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A roundtable chat with director Stephen Frears of “Tamara Drewe”

Stephen Frears on location for Anyone who thinks that the only interesting directors are the ones with obvious personal styles needs to take a long, hard long at the filmography of Stephen Frears. Something of a contemporary, English throwback to such versatile craftsmen of pre-auteur theory Hollywood as William Wyler, George Stevens, Robert Wise, and Michael Curtiz, the Cambridge-educated Frears began his career neck deep in the English New Wave cinema of the 1960s as an assistant director on Karel Riesz’s “Morgan!,” and Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 surreal youth revolt drama, “If…” Later moving on to directing for the BBC, his second theatrical feature, 1984′s “The Hit,” was mostly ignored despite an all-star cast, but did gain a cult following of which I am a proud member. Frears’ follow up collaboration with writer Hanif Kureishi, a then-bold cross-racial same-sex romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” co-starred a young Daniel Day Lewis and got more immediate results. It was a hit in arthouses on both sides of the Atlantic and helped make Lewis a star; it also paved the way for Frears’ smashing mainstream Hollywood debut, 1988′s Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Since then, Frears has enjoyed success both here in the U.S. and at home in England with numerous BAFTAs and films as diverse as “High Fidelity” and “The Grifters” — for which he was nominated for an Oscar — as well as the ultra-English “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” He’s dealt with modern-day cowboys (1998′s “The Hi-Lo Country”), English fascism (2000′s “Liam”), the monarchy (2006′s “The Queen”), and the illegal trade of human organs (2002′s “Dirty Pretty Things”). When George Clooney decided he wanted to try a live television remake of “Fail Safe” back in 2000, Frears handled the chore to no shortage of acclaim.

Frear’s latest, “Tamara Drewe,” has fared reasonably well with critics on the whole, though not so much with this particular longtime admirer. An adaptation of a graphic novel originally serialized in England’s The Guardian by cartoonist and children’s book author Posy Simmonds, the tale is a comic, modern-day homage to Thomas Hardy’s tragic 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd starring Gemma Arterton as a formerly large nosed “ugly duckling” whose swannish post-operative return to her family’s estate sparks chaos at a writer’s retreat in ultra-picturesque rural England.

Apparently taking the casualness of California fully to heart, the 69-year-old Frears, who bears some resemblance to the late Rodney Dangerfield, arrived unshaven and in a t-shirt that had seen better days. If the “just rolled out of bed” look was disconcerting, however, we needn’t have worried. Frears was in good spirits and clearly enjoys sharing his views with the press.

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Box office mini-preview, part II: Weirded out Hollywood agrees: “Transformers” sequel smashes puny humanity (updated)

In the face of the death of Michael Jackson right after the very sad news of the passing of Farrah Fawcett, it’s a weird day in Hollywood — and just a bit weirder and louder in news-chopper infested Westwood, where I happen to be, perhaps just a few thousand yards from the hospital room where Mr. Jackson was pronounced dead.

But the box office goes on, not that there’s much more to report other than the boffo, all-time record breaking $60.6 million performance of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” All this so far apparently impacted by the almost across the board negativity of critics, who, I remind you yet again, are also human beings and therefore perhaps reflective of something.

So, it’s safe to say that a new tearjerker starring Cameron Diaz and directed by Nick Cassavetes of “The Notebook” won’t be much of a threat. Even the counter-programming possibilities of “My Sister’s Keeper” seem limited by it’s mediocre Rotten Tomatoes rating of 46% “fresh.” This kind of movie attracts somewhat older filmgoers and that might actually have an impact. A film like this needs some kind of buzz behind it, and I don’t see it making much headway against the various behemoths already ensconced in our nation’s theaters. The Hollywood Reporter has it pegged for about $10 million. The title also, I think, won’t do it much good.

There is, however, a trio of films worth mentioning in the so-called “specialty market.” (Isn’t it special that there’s a market where quality might help a film’s performance?) THR thinks the timing of the Iran-set drama, “”The Stoning of Soraya M.,” might be helped by news of the upheavals from the nation. However, in an area where reviews mean something, a 45% RT rating isn’t hopeful. (And we all know who’s going to be dominating the news for the next several weeks.)

Far more promising, though opening only in four theaters in L.A. and New York, is the action drama “The Hurt Locker.” I’m not a particularly huge fan of director Kathryn Bigelow. I see what she’s trying to do, but even her best thought of pieces, like the vampire flick “Near Dark,” have never quite connected for me. However, this drama about soldiers deals with a topic that’s always been potent dramatic material: unexploded bombs. This time, of course, they are being faced by U.S. solidiers in Iraq. While this film’s only “names” are in smaller roles, this one could break out and the reviews, and that Pixar-esque 97% RT rating, are impressive. Iraq is supposed to be the kiss of death at the box office, but seeing how few people have actually liked any of the Iraq films made so far, maybe it’s not so much the topic as the particular films. [UPDATE: I should add that "Hurt Locker" was written by Mark Boal, a writer who was reportedly embedded with an actual bomb squad in Iraq. So often, when a director with a problematic filmography suddenly makes a really good or great film, it's because they've finally hooked up with a well-written screenplay. How easy it is to forget that.]

Also, as a fan of both Michelle Pfeiffer and director Stephen Frears (“The Hit,” among many, many others), I have to point out the romantic/possibly sexy period drama “Cheri.” Okay, the reviews are not great for this one, but I’d rather watch even a bad movie involving Pfeiffer and Frears than a bunch of personality-free tins cans fighting.

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