Capone's Art-House Round-Up with MADE IN DAGENHAM and Jake Scott's WELCOME TO THE RILEYS!!!
Published at: Nov. 25, 2010, 12:19 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
MADE IN DAGENHAM
This spirited if by-the-numbers story of a group of female factory workers in Britain during the 1960s has a great deal of fire but often loses itself in cutesy behavior in its effort to tell the story of the launching pad for equal pay for women. The women in the Ford Motor Company factory are led by the unlikely Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins of HAPPY-GO-LUCKY and NEVER LET ME GO), a young mother and wife who has trouble even talking to her son's ruthless teacher. Yet somehow, she is chosen to represent the 187 women in the union whose demands eventually lead to a discussion of equal pay and a re-qualification of their jobs as car seat upholstery sewers from "unskilled" labor to skilled (which would result in better pay).
As she proved in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, Hawkins has an irresistible charm and aura, but MADE IN DAGENHAM seems as much intent on keeping things cute and bright as it does telling this very serious story. Still, there are enough talented actors on hand to keep the proceedings easy to watch. Bob Hoskins plays the women's union representative who covertly guides Rita through the process telling her when its safe to ask for something unprecedented and when it might not be. I also liked Geraldine James as Connie, the matron of the female workers, who allegiances are torn between her co-workers and her ailing husband. Rosamund Pike is quite good as Lisa, the wife of Ford's Head of Industrial Relations (Rupert Graves). Lisa is one of the better-drawn characters in DAGENHAM, as she is a university-educated woman who is told by her husband to keep her thoughts on the female workers (whom she supports) to herself and stick to being the perfect wife and hostess. Her frustration is one of the saddest presented in the film.
I was particularly impressed with Miranda Richardson's take on Barbara Castle, the British Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, a modern woman in a position to actually make the equal pay demand a national issue. Perhaps, the combination of having a woman in this job was serendipitous, but it certainly makes this story a lot more interesting. The film also exposes a king of collusion that went on between the union reps who were supposed to be fighting for these women's demands and the automaker who threatened to pull out of the community if they were forced to make this adjustment.
There's never really any doubt how these events will turn out (the Equal Pay Act was made law in 1970), but director Nigel Cole (CALENDAR GIRLS, SAVING GRACE) is able to extract suitable levels of drama from this story to make it a largely enjoyable experience. But the film also feel simplified and leans a bit too much on speeches that probably didn't happen and words that were never spoken. Plus, while I'm sure the pressures of not working while the women were on strike took a toll on home life, it doesn't make for particularly compelling movie moments, and Rita's husband's complaints about how the blokes treat badly him because his wife is causing trouble sounds a lot like whining. Still, MADE IN DAGENHAM is a painless viewing experience, and if you've been craving a British movie like they used to make them in the 1990s, you could do worse.
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS
I'm going to come right out and admit that I'm not exactly sure what the point of director Jake Scott's second feature (after 1999's PLUNKETT & MACLEANE, with a slew of great music videos in between the two films), but that didn't stop me from being drawn into its oddly touching story of the uneasy relationship between a middle-aged man and a teen stripper/prostitute he befriends and tries to save. In WELCOME TO THE RILEYS, James Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a man whose life has lost it's light since the accidental death of his teen daughter in a car crash. His wife, Lois (the great Melissa Leo), has been afraid to leave their suburban home since the loss, so when Doug goes on a business trip to New Orleans, she must ask her irritated sister (Ally Sheedy, in a nice cameo) to come pick up her mail.
While in New Orleans, Doug attempts to escape the housewares convention he's attending by going into a strip club, where he meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a stripper who talks him into a private-room dance which in turn becomes a solicitation. But Doug is more interested in hiding out and less in the bump and grind or sexual come ons. For some reason, Mallory's brash manner and sexual inhibitions make him curious about her living situation and whether she is beyond saving. It doesn't take genius or a psychiatrist to see that some part of Mallory reminds Doug of his dead daughter, and before long he is sleeping on her couch, helping her fix up her rented home, and trying to train her to be a bit more self sufficient and hopefully quit hooking.
Naturally, his half-baked plan hits some bumps, the first being that his abandoned wife decides that Doug's single phone call explained that he was staying away from home for a while wasn't sufficient enough an explanation for his absence. She manages to drag herself out of the house and drive down to New Orleans from Missouri. Her perilous journey serves as a sweet and humorous sideplot that Leo sells to perfection. Not every actress could make this work, but she's not every actress.
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS is weirdly gripping, often go-for-broke emotionally heavy, and beautifully acted. I have to admit, I didn't think think Stewart really had it in her to surprise me, but as the foul-mouthed Mallory, she reminds me that there was a time when she was a strong actor and not just an accidental cultural icon. Not surprisingly, Lois isn't thrilled with Doug and Mallory's arrangement, but once she signs on, the couple becomes Mallory de facto parents for a while, and things begin to gel. RILEYS did not end the way I thought it would, but it does end the way it should, and that's a very good thing. I was strangely charmed and pulled into this film, and if you like your dramas a little on the bizarre and slightly inappropriate side, look no further.
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