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Words & Pictures

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // September 9, 2014
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 9, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Recently, Clive Owen portrayed legendary author Ernest Hemingway in the television docu-drama Hemingway and Gellhorn, while Juliette Binoche wandered the paths of the philosophy and legitimacy of paintings in Abbas Kiarostami's quietly brilliant Certified Copy. There's something effortlessly appealing about both actors in those respective types of roles -- Owen as a gruff scholar; Binoche as an ensconced art enthusiast -- that should bolster Words & Pictures, a lithe rom-com from Roxanne and I.Q. director Fred Schepisi about two high-school professors embroiled in a lighthearted war about whether text or images carry more importance. Instead of letting the topic and the chemistry between two flawed-yet-passionate artists on involuntary creative hiatus play out organically, the debate gets tangled up in a broad, unnecessary web of events that appeals too easily to stereotypes and shoehorned drama, messily undermining the characters' strengths along its unsurprisingly therapeutic and uplifting path.

At Croydon Academy high-school, sardonic author/poet Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) learns that his job's in jeopardy, largely driven by his alcoholism and disruptive behavior. On top of that, the school's literary magazine -- which, of course, he's responsible for producing -- also might be on the chopping block due to a lack of funds and the uninspired submissions from the students. Shortly after discovering this, Marcus meets one of the school's new teachers: Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), a dour and detached former painter who keeps people at arm's length because of her crippling health condition. As the semester progresses, a discussion emerges between their respective classes (which share most of the same students) about expression through words/literature against that of visual images, starting a back-and-forth "war" between the school of thoughts. While the students develop passion for the debate itself, Marcus and Delsanto build their own jokey rapport, a reprieve from their dire personal struggles outside of the classroom.

Written by Gerald Di Pego, the mind behind the bizarre thrills of Angel Eyes and The Forgotten, Words & Pictures discovers its best moments while flipping between the merits of literature and visual expression, guided by the two professors struggling with their personal wars with their individual crafts. The conflict between the opposing positions occasionally yields an enjoyable energy, referencing the communication skills of caveman, revolutionaries, and advertisements in what ultimately plays like the highlights of an anthropological lecture on the topic. Notably, it's amusing to see both Marcus and Delsanto tackle the oft-used and cliche "A picture is worth a thousand words" line, handled in a clever way on the school's grounds. As the war simmers at school, the story also reflects on the teachers' creative blocks and how neither are able to practice what they preach due to their individual circumstances. The foundation's there for a study of damaged artists passing their gifts on through teaching, as well as the idea of igniting passion for liberal arts through a form of cultural rivalry.

Apparently, though, that wasn't enough. The personal drama within Words & Pictures becomes overblown amid their fine-arts battle, dialing up the emotional vigor through inflated high-school theatrics and a baldly manipulative progression of the teachers' hardships. Di Pego's script has a tendency of forcing things to happen for the sake of lofty melodrama around the two teachers' hindrances, driving the story in disheartening directions -- mostly involving Marcus, transforming him from puckish rogue to straight-up imbecile -- that are both unnecessary and irreparably damaging to the film's overarching intentions. Worthwhile themes about the power and accountability of artistic endeavors lose their way under the shadow of Marcus' self-destructive drinking, especially after the informal reveal of the dumbfounding mistake he's made that cannot simply be shaken off. Reminiscent of Craig Zisk's The English Teacher, the line separating the depths of flawed characters and inconsistent sabotaging of the plot gets blurry.

