Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2012 Atlanta Film Festival review: CLOUDBURST

Oscar-winning actresses Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker are, not surprisingly, literally and figuratively the heroines of Thom Fitzgerald's good-hearted Cloudburst. They're the primary reason to see this very Canadian-flavored movie, which casts them as aging lesbians (who've been a couple for 30 years) as they escape their close-minded Maine community to travel to a Canuck territory where they can legally get married. The political ramifications of such a story are obvious but, to its credit, Cloudburst doesn't spend much time preaching about the rights issues here. It hopes you understand.

Instead, when this honeyed little movie focuses in on character only, it's delicious--as long as the characters we're seeing are Dukakis' stern and butch Stella, and Fricker's sweet and infirmed Dot. They make a beautiful team and, though the scenes that involve ONLY these two are few, these moments are spectacular--yet the movie could have used more of them. You can really feel these two women leaping into these roles head first. Dukakis, especially, posits a transformative performance in which NONE of her previous film work can be seen; this is new ground for her. Dressed in well-worn western wear, with a ridiculously funny foul mouth, a short-cropped and parted grey head of hair, and a wincing scowl that breaks into unimpeded laughter in all the best places, Dukakis is uniformly perfect in the film. If you're paying money or time to see this movie, you're paying for Olympia Dukakis.

Fricker, playing a blind woman whose health is failing (you can see what's coming here), is also quite fetching, though less is really demanded of her here. Yet, I have to say, I wish more of Cloudburst portrayed, only, the relationship between these chipper women. The finest scenes in the film have them both at the center: an amazing diner confrontation in which an unusually logical (and romantic, in its own way) marriage proposal is offered by Dukakis, and is accepted with hysterical conditions by Fricker; and the most touching scene in Fitzgerald's film--a seaside and rainswept profession of love between the two that culminates in the most eloquent movie kiss I've seen in a long, long time.

The problems with Cloudburst come with its supporting players, who are simply no match for the leads. Their roles aren't written all that well, and the actors cast just can't muster up. Chief among them is Ryan Doucette, a hunky young hitchhiker adopted by the couple while on the road. He plays a well-toned dancer who uses his good looks to get what he wants (which, admittedly, makes the situation he finds himself in with these committed lesbians sometimes touching and hilarious). But Doucette, as an actor, is good but just not notably AS good as the veterans he's cast against. He has a wonderful scene towards the end where he dances with clunky grace to a Tony Orlando and Dawn song (Dukakis helps here with her mirthful reaction). But the introduction of his character momentarily veers the focus of the movie towards him (there's even a stop at his family's home, which yields a wild scene of physical comedy involving wacky male nudity, but really doesn't transmit much beyond that). Cloudburst should have been about its two female leads almost only, but Fitzgerald obviously felt they needed to include more, which means that he lacked confidence in the story's true power (to be fair, maybe the tyranny of the movie marketplace made him alter his true ambitions).

There's a lot of choice dialogue in Cloudburst, mostly handed to Dukakis' character, in which she regales on about the tastiness of k.d. lang (whose songs generously appear here), the quality of the word "cunt," the proper way to refer to a "flock of lesbians," and offers possibly the greatest "fuck you" ever delivered by a lesbian to a straight guy. And Fitzgerald (with cinematographer Tom Harting) captures the Canadian countryside with much care and love, while wisely avoiding the trope of ramming an accompanying soundtrack into your ears (the music is there, but it's mixed with extreme wisdom). However, the film avoids greatness by pandering to plot via its less effective characters and, perhaps, its filmmakers' perceived audience needs. Yet nothing can erase the achievements of Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, both of whom obviously saw opportunities to stretch here. If you know that these stellar ladies are the stars, and even if you don't have an open mind, hell, you need to see this movie. It's not entirely perfect, but it likely will graze your sense of understanding if you're approaching it blind, and if you're with it from the outset, it'll probably rock your world.

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