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On Movies: 'Bright Star'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2009 - Jane Campion, a New Zealander transplanted to Australia, burst onto the American independent movie scene in 1993 with her haunting "The Piano." It won widespread critical acclaim and three major Academy Awards. Her output since then has been sparse, at least in terms of feature films in wide release in the United States.

In provocative if decidedly flawed movies like "Portrait of a Lady" (1996), "Holy Smoke" (1999) and "In the Cut" (2003), as well as in "The Piano," Campion has focused on characters caught up in powerful emotional currents that they can't always control. Mostly, for better and for worse, they just hang on for the ride. Campion clearly has a Romantic sensibility, so it seems apt that she would choose to make a film featuring one of the greatest poets of the Romantic period, John Keats (Ben Whishaw).

The new film, "Bright Star," is more soulful than the usual costume drama. It begins in 1818, when the 22-year-old poet had but three years to live. The narrative centers, however, not on Keats but on one of the strong but sometimes swayable female characters Campion favors -- 18-year-old Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, who is luminous). Brawne loved Keats in the last years of his cruelly short life, and, in passionate fits and starts, he loved her in return. The title of the film comes from an adoring poem Keats wrote for Brawne, rhetorically wishing that he could be as "steadfast" in his love for her as she was for him.

The first half of "Bright Star" could have been adapted from a recently found, lesser novel by Jane Austen, although it takes place in bosky suburban London (Hampstead) rather than the English countryside. Men and women in long dresses and jackets and ties are always walking through the woods, which are aflame with wildflowers, as they parade from one slightly crumbling brick home to another.

They get together from time to time for evenings of food and song and dance where eligible young men and women tiptoe towards romance. Flirtation is a skill highly regarded, but in "Bright Star," as in the works of Austen, money and ultimately survival are the desperate subtext of the shy glances across a crowded room. Young women, as their mothers are constantly reminding them, had better marry a man with money, or at least "prospects," or face a life that is short and brutish.

John Keats, who briefly studied medicine but chose to commit himself to poetry, had neither money nor prospects. In "Bright Star," he has an additional problem - his manically possessive friend, housemate and sometime benefactor Charles Brown, a thorough lout who jealously tries to keep Keats and Brawne apart when he isn't knocking up the maid. Paul Schneider, in the role of Brown, does a effective job of portraying an almost Iago-like malignancy and an arrogance rooted in fearful insecurity. He purports to be trying to protect Keats from distractions to his poetry, but Campion suggests there is more to his possessiveness than that.

In the first half or two-thirds of the movie, bright colors dominate the flower-strewn landscape and the striking outfits that Fanny Brawne designs and sews for herself. Much of the dialogue is witty, and some of it is lovely, courtesy of John Keats.

Then, Keats' cough gets worse, the colors of nature and clothing darken, and the daisies disappear beneath a burden of snow. We are no longer in Jane Austen's world - the late 18th century, the land of happy endings, the land of balance between sense and sensibility. We are someplace darker and wilder, a place that is, at times, almost Gothic in its heightened emotions. In short, the Romantic era. This transition in mood and tone is handled skillfully by Campion, cinematographer Greig Fraser, and production/costume designer Janet Patterson, who dresses Brawne strikingly according to the emotional season.

Keats discovers that he has tuberculosis and realizes that he loves Franny Brawne as he has never loved anyone. The final scenes of the movie, as darkness approaches, are lovely, and I would recommend staying through the credits to hear one of the greatest poems in the English language read aloud.

"Bright Star" is a good movie, although it doesn't achieve the deep emotional attachment and the abiding sense of mystery that gave "The Piano" such power. Its principal weakness, probably, comes in Whishaw's performance as Keats, or perhaps the problem resides in the way the character is written. Campion, who based her script on Andrew Motion's biography, presents the poet as essentially a depressive, "straining at particles of light in the great darkness."

Fine. But too often the poet, who spends much of his time "palely loitering," seems almost like a secondary character alongside both Fanny Brawne, played by Cornish as a force of nature, and the ever-scowling Charles Brown. Franny Brawne says early in the movie that she doesn't care much for poetry. If so, what made her fall in love with this seemingly weak man? She doesn't seem the nursemaid type.

The movie also is a bit too long. That said, "Bright Star" is probably the best movie Campion has made since "The Piano."

Opens Friday, Sept. 25

’Big Fan’

Football is a substitute for war, providing catharsis without slaughter. The Rams play the Chiefs so St. Louis doesn't invade Kansas City. Or so the theory goes.

Or maybe not. Maybe sports talk radio and Internet fan sites have changed all that. Now, if you are of such a mind, you can spend a large chunk of your waking hours avoiding catharsis, keeping your anger stoked online and on the air. On these relatively new media, the game is never over. Catharsis interruptus. Stay mad.

Like Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a 35-year-old parking garage attendant in New York who is the main character in a strikingly good, unpretentious new independent movie called "Big Fan." It was written and directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote the script for last year's surprise awards contender, "The Wrestler."

Paul lives with his mother on Staten Island and is meek and mild except when it comes to his favorite football team, a subject upon which he is a fanatic. Paul describes himself during his regular appearances on a call-in sports show as "the world's biggest New York Giants fan." Well, he's definitely a contender.

Paul and his best friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) can't really afford tickets to the games, so they drive to the stadium on Sunday mornings, pay to park in the lot, tailgate with ticket holders and then watch the game on a portable TV. Every snap of the ball is greeted with joy or despair. Although these guys hate every other team in the National Football League, they most despise the Eagles, just 86 miles away in Philadelphia. Every year, they drive down to watch the Eagles-Giants game from the stadium parking lot in Philly.

During the week, Paul spends his days feverishly writing out what he will say in his allotted minute or two on the air that evening. His main antagonist is an Eagles fan named Philadelphia Phil who likes to call New York stations and taunt the locals. Phil (Michael Rappaport), who is perhaps even more rabid than Paul in the intensity of his fandom, is a recurring irritant throughout the film.

One evening, Paul and Kevin are at a filling station in Staten Island when they are astonished to spot their favorite Giant player, linebacker Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm - not to be confused with St. Louisan Jon Hamm of "Mad Men"). They decide to follow his SUV. One thing leads to another, Bishop takes a couple of drunken swings at Paul, Paul ends up in the hospital, and Bishop is suspended indefinitely.

Paul is devastated, and not just physically. How can the team win without its star linebacker? And it's all his fault. Paul's brother-in-law, the shyster lawyer, wants Paul to sue Bishop for millions of dollars, and the police want Paul to press charges, but Paul just wants the whole thing to go away. Needless to say, it doesn't. The movie, which had been fairly cheerful, descends into black comedy and keeps on descending.

As he showed in "The Wrestler," filmmaker Robert Siegel has a knack for humanizing people who may not be the sharpest knives in the drawer, humanzing them without patronizing them. We come to see Paul, absurd as his predicament is, as a likable dreamer, with hopes and fears we can at least partly understand. Patton Oswalt gives a masterful performance as Paul, and we end up rooting for the poor schlub as his life gets stranger and stranger, heading towards an ending that is priceless.

Opens Friday Sept. 25

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.