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FAR FROM HEAVEN

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Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” is a small miracle of a film, a pitch-perfect homage to American films of the fifties that becomes genuinely moving in its own right. Nothing in the writer-director’s previous work–a succession of interesting failures that includes “Poison,” “Safe” and “Velvet Goldmine”–suggested that he was capable of such a perfect fusion of style and content. “Far From Heaven” may have originated as a stunt, but it’s one that transcends its roots and becomes a real work of art. It’s an entrancing and captivating film, easily one of the year’s best.

Haynes’ picture is, first of all, a tribute to the glossy, female-centered domestic dramas that Douglas Sirk specialized in–particularly “All That Heaven Allows,” with which it shares many narrative elements, principally the heroine’s dalliance with a handsome gardener–but as the small-town theatre marquee that appears periodically reminds us, thematically it refers back to other pictures of the period, too (the title of “Hilda Crane” shown at one point reinforces the plot strand involving behavior that leads to local gossip and ostracism). And in making the chaste romance in which the protagonist indulges an interracial one and further raising–in the same muted fashion reminiscent of “Tea and Sympathy”–the issue of dreaded homosexual inclinations (in this context still “the love that dare not speak its name”), it also calls to mind the socially conscious films of the same period (and the early sixties). But that’s still not all: in its depiction of the corporate culture of the time, the script touches on the kinds of issues familiar from such films as “Patterns” and “Executive Suite.” One might expect that Haynes’ picture would have to scramble to draw all these threads together into a convincing whole, but in fact it manages to integrate them seamlessly.

It also captures flawlessly the style of its models. The plush cinematography of Edward Lachman revels in the brilliant autumn colors and swooning camera movements and crane shots so typical of Haynes’ exemplars, and the entire physical production–comprising Mark Friedberg’s production design, Peter Rogness’ art direction, Ellen Christiansen’s set decoration and Sandy Powell’s costume design–is meticulous, lovely and often even witty. To top everything off, that old master Elmer Bernstein contributes a score that’s perfectly judged and absolutely beautiful–as enchanting in its way as his classic music for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

All of this dexterity would mean little, of course, if “Far from Heaven” remained nothing more than a curio–a technically impressive but emotionally empty relic. But it doesn’t; instead it actually reminds us how powerful and compelling those fifties movies were (and, if viewed without a cynical attitude, still are) even with their obvious contrivances. A good deal of the reason lies in Haynes’ skill, but much is also attributable to the fine cast he’s assembled. Julianne Moore has previously done excellent work in challenging roles, but she outdoes herself here, creating in Cathy Whitaker (dead-on name) a Loretta Young housewife who leaves the stereotype behind and becomes a figure with whom a viewer can honestly empathize; and as the quiet, somber black man whose kindness draws her toward him in her troubles, Dennis Haysbert paints a portrait of wounded dignity and submerged sadness every bit as moving as those that Brock Peters and the young Sidney Poitier used to etch. More surprising, perhaps, is the depth and richness that Dennis Quaid brings to Frank, Cathy’s insecure, sexually troubled businessman-husband. He’s never been this good before. And Patricia Clarkson couldn’t be better as Cathy’s best-friend neighbor, whose support proves insufficient to survive the ultimate plot revelations. Lesser roles, too, are memorably filled.

As movies demonstrate all too often, however, the finest actors in the world will be stranded when confronted by bad writing and sloppy direction. That’s why ultimately the triumph of “Far from Heaven” has to be credited primarily to Haynes. Even if you’ve found his previous films heavy going, don’t rob yourself of the pleasure of this one. Just be willing to go along with the initial conceit and you’ll discover that it’s not merely a beautifully-crafted cinematic trick; it’s quite simply an elegant and astonishingly eloquent film.

REAR WINDOW

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There’s no need for anybody to go on at length about the
absolute brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller, which
represented the first stunning cinematic statement about the
effects of the kind of modern voyeurism associated with film
itself (Michael Powell’s later “Peeping Tom” is another
example). The story of the photographer (James Stewart), laid
up with a broken leg, who comes to suspect that one of the
neighbors (Raymond Burr) he’s been watching during his
confinement is a murderer, and who gradually entices his fiance
(Grace Kelly), nurse (Thelma Ritter) and police-detective buddy
(Wendell Corey) to become involved in his ever-more-obsessive
search for the truth, remains every bit as remarkable as it was
nearly half a century ago.

Now, however, you have the chance to experience the picture in
a wonderful new reconstruction by Robert A. Harris and James
C. Katz, who did a similar job on “Vertigo” several years back.
The result, with its luscious colors, is visually entrancing,
and the soundtrack has been digitally enhanced too, so that
Franz Waxman’s jazzy score makes an immediate impact. With its
great script by John Michael Hayes (based on the fine story by
Cornell Woolrich), its first-rate cast (Thelma Ritter’s machine-
gun delivery still works beautifully) and the director’s
unsurpassed gift for generating tension and suspense, “Rear
Window” remains a winner all the way, an absolute joy for all
its 112 minutes. (The Paramount logo is kept at the beginning
and end, by the way, even though the reissue has been financed
by Universal.)

This time around, take special pleasure in watching how
Hitchcock tells much of the story through camera movement
alone, exhibiting a fluidity which virtual no modern filmmaker,
even with all today’s technical improvements, can even begin
to match. And, especially in terms of the protagonist’s
obsessive behavior (marvelously catch by Stewart), savor the
thematic connections the picture has with the later “Vertigo.”

“Rear Window” is one of those classic pieces of cinematic
perfection in which new sources of amazement arise with each
repeated viewing. And this glowing reconstruction allows one
to savor it all the more. Don’t miss the opportunity of seeing
it on the big screen; the film is just too emotionally large
for a TV-sized image.