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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The New Mutants: A Review (Review #1419)


I don't think I would have imagined that a film that had been held back for three years would be the film to almost essentially reopen cinemas after the COVID-19 pandemic/panic. However, if 2020 has shown us anything, it is that this year things are completely bonkers. The New Mutants is not a good movie, but tales of it being a horror or a disaster are grossly exaggerated. 

After her reservation is wiped out, Native American teen Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finds herself in a hospital that specializes in mutants, people with specialized physical powers. Under the watchful but benevolent eyes of Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), Danni slowly starts accepting her situation. There are four other teens in the hospital: an enemy in the Russian Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy) but a friend in Irish Catholic Rahne (Maisie Williams). There's also Kentucky hick Sam (Charlie Heaton) and hot Brazilian Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga).

As we keep flashing back to their pasts, we find that there is an evil force chasing after each of them. We also see that things may not be what they appear to be, that perhaps these new mutants are not being prepared for a future as X-Men, but instead part of a secret sinister corporation bent on using them for their own nefarious plans. Danielle herself may be unwittingly the source of the danger, putting her in danger herself. The kids now join forces against their enemies to save themselves and find their true purpose.

The New Mutants is almost delightfully misguided because it does not play as a feature film. Instead, it plays like the opening to the planned/hoped-for trilogy the film was meant to create. We get not a real story but introduction to the characters who are thrown into a situation close to a surprisingly short running time.

With perhaps one exception these are not characters but types. Roberto's main characteristic is his hotness (literal and figurative). Sam's main characteristic is his hick accent. Apart from that we kind of forget to give them personalities or anything close to interesting roles.

It may be a positive that The New Mutants sidelines the men to focus slightly more on the women, but even then the actresses are given so little to work with apart from one-note characters (Rahne: guilt-ridden, Illyana: angry, Danielle: frightened, Dr. Reyes: stern) that they become dull. 

A lot of The New Mutants is surprisingly cheap-looking, probably because the film is dominated by grays and the very small cast. The climatic battle is not great but serviceable, nothing exceptional but nothing horrible. I can see the actors really doing their best but sometimes it felt as if they did fend for themselves.

In a lot of ways, The New Mutants felt like The Breakfast Club blended with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and threw in a superhero veneer on it. There's really little here: a little teen drama, a little superhero world building, hints and bits of things to come that will never come.

Out of the cast Maisie Williams is the best, her conflicted emotions of guilt about her powers colliding with deep Catholic faith a well-acted role. It's curious that while Rahne feels guilty about causing a death, her lesbianism mixing with her Catholicism does not, or at least appears to. The Rahne-Danielle romance seems a trifle tentative but it gives Williams and Blu their best moments.

Apart from that though I think the actors did their best with what they had. The men fared worse: Heaton's Southern accent a bit comical and Zaga all but disappearing for long stretches, with his only real sequence being an obligatory shirtless scene. Braga I think tried to be serious but she all but signals "I'M DANGEROUS!".

I am mercifully too unaware of these characters to offer views on the controversies over Roberto being "whitewashed" (I understand in the comics he's Afro-Brazilian vs the lighter-skin but still Brazilian Zaga), Danielle also being "lighter" in skin tone or the Rahne-Danielle romance not being more prominent. All this I figure would bother those who know the characters, but those of us unaware would not give it any thought.

The New Mutants feels more like a television pilot than a film, let alone the opening of a new franchise. The actors really tried their best but director/co-writer Josh Boone (writing with Knate Lee) did not give them or the audience much to work with. Whether people want to risk going to theaters in-person to see The New Mutants is up to individuals. I took the risk and hope to be with you in two weeks time. 

It's worth a rental if there is nothing else to see, