CIFF Triple Play: Coriolanus, Jeff Who Lives at Home and Sleeping Beauty

Time to hammer through the second half of my Chicago International Film Festival coverage with an arthouse triple feature.

Coriolanus

Shakespeare is hard. Even for professionals, Shakespeare is hard. This is the message I got from John Logan, the Tony-award winning playwright (for RED), and a two-time Oscar nominee (screenplays for Gladiator and The Aviator). Logan’s resume is impressive, so for him to admit that Coriolanus, was tough to bring to the big screen is no joke. It was a struggle at every level—adaptation, selling, filming, distributing. That this film exists at all is proof of Logan’s, and Ralph Fiennes’, devotion to the work.

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s late plays, one of the ones that during a time of collaboration (as Shakespeare’s age advanced he worked with co-authors) shows no mark of another hand. Coriolanus, like Cymbeline and The Tempest, is one of the last great works Shakespeare would produce alone. It is an incredibly difficult text. Having read the complete works of Shakespeare (which, yes, I have), I get asked a lot about which plays are the funniest, the saddest, the most boring, the easiest. The hardest? Coriolanus, hands down. The story follows Caius Martius, a Roman general who is incredibly good at his job and incredibly loathed by pretty much everyone. Martius is not a Hamlet, constantly blathering on about his motivations and misgivings. He’s a steely soldier of considerable skill, great pride and/or modesty—depending on how you read it—and prone to crushing bouts of revenge. He’s highly unlikeable.

The movie sets Martius’ struggle with Rome in the present, with combat in urban areas vaguely reminiscent of the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. Dress is contemporary and the script breezes through exposition using “Fidelis TV”, a 24-hour news network. For the most part, this works. Fiennes directed, his first time doing so, and his growing pains show, especially in the combat scenes. He’s much better in static spaces with scenes of smaller scope, but overall, he does a fair job of directing one of the densest, deepest texts you’re going to find in the English language. As Martius, who is dubbed “Coriolanus” following his victory in the city of Corioles, Fiennes is okay-to-pretty-good. I tend to think he overplayed Martius, giving in to some hammy instincts. I never pictured Martius raising his voice but for once, when he swears vengeance on Rome. I always imagined Martius as a powder keg with a long fuse, but Fiennes plays him as a firecracker, flying off the handle at the drop of a hat (mixed metaphors!).

Honestly, Fiennes might not have come off so heavy-handed were it not for Gerard Butler, who starred as Martius’ enemy, Tullus Aufidius. The leader of the “Volscians”, a kind of rebel invading force, Aufidius is Martius’ nearest military match, though he consistently comes out the loser when the two meet in combat. That is until Martius is banished from Rome following some political manipulation and Martius aligns himself with Aufidius to get revenge on those who wronged him. Butler is surprisingly really good here. He plays Aufidius with restraint—which I never thought I’d say about Butler—and ends up coming off really well against Fiennes’ bigger, louder performance. GERARD BUTLER, OSCAR NOMINEE could actually happen. God help us all.

Overall, the movie is a mixed bag of good intentions and effort. Vanessa Redgrave is stellar as Martius’ pushy mother, Volumnia, Jessica Chastain (Jesus, she’s in everything this year) is acceptable as his weepy wife Virgilia, and Brian Cox does great work as Martius’ political ally, Senator Menenius. Logan does an excellent job of weeding through Shakespeare’s difficult text and telling a cohesive story and Fiennes does an okay job of staging it. This play very rarely gets performed in any medium, so for Shakespeare enthusiasts I’d say it’s a must-see but you can skip it if that’s not your bag. I just…I can’t get over it. Gerard Butler was good.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

The Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, have, like Drake Doremus, been an indie-scene secret that is beginning to gain traction in the mainstream. The brothers follow up last year’s Cyrus with the less creepy and all-around sweeter Jeff. Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, I Love You, Man) continues building his platform for total entertainment domination as Jeff, a thirty-year-old stoner who lives in his mother’s basement. Jeff believes in signs (and literally, Signs—he’s a fan of the movie) and when a wrong number call results in him looking for “Kevin”, he gets caught up in a series of events that changes his family.

Segel is wonderful as Jeff. He’s a subtle actor who is so naturally funny that he makes comedy look easy and here deploys that talent as well as a considerable depth to make Jeff a loveable loser. At least, he’s loveable to the audience, who is in his corner from his first, silly monologue. To his family he’s something of a trial, a man-child incapable of completing simple tasks. It’s his mother’s birthday and all she wants is for Jeff to fix a shutter on a door before she comes home. He sets off to do this but gets distracted following a kid named Kevin and so begins his unlikely day.

Susan Sarandon is great as Sharon, Jeff’s beleaguered mom. She’s so beautiful yet manages to convey a sense of being worn down, tired of life, and at her wit’s end but still maintaining an interior spark. I think this is what Cameron Crowe was trying to get from her in Elizabethtown, but the Duplassi succeed far better with Sarandon than Crowe did. Ed Helms (The Hangover, The Office) is in as Jeff’s older brother, Pat, who kicks off his day by buying a Porsche his wife (Judy Greer) did not approve. Between this and Cedar Rapids, Helms proves he can do more than just comedy, but like Segel, his considerable comic touch lightens things up throughout the movie.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home resolves in a kind of hokey way but I cried buckets anyway. We get very little backstory to these people’s lives yet Segel, Sarandon and Helms do a great job of making us care about them and invest in their achieving their wants. This is a well written, well acted, well directed movie that shows that a heroic story doesn’t always have to involve blazing gunfire or fists of fury, but can sometimes just be about a dude looking for Kevin. The Duplass Brothers’ streak lives on.

