Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Nomadland: A Review (Review #1434)


Nomadland, the adaptation of Jessica Bruder's nonfiction study into the lives of economically displaced people traveling and surviving post-Great Recession, is well-acted, beautifully shot and overall well-made. So, why did I dislike it?

Fern (Francis McDormand) is a recent widow whose whole town was literally wiped off the map after the major sheetrock plant closed. With no savings and no job, Fern makes due with a variety of odd jobs ranging from working at an Amazon processing plant to cleaning toilets at state parks. She travels the American West in Vanguard, the name she's given her van/home. Fern meets up with other nomads who either by circumstance or desire do as she does. Fellow nomad Dave (David Strathairn) obviously fancies her but she isn't interested in romance.

She also isn't interested in literally settling down despite offers from friends, her sister Dolly (Melissa Smith) or Dave himself, who has eased his way back into stationary life now that he is a grandfather. With no husband or children of her own, Fern continues on, despite the various difficulties and dangers there may be out there.

This is my own view, probably not one shared by fellow reviewers who gush endlessly about Nomadland, but perhaps this is the worst time for this film to be released. Millions of lives have been disrupted due to the COVID-created economic crash; people are out of work, perhaps having lost their businesses or even family from COVID itself or related issues (suicides or overdoses). As such, with so many struggling, who would want to watch this story of the wandering homeless (a term to be fair they'd never use for/about themselves)?

I suspect, and again this is just my own view, that many potential Nomadland audience members would kill to have that Amazon job Fern seems if not blasé at least casual about. Granted, the Nomadland characters would say they are not miserable and may even be happy, but I do think most people watching would not welcome the life those in Nomadland have, especially when they fear being on the verge of being on the street.

"Have" is a good word, for the film has very few professional actors. Most of Nomadland's "actors" are real-life nomads playing themselves. Of particular note is Bob Wells, who is a guru to those who live the nomad life and plays a version of himself. It's clear that most of the people we meet in Nomadland are not professional actors, but it's a credit to director/screenwriter Chloe Zhao that they do not appear forced or uncomfortable on camera.

In fact, Nomadland does have a documentary-like feel, down to taking its time in going through mundane presentations on the right bucket for toilet use. The film is enhanced by beautiful cinematography and a beautiful albeit mournful score. The score and sparseness of Nomadland may have been a major reason as to why I kept writing "miserable" in my notes. Despite protests to the contrary, I never sensed these people were actually "happy" or even content in this peripatetic life. It's almost as if they had to be there even if they would say they wanted to be there.

Credit should be given where it is due. The visuals and music are wonderful, as so is Francis McDormand as Fern. This is a quiet performance, but McDormand communicates much with her stillness, her control. Early on, in a curious echo of the end of Brokeback Mountain, Fern holds her late husband's jacket tightly before putting it in storage. It says so much in that silence. As she travels, Fern has both an empathy for those around her and an anger to those who question her life, even when attempting to "help". Sometimes that anger is overt (like with Dolly) and other times more puzzlement. 

Strathairn was less believable as Dave. Somehow, it didn't ring true that he was anywhere near a working class man, the baseball cap and halting manner seeming more calculated in an effort to ingratiate himself to nomads than being a nomad himself.

Nomadland has so many qualities separately but in total there seemed to be something almost "poverty/misery porn" about it. Early on I wrote in my notes, "McDormand is great but BOY is this bleak". I think that sums up my view of Nomadland.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Mank: A Review (Review #1433)


In Sunset Boulevard, cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis said via voiceover, "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along". Few film figures get as little respect as screenwriters. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the subject of Mank, would no doubt likely hold Gillis' worldview as Gospel. Mank is a well-acted, exceptionally crafted film with excellent production values, yet just like many a motion picture, a pretty facade can be enjoyed without being embraced.

Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) attempts to write a screenplay sober, and as he does so he endures many bothersome figures attempting to keep him dry. There's fussy John Houseman (Sam Troughton), forever flummoxed by Mank and slightly fearful of what his boss, wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) will make both of their progress and the end result. The British secretary Rita (Lily Collins) has her own burdens along with suffering Mank's manner.

Mank reflects as he works on his script on his life in Hollywood: his relationship with his younger brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), his informal mentorship of Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross) and his general irritation with the industry that he has thinly-veiled contempt for especially as embodied by MGM boss Louis B. Meyer (Arliss Howard). Mank, however, has a soft spot for Charlie's aunt, film star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), mistress to newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). 

As Mank works on his script, it soon becomes clear that it will be a biopic in all but name of Hearst. Whether Mank cares if everyone knows is unimportant: Mank is going to get back at Hearst and Meyer for their machinations against Socialist California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair which led to a friend's suicide when he was all but forced to create what we would now call "fake news" against Sinclair. Mank finishes his script, but the dueling divas of Mankiewicz and Welles over authorship of Citizen Kane would last their lives despite or perhaps because of their shared Original Screenplay Oscar.

Citizen Kane is held as "the greatest film ever made", and if you know this or have seen Citizen Kane your enjoyment of Mank may increase. If you don't, then you may wonder why people tolerated Herman Mankiewicz, let alone found him some kind of genius. Of particular note is why Hearst and Davies would want him around. Davies may not be as big a mystery: Mankiewicz seems like someone the generally dumb but good-natured Davies could find witty and a nice sounding board.

To be fair though, when the future Professor Kingsfield describes you as a "Blonde Betty Boop", you wonder whether Davies was in on the joke or just the butt of them. At their first meeting, Davies remarks that "Pops" wants to shift her into sound films but is concerned her Brooklyn accent will make it hard. Quips Mank with regards to one of her silent films, "Your Flatbush was showing", causing Davies to laugh.

That, apparently, is the height of Mankiewicz's clever comments. 

Hearst's embrace of Mankiewicz is harder to fathom. Judging from Mank, Herman did nothing but ridicule Hearst's politics and was terribly gauche, but yet Hearst insists he loves having Mank hold court at Hearst's fabulous Xanadu of San Simeon.

A lot of Mank seems geared towards Mankiewicz's anger about audience manipulation, how the studios used their resources to persuade the California electorate of Sinclair's supposed danger. This manipulation (and a suicide that resulted from it) appears to be what motivated Mankiewicz to expose Hearst for the world to see. It seems curious now, given how Hollywood filmmaking openly embraces the idea that it not only should but must use film and television to shape hearts and minds, that Mank would suggest that it might not be a good idea. To its credit it does give Mankiewicz a reason for his dark portrait of Hearst, but it still feels like screenwriter Jack Fincher seems untroubled that Davies became collateral damage in Citizen Kane's portrait of "Susan Alexander" as talentless drunk harpy. 

The script does not give one a reason to believe Mankiewicz was a fun guy, or a witty one, or anyone really worth caring about. 

Mank does have a much better cast than it should have the right to, with David Fincher getting good to great performances from his cast. Gary Oldman does an exceptional job as the drunk, cantankerous Mankiewicz, one who is self-destructive but also one who loves his craft, even if he does not love what he does to pursue it. Be it the angry drunk railing to Hearst's face about how he is a Don Quixote-like figure or the more aware Mankiewicz looking out for Lederer or brother Joe, Oldman holds your attention. 

Seyfried does not make Marion Davies into a caricature of the dumb blonde but somehow I never felt she was a real person either. Davies was just there. It was a good performance but I never saw "Marion Davies". Troughton acted as though his research consisted of watching Silver Spoons reruns and making Houseman as stuffy and fussy as possible.   

