Monday, August 20, 2012

Movies That Inspire "Meh;" Painted Lady From Masterpiece Theater

The Good: Decent acting, Characters that have interesting aspects
The Bad: Pacing, Plot drags on, Convolutions seem contrived and excessive
The Basics: When Maggie Sheridan investigates a neighbor's death, she finds herself involved in an international art conspiracy that is less than compelling to the viewer.

As a person of principle, there are certain places I do not shop, causes I refuse to support. So, for example, I do not shop at WalMart because of their abysmal treatment of workers, communities and their pre-lawsuit treatment of women in their corporate structure. I don't buy the candy bars from the Boy Scouts because of their open discrimination of homosexuals and non-Christians. Exxon-Mobil joined my list when it was revealed that their response to such environmental crisis' as the Exxon-Valdez disaster is to have enough cash on hand to buy their way out of two such crisises. Their strategy is not to make their workplaces or transportation methods safer, but rather to be able to buy their way out of such problems when they happen again. Stellar. Living in such an awkwardly principled way, I usually don't watch Exxon-Mobil Masterpiece Theater any more either. After watching Painted Lady, a production of Exxon-Mobil Masterpiece Theater on DVD, my reservations to repeating the experience have less to do with the corporate culture of the benefactor than the quality of the product being put out.

Maggie Sheridan, an aging folk-rock star from decades ago, is whiling away her days on her estate in the UK countryside when her neighbor Charles Stafford is killed when some of his artwork is being stolen. Maggie becomes determined to bring his killers to justice, a group that look more and more likely to have been hired by Charles to pay off his son Sebastian's drug debts. Maggie becomes involved with buying and selling art under the guise of being a Countess to smoke out those who deal in stolen art and avenge the murder of Charles Stafford.

Unfortunately, the movie becomes far more convoluted as it drags on. What starts as an attempt to pay off a drug debt finds Sebastian in greater peril, related to the secret life of his deceased father. Maggie ends up working for Irish Intelligence to bring down greater art smugglers and in bed with Robert Tassi, a mysterious art collector who might well be related to the problems Sebastian is facing.

I enjoy complicated movies. In order for complex films to work two things need to occur: 1. The viewer must be engaged enough by the characters and circumstances to want to see where the convolutions are going, and 2. The convolutions need to make sense in the end. On the latter point, a great example of a failure comes from Star Trek: Voyager. In a two-part episode of Star Trek Voyager entitled "Year of Hell," the starship Voyager is beaten, crewmembers are killed, blinded and cast off, and the entire experience hinges on an enemy's timeship. When the timeship is destroyed, everything resets itself, in essence preventing the episode from ever happening. This convolution does not work because there is nothing in the story to suggest that if the timeship was destroyed, time would reset, only that no further damage would be done to the timeline.

Painted Lady's convolutions might not be so extremely bad, but the movie fails largely on the basis that the important reversals come late in the second half long after the viewer has stopped caring. To wit, if Painted Lady were a house, when the house was being inspected, various problems were found in it like rot in the basement, broken windows and a few crossbeams that needed replacing. But then, after the buyer decided it was too much to invest in to fix up, a trapdoor is found in the basement and a river is found running beneath the foundation. Does it help us to understand better the rot and warped crossbeams? Sure. Does it change our resolve not to buy the house? Absolutely not. So well after Charles's murder is resolved and Sebastian's debts are paid, the movie plods on to explain other motivations and circumstances surrounding the two and Maggie. They might make sense if one wishes to invest the time and effort to untangling all of them, but it is near impossible to want to make the effort.

In no small part, this antipathy toward drawing through all of the convolutions comes from the characters. Each of the characters have something that is interesting about them: Maggie is dedicated and has hints of a multifaceted personality, Sebastian is more than just a homosexual drug addict, Fagan seems to be willing to work outside the law to catch a bigger villain and Tassi is more than a simple debonair art collector. But not enough time is spent exploring the eccentricities of character. Tassi is a great example. He shows up, bids against Maggie at an art auction, makes her an offer and then disappears for a chunk of time in the movie. He surfaces again at the end where his entire backstory is spelled out in one scene by Maggie. So whatever decent aspects of character might exist in Painted Lady, they often are revealed as expository plot points.

The result is that none of the characters are particularly compelling. Maggie, the protagonist, fails to hold the viewer's interest, especially after the impetus for her story ends. So much of the characters' time on screen is spent serving the plot as opposed to the characters moving the plot forward.

And this is a movie that does not move. It's slow. The pacing is way off and director Julian Jarrold seems more obsessed with making something that might look good as opposed to telling a story or revealing intriguing characters. So, for example, Jarrold holds on a shot of a beer bottle in a glass of water after Maggie drops it there. The shot is established and held on for a few seconds for no reason. It is not integral to the story, it does not create mood, it does not reveal character, it simply takes up time on screen.

Painted Lady is not all bad, though. Maggie is played by Helen Mirren who is finally getting a great deal of attention in the mass media in the U.S. for her role in The Queen. She plays Maggie well, portraying her as an intriguing combination of free spirit with loose body language and educated with the ability to recite a good amount of dialogue quickly. The supporting cast, like Franco Nero (Roberto Tassi) and Barry Barnes (Fagan) are decent in their acting as well.

But their performances cannot wipe out a plot that is too drawn out. Viewers are accustomed to murder investigations that reveal that a simple murder is usually anything but. Years of NYPD Blue and Law And Order have seen to that. We get that. But Painted Lady just drags.

As a final note, the DVD is somewhat irksome for how complete it is. Because Painted Lady was originally presented as a two-part episode of Exxon-Mobil Masterpiece Theater, the DVD includes the introductions and recaps which serve to explain to the bewildered audience exactly what is going on over the course of the three hours the movie takes. But it also includes the PBS offer to purchase Painted Lady on video as is PBS's want. This seems silly on the DVD.

And just as, after all of the convolutions in the plot of Painted Lady, the movie ends abruptly and somewhat awkwardly, on that note, here ends my review.


For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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