Sleeping Beauty

Weird sex movie alert. I like pervy movies like this because it always kind of fascinates me, what people get up to behind closed doors. Director Jane Campion (Bright Star, The Piano) nurtured novelist Julia Leigh through the making of her feature film debut, which tells the story of Lucy (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch), a student who gets into specialized sex work for money. Early on, we see Lucy at a variety of jobs—waitress, copy clerk, medical trial participant, and yes, she’s hooking in the evenings. She responds to an ad in a paper and is introduced to Clara (Australian TV star Rachael Blake), a high-class madam. Clara caters to a rich, pervy clientele who like to have S&M themed dinner parties. She starts Lucy—renamed Sarah—out as a wine server at these parties.

Circumstances, though, are tough for Lucy and she’s soon asking for more…opportunities. This comes in the form of letting Clara drug her and put her in a bed for weird old men to do whatever they want to with her while she’s unconscious (except have actual sex). It’s incredibly unsexy, borderline repulsive and disturbing. Browning does a satisfactory job as Lucy—she’s beautiful and her undemanding on-screen presence certainly works in the context of this film but overall she has yet to make me sit up and go, “Oh! Her!” (unlike Shailene Woodley, whom we’ll get to next week). But really, Browning is just another piece on the board of this movie. She’s not an assertive enough presence to override the stylings of the director, Leigh.

I firmly believe you cannot try to make art. You just do it. You can’t set up a scene thinking, “And now we’ll have the symbolic moment”—that stuff has to originate organically from within the story. At no point did any of the symbolism in Sleeping Beauty feel organic. It all felt like the film print is stamped with “symbolic scene” wherever we’re supposed to find meaning in static shots and slow fades. As a technique, it annoyed me greatly and it detracted from the otherwise fine performances happening on screen. This movie was reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut in that we sat through a lot of weird shit for absolutely no payout. We just never care enough about Lucy, and everything is so stifled with MEANING and PRETENSE that you can’t ever get into the groove of the story. So unless you like pervy sex movies, this is a pass.

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5 thoughts on “CIFF Triple Play: Coriolanus, Jeff Who Lives at Home and Sleeping Beauty

  1. sarah

    I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Shailene Woodley in that Clooney movie. I keep hearing that’s she’s great in it, but I only know her from that ABC family show around teenage pregnancy and she is just awful in that show.

  2. raynbow

    I don’t know why you are so surprised that Gerard Butler is good in Coriolanus. I’m guessing you’ve never seen him in anything other than 300. You might want to rent Dear Frankie, an early film of his (shot before Phantom of the Opera — another brilliantly acted performance by Gerry). And, if you can find it, go see Machine Gun Preacher, which is out in a very limited release. He also does a great job in Law Abiding Citizen. He can handle pretty much any genre — from Romance, to Comedy, to Drama, to Thriller. Don’t be so surprised if Gerry gets an Oscar nod for MGP too.

    1. He won’t get a nod for Machine Gun Preacher. The Best Actor race is shaping up and MGP isn’t a strong enough movie to separate from everyone else. Coriolanus is his better chance because the Supporting race is looser at this point.

      Also, I have seen him in many things other than 300 and have never thought of him as a bad actor, so much as a lazy one. He chooses projects that don’t tend to interest me and then he phones it in. But he was engaged in Coriolanus and what really struck me was his restraint. Even when I’ve thought he was good, I wouldn’t describe him as a subtle actor, yet he did very contained, subtle work in Coriolanus.

  3. Gerard’s fans have never figured out why critics hate him so much! He is an emotional guy, with a speaking face, in every film, good film and bad. Go back and look at them, and ignore the film, and just watch the actor. He needed to make better film choices, with better directors, but as an actor he has always been there. I have seen other famous actors just “walk through a film” just for the payday.

    I think he did a great job of portraying an angry, violent man in Machine Gun Preacher, you believed him when he said, don’t touch me! That film (yes, the film itself had issues) was completely betrayed by its US distributor, but the overseas distributor is doing billboards, tv ads, etc.

    He always tries to give it his all. Hope you have seen Dear Frankie, and a very early Scottish indie, One More Kiss, where he plays a young chef, maybe too much a soap opera for you? Loved him in Rocknrolla. He was apparently well liked in the stage version of Trainspotting, many years ago, in the UK.

    Maybe his emotion and his speaking face only speak to women, I don’t know! 🙂

  4. anaishilator

    Eh….he isnt a character actor thats for sure, but he has a physical presence on screen, and that is his strength. I first noticed him when he played in that awful made-for-tv USA movie Attila. Now….did he really convince me he was a Hun warlord from the 5th century A.D.? Hell naw( hence the bad character acting part) But….you could not take your eyes off of him. He was physically imposing and commanding- that is his natural screen presence.

    He is one of those actors that if you give him a role where he has something to work with, he can deliver a great performance. Give him a role where he has to flesh out the character himself…not so much. So it stands to reason that the better the writing, the better his performance will be.

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