Thursday, June 14, 2012

Another Average Great Film: Amelia Underwhelms.

The Good: Great cinematography, Interesting characters, Good plot
The Bad: Acting is very average, Pacing issues
The Basics: A good, but not great film, Amelia is an informative biography of the romance between Amelia Earhart and George Putnam that is predictably great and unchallenging.

There are several films I have encountered as a reviewer where they fall into what I call "Mediocre Greatness." They are usually films that have high drama and focus on character and have an amazing ensemble cast. Those same films seldom stretch the talents of those involved and they merely live up to the expected greatness of the performers. Mystic River is the first of many of these type movies that comes to my mind. Today, I add Amelia to that list. It is not a bad movie: it has all the necessary factors to be popular and Oscar fodder from recognizable actors acting well to a good story to a sweeping soundtrack with great visuals. But I got pretty much all that from the trailers. Watching the movie left me with very little that was new or powerful and having seen so many movies, this conformed more to expectations than it defied or exceeded them.

Amelia is a biopic, a biography of Amelia Earhart and I went to a screening with my mother, who is a big fan of Earhart and was quite excited about the movie. I'm actually surprised she wanted to go because she was at least as excited about Julie And Julia which I took her to earlier that year and she was quite underwhelmed. In this case, she came out loving it, telling me that this was a movie she would love on DVD when it arrives there (which she has since gotten) and my immediate question was "Have you seen Hilary Swank in anything before?" Her answer was "no" and I suspect the reason she was so pleasantly surprised by the movie was that Swank truly is amazing in the role of Amelia Earhart.

As a young woman, Amelia Earhart experiences the thrill of flying while at the Canadian National Expo and she devotes her life thereafter to learning to fly. Flying small planes comes surprisingly naturally to Amelia and after Lindbergh crosses the Atlantic, the search is on for the first woman to make the same trek. Encouraged by the operation's publicist, George Putnam, Amelia takes on the challenge and becomes the first woman to make the flight, even though she is not alone in the plane when it happens. This, however, makes her an international celebrity and she and Putnam quickly get closer. After Putnam leaves his wife and tries doggedly to get her, Amelia Earhart becomes his wife.

Shortly thereafter, Earhart makes her first solo transatlantic flight and her celebrity increases. Putnam, though, tries to be supportive of both her and her image goals and helps her to look for the next big thing. As she starts to break records for the types of flights she takes - and attracts the attentions of other men, most notably Gene Vidal - she sets her sights on the one thing no one else has ever accomplished; a flight around the world from an equatorial route. Despite the dangers, she and her co-pilot Fred Noonan set out to make the flight . . .

I thought I knew pretty much the whole story of Amelia before seeing the film. After all, I argued, it was pretty hard to get excited about a movie where we knew the end so very well before the movie opened. But the truth is, Amelia is an engaging character study that spends most of its time focused on the relationship between Earhart and Putnam and as such, it is more a love story between a woman in the air and a man on the ground. In fact, some of the best moments of the movie have Putnam and Earhart simply talking to one another over radios without being in the same room and they manage to keep the viewer engaged even then.

The movie works because the audience wants to root for Earhart and this becomes the transformation of a humble woman with a dream into a celebrity. Earhart's story is a good one for those looking for a tale of empowerment (female or otherwise) and the relationship she and Putnam have is at times complicated, but is largely easy -to-watch and enjoy. Moreover, director Mira Nair fleshes out the love story with a wonderful visual sense. Nair has a nice sense of cinematography that breaks up the intimate scenes between Earhart and Putnam and Earhart and Vidal and makes the story seem larger than it is.

As well, in recent months, I have found the soundtrack on many movies to be intrusive. Nair keeps the soundtrack both epic in its scope and unobtrusive in its presentation. While the music supports the mood and helps to raise tension and develop the story, it never overwhelms the viewer with being too in-your-face. But here opens the perfect entry into the topic of "mediocre greatness." Just because the standard is awful and so many directors abuse the viewers with overbearing soundtracks, it should not be celebrated when a director actually operates within the boundaries of good taste. So, while it is good that Amelia is not plagued with a melodramatic soundtrack, that should be pretty standard, not the abnormal condition and that Amelia lives up to a moderately low standard only illustrates how far most modern cinema has fallen.

Which brings us to the acting. Outside Nightwatch (reviewed here!) how bad does one truly expect a film with Ewan McGregor to be? I ask that tongue-in-cheek, but there is truth to the idea that Nair has stacked the deck with McGregor, Richard Gere and Hilary Swank. Much can be written about the on-screen chemistry between Swank and Gere, but while they have a spark and it's wonderful in the movie, it is nothing exceptional on either actor's part. Gere is KNOWN for being charming and he plays a very typical role of charming Richard Gere as George Putnam. This falls easily within the range of expected abilities for an actor of Gere's caliber and we truly see nothing new from him that we have not seen before.

As for Hilary Swank, she helps bring in Oscar Pandering Season early, but not unjustly. She has a habit of playing strong female characters who stand up for an idea and ride that to their eventual end and Amelia is no exception. As Amelia Earhart, she is forthright, strong and occasionally funny. I did not know much about Earhart before seeing the movie, but my mother says Swank's performance matched a lot of the historical footage she watches obsessively. That being the case, Swank gives a good performance that is well within her previously displayed emotional range. She is a fine actress and she has a knack for picking roles that play within her known range and this is no exception by any means.

But Amelia is still enjoyable and it offers a decent contrast to the sheer amount of horror schlock on the screens in this pre-Halloween time and it a decent film, even if it comes with no real surprises in the story or in the performances.

For other works with Hilary Swank, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Million Dollar Baby
The Affair Of The Necklace
Buffy The Vampire Slayer


For other movie reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the films I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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