Hence, the unavoidable romance in Words & Pictures also doesn't convince under the circumstances, despite the rapport between Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche. Owen wears the scruffy, conflicted writer well, tossing out the origins of words and credibly projecting the demeanor of an emotional drunk, like a tattered alter ego of Dead Poets Society's John Keating. Binoche struggles in the crippled artist's skin, leaving the audience uncertain if she's receptive to relationships while combating Rheumatoid arthritis, but that internal conflict's unique enough to embrace her temperament as she relearns how to paint. Their union, however, seems unreasonable in the story's context: despite Marcus' incessant pursuit and their flirtatious banter about prose and artistry, the chemistry between Owen and Binoche seems better engineered for professional camaraderie than crossing over to intimacy. That awkwardness lingers as Words & Pictures compulsively reaches its zenith of creative debate, weakened integrity, and unlikely romance: an unearned ceasefire that, despite noble intentions, ends up tongue-tied and out of focus.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Words & Pictures operates on a pretty standard range of footage for a digitally-shot, independent rom-com, elevated by the vividness of shades of paint, clothing, and skin tones that aim for warmth in the picture. Lionsgate's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode captures the crisp lines and textures of Ian Baker's photography perfectly well, from brushstrokes on a canvas to the weave patterns in sweaters, while the sharp lines of Juliette Binoche's hair and Clive Owen's scraggly stubble nail down their desired textures. Some of the scenery, namely a dilapidated dock outside Delsanto's house, grasp at unique textural details. On the questionable side, some digital noise does crop up in a few brighter sequences, while certain black levels are dialed a little high and swallow details in hair and shadows. Aside from that, however, the 24fps motion and the film's organic, lucid aesthetic looks great in high-def.

A capable but largely unremarkable 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track hits the expected beats within Words & Pictures, with a focus on preserving the dialogue's clarity and in projecting the soundtrack at its surround atmosphere. Some sound elements achieve more than that -- the clanking of a pulley system, brushstrokes, the knocking of a tennis ball and the crash of a glass -- but the noticeable points are few and far between. The richness of Clive Owen's deep, gruff verbal registry and Juliette Binoche's sharp alto tempo are rather respectable, while the multifaceted scoring from Paul Grabowsky hits its splendid crescendos with aplomb. Didn't pick up on any distortion or clipping, culminating in an entirely serviceable companion to the visuals. English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Director Fred Schepisi:
I enjoyed points in director Schepisi's track, though it's very low-key and general in content. He discusses camerawork and visuals in reflecting the attitudes of the two leads, avoiding aesthetic cliches with the private school, and giving his actors some breathing room to perform somewhat free-form in their characters' skin. He also discusses the inbuilt chemistry between Owen and Binoche and their attitudes to one another, along with Schepisi's comfort in suggesting that he's not responsible as a director for much if their rapport. The rare times where Schepisi tiptoes along with the film's plot, he actually gives it purpose, bridging from the elements on-screen into anecdotes or general filmmaking concepts after the description (or a bit of quiet observation of a scene).

Lionsgate have also included a featurette entitled Behind the Scenes of Words & Pictures (17:46, 16x9 HD), a standard press-kit extra featuring interviews about the production, the actors and their characters. It's systematic and filled with a lot of clips from the film, but all the actors -- and director Fred Schepisi and writer Gerald Di Pego -- say their pieces. The content does go more in-depth later in the featurette, focusing on Binoche's artwork and molding the school to their image, making for a pretty decent version of the same-old, same-old. A Theatrical Trailer(2:23, 16x9 HD) also makes an appearance.

Final Thoughts:

Paired with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, the concept at the center of Words & Pictures has a lot of potential to be a poignant expression of artistry, education, and bouncing back -- both creatively and emotionally -- from professional defeat. The idea of a smart romantic comedy built on the debate between text and visual images comes through decently enough, and both Owen and Binoche lend their talents to a pair of distinctive characters with a magnetic rapport. Unfortunately, the story doesn't allow those things to purely navigate and expound on the film's drama, instead complicated by overstated happenstance and unnecessary melodrama that actively works against the film's smarter inclinations. Worth a Rental for the raw chemistry between the two leads and some of the back and forth about, y'know, words and pictures, but ultimately less satisfying as a complete romantic dramedy than I eagerly wanted it to be.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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