Mank is blessed with great production: a time-appropriate score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and beautiful Erik Messerschmidt cinematography that captures the time setting. Yet for all its qualities, of which it has many, I felt removed from Mank. I could fill in things because I know the story of the making of Citizen Kane, but Mank seems not very interested in that. 

It could be that Mank is more about today's films and the frustration over audience rejection of those films that if Houseman is to be believed would "ask too much of an audience". "Write hard, aim low", he advises when he finds Mank's first draft too long and complex. 

Mank is a well-made film, but one that I could not embrace.



Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Sound of Metal: A Review


Sound of Metal is in some ways original and some ways familiar. It blends that familiarity and originally exceptionally well, with standout performances and a glimpse into a world most of us do not know.

Rock drummer Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is touring with his musical and romantic partner Lulu (Olivia Cooke) when he starts having difficulty hearing, the sounds coming to him as muffled and disjointed. Whether due to years of hard rocking or a preexisting condition Ruben, for all intents and purposes, is deaf.

His depression and anger is so much that there are fears he may slip back into drug addiction after four years of sobriety. With that, he is reluctantly persuaded to go to a treatment facility that specializes in treatment for deaf addicts. Overseen by Joe (Paul Raci), Ruben shifts from struggling to easing his way into the deaf world.

Ruben, however, still wants to get his hearing back via surgery, secretly keeping tabs on Lulu and selling their RV and equipment to raise the funds. His decision affects his life in ways even he did not expect, realizing that despite what he wants he is in a new world, one that he might actually embrace.

Sound of Metal is a simultaneously quiet and loud film; it's quiet in how it takes its time with Ruben, moving slowly as he begins to crumble and then shifts from sullen to almost happy to desperate to perhaps in the end accepting. It is loud in the literal sense at times: particularly during the rock concert scenes, I had to cover my ears due to the high noise level. The sound work on Sound of Metal is excellent: capturing Ruben's hearing and what a non-deaf person would hear. The various shifts work within the film.

The subtitles that appear in Sound of Metal also work, and that is something extremely rare in film. Perhaps because I tend to put on subtitles whenever I see a film it look a bit longer for me to notice, but it was an excellent decision to carry out the subtitles throughout. It was an equally excellent decision to not put subtitles every time someone signed, letting the viewer experience what Ruben experienced.

At the heart of Sound of Metal's success are the performances. Ahmed is exceptional as Ruben. As co-written by director Darius Marder (screenplay by Darius Marder and Abraham Marder, story by Darius and Derek Cianfrance), Ruben's journey is pretty much to be expected: going from frustrated and angry to possibly embracing his new life while still hungering and scheming to get his old one back. However, Ahmed makes Ruben a more complex person. 

A lot of his best moments are when he is silent, whether expressing rage to irritation or even a bit of joy when laughing with his fellow deaf addicts, Ahmed expresses so much with his face and eyes and body. He also does have excellent moments when speaking. Of particular note is when he attempts to get money from Joe to get his RV back and for him to stay on despite hiding his operation. As Joe observes, "You sound like an addict". It's a brilliant and heartbreaking moment.  

This leads me to Raci, who should be on anyone's shortlist for Best Supporting Actor consideration. He is a caring man but also one who is not ashamed of who he is. "You don't need to fix anything here," Joe tells Ruben when the latter offers to make repairs around the facility but which may be a rouse to get to Joe's computer. The double meaning is clear, and Raci delivers it in such a way as to suggest Joe is telling Ruben his deafness isn't something to "fix". Raci's performance to my mind is as equal if not slightly stronger than Ahmed's, great as the latter's is. He displays quiet strength, pride and no sense of shame about deafness (in the film, Joe can read lips). 

Rounding out the cast is Cooke, an actress I've admired since her work on Bates Motel. She is almost unrecognizable in her makeup, and we see in Lulu a woman who cares for Ruben, perhaps even loving him, but who also has moved on with her life when she returns to Paris to be with her father Richard (Mathieu Amalric in a small role). 

That's one of Sound of Metal's strengths. There are no villains or heroes, just flawed people making decisions they think are for the best. It treats the situation seriously, with no drifting into potential romances between Ruben and the deaf child teacher. It doesn't infantilize or idolize the deaf, instead treating them as people who unlike most cannot hear and communicate with Sign Language. It's to where Sound of Metal almost inspires one to learn the language.

I suspect curiously that the use of subtitles in Sound of Metal may actually throw people off, but it would be a disservice to skip it because of that. With an interesting story and strong performances all around, Sound of Metal wraps the viewer into this world both of the deaf and of Ruben's journey into it. 


Monday, November 23, 2020

Tennessee Johnson: A Review


In real life, President Andrew Johnson and President Donald Trump have much in common. Both were single-term Presidents. Both were seen as uncouth by the "elites" and "swamp" of their day. Both were impeached on flimsy but politically motivated charges by a Congress with a near-pathological hatred against them. Both had the misfortune to follow popular and beloved Presidents into office. Both were irascible, short-tempered men who could not control themselves and who did themselves more harm whenever they spoke (one of the eleven articles of impeachment against Johnson was about him making "inflammatory remarks" against Congress, which oddly was not included as a "high crime and misdemeanor" against Trump).

Perhaps history will be as kind to President Trump as the biopic Tennessee Johnson was to President Andrew Johnson. Historically inaccurate but well-crafted and acted, Tennessee Johnson may give the viewer a wrong impression of the 17th President but on the whole works as entertainment.

Runaway indentured tailor Andrew Johnson (Van Heflin) manages to escape to the safety of Tennessee, where the local community embraces his sewing skills and shelters him. He soon becomes not only an important member of the community but has found love and education through Eliza McCardle (Ruth Hussey). The local librarian and illiterate tailor soon fall in love and marry.

Johnson is a fierce man of the people, unimpressed with the powerful and holding the radical idea that all free (white) men should have the right to vote, not just property owners. His political career rises, culminating in being Vice President under Abraham Lincoln in a unity ticket. Johnson is not afraid to face off against his own people when it comes to secession, up to not following fellow Senator Jefferson Davis' lead in resigning to join the Confederacy.

However, Lincoln's assassination elevates the drunk Johnson to the Presidency, and he's made a powerful enemy in Senator Thaddeus Stevens (Lionel Barrymore). Their war reaches a culmination when Stevens manages to bring about impeachment proceedings against this upstart. Now Johnson has to fight for his Office while attempting to control his temper. Ultimately, he manages to barely hold on.

Tennessee Johnson is open about how while the film is a biopic, it is not without as it puts it "certain dramatic liberties". As such, the film gives us a very polished portrait of the cantankerous Johnson, barely hinting at how belligerent and drunk he could be. While Tennessee Johnson paints Johnson as a decent man who saw Eliza as his muse and comfort, it isn't a hagiography. 

The success of Tennessee Johnson is due in very large part to Van Heflin's performance. He makes Johnson a sense of honor and conviction but also a man of doubts and fears, one who is so intimidated by the idea of Lincoln that he appears clearly sloshed at his Vice Presidential swearing-in. The role allows Heflin to give an elegant and intense performance. He has what all actors want: a dramatic monologue when addressing the Senate trial (which did not happen in real life). At times, Heflin as Johnson seems to almost address the viewer directly.

