Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Gift


Olivia Newton-John and I had a busy day today, rehearsing our jealousy duet in Act II of my new extravaganza, Aida on Ice. It begins with a wonderful peppy new tune, penned by Frank Wildhorn, and then turns into a competition skate off for Rhadames' affections. I, as the heroine Aida, of course win the day against Livy's Amneris after she's attacked by a palace guard who breaks her knee cap. Tonya Harding, my early skating coach, suggested the exciting choreography for this scene. It's been difficult to prepare as the two of us don't seem to be able to land our side by side double axels together. 

The show is really coming together. We just have to get the last bits of the trapeze act worked out. My Rhadames, Andrea Boccelli, is being taught the role of catcher over the next few days so that I can come sailing in over the ice on the fly bar in a splits position as a brilliant entry into the tomb scene. When he reaches up and plucks me out of midair, there won't be a dry eye in the house. We should be able to rehearse the whole thing later in the week. The camera crew from Project GreenLester that's filming the production process for a cable series is very excited about the coming moment. 

I was a bit tired after all that spinning and twirling so off I toddled home to a Spago take-out dinner and to curl up with a film. I was very much in the mood for something to send a few chills up and down the spine; it's good preparation for a trapeze rehearsal.  Therefore, I channel surfed until I ran across The Gift, Sam Raimi's film from 2000 starring Cate Blanchett. I had always thought this was a Christmas film and was a bit confused when all of the trees were draped with Spanish Moss rather than twinkle lights; the titular gift, however, is not a physical present but rather the psychic abilities of our heroine, Annie Wilson (Blanchett). 

Annie is a young woman in a small southern town, down on her luck since the recent accidental death of her husband. She's got little money, three young boys to raise, and her only marketable skill is her psychic abilities. She makes what little money she can reading cards for her friends and neighbors and accepting their 'donations'. The upper crust treat her as a harmless joke, the lower class deride her publicly for witchcraft (but sneak in to have their fortunes told when no one is looking). All in all, a fairly accurate portrait of the social strata of small town southern living. One of her clients, Valerie (Hilary Swank in a really bad wig and a worse accent), is married to a brutal man, Donnie (a chilling Keanu Reeves) who beats her, plays around on her, and, when Annie suggests to Valerie that her health might be improved at the local battered women's shelter, starts threatening Annie and her children. 

Annie's truest friend is a dimwitted, very disturbed auto mechanic (an irritating Giovanni Ribisi) who tries to protect her from Donnie's threats. Meanwhile, Annie, who is emotionally shut down following her recent widowhood, begins to have visions about the town trollop, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), who is engaged to her oldest son's principal (Greg Kinnear). Pretty soon Jessica disappears, Annie's having visions about her fate, and Donnie becomes the chief suspect in some foul play. All of the plot threads eventually come to a head in a Southern gothic melodramatic finish which cannot help but feature a thunderstorm and an escaped mental patient. All that was missing was a nice juicy axe murder. 

The film is a collaboration between director Sam Raimi and writer Billy Bob Thornton who had worked together earlier on the excellent A Simple Plan. I suppose they were hoping for lighting to strike twice, but all the lighting is on the screen in that highly symbolic final storm. Raimi is usually an entertaining and highly visual director, but seems somewhat off his game in this film. He conjures up some frissons of the spine in a couple of images, especially an unexpected open eye and the use of some moody lighting for scenes set around a swampy pond, but his attempts to layer too much atmosphere around his story keep nudging it towards camp. He isn't helped by Thornton's script. The story and plotting are serviceable enough (although anyone with half a brain can solve the whodunit half way through the film) but Thornton can't decide if he's telling a realistic, dramatic narrative or an evocative, ghostly one; the two threads never mesh together, the way they do in The Others or The Sixth Sense. On the other hand, Thornton obviously understands the mores and the society of the South and gives us a nuanced portrait of the two distinctly different worlds of money and redneck that coexist in the town. 

Cate Blanchett, one of our finest actresses, gives Annie depth and creates a realistic portrait of a woman, powerless over her gift and the responsibilities it places upon her. Her reactions to her visions are never less than honest and we can see all of the emotions roiling under her faded exterior. The talented supporting cast has a couple of stand outs. As the brutal Donnie, Keanu Reeves gives one of his best performances in years. He's nasty, twisted and scary as hell. Reeves has always been under rated as a physical actor. With his regular features hidden under a scraggly beard, he dominates his scenes as his power comes from force and not from words. Reeves excels at such portrayals. He comes a cropper when he's asked to deliver lines. Greg Kinnear also continues to show his charm and versatility as a troubled man who's taken a shine to Annie after his fiancĂ©e is revealed to be less than he thought her. In small roles, J. K. Simmons as the local sheriff and Michael Jeter as an attorney do good work. On the other hand, Giovanni Ribisi uses every annoying tic picked up in the Rainman School of Acting 101 to try and portray his mental patient. He becomes a detriment to the film after about five minutes, which is too bad as his part is vital to the final pay-offs. Hilary Swank might have been good but she's flummoxed by her trailer trash accent. The three young actors who play Annie's children are so mannered that you sort of wish Cate was playing Medea. 

There's good stuff here, and some pleasurable shocks, but on the whole, it doesn't quite gel due to some bad writing and a couple of not so good performances. I'll give it a weak recommendation but if something more important comes up, like rotating your tires, do that instead. 

Symbolic falling pencil. Symbolic thunder storm. Symbolic grandma. Gratuitous Rosemary Harris. ESP cards. Country club dance. Bathroom sex. Pond dragging. Gratuitous 73 Oldsmobile. 

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