the endless carnage. But oh, just wait till they bring on the horses to rip bodies in half, bone by bone—and my favorite, a special torture device for Langiva like medieval wire cutters, to chop off fingers and toes. Midway, the movie forgets about the plague and turns into a lot of hugga-mugga about Heaven vs. Hell that tests the young monk’s faith in ways ten times more punishing than a year’s retreat in some silence-only contemplation convent in Latvia. The innocence of the monk, exemplified by Mr. Redmayne, and the demonic evil of the witch, glamorized by Ms. Von Houten, are the poles on opposite sides of the canvas that stake this circus of horror in occasional bursts of energy. Everything in-between is religious hysteria, chaotic sword battles, unconvincing moral dilemma, and killing for Christ. Director Christopher Smith keeps the fog, mist and rain machines working overtime, but to such little purpose that Black Death often looks like outtakes from Fiddler on the Roof.


ELEKTRA LUXX

Carla Gugino in "Elektra Luxx." Courtesy Gato Negro Films.

Cast: Carla Gugino, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Director: Sebastian Gutierrez

I hardly know how to describe a pornographic piffle called Elektra Luxx, but the word abominable instantly comes to mind. Incoherently written and ineptly directed by somebody called Sebastian Gutierrez without a single scene of professional control, edited with pinking shears, and acted by an impressive cast that seems desperate to keep their Screen Actors Guild insurance and union dues paid while searching for whatever corner of the room the camera has been placed, it’s film of the kind of amateurishness that went out of style with Andy Warhol and his Polaroid.

Luscious Carla Gugino plays the title role, a retired XXX-rated superstar from another decade, before Disney hosed down Times Square. Now she’s pregnant, broke, and in trouble with the IRS, teaching sex education in a community center that shares space with a Bible studies class. Years ago, she was the celebrated girlfriend of a rock tar who left behind 15 songs about her when he was accidentally killed in an airplane toilet by a flight attendant while exercising his duties as a charter member of the Mile High Club. Now the oversexed stewardess begs Elektra to seduce her shy boyfriend in exchange for the missing rock tunes, but instead this bottle-blonde bimbo mistakenly mounts a detective who is looking for the tapes himself. How Elektra gets her bra on in time to end up a rich and successful best-selling author is not worth repeating. All of which provides endless fodder for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hopelessly miscast as Bert Rodriguez, a chicano sex blogger on a website dedicated to authentic sex goddesses of yesteryear “in a world increasingly known for its surgical enhancements and questionable pubic hair styles”. Elektra Luxx remains his favorite sex fantasy, and he intersperses gushing wet dreams with film clips from her movies, 2 Nymphomaniac Twin Sisters and its famous sequel, 2 Nymphomaniac Twin Sisters 2 (Wetter Than Seattle). As “the Latin world’s numero uno source for breaking sexy news”, the disastrous Mr. Gordon-Levitt, as a sort of X-rated host-narrator, looks more embarrassed and out of place than James Franco on the Academy Awards.

In the worst decision of her career, Carla Gugino shows a lot of skin and is forced to say unspeakable lines like “When we’re not in love we’re miserable wishing we were in love, and when we are in love we’re miserable that love isn’t enough”. This is tragic, because this girl can really act. It’s hard to believe she’s the same actress who devastated Broadway in 2004 playing the lead in a revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. Among the other bona fide fiascos who find themselves dangerously close to cauterizing their careers you’ll find Justin Kirk, Kathleen Quinlan, Timothy Olyphant, as a tough detective named Dellwood Butterworth, and Vincent Kartheiser, the obnoxious junior exec from Mad Men, who prances around naked, replete with beard, long hair and a body that should be forbidden by contract to ever do nude scenes. Julianne Moore makes an unbilled guest appearance as the Virgin Mary. “Ask me anything.” “Anything?” “As long as it isn’t the capitol of South Dakota.”

Despite the potential for comedy, Elektra Luxx is trash–cheesily photographed, moronically directed, and lacking every pretense to social significance. My guess is it’s supposed to be some kind of lurid send-up of soft-core porn aimed at the people who like movies by the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow, but it isn’t clever enough to be even momentarily diverting, and it’s about as sexy as oatmeal. I shudder to shed light on any deeper, more philosophical reason why this movie is named after a vacuum cleaner. Think about it.


3 BACKYARDS

Embeth Davidtz and Edie Falco in "3 Backyards." Courtesy Screen Media Films.

Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco
Director: Eric Mendelsohn

3 Backyards is another in a string of boring low-budget indie-prods that fritters away the talents of good actors anxious to keep busy in cinema, a business that is fading faster than journalism. In the course of one autumn day, it superficially examines the dull lives of three people who live in the same Long Island town. Between breakfast and suppertime, they leave their houses searching for something that might take them far afield of their mundane daily routines, but they all return disappointed, baffled and glad to get home.

In a fresh role very different from the freaks he usually plays in such films as Crash, Apt Pupil, and Shutter Island, Elias Koteas plays an unhappy businessman with marital problems who packs his bags, drives to the airport for a business trip, and finds his flight canceled. He returns home, watches is wife and daughter through the window, and learns things about his family he never knew before. Wandering through town, he keeps crossing paths with a sweet, rueful black girl, badly in need of a job, who remains cheerful in spite of constant rejections, touching his heart in places he didn’t know he had. In the least interesting and most underwritten of the vignettes, a nine-year-old girl steals her mother’s jewelry, but on the way to school she is startled to come upon a mentally challenged man masturbating who confiscates the jewelry. In the third story, Edie Falco gives another subtle, cantilevered performance as a bored housewife who gets a dose of unexpected excitement when a celebrity neighbor asks her to drive her to the ferry. To her surprise, she gets to know the human, ungrateful, and rather pathetic side of a famous actress that leaves her shattered. In the end, the three characters share one thing in common—their lives are don’t seem as not as blank at the end of the day as they did at the beginning.

Like a boy kicking sand on the side of a road to pass time, writer-director Eric Mendelsohn takes a meandering look at suburban angst that is more of a sideways glance. Noting ever happens, and although the stories in 3 Backyards intercut and overlap, they never connect, making it hard to sustain interest. The acting is flawless, especially Edie Falco, who spends the whole movie behind a steering wheel, and the excellent Embeth Davidtz as her passenger. But as good as they are, they never get beneath the surface of facial emotions. My mind kept wandering. Shot on a shoestring budget, with no setting more elaborate than a neighborhood coffee shop, the point is that the grass is never greener than in your own backyard. But the film is so lethargic that I would have had more fun staying home, as Phyllis Diller says, “in bed with a good book—or a good friend who’s just read one”.