Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Tolkien: A Review


It should not surprise anyone that after the wild success of The Lord of the Rings and its various spin-offs and franchises, the creator of Middle-Earth would get his own biopic. Tolkien, the biopic of this epic series' creator, sadly is more interested in doing shout-outs to Tolkien's work than in diving into the man himself.

With the overarching story of his time in the trenches of World War I, Tolkien hops between the horrors of the war and his early life and college years. We spend some time in his childhood before he and his brother became orphans, then when they became boarders while the Tolkien brothers go school.

Here Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) meets some of the most important people in his life. There is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a quietly passionate woman with whom Ronald falls madly in love. There is a hitch though: Edith is not Catholic, which for Tolkien's legal guardian Father Francis (Colm Meaney) is a bridge too far.

Then there are three fellow students who like 'Tollers', have a passion for art, language and literature. There's the Headmaster's son, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), who loves to paint. There's the composer Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and poet Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). They form their own 'dead poets' society' and even the separation between two going to Oxford and two going to Cambridge does not separate them.

Tolkien has given up Edith to both their regrets, but true love cannot be denied. Neither can Tolkien's gift for language, where he eventually finds himself under the mentorship of Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi). Then comes the First World War, where not everyone will survive.

Tolkien ends with Ronald and Edith united at last, and the beginning of a cute children's story that was to change fantasy literature forever.

Image result for tolkien movieTolkien can best be described as 'respectable', which is a terrible thing to be when covering what I imagine was a more complicated and complex life and work as that of the subject. There is a stateliness that makes the film sluggish, boring and even a bit confusing.

We are led to think that the 'tea club' Tolkien and the others formed brought about great works and inspiration, but we never really see them connect with each other in a way that shows they prodded the others' work. This is not The Inklings: Junior Chapter. This 'fellowship' talked a lot about their love of language and art but they as individuals never stood out. I more often than not forgot who was whom.

A major part of Tolkien involves J.R.R. Tolkien searching the trenches for Geoffrey, but nothing in Tolkien suggested Geoffrey was particularly closer to Tolkien than the others. As such, why would he search for Geoffrey than for Christopher or Robert? Even more curious was that, intentional or not, there is a vague suggestion that Geoffrey, despite the surprisingly chaste manner they have towards college girls, is in love with Tollers: a longing glance, a touch of the arm.

You can see the film again and again trying for something and failing every time. You see this in the faux-fellowship. You see this in what is meant to be a romantic lunch between Tolkien and Edith. Despite everyone's best efforts, it comes across as stilted, forced and unreal.

It's curious that Tolkien is a weak movie with good acting, or at least as good an acting as David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford's script and Dome Karukoski's directing allows. Hoult has a wonderfully expressive manner and works his best to make Tolkien a complicated character. You can see him try again and again against weak material. Collins similarly attempted to make Edith more strong and less the girl who lovingly looks at her man.

Credit should also be given to the young actors playing the junior versions of Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman (Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber and Ty Tennant respectively). It's not their fault they were essentially asked to do Dead Poets Society: British Edition. Fortunately, none of them are old enough to have seen it when it came out so they may not have had the callbacks Tolkien saddled them with.

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Speaking of callbacks, Tolkien seems set on bringing up his work to us. The younger actors probably weren't around when The Lord of the Rings trilogy first began, but Tolkien never lost an opportunity to remind us of the films and/or books. This is done primarily during the World War I scenes, which Tolkien for reasons of its own jumped back-and-forth to. We see hints of Mordor as the trenches (I think at one point complete with an Eye of Sauron). We see dragons/flamethrowers, cavalries similar to the Riders of Rohan to where one would think Aragorn would pop up to inspire them to charge at the Germans.

The fact that Tolkien's batman is named 'Sam' does not help matters.

Even Thomas Newman's score seemed dead-set on echoing Howard Shore's massive Lord of the Rings score.

Perhaps the oddest element in Tolkien was how it never touched on one of the most important elements of his life: his faith. Tolkien was a devout Catholic with his views shaping every element of his life and works. We could have seen internal struggles between his Catholicism and his love for Edith, but that was portrayed more as a petty inconvenience in Tolkien than a genuine crisis of conscience. Why Tolkien opted to downplay one of the defining forces in Tolkien's life we may never learn.

Tolkien was respectable but very hodgepodge in manner. Jumbled, listless, and a bit hollow, it may make for mild diversion but it is not the biopic that this literary figure merits.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Gotham: The Beginning...Review

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The Beginning..., the Gotham series finale, had an extremely difficult task to accomplish.

It had to wrap up all our stories and character arcs.
It had to set up what we know as the Batman mythos versus the Bruce Wayne evolution.
It had to make sense.

The Beginning...mostly accomplished all this, not an easy task given the brevity of this season. Some things were not good, but fortunately the good outweighed the bad.

Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) has left Gotham and traveled to what appears to be Tibet.

We jump to ten years later. Commissioner Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is about to retire just as his frenemy Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is about to be released from prison. Pengy's other frenemy, Edward Nygma aka The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) is in Arkham Asylum, where his only real treat is in taking shots at a catatonic Jeremiah Valeska (Cameron Monaghan). Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is now apparently both sane and a redhead as well as a good mother to her and Gordon's daughter Barbara Lee Gordon. Selina Kyle (Lili Simmons) is a cat-woman burglar.

Each in their way is waiting for Bruce Wayne to return and open the new Wayne Tower. However, it looks like there is mischief and murder. An elaborate plot where Pengy and Riddler are unwitting pawns is unleashed, a plot where Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is also a patsy and that may cause the downfall of Gotham itself. Only a very strange figure dressed as a bat may stop this mad plot from someone who may not be as out-of-it as he appears.

At long last, with some help from Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) and Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk), Gordon may not yet retire as he contemplates 'a friend': he that is to be known as "Batman".

Image result for gotham the beginningPart of me understands the pressure Gotham was under to wrap everything up, so I'm cutting them some slack. There is also the issue of having so many villains to deal with, and on the whole I think The Beginning...did a pretty good job with the four main ones.

As a side note, how I wish my favorite, Mr. Freeze, had come back, but one can't have everything can one.

My issue is less with the flash-forward than it is with the overall plot. Somehow, echoing Dumb and Dumberer and Galaxy Quest is not a good twist. On this show, it always stops on "one".

Even at the end of The Beginning..., we could not get them to admit that Jeremiah is The Joker. I don't think we heard them use the name 'The Joker' in The Beginning..., and this fan-dance about Jeremiah's eventual identity was one of Gotham's low points.

It kept teasing viewers about the Clown Prince of Crime, first with Jerome and then with Jeremiah, never saying his name. It was pretty clear where that plot line was going. I'll give Monaghan credit in that he was strong as the menacing, monstrous "whoever he was".

It was nice to see the double-act of Taylor and Smith together one last time, where they managed to get moments of humor into things. They are the other Dynamic Duo.

To my mind, Taylor should be considered the best Penguin on screen and Smith the second-best after Frank Gorshin's take on the character. The Beginning..., while giving us at long-last a monocle-wearing pudgy Pengy, kept to Taylor's version of a needy, mommy-obsessed and troubled man with a flare for the dramatic.

Image result for gotham the beginningSeriously Pengy, why take Gordon to the docks?

We even get callbacks to the past, as when Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) finds himself abducted and strapped to a bomb again. Even he seems incredulous at this repeat, and the whole thing was badly handled in my view.

As a side note, seriously...why would Gotham citizens vote Mayor James back in again?

As much as McKenzie did well here, I wish he had kept the mustache throughout the whole episode. That was just baiting the audience. We can take a stab as to how Bonkers Babs got her mind back. Morena Baccarin as Lee Thompkins had very little to do unfortunately.

There were other elements I wasn't keen on. I was troubled by having the Arkham guard have his blood splash over a family picture. That just bothered me, a reminder of how sadistic things can get. That was nothing compared to holding Barbara Gordon over a tub of toxic waste. Even the suggestion of torturing children is way too far for me.

Finally, I know they were going for a big reveal to close out the show, which to be fair to them was what they promised when Gotham premiered. However, I think they went a bit overboard constantly teasing this 'where's Bruce?' bit, though again to be fair they were in a bit of a jam.

I will give credit to Simmons, who filled in as the adult Catwoman. She strongly resembles Camren Bicondova and her scene with an unseen Bruce Wayne/Batman worked quite well. Credit too for Mazouz who had to perform only with his voice.

Gotham's cinematography, always one of the best aspects of the show, similarly too worked well.

The Beginning... is a good though not great way to end Gotham. A bit rushed to where perhaps a two-hour finale might have done some good, on the whole it did a good enough job to finish a series that got a bit lost but eventually found its way from its dark knight of the soul.


Next: Gotham: The Complete Fifth Season

Monday, May 13, 2019

Doris Day: A Personal Remembrance

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In her first public appearance in twenty years for Turner Classic Movies' Private Screenings, Betty Hutton reflected on her life and work. "My private life has been hell, really hell. But my professional life was so wonderful because the audiences understood I was working from my heart".

The same could be said about Doris Day, who died today, a month after celebrating her 97th birthday.

Her first out of four husbands was so violently abusive he nearly killed her and their yet-unborn son. Her third husband, the only one she was widowed by, left her virtually penniless and had secretly signed her for a television series without her knowledge or input. Her only son Terry Melcher preceded her in death in 2004. One of her closest friends and the costar most identified with her, Rock Hudson, became the first major face of AIDS at a time when the disease was virtually unknown.

Despite all these blows and setbacks, like the sunny persona she had onscreen, Doris Day persevered and eventually came back stronger than before. I once made a case that The Doris Day Show demonstrated that despite being held up as 'the eternal virgin' so mocked by Rizzo in Grease, Day was more than capable of playing smart, independent women and could have adapted to the times.

She had the talent. Of Day's singing there has never been a doubt. Sentimental Journey, her first big hit, captured the mood of a nation coming to the end of the Second World War, nostalgia with hope for the future. Que Sera, Sera from The Man Who Knew Too Much is the song most identified with her, and it makes sense. While it sounds like a lullaby, Que Sera, Sera is full of wisdom about life, accepting and embracing the only constant in life: change.

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I am puzzled as to why Day was dismissed as an actress, even by herself. She was a natural in musicals and comedies. Day had a nice, pleasant manner starting from her debut in Romance on the High Seas, which gave her another excellent song, It's Magic. She was the kid sister we could love and relate to in On Moonlight Bay and its sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon. She could be the fiery Calamity Jane in the eponymous film.

There was a light of wholesome sexiness in her films, where she could be highly attractive but still keep the wolves at bay. We see this best in two of the three films she made with Rock Hudson: Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back (the third, Send Me No Flowers, had them as a married couple versus adversaries). 

However, in the few dramatic ventures she agreed to, she could more than hold her own as a legitimate and exceptional actress. See her performance as Ruth Etting in the biopic Love Me or Leave Me. She goes toe-to-toe with James Cagney as this songstress with a violent husband and struggles to be someone. One could say Love Me or Leave Me is closer to Day's own life than Calamity Jane.

See her performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much. For me, one of her best moments there is when she discovers her son has been kidnapped just as she is slipping under the sedative her husband (James Stewart) gave her. The fear, anguish and confusion swirling within and around her is a terrifying and heartbreaking moment.

There's also Midnight Lace as the terrorized woman someone is trying to kill, again letting the confusion and chaos of her situation compel you to see how she survives and sympathizing with her plight.

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Doris Day was wonderful in all those musical and comedies. A personal favorite is The Glass-Bottom Boat where she's mistaken for a Soviet spy. I saw it as a child and was howling with laughter, though I'm not sure I got all the jokes. I did fall in love with her in On Moonlight Bay, and who wouldn't? Not only was she pretty...she played baseball! What more can a man ask from a woman?

However, as wonderful as she was in the comedies and musicals, her range as a dramatic actress was never fully tapped, and I think that was by her own design.

The thing was she was fine with her squeaky-clean persona no matter how square it might have seemed. She turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (even if I think she would have been sensational in the role). She turned down offers to perform in Las Vegas or record more updated music such as the Motown she was fond of. Outside a few television specials and Doris Day's Best Friends, I think she just decided there were more important things in life than fame and a film/television career.

In particular, her long work for animals. Doris Day's Best Friends wasn't a chat show where she talked to her famous friends. Instead, it was about her real best friends: the animals whose welfare she devoted the rest of her life to.

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Day had retired from the public eye for decades, not exactly a recluse but no longer involved in the entertainment industry or its trappings. Her last film was in 1968, her final television series, Doris Day's Best Friends, was in 1986. Her last major public appearance was in 1989 when she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. She consistently turned down offers of an American Film Institute and Kennedy Center Honors as well as, I understand, an Honorary Academy Award (though that one I cannot be certain of).

And yet here we are, reflecting on an extraordinary life, one filled with heartache and tragedy but also with a lot of laughs, joys and a song in our hearts. I don't think Doris Day would want us to remember the tumult that came in those 97 years: abusive husbands, near-bankruptcy, ups-and-downs in her career, tragic deaths of family and friends.

I also don't think she would care to have too much focus on her film and television career, even if perhaps she might begrudgingly accept that is what we most likely will remember her for. I think she would be happy to know she made so many people, myself included, so very happy with her work.

I think she would have been proud of her songbook and that some of her songs are now standards that may be duplicated but never equaled: Sentimental Journey, It's MagicSecret Love from Calamity Jane, Que Sera, Sera, I'll Never Stop Loving You from Love Me or Leave Me.

If anything, I think her work with animals is what I think Doris Day would want to be best remembered.

For myself, I think she should be remembered for all that, for being an extraordinary singer, an actress of incredible range, and a woman who loved all creatures great and small.

For all intents and purposes, Doris Day was never a prisoner of her image. She was herself, and we thank her so very much.

We'll never stop loving her.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Night to Remember (1958): A Review

Image result for a night to remember 1958A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

A Night to Remember has been praised as the most accurate film of the Titanic sinking up to that point. Stripping away almost all the melodrama to focus on the final hours of the doomed ocean-liner, A Night to Remember still leaves an emotional impact and leaves one devastated at the true horror of that fateful night.

We get brief scenes of three separate family groups: a titled man and wife, a newlywed middle-class pair and a trio of Irish immigrants. We also see the pre-voyage preparations of Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) we go straight to the night of Sunday, April 14, 1912.

The Titanic has run against an iceberg, having accidentally ignored the warnings of another ship, the Californian, about the ice. The Californian has stopped due to the ice but there is no telegraph operator to hear Titanic's distress signal. A ship further away, the Carpathia, does hear it but at four hours away it will not get there in time as Titanic has at most two hours.

On board, Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith) and ship designer Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) know two things the passengers and crew do not: there are not enough lifeboats for everyone on board and that help will come too late if at all. Slowly the passengers are loaded onto the lifeboats, with class still coming into things.

Image result for a night to remember 1958The first class passengers almost in unison become irritated by what they see as unnecessary fuss. The middle class passengers are concerned. The steerage passengers are kept locked in until the first and second class passengers get onto the boards. Some first and second class passengers refuse to get on lifeboats for a variety of reasons from not wanting to leave their husbands to just wanting to bother.

While others keep gambling and reading, eventually the severity of the crisis becomes clear and as Titanic goes down to its watery grave the panic and chaos grows.

The Carpathia finally arrives to note that there are only 705 survivors both passengers and crew, with 1500 dead in one of the worst maritime disasters. In a postscript we learn that due to Titanic, all ships now are required to have a radio operator on duty 24/7, there must be enough lifeboats for every passenger and a maritime ice warning system was created.

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A Night to Remember is powerfully effective due to it moving away from the melodrama the setting presents and focusing instead of the events themselves. There are moments of drama and/or romance to be sure. There is a brief scene of a male passenger going into a female passenger's cabin. There is the steerage romance between steerage passenger James Farrell (Patrick McAlliney) and a Polish girl. However, the latter is there to give us characters to focus on as later Farrell and the men he was travelling with help the Polish girl and her mother escape to a lifeboat.

People at this time were almost fifty years removed from the Titanic sinking, so while many survivors had already perished and those who remembered it were fewer, there were still enough people familiar with the story alive to fill in blanks. For most of A Night to Remember, few names were used. For example, Margaret "Molly" Brown (Tucker Maguire) was never mentioned by name but the brassy nouveau-riche American woman was clearly her. The Chairman (Frank Lawton) forever disbelieving and interfering with the crew was also the notorious J. Bruce Ismay.

Curiously, Ismay almost comes across as good man...almost, his act of saving himself less a cowardly effort to save himself than one of being allowed to board to see the ship he kept insisting was unsinkable take thousands to a watery grave.

Roy Baker's directing was quite calm, letting things flow smoothly and as realistically as possible. There were not big dramatic moments but several small dramatic ones. The scene where Mrs. Ida Straus declines to board a lifeboat preferring to end her days with her beloved husband Isidor is brief but quiet and moving.

A Night to Remember may look familiar to those who have seen the better-known Titanic, especially with Andrews looking shell-shocked in the first-class smoking room and offering advice on surviving to the young lovers. A Night to Remember, more interested in the fatal night and with almost a documentary-like feel (complete with a mix of archival footage and clips from the notorious Nazi film Titanic) is quiet, graceful, moving, impactful and informative on this great tragedy.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Pygmalion (1938): A Review


George Bernard Shaw did not think of Pygmalion as a romance as I understand it. In fact, he thought the idea that his male and female leads would end up together a thoroughly silly idea. As with many things involving Bernard Shaw, I disagree with our playwright. this adaptation of Pygmalion is quite witty, almost wholly well-acted and surprisingly brief.

Haughty linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) makes a wager with a fellow language enthusiast, Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can turn Covent Garden Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) into a virtual duchess. Intrigued, Eliza takes him at his word and offers to pay for elocution lessons so she can work at a flower shop.

Higgins plunges into this with the joy of a child making mud pies, but he is quite brutal to Eliza, constantly berating her skills and keeping her up all hours to perfect her diction and manner. A trial run at Higgins' mother's house is a disaster: Eliza's words are polished but still reveal her lack of education. She however has entranced young Freddy Hill (David Tree). More lessons ensue, exhausting and taxing Eliza until her triumph at an embassy ball.

Her triumph is short-lived however, as Higgins makes clear he really does not think much of her. She makes the decision to leave him, shocking the arrogant man. Could he have fallen for his own creation? He seems quite sad at the thought she might not return (though he'd never admit it). She does come back, but on what terms for both we can only speculate.

Image result for pygmalion 1938Pygmalion does a remarkable job of keeping things brisk. This is due in no small part to the pacing by its co-directors. From the dramatic moments of Eliza's despair to the comedy bit involving Freddy taking Higgins' hat things move quite well. Exactly how much credit should go to Anthony Asquith or Howard himself is unclear, though for my part I will give it to Asquith because of Howard's performance.

I understand Higgins is meant to be a brute and thoroughly unsympathetic, but at times Howard was to my mind wildly over-the-top in his reactions. It was as if Howard decided Pygmalion was more farce than comedy. His wild gestures made it hard for me to take him seriously.