In supporting roles, Hussey manages to transcend the surprisingly thin role of "supportive wife" into making the First Lady into a stronger figure, loving, supportive but not worshipful. Barrymore is excellent as the villainous Stevens, convinced of his own righteousness in taking down the "evil tyrant" Johnson. 

It's a credit to director William Dieterle that he not only drew out strong performances from his actors but for also sneaking in moments of romance and even suspense when a Senator falls ill and has to all but be dragged back into the chamber to vote. Dieterle ratches up the suspense as to whether Senator Huyler (William Farnum) will vote Guilty or Not Guilty. 

As a side note, "Huyler" is the name used for real-life Kansas Senator Edmund Ross, who cast the deciding vote to acquit and saved Johnson's removal from office. Why exactly Huyler voted as he did is not clear, though to be fair neither is Ross' rationale.

Tennessee Johnson can be seen as a product of its time, showing the need for the government to work together and the importance of "the common man". Again, this film may not be history but it tell an interesting story and is well-acted. At the most, perhaps a remake could be mounted or a film of Senator Ross, a Profile in Courage. On the whole, the film works well and makes for interesting if not accurate filmmaking.



Sunday, November 22, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy: A Review (Review #1430)


My Mom (RIP) always thought the term for poor white rural mountain folk was "hilly-billy". She probably thought this because she thought it would/should rhyme, in the same way she kept calling the 1970's sitcom The Brady Brunch vs. The Brady Bunch. That came to mind while watching Hillbilly Elegy, a film that attempts to tell what should be a serious story but that bizarrely ends up almost mocking the very people it is meant to ennoble. 

Shifting from 1997 and 2011, Hillbilly Elegy covers the memories of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso as an adult, Owen Asztalos as a child). As an adult, he is at Yale Law School, uncomfortably mixing with the elites and romancing pretty fellow student Usha (Freida Pinto).

As a child though, he grew up in Appalachia among what were once called "poor white trash". There's his unstable man-loving mother Bev (Amy Adams), his no-nonsense grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) and his longsuffering sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett). Bev is volatile to say the least: one moment cheerful and loving, the next moment hysterical and violent. 

The past comes to haunt J.D. when on the cusp of having a second interview for a major law firm, Lindsay calls asking he come back to help with Bev, who has overdosed again. As he makes the mad commute between New Haven, Connecticut and Middletown, Ohio, he recalls the life he led among the poor kinfolk and the tough love Mamaw meted out while attempting to hold on to his future. Eventually, J.D. finds a delicate balance between his hick past and posh present.

It's a strange thing that while I figure both the book and film adaptation meant to be respectful of poor whites, the final result of Hillbilly Elegy ended up making the Vance family look freakish, comical, garish. The entire family came across looking like caricatures of "poor white trash" versus fully-formed albeit economically disadvantaged people. The worst of the lot is Adams, who gave perhaps the worst performance of her career in some misguided effort to win the Oscar she has continuously failed to.

She was comical in her hysterics, the wild shifts and overall broadness of her performance. Scenes that were intended as shocking or heartbreaking instead became hilarious in a bad, almost camp way. There's a sequence where she angrily beats J.D. so psychotically that he fled the car to the nearest house and resulted in the police handcuffing her. Instead of being horrified by this, the overall effect is one of laughter.

To be fair to Adams, director Ron Howard made her do things and crafted scenes that I doubt any actress could have made work. We see Nurse Bev's "descent" into drug use by seeing her roller-skate down the hospital hallway and giggling while Bananarama's Cruel Summer is playing. 

With this sequence, you begin to wonder if it's Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor who are the ones that are high. You watch this sequence in almost stunned disbelief, marveling how experts could see this and not think it wouldn't look funny at the least, an almost literal fever dream at worst.

Adams clearly wants an Oscar win after six failed nominations, but she really should pray she doesn't get a nomination because it would then put her at seven loses, tying her costar Close for most nominations without a win. Adams' scenery-chewing would normally make her an also-ran for awards but the sheer desperation in her performance may elicit almost a sympathy vote.

Hillbilly Elegy may get Close an eighth nomination and maybe her very first win, but it would be a de facto Lifetime Achievement Award because like her fellow frustrated nominee Adams her Mamaw is more oddball than realistic. At the end of the film, we do see footage of the real Vance family, and to her credit Close captures the mannerisms of her real-life counterpart.

That's just the problem though: Close gave a technically strong performance, but Mamaw still came across as caricature than character, let alone real-life person. The large glasses and clothes look closer to a spoof than a serious drama. I left Hillbilly Elegy thinking Close looked more hilarious than heartfelt, as if in this case she knew what to do but could not make herself be. I was thoroughly unimpressed, and my sense is that she, like Adams, could get nominations out of this but even then, Academy members would genuinely pause to ask, "Do we really want them to win for this?"

Asztalos did what he could with the role, attempting to make J.D.'s early life one that audiences would care about. He was better than Basso, whose J.D. came across as blank at best. Asztalos had some good moments, such as a long argument with Mamaw about a calculator, but Hillbilly Elegy opted to sacrifice subtlety about J.D. and the Vance family.

There's almost an arrogance, intended or not, about J.D. We see this when he is with Mamaw. He wants to see Meet the Press. She'd rather watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As directed by Howard and scripted by Taylor, it makes clear that J.D. is "intelligent" and his family are "hicks". HE wants to be informed and pursues knowledge of the world. His family wants to be entertained. The film makes it almost as if he is a lotus blossom growing among the muck of yahoos.

Hillbilly Elegy is misguided, as if made by people who look upon the subject as coming from another world. Perhaps in that way, it is not too far off the mark.       


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Tenet: A Review


Perhaps it was too much to place on Tenet, the idea that this particular film would have audiences flocking back to cinemas after the COVID pandemic/panic. There is a difference between "incomprehensible" and "opaque". Tenet is more the latter than the former, though some of the criticisms against it are not without merit.

A figure who eventually adopts the term "The Protagonist" (John David Washington) is part of a military rescue operation at the Kyiv Opera (shades of the 2002 Dubrovka Moscow theater hostage crisis) who finds there's something odd about this mission. The Protagonist finds that contrary to what he thinks, he is not dead but now is part of something larger and more dangerous.

Tenet: a word that leads him, along with his contact Neil (Robert Pattinson) to hop around the world as part of a time-bending plan to destroy the world. In the future, mad Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh) has the technology to essentially travel back in time. From our time-forward perspective, things appear to be moving backwards (shots un-fired, people moving backwards) but from the future-past perspective, they are moving forwards as they travel in the past. 

The Protagonist must now get close to Sotar's battered wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to stop Sotar's plan to simultaneously trigger and avoid Armageddon by destroying the world, leading to traveling both forwards and backwards in time.

A common complaint against writer/director Christopher Nolan is that when not making more commercial fare (such as the Dark Knight films or Dunkirk) his films can be convoluted bordering on impossible to understand. I don't think that is accurate: there is a logic in a Nolan film, though that logic is at times hard to follow. As I understood it, Tenet has people going forwards and backwards in time, with one group attempting to stop another.  

As I said, there's a difference between "incomprehensible" and "opaque". Tenet is not incomprehensible in that if you think on it, you can follow the film. It is closer to opaque in that you feel yourself dropped further and further into a rabbit hole where one is still trying to figure out what happened before before having a chance to figure out what is happening now, let alone how it will all add up by the conclusion.

I would argue that in terms of logic and plot, Tenet should probably be watched twice to see about figuring things out. In terms of other elements, Tenet could have been better. Of particular note is the sound, which has some traditional Nolan muffled voices via masks that can make the following of the story hard if you can't hear it. I didn't think it was that difficult but I can metaphorically hear the complaints as having merit.

The complaint, for lack of a better word, that Tenet is Nolan's sci-fi version of a Bond film also has merit. You have the master villain with some real far-out plot, a beautiful Bond Girl-like figure and a super-agent charging towards a climatic finale. My mind did drift to the idea that stripped of its sci-fi elements Tenet could easily be a Bond film. I also do admit that I did nod off for a bit during the film.

I go back to the 007 comparisons when it comes to the performance. Unlike most Bond films, Tenet plays things more seriously, and the few times Washington is asked to try some quips it sounds forced. Washington is much better when playing things straight, and he is quite strong in the film. He'd make for a good film spy. Washington balances that level of confusion and confidence, though I wonder if giving him such a nondescript term as "The Protagonist" (a title he gives himself) makes him a bit aloof for audinces.

As much as the Twitter attempts to convince me that Robert Pattinson is this generation's Peter O'Toole, some titanic acting force who will be studied by future actors for time and eternity, I am not convinced of it. That's not to say I disliked him: in fact, I think Tenet is the first film where I thought he managed something good. I'm not sold on him but now not almost reflexively hostile.

The clear standout is Debicki, who lifts what could have been a "damsel in distress" role into one that balances Kat's fears with a growing strength. The clear non-standout is Branagh, who seems to have a hard time with accents. He wasn't as menacing as he could have been, probably because the Russian accent veered close to cartoonish.

If there's a flaw in Tenet is that the film is a bit aloof. While everyone is taking this all so seriously there is a remoteness to things. As much as the film wanted me to feel tension I couldn't if the stakes didn't seem or feel real. A major action piece at the airport reminded me of all things the spoof Airplane!, and the lack of emotion with some people equally bordered on spoof. Clémence Posy's Barbara (read, a variation on Q), came across as bored. Here she could see literal time going backward from her perspective and she looked as excited as someone bringing in a ham sandwich.

The other Tenet elements worked well. Ludwig Göransson's score can best be described as "electronic Philip Glass". The action scenes are well-crafted (the opening Kyiv Opera sequence a strong one) and on the whole Tenet is a good film.

Tenet is not a film where you will be totally lost, assuming you manage to stay with it and stay awake.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: A Review


The expression "Saturday night and Sunday morning" may mean something different in the United States than perhaps it does to those involved in this British kitchen-sink drama. To me, it refers to how one can live a pretty decadent, even debauched life only to repent right after (Saturday night at the bars, Sunday morning at church). This "Saturday night and Sunday morning" is about that brief time of freedom for our "angry young man" between the drudgery of Monday to Friday. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a well-acted film that tells a small slice-of-life story.

Factory machinist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) hates his job and isn't particularly thrilled with his working-class life. He sees people like coworker Jack (Brian Pringle) as essentially saps: Jack is pretty satisfied with his life, Arthur most certainly not.

Arthur is satisfied with Jack's wife Brenda (Rachel Roberts) whom he has been having an affair with. Arthur may bed Brenda, but he does not love her, let alone the prospect of marriage. Then comes brassy Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) who piques his interests but who doesn't give in easily to our brash young man. He starts dating Doreen while still seeing Brenda and thinks nothing of his double dealing.

That is until Brenda tells him she's pregnant. As she and Jack haven't had sex in months it's clear who the father is. Efforts to induce an abortion fail, with Arthur desperate to get out of this mess. Things culminate at a local fair where Brenda opts to keep the child but Jack, along with his soldier brother, discover the lovers. Arthur still manages to avoid personal scandal and Doreen is staying by his side, but will he fully commit?

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has a stellar performance from Albert Finney as Arthur. Finney makes no effort to make Arthur anywhere near sympathetic. In fact, Arthur seems to almost thrive in being selfish and petty, yet despite his flaws we get some sense of what drives him. Arthur feels trapped in his world, one where if he does marry, he'll be condemned to end his days watching television like his father or worse being a cuckold like Jack. Arthur wants to live, and to him, that means booze and broads without them controlling him.

We see that mix of arrogance and anger early on when he's in an informal drinking match with a sailor. Arthur appears better able to handle his liquor, even up to "accidentally" spilling beer on an older couple. It isn't until he steps to the outside when he stumbles down the pub staircase that we find Arthur is more self-destructive and foolish than antihero.

Finney keeps the audiences' attention throughout Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, down to having opening and closing voiceovers. I found Arthur a very selfish man but not a monster, a credit to Finney as an actor.

Director Karel Reisz also gets great performances out of the rest of his cast. Field's Doreen is nobody's fool, able to stand toe-to-toe with Arthur, but we also see that she dreams of domesticity in the same way Arthur recoils from it. Roberts' Brenda manages not to be either a shrew or a tramp, but a woman who loves the freedom Arthur embodies while also remaining aware of his danger. 

Reisz, working from Allan Silltoe's adaptation of his own novel, brings almost a cinema verite manner to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. At times it does look like a documentary, and we get the sense of what life would be like for a working-class lad in early 1960's Britain. 

Perhaps this is why it didn't hit me as hard, the passage of time and the idea of upward mobility watering it down a bit. Also, some sections such as a sequence involving Arthur shooting pellets at local gossip Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris) seemed more curious comedy than true to the the lives of unquiet desperation so many post-war youth led. Almost everything involving Mrs. Bull seemed more like early Eastenders or Coronation Street, or at least precursors.

That's a minor complaint on the whole thought. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a showcase for early Albert Finney and a time capsule of when the "angry young man" ruled the thoughts of the British. It's a curious thing about the British: seemingly worshipful of the lives of aristocracy while simultaneously fascinated with the working-class. 


Sunday, November 8, 2020

Let Him Go: A Review


Grief, loss and bonds of family good and bad are the themes in Let Him Go, a sparse, quiet, moving film with three dynamic performances that push the film even higher.

After the death of their son, retired sheriff George Blackledge (Kevin Costner) and his wife Margaret (Diane Lane) sadly see their daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) marry a Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain), making Donnie stepfather to their grandson Jimmy. Donnie is bad news: Margaret sees him abuse both Lorna and Jimmy and her fears grow worse when the Weboys leave quickly.

Margaret decides to search for them, a very reluctant George going with her. Using the few clues they have the Blackledges track them from Montana to North Dakota, where George's instincts tell him the Weboys are dangerous. This is confirmed when they meet the extended family, in particular the matriarch Blanch Weboy (Leslie Manville). She's a cold, brutal woman who terrorizes her criminal, brutal sons and who despite Jimmy not being blood relation will not let Jimmy go back with the Blackledges, let alone have Lorna go with them.

A botched escape costs George dearly, but it also sets him on a fiery collision course with the Weboys. With the help of shy Native American Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart), the Blackledges and Weboys have one last encounter where not everyone survives.

Let Him Go appears to draw inspiration from both No Country for Old Men and Unforgiven, though it is not as nihilistic as the former or mournful as the latter. There is a sparseness, a quiet elegiac manner to Let Him Go that holds the viewer. 

The film is very quiet, but it is a quiet confidence. Every disagreement that George and Margaret have does not have a massive buildup, but instead a soft yet strong manner. Even in the times when there is open menace, the quiet manner makes it all the more tense.

The scene where George and Margaret must dine with Blanche is filled with tension and menace. All the elements work to give this scene a richness and power that holds you and ratchets up the tension. There's writer/director Thomas Bezucha's staging, where we start without seeing Blanche's eyes.

And then there's Leslie Manville's performance. Manville is simply extraordinary in Let Him Go. Thoroughly unrecognizable, her Blanche oozes menace, contempt, hatred and evil, a woman who has so cowered her bullying, brutish sons that she brooks no opposition.

Blanche does not bother hiding her cruelty, the falsehood of her demeanor clear to all who see her. If she were in just that one scene, Manville would be almost a certain lock for her second Best Supporting Actress nomination. However, she returns, this time more spiteful and nasty, making Blanche into such a loathsome villain that you almost cheer when she gets what she more than deserves.

Manville is able to dominate the screen without chewing the scenery, making Blanche a realist person, a massive credit to her as an actress and Bezucha as director.

Almost as a counter, Lane and Costner are more quiet but no less commanding. Lane's performance is equally strong. Margaret is not naïve or foolish as she is quietly confident. Her quiet moments, grieving her son, communicating with the shy and wounded Peter, agony over having Jimmy pulled from her, make Lane's performance a deeply moving one.

Costner essentially took a backseat to Lane, and yet by withdrawing he simultaneously shone. In his silences, his reticence, Costner reveals the shrewd, suspicious and supporting spouse who while seeing the difficulty if not impossibility of rescuing Jimmy also is quietly sparked to action.

While their roles were smaller, both Carter and Stewart left strong impressions as Lorna and Peter, each wounded and abused in their own way.

Let Him Go is as I said a very sparse film in just about every element. Bezucha's adaptation of Larry Watson's novel is not filled with big dramatic moments apart from the fiery finale. The cinematography is also as sparse and empty as the Dakotas and an uncharacteristically quiet Michael Giacchino score has a deeply mournful, quiet manner.

Let Him Go may be a bit longer than perhaps it should be, primarily through the flashbacks. However, that is a minor quibble, for Let Him Go is a deeply moving, beautifully acted film that I think will move audiences.  


Monday, November 2, 2020

Raintree County: A Review (Review #1426)


It is somewhat hard to watch Raintree County without remembering that the film came at an especially tumultuous time in the life of one of its stars. Montgomery Clift was in a horrific car accident during its troubled production, causing physical and emotional scars that eventually doomed him. Even if Clift had not been overwhelmed by his personal problems, Raintree County would still be a low-mark in his cinematic oeuvre, a slow, dull, almost nonsensical affair barely saved by its leads.

Indiana idealist Johnny Shawnessey (Clift) is lured away from his true love Nell (Eva Marie Saint) by fiery Southern belle Susanna (Elizabeth Taylor). John struggles with many things in this relationship, though oddly his efforts at reconciling his abolitionist views with marrying into a slave-owning family is the least troubling part. Susanna is to put it mildly flat-out bonkers.

She keeps a creepy doll collection that she hangs over their bed. She may have had a hand in the murder of her parents and loyal "mammy" (though the term is not used in the film). She may also be, horror of horrors, "Negro" herself (or as she puts it in her determined Southern accent, "Nee-grah"), as she is driven to near-insanity on the thought that her "mammy" may actually be her biological mother.

Enter the Civil War. Initially, Johnny does not join the military, but once Susanna has gone back to Georgia and taken their son with her, he joins the boys in blue to find them both. A long search reunites Johnny with his son, but by now Susanna is institutionalized. He brings her back to Indiana where one of these meets a grisly end.

It was probably a surprise to viewers to see a film where Montgomery Clift is playing the sane and calm one in the midst of all the rambling, sometimes confusing storyline. I should say "storylines", as Millard Kaufman's adaptation of Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s novel at times is chaotic and/or unclear. Raintree County spends perhaps a good half hour or more on an extended tangent involving a randy Professor (Nigel Patrick) and a footrace with a local man, Orville "Flash" Perkins (Lee Marvin). You keep waiting for them to pop up again, and they do eventually, but by that time you've lost interest in the film as a whole.

Moreover, as you watch Raintree County, you kind of think the Professor's story would make for a more interesting film than that of the love triangle of Johnny, Susanna and Nell. Raintree County to its credit has its three leads doing good work in this tawdry tale of the Old South. Clift works hard to make Johnny an idealist, even if at times he comes across as rather dim (why would he agree to stay with a woman who faked a pregnancy to snag him). Taylor is fully committed to make Susanna into a tragic figure, though her wild Southern accent and near hysterical manner make her hysterical in the laughable sense.

"You HATE ME! YOU HATE ME BECAUSE I'M SOUTHERN!" she screams out at one point. I figure that maybe the filmmakers wanted to say "colored", the vague suggestion of miscegenation hovering over this but never fully rationalized. Still, Taylor was hell-bent on going all cray-cray, making Saint's more demure Nell look less rational and more slightly bored.

Bless Lee Marvin, who decided he was in a whole other film altogether and acted as though Raintree County was about Flash. Same goes for the parody-ready Patrick as the Professor, whose whole character started out as a joke and never shifted. 

If Raintree County  has anything good in it, it's in the technical aspects such as the score and costumes, but apart from that it's a slog to sit through. Clift, Taylor and Saint did the best they could, and it's a credit to director Edward Dmytryk that everyone managed to survive this cure for insomnia, but there's nothing to make this worth your time. 

Raintree County could best be described as Gone With the Light Breeze, a Southern epic romance that fails to be epic or romantic. 

One final note: the constant mention of "Raintree County" brought back to mind the endless repetition of "Moses" in The Ten Commandments. One could make a drinking game over how often "Raintree County" is mentioned, and be positively drunk before Taylor goes really off the deep end. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Rebecca (2020): A Review (Review #1425)


The tale of the second Mrs. de Winter metaphorically haunted by her predecessor has its most famous adaptation in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film, his only film to win Best Picture. A 1997 television adaptation earned the late Dame Diana Rigg an Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries/Movie Emmy Award. Now Netflix has decided to challenge The Master of Suspense with its own version of Rebecca. Apart from one good leading performance, this Rebecca has nothing to offer other than a thin sheen of elegance.

A young but poor lady's companion is swept into a whirlwind romance to the mysterious Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). She soon becomes the second Mrs. de Winter (Lily James) and goes to his palatial estate, Manderley.

Manderley is run by the shadowy Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), but the second Mrs. de Winter fears that she will never earn Maxim's love, let alone escape the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca. However, things are not as they appear, and perhaps far from being the great love of his life, Rebecca was a villainness, one who can still ruin their lives from beyond the grave. What exactly are the secrets Rebecca took to the grave, ones that involve her cousin/lover Jack Favell (Sam Riley)? Will Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter find happiness despite the malevolent forces of the dead Rebecca and the live Mrs. Danvers?

It surprises me that three people adapted Du Maurier's novel, two of them women (Jane Goldman, Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel) given that there isn't a drop of romance within it. This isn't to say that women can write only about romance or that men can't, but that with three people they couldn't bring Du Maurier's novel come to life.

Instead, they and director Ben Wheatley made certain parts play almost like parody. There's a scene where the de Winter granny comes to tea, and in her confusion about who this woman is (as she's certainly not Rebecca) it played like a joke more than a drama, let alone a romance. The entire scene was funny, not serious. Moreover, there was no real buildup to it, let alone to who Beatrice (Keely Hawes) and Giles (John Hollingworth) are. There was more drama when Robert, a poor servant, was about to be charged with theft than there was with anything involving Maxim and his Missus.

The height of hilarity is with Ben (Ben Crompton), the strange man living in the boathouse. One wonders what he's doing there, popping up and spouting dire warnings with nary a rhyme or reason.

Rebecca also has mostly miss acting. To be fair Lily James may not score a homerun but she does manage a respectable triple as the second Mrs. de Winter, mostly convincing that she is this mousy figure who slowly grows to a strong woman. Mostly, for at times she doesn't appear to be genuinely frightened by anything, let alone Mrs. Danvers. Worse, at the end the last glimpse of the second Mrs. de Winter comes across as almost demonic, as if she become the new Rebecca.

Armie Hammer is a very handsome man and has the obligatory shirtless scene at the end, but he is as British as a baguette, and as intimidating as one. If he was meant to be British Hammer failed miserably, sounding very much like an American. Moreover, Hammer never seemed to change his expression, one of perpetual anger (perhaps after realizing what movie he was stuck in). He never came across as brooding or lost, but merely short-tempered and quickly irritated, making one wonder why any woman would want to be with him besides of his looks.

Also, what was the deal with his bright yellow suit? It just looks strange.

Scott Thomas did what she could with Mrs. Danvers, but she never came across as the antagonist to the second Mrs. de Winter or as one obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter. She instead looked more obnoxious than menacing. Riley too did what he could with Jack, and to his credit did better than most save James, his Jack not as dull as most everyone else. 

Rebecca is a snooze-fest, one where you soon start not caring about these people. It was a bad choice for Clint Mansell's score to start as so spooky, for it seemed to suggest a horror film versus a Gothic romance. Apart from James there isn't much here that would make anyone want to go back to Manderley again. 


Saturday, October 24, 2020

2 Hearts: A Review (Review #1424)


2 Hearts is being sold as a lush, romantic drama with two interconnected stories that span generations. They are interconnected, though it takes a long time to have them connect. That connection, however, along with a bizarre framing, gives it an almost ghoulish feel that makes 2 Hearts come across as almost farcical, which does this true-life story wrong.

Mostly narrated in voiceover by Chris Gregory (Jacob Elordi), we get both his story and that of Jorge/George Bolivar (Adan Canto). For most of 2 Hearts, it seems like they are parallel stories.

Jorge, the scion of a Cuban rum empire family, has a condition that eventually requires him to have part of his lung removed. He defies the odds again and again, living past 20 to 30 and beyond, when he encounters beautiful Pan Am stewardess Leslie (Radha Mitchell). They eventually marry but are unable to have children. Despite this, they remain very much in love until Jorge's conditions deteriorates to where unless he gets a lung transplant he will die.

Into the future, happy-go-lucky Chris is also a bit lackadaisical towards college until he meets the love of his life, Sam (Tiera Skovbye). She's a bit more sensible than our wisecracking, slightly doofus Chris but not bright enough to figure out he's totally into her, down to making the enormous sacrifice of getting his driver's license just so he could drive in the Safety Buddies program she heads. 

Here's where things get tricky. As Chris has been narrating both stories, usually with quips, he has a sudden health emergency. It appears that he does recover, continuing his narration and finding that, unlike the Bolivars, he and Sam do marry and have a child, Sam's love maturing him into a responsible, loving father and successful ETM.

Then Chris tells us that's not what happened. In reality, Chris dies suddenly at 19, and somewhat reluctantly his parents allow his organs to be given to those waiting for transplants, saving five lives including Jorge. Eventually the families meet, form a bond and the Bolivars create "Gabriel's House of Care" as a place where families of transplant recipients/donors can shelter through the health crisis.

Organ donation is a very important issue, and the work that the Bacardi family has done with Gabriel's House of Care is worthy of recognition. 2 Hearts, based on Chris' father Eric's memoir All My Tomorrows, decided however to focus on their disparate love stories,all but making their significant contribution almost an afterthought; there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sight of organ recipient families in the hospital lobby and what should be the spark of inspiration instead ends up being treated as a blip.

Director Lance Hool and co-screenwriters Robin U. Russin and Veronica Hool (there are many Hools behind 2 Hearts in writing, directing, producing and casting) made perhaps the most ghastly decision with the voiceover. Apart from being a bane of my existence, Chris' voiceovers start out as merely grating and end up almost obscene. I don't know why apparently they looked on Sunset Boulevard as inspiration for having our story narrated by a dead man. Worse, as voiced by Elordi, Chris comes across not as a rambunctious, fun fellow but as an idiot.

I'm not alone in this: at one point one of his friends asks him, "Why are you such an idiot?".

Perhaps the ugliest element is the entire post-coma segment. I don't know what the film was aiming for (perhaps a big, "shocking" twist) but given the whole thing was a fake-out, it struck me personally as almost ghoulish and manipulative to give us this fantasy when perhaps sticking to the truth would have done 2 Hearts better.

In terms of performances I was less than impressed. Despite being based on a true story the characters came across as fictional: not once did they go beyond stereotypes (gruff fathers, loyal females). Elordi's chief contribution was his physical beauty, for his Chris was sadly nowhere near interesting. Canto's Jorge was maybe older but still quite buff for someone who apparently could drop dead any moment. I mention this because 2 Hearts does give our males many opportunities to showcase their well-built torsos for reasons known only to them.

Acting-wise, the four leads looked almost bored (Canto and Mitchell) and/or sitcom-like (Elordi and Skovbye). You don't believe they were or are real, a terrible disservice to their real-life counterparts. Elordi and Skovbye especially suffered: no matter how hard they tried to sell the Chris/Sam romance they either are not skilled enough or were badly directed to make Chris and Sam come across as irritatingly "wacky" and forced "perky" respectively. 

Sometimes the film is almost comical, such as with Chris' brother John (Anthony Konechny). He has exactly one major scene where he objects to his brother's organs being donated, and 2 Hearts has apparently such little interest in John that at least once I did ask 'Who is this?' when he appeared. I think it's a fair complaint given Chris had more interaction with his fellow Loyola student/brother Colin (Jordan Burtchett). Sadly, that made John the "Chuck Cunningham" of 2 Hearts

I can't deny that 2 Hearts had an effect on viewers: I heard sniffles in the small audience the film had due to the pandemic. The audience didn't mind that 2 Hearts bounced back and forth between the 1960s and 2000s with almost reckless abandon. They didn't mind that 2 Hearts is a bit misleading: given the subject matter, it was the lungs not perhaps the expected heart that Jorge got. As a side note, I think Eric Gregory's original title All My Tomorrows actually works better than 2 Hearts, but that's just my view. 

The true story of Chris Gregory and Jorge Bacardi (changed to Bolivar in the film) is one worthy of knowing. The subjects of life, death, how both can appear and disappear quickly to young and old, as well as the importance of organ donation are important ones. 2 Hearts, however, felt it was more important to focus on a couple of bland "romances" where at least I grew to dislike Chris. Given the good he did in life and death, it's a bad way to offer tribute.


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Infidel (2020): A Review (Review #1423)


Dinesh D'Souza, political provocateur whose non-fiction films like Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party are weirdly watchable, has shifted to fiction filmmaking. Infidel may be hampered by skimming at times through characters and some weak acting. However, with some surprisingly strong action sequences and more surprisingly sympathetic portraits of the villains, it can be a good diversion for those who dare go to cinemas.

Christian apologist blogger and businessman Doug Rawlings (Jim Caviezel) maintains a friendship with Muslim businessman Javid (Aly Kassem), jokingly calling him "Infidel". Doug's wife Liz (Claudia Karvan) works at the State Department and it's an open secret that she's an intelligence officer (aka spy). It's after the disappearance of Javid's daughter Mina that Doug, but not Liz, finds that Javid is really a spy and terrorist supporter for the Iranians.

Some time later, Doug is persuaded to go to Cairo for a live interfaith dialogue. Despite Liz's warnings Doug does the unthinkable: he openly shares the Gospel to Muslims. He's quickly abducted by the half-Kurdish half-Persian but all-British Hezbollah operative Ramzi (Hal Ozsan). He tortures and bullies Doug, more so when Doug almost escapes. Ramzi eventually turns him over to the Iranians, who put him on trial as a spy (though the Christian thing doesn't help). 

Liz, aware of Doug's plight, then travels to Teheran to see if she can get Doug out, no easy task. That is, until she finds sympathetic allies: secret Christians, more secular Muslims who detest the theocracy, and two Mossad agents who plan to use Doug's escape as cover to get their agents out. It all culminates in a daring, explosive escape that Ramzi attempts to stop.

I can't quite call Infidel a "Christian" film because Doug and Liz's faith was a bit in the background. The film touches on Liz's crisis of and loss of faith after a deep personal tragedy, and Doug is very open about his own Christian faith. We also get a brief scene where Doug looks through his prison window and asks God where He is.

However, Infidel is more interested in the action elements. Writer/director Cyrus Nowrasteh shaped a lengthy climatic action sequence that does hold your attention. It's the highlight of the film, and it even manages to be exceptionally contemporary with mention of the coronavirus (the women's protest outside the prison about the virus possibly infecting their relatives giving the rescue team a perfect cover to storm the prison).

Infidel also should be credited with having a touch of nuance to its Islamist characters, particularly with Ramzi in a standout role for Ozsan. With his strong British accent and constant use of "Mate", Ramzi is not an Islamic stereotype. Nowrasteh even gives Ozsan a brief monologue where he talks about the discrimination he faced as a young man in Britain, which explains how he turned violently against the West. It's small but so well underplayed, making it a surprisingly natural moment. 

It gives Ramzi a touch of humanity, which is more than can be said for Javid and the not-seen but clearly understood implication of Mina's "honor killing". It also shows Ozsan outacting Caviezel. His Doug perhaps misunderstood "stoic" for "almost emotionaless", as he seemed to be blank in the role. There was little emotion from Doug, even when we have flashbacks to that traumatic shared experience between him and Liz. When sharing the Good News to his Islamic audience, I didn't sense the passion of the Christ in him.

Karvan did slightly better as Liz, though at times her character seemed surprisingly dumb for a not-so-secret agent. Why would she willingly go with men who approach her with "pictures" of her husband, especially after being warned against such activities? 

Infidel is not a particularly strong film, but it can serve as a good distraction. It skims a bit through the ideas it is presenting about faith and oppression, but it is not bad and is lifted with a good climatic prison breakout and escape from Teheran.   


Friday, September 25, 2020

The Broken Hearts Gallery: A Review


Ah, the romantic comedy, with all its trappings and tropes finds a new outlet in The Broken Hearts Gallery. Somewhere here is a good to great idea, but its formulaic nature is maddening to where when I wasn't fighting to stay awake I was rolling my eyes at it all.

Perky Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) has a habit of holding on to random keepsakes from all her past boyfriends, a habit that drives her two besties Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo) crazy. The three lifelong friends and roomies wander through New York in various stages of relationships. Nadine has nothing but physical relationships with a gaggle of beauties whom she never seems to remember their names while Amanda has a longstanding relationship with Jeff (Nathan Dales), who is perpetually mute.

Lucy gets dumped by her latest boyfriend Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar) and fired by her art gallery boss Eva Woolf (Bernadette Peters) the same night for making a drunken fool out of herself. In her despondency, Lucy gets into the car of Nick (Dacre Montgomery) whom she consistently mistakes for her Lyft driver.

At this point I'd like to point out how dangerous it is to get into a perfect stranger's car without verifying that it is your actual Lyft driver, but Lucy is so devastated/oblivious that she does so even after Nick insists he isn't her driver.

Another random meeting with Nick brings her into his orbit, and she more or less imposes herself on his life when she takes empty space in his unfinished boutique hotel and is inspired to create "The Broken Hearts Gallery", where she can leave the keepsakes from her past love affairs and inspire others to do likewise. The idea becomes a hit and over time, despite a few romantic bumps in the road, Lucy and Nick discover that their own hearts need not be broken.

I should be softening as I advance towards the twilight of my days, but I found myself more and more irritated by almost everything in The Broken Hearts Gallery

It's a sign of how oblivious to current film and television that I had no idea who Viswanathan or Montgomery are (not having seen either Blockers or Stranger Things). I figure writer/director Natalie Krinsky was going for "adorkable" with regards to Lucy, but to me, she came across as an almost Satanically stupid woman. She's the type who appears to think Sex in the City is a documentary series and behaves accordingly. She's not a manic pixie dream girl, but she is quite manic, has kind of a pixie manner, lives in a dream world, and is a girl.

There's a frantic, almost unhinged manner to Lucy that she comes across as less "endearing" and more "flat-out bonkers". Her actions, her total immaturity, her own words make her look like a loon. "If you got to know me, you'd be obsessed with me", she tells Nick at one point, displaying either an almost breathtaking narcissism or a total break from reality.

It's hard for me to judge whether Viswanathan is a good actress because this part is so cliched it gives her nothing but exaggerated manners and scenes where she appears to be literally insane. To be fair a lot of The Broken Hearts Gallery plays as ninth-level sitcom, a script that even the writers of Life With Lucy would reject as far too stupid.

As if to compensate for Viswanathan's frantic manner, Montgomery is virtually catatonic as Nick. He seems quite at ease to placate this rather shallow, barely sane woman in her sense of importance. In truth, all the characters seem to coddle her ideas and whims no matter how dumb they may be.

It's a terrible disservice to have Bernadette Peters in your film and have her do so little.

A lot of The Broken Hearts Gallery is quite sitcom-like, which perhaps isn't surprising given that Krinsky started out writing for television, though to be fair I don't count Gossip Girl as a sitcom.

You know where every bit is going: the silent boyfriend (itself a gimmick) who will eventually speak, the reason Nick is naming his boutique hotel "Chloe", the last-minute declarations of love. 

Is that why so many found it funny? I know the few in the theater were laughing. I know many people who love the film, finding it quirky and endearing not unlike how the film wants me to look upon Lucy. 

I just happened to find her insipid, witless and full of herself. In that respect, I found my feelings for Lucy matched my feelings for The Broken Hearts Gallery.


Friday, September 11, 2020

The Personal History of David Copperfield: A Review


It would have been too simple to call the film plain David Copperfield. No, director/co-writer Armando Iannucci had to go with the more flamboyant The Personal History of David Copperfield. That should signal how cutesy this Charles Dickens adaptation is meant to be seen. Meant being the operative word, for while David Copperfield has some strong qualities, it simply is too self-aware and rapid to be what it aims at.

Our titled hero David Copperfield (Dev Patel) rushes through life with a cheerful optimism as the narrator of his own adventures. We steamroll through all the major events of his life up to the time of his writing. There is his birth, followed by his mother's remarriage to the abusive Edward Murdstone (Darren Boyd), his exile to a bottling factory, his mother's death, and salvation with his Aunt Betsy (Tilda Swinton) and her bonkers cousin Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). 

There's his school days where he encounters the seemingly subservient Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) and re-encounters the kind but perpetually broke Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) masquerading as a schoolteacher. David also makes friends with young and wealthy Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), whom David introduces to the family of his former nanny. More wild romances for Steerforth and David come but not without David's fortunes rising and falling and rising again until all is well.

This is the second Iannucci film I've seen, and now I find that his style is simply not to my liking. I was one of the few dissenting voices on The Death of Stalin, my major issue being the same that I have with The Personal History of David Copperfield: it is simply too aware that it is a "comedy". I'm not averse to a little winking at the audience, but both The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield simply held that they were funny by default and everyone behaved as such. I'm of the belief that comedy should flow naturally from the situations, which I did not find in David Copperfield.

The real problem for David Copperfield is that everything was far too frenetic and frantic, going so fast through what I imagine is a massive novel that more than once I wondered "who are these people and why should we care?" Take for example when Mr. Micawber appears in David's classroom much to his horror. 

He had already told his friends all about his adventures with Mr. Micawber when he appears, and in what appears to be the fastest hiring and firing in school history our hapless but endearing miscreant is let go within maybe ten minutes of entering the school when Steerforth exposes him to the whole class. The audience gets a series of whiplashes as David Copperfield races from scene to scene to where at times you become, not lost but more puzzled at to who is who and what is what.

In his time at the bottling company we are introduced to two characters whom I called "Whisperer" and "Repeater" because I don't think we ever got their names and these were their only defining characteristics. I figure the fact that one whispered and the other repeated what was said was meant to be funny. It wasn't at least to me.

It was however, the major issue with David Copperfield: we had to rush past so much that there wasn't time to develop anything close to interest, let alone a grounding as to the characters. A major element of David's persona is that his eyesight goes blurry whenever he's asked to read something in public. Perhaps in the novel this is important, but in the film version it seems so much filler.

David Copperfield's big claim to fame is its color-blind casting, and I'm of two minds of it. To its credit you do forget that David is an Indian or that the very white Steerforth's mother is black (Nikki Amuka-Bird). It's an interesting experiment that doesn't work completely: I did wonder why not cast an Far East Asian actress to play Agnes, the daughter to Mr. Wickfield (Benedict Wong) versus casting a black actress (Rosalind Eliazar) for the role. 

It's a simultaneously good and bad step: good in that allows a wider variety of actors to play roles, bad in that the casting at times seems haphazard with no real rhyme or reason other than to have a diverse casting. It also doesn't help that because everything is so rushed we can't appreciate the skills of much of the minority actors save for Wong, who was quite delightful as our inebriated Wickfield. Amuka-Bird appears at most in three scenes, and she appeared so overtly broad in the snobbish "comedy" that it gave the viewer no insight into her skills.

As a side note, I am puzzled as to why when we, I think correctly, celebrate color-blind casting in film we are simultaneously told that there can be no color-blind casting in animation. Perhaps wiser people can explain why only black actors can voice black cartoon characters at the same time black actors can play non-black live-action characters (as I figure Dickens did not picture Agnes Wickfield as black). 

Patel was pleasant enough as the wide-eyed David, though he ended up being a bit boring to where one wonders why anyone would care about his life story. Capaldi, Laurie and Swinton were standouts in their varied whacked-out characters even if at times they were a bit broad for my tastes. Whishaw was somewhat comically creepy as Uriah Heep (and yes, the band was the first thing that came to mind) but I wasn't overwhelmed by him, again most likely due to the rushed nature of the film. I was never sure if I should take him seriously or not as the villain, especially as he became the villain quickly versus gradually.

The Personal History of David Copperfield certainly thinks it's clever as it speeds through its story, but despite never having read the novel I imagine the book is much deeper and richer than this adaptation. The film is too fast to be a good adaptation, rushing through things and at times almost forgetting where it is. It is also too broad and self-aware for my tastes...but the costumes were nice.   


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pretty Maids All In A Row: A Review (Review #1420)


I figure that Pretty Maids All in a Row was meant as either a sex farce or a murder mystery. Maybe the people behind it thought they could blend the two into something witty, risque and silly. Sadly, they failed by a long shot.

Ocean Front High School is in the middle of various crises. There's randy guidance counselor/football coach Mike "Tiger" McGrew (Rock Hudson) who is schtupping every pretty maid he can lay his hands on. Then there's the murder of pretty little cheerleader Jill, whose body is found in the boy's room by Ponce (John David Carson). Carson not only has the unfortunate luck of finding Jill's body, but he is going through severe sexual tension, the parade of pretty young things that cause his uncontrollable erections.

McGrew takes Ponce under his wing and arranges for sexy substitute Miss Smith (Angie Dickinson) to help Ponce overcome his sexual issues. The body count keeps going up, frustrating Captain Surcher (Telly Savalas). He knows what we already know: Tiger is the serial killer, but he just can't prove it. Ponce can, but will he live to boink Miss Smith again?

Pretty Maids All in a Row is the only film Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wrote specifically for the screen, and whether many a Trekker/Trekkie can relate to Ponce is something I will leave up to individuals. I do wonder whether Roddenberry in adapting Francis Pollini's novel failed to get whatever he saw in it. Granted, I have never even heard of the novel but Pretty Maids All in a Row is incapable of balancing the sex farce and murder mystery stories.

The imbalance is due because Roddenberry's script and Roger Vadim's directing shift wildly from one to the other. You have the sexual hijinks of Miss Smith and then what is supposed to be a series of shocking murders. Some of the actors attempt to play up the farce aspect: Roddy McDowell (!) as the addled Principal, Keenan Wynn as the idiot Police Chief.

Others, however, appear to think they are in a serious drama: Savalas plays things thoroughly straight. This makes Pretty Maids All in a Row muddled and confused, not to mention nowhere near as funny or witty as it thinks it is. 

Dickinson I think did her best but sometimes it is far too obvious that she is playing up the comic temptress far too much. No one could knock her knockers on a boy's face without noticing, but she does it at least twice. You can't utter the line "You don't think I'm going to eat you?" to a kid she knows has erection issues without seeing the double entendre.

Rock Hudson, middle aged spread and all, is rather creepy when he's bedding teenage girls, the porn mustache adding an extra layer of oddity to the proceedings. He plays it as though he knows all this is garbage or he somehow lost his way after Doris Day. 

Curiously, at the end when he is found out as the killer by Ponce we see that he can be surprisingly menacing, and it's a shame that Pretty Maids All in a Row tried to play a lot of this for laughs when a more straightforward murder mystery might have allowed Hudson a greater performance.

Carson, I thought, was effective as the bumbling virgin and about the only person who seemed to get that murder is a serious business. It wasn't a great performance but on the whole serviceable.

Perhaps the oddest curiosity in Pretty Maids All in a Row is that the theme Chilly Winds is sung by of all people The Osmonds. It's a strange blending: the squeaky-clean Mormons singing to a tale of wanton sex and murder. 

Pretty Maids All in a Row is tawdry and tacky, like a B-level porn film where all the sex is taken out, something that might have popped up on USA Up All Night. It's not funny when it thinks it is, it's not interesting when it thinks it is. It's just there.