Hiller on the other hand was thoroughly delightful as Eliza, this squashed cabbage leaf turned elegant lady. Her transformation is a mix of innocent, even naivete and quiet strength. She plays comedy quite well, such as at the tea party where she elegantly replies to Freddy's request to take a walk in the park with "A walk? Not bloody likely. I'm going in a taxi". It is both Eliza's thorough lack of understanding about what she said and how she said it that sells the comedy.

When it comes to the more dramatic moments, Hiller is equally adept, and she does not even need Shaw's brilliant verbiage to play it. When she goes back to Covent Garden as the more refined version of herself, she observes that world in which she no longer has a place in. It's a beautifully played moment.

Image result for pygmalion 1938The other performers were quite good. Tree was appropriately sappy and insipid as Freddy, forever besotted by the enchanting Eliza. Sunderland's Pickering was proper and polite, and Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins played things in a quietly exasperated manner. Surprisingly, while Wilfrid Lawson's Alfred Doolittle had decent moments he was only in two scenes and could easily have been cut from the film, as could Leueen MacGrath's Clara, Freddy's sister.

The pacing is also helped by the series of montages for both the elocution and etiquette lessons. These were done by David Lean, who would become one of the Great Directors himself.

No commentary on Pygmalion would be complete without commenting on its screenplay by Shaw himself with W.P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis and Ian Dalrymple. There is a wit mixed with cynicism that pervades in the film. Commenting on a rival linguistics expert at the embassy ball, Higgins remarks "He can learn any language in a fortnight. Knows dozens of them--the sure mark of a fool".

Pygmalion is opaque on the future of Eliza and Henry. The ending works despite Shaw's dislike for it because it is ambiguous. It suggest a happy ending but it does not openly declare one. There is a wealth of possibilities that allow for us to think what we will.

Will they find love with each other? Will they part and if they do will it be as friends or rivals?

Will we ever really learn what actually in the end happens to our fair lady?

Not bloody likely.


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Isn't It Romantic (2019): A Review


No. It's not. It's awful. It's the worst movie I've seen this year and almost a sure-fire entry in the Worst of 2019.  Isn't It Romantic attempts to give us a female empowerment film by mocking the romantic comedy conventions. However, it is not as clever or intelligent as it thinks it is, its main character is not someone you root for and there is just a nasty undertone to it all.

Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a somewhat successful architect who suffers from low self-esteem. At the heart of her issues is how she was taught since childhood that romantic comedies like Pretty Women built up a false world and that as a heavyset woman she would never find that kind of love.

Proudly feminist, Natalie trashes rom-coms and is barely tolerant of her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) watching them. Natalie's very platonic male friend Josh (Andy Devine) keeps inviting her to things like karaoke but she keeps turning him down.

It isn't until she hits her head after escaping a mugger that she finds herself, to her horror and anger, in a PG-13 romantic comedy. All the men want her, the world is very colorful, she has an outlandishly large apartment filled with fantastic clothes and she has an outrageously stereotypical gay best friend, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) to offer advise between finger snaps.

The outrageously handsome and wealthy Australian named Blake (Liam Hemsworth) is besotted with Natalie. She convinces herself that 'the spell' will be broken once he tells her 'I love you', but that doesn't work. She then thinks that she must follow the conventions of romantic comedies to escape this psycho world, which involves voiceovers, slow motion running and stopping My Best Friend's Wedding: that being Andy's wedding to 'yoga ambassador' Isabella (Priyanka Chopra).

In the end, she discovers 'the greatest love of all' and that despite her manner and looks she is worthy of love in all its forms.

Image result for isn't it romanticThere is a difference between spoofing romantic comedies and trashing them. Isn't It Romantic thinks its going for the former when it is actually doing the latter. Even that could be embraced as there are many awful rom-coms that do send a bad message. Films like Made of Honor and The Ugly Truth in particular spring to mind. Their message is an element in modern romantic comedies that pretty much appall me: the idea that an intelligent woman with her own career would willingly become romantically involved and even fall in love with a loutish man who treats her shabbily.

Curiously though, Isn't It Romantic does not take on deeper elements of some of the negative aspects of romantic comedies. Instead, it merely tackles the surface elements: the characters, the look, the scenarios. Even in execution Isn't It Romantic is nowhere near as clever or insightful as it thinks it is. The 'getting knocked unconscious' is itself a cliche. Shockingly, it was much better done in I Feel Pretty, another film that wants to play with conventions to give a 'positive' message and that also doesn't land its mark.

To be fair though, I Feel Pretty had some qualities that made it tolerable. Isn't It Romantic has none.

I wonder about the Hemsworth Brothers Liam and Chris. I personally find them both very attractive people with extremely limited acting abilities. Fine: you cast either as Hamlet or Willy Loman and see how far you get. They also seem to have a penchant for being in faux female empowerment films that end in musical numbers: Chris with the all-female Ghostbusters, Liam with Isn't It Romantic. Coincidentally or not, both brothers opted to resort to their native Australian accents in their respective films. I figure to make it less taxing on whatever passes for their acting abilities.

It's not so much that Liam cannot act (though I do think that) so much as there is no character to act out: both his dismissive or besotted manner towards Natalie has no basis. Moreover, the plot point that he was really 'evil' may be another romantic comedy cliche but that too has no basis for being.

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This is, to my memory, the first Rebel Wilson film I have seen. Her Natalie is surprisingly unlikable to start with, making her anti-romantic comedy case with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Despite having a career her frumpy wardrobe and at times dismissive manner make Natalie someone you don't care about. I know Isn't It Romantic is about her evolution but given she either lets others walk over her or has contempt for others one wonders why people would want to be around her.

I found that it was not her appearance that alienated me but her manner. It also may have to do with her performance itself, where she is so overtly going for the 'I'm making a female empowerment' style that it comes across more as speech-making than anything remotely resembling a human.

Chopra too was far too broad even for a romantic comedy to be believed.

Devine had the benefit of essentially playing the same character in both universes, so he came across as an actual human. Curiously, that's a romantic comedy convention Isn't It Romantic didn't bother to alter: the average guy who actually likes the female lead for herself, something else the film shares with I Feel Pretty, Sweet Home Alabama and perhaps among better films to use this trope The Devil Wears Prada and In A World... all of which did the characters and scenarios better. As Jones is playing a parody of a parody, I can roll with how awful it is.

Isn't It Romantic is neither romantic or funny. It also isn't intelligent, which it thinks it is. There are many things to critique about romantic comedies and they are ripe for spoofing. Isn't It Romantic never settled on either. It also failed to entertain, which is deadly no matter what genre.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

F For Fake: A Review

Image result for f for fake criterionF FOR FAKE

Deceit. Sleight of hand. Fraud. To a certain point, people enjoy being fooled if they know ahead of time that there are tricks up one's sleeves. F For Fake is not so much a documentary about fraud but a meditation on deception in a myriad of forms. It's a fascinating portrait of professional shysters, not least of which is director Orson Welles.

F for Fake is ostensibly about infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving with Welles serving as guide, narrator and commentator on a story simply too outlandish to be plausible. Welles tells us that for at least the first hour everything he tells us will be absolutely true.

Truth here however is wilder than fiction in this cascading story of liars and the liars who lie about liars. Elmyr's forgeries were well-known to where he became a celebrity for his fakes, able to not just imitate the styles of painters like Picasso and Modigliani but fool the experts and even the painters themselves. Irving's Elmyr biography, Fake!, chronicles his story, but it looks like Irving picked up a few tricks of his from the legendary bon vivant forger.

Irving himself later claimed to be collaborating with famously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes on his autobiography. He produced letters purportedly from Hughes, which were authenticated by experts. It wasn't until Howard Hughes himself, via a telephone press conference denied meeting or even knowing Irving, let alone working with him, that the jig was up.

Image result for f for fakeMixing in the footage of these deceptions upon deceptions is Welles' views on the nature and truth of 'art' and of receiving credit. He meditates on Chartres Cathedral, noting its architect is unknown. He mentions his own career starting in Ireland where he hoodwinked a theater company to letting him act by claiming to be 'a big American stage star' and his own act of fraud with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

"That's how it got started. Began at the top, and have been working my way down ever since," he says.

F for Fake ends with the story of Oja Kodar, a beauty who so bewitched Pablo Picasso that he did what he'd never done with any other of his muses: surrender the twenty-one paintings he'd done of her to Kodar. When Picasso learns that a small art museum is hosting an exhibition of 'new Picassos' he's enraged and confronts Kodar, only to learn that the paintings are her grandfather's forgeries. In confronting her grandfather, he discovers an unrepentant old man who delights in his deception.

That delight extends to Welles himself, who informs us that the hour of truth has passed and he's created the entire Picasso/Kodar story.

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I think of F for Fake as an amusement park ride where we know it's not real but go along with it for the enjoyment of fantasy. You should go into it knowing that you are going to be fooled, that things are not as they are presented. As such, F for Fake more than lives up to its title.

This is a film where you must simultaneously accept and reject the truth of what is presented because the show show is About Fakes (which is the title Welles presents us in the credits). Everything is a fake: Elmyr's paintings, Irving's Hughes biography, the Picasso/Kodar story. What is to say that Welles' own stories of Irish sojourns or the claim that Citizen Kane was originally going to be about Howard Hughes before switching to William Randolph Hearst are true?

Most viewers take narrators, particularly in documentaries, as oracles of truth. Welles shows that this may not be truth but a selective truth.

I confess part of my enjoyment of F for Fake comes from my knowledge that Kodar was Welles' mistress and muse, so I knew the Kodar/Picasso story was a sham. However, knowing as such I could roll with the fantastical and outrageous story, especially given how well Welles and co-editors Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer put the film together. Wildly spinning from one oddity to another and yet more F for Fake goes all-around, but in a most delightful way.

As a side note, F for Fake does reveal truths about Welles: his erotic fixation on Kodar, which the film lavishes nude shots of her (as he did to a greater extent on The Other Side of the Wind), and his observation about his career's downward trajectory post-Citizen Kane. Even among professional charlatans the truth can emerge.

Image result for f for fakeWhile the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes story has been made into a film (The Hoax), curiously no film has been made of the fascinating and enigmatic Elmyr, who outdid Welles in the Art of Deception. Here we see him give glimpses of his story, along with some rather curious observations. On his living on the Spanish island of Ibiza he comments, "It's not a place for snobbish society. It's not London. It's not Paris. It's not Omaha".

How our fair Midwestern city became a hotbed for the elites is left unexplained.

Seeing the forger's biographer explain Elmyr's life while a monkey pecks at his hair lends a touch of the bizarre to an already bizarre story. The whole Elmyr/Irving stories seem to delight Welles to where his wild yarn of the temptation of Picasso by Kodar seems his own contribution to delightful yarns.

If anything, F for Fake has as an unmentioned subject the contempt for 'experts'. Experts were fooled by Elmyr's work. Experts were fooled by Irving's work. Experts essentially condemned Welles to live in Citizen Kane's shadow. "God's own gift to the faker", Welles remarks on experts.  The lesson of "don't be spooked by the experts" that Elmyr worked under apparently inspired Irving when he tried it with the Hughes 'autobiography'. Perhaps even the reclusive Hughes himself, Welles speculates, pulled off his own deception by forever hiding.

If you go into F for Fake expecting a straightforward narrative on a couple or maybe trio of conmen you might be disappointed. The wild stories of Elmyr's forgeries and Irving's fake autobiography are covered but not the central premise. As a side note, Welles' pronunciation of 'biography' as 'bee-ography' may throw viewers off. Instead, go into F for Fake knowing that the wool will be pulled over your eyes and enjoy the deceptions.

It's like that game Two Truths & A Lie. Here is my version:

I was on a Broadway stage.
I once got five bowling strikes in a row.
I built my own house.

Which version of the truth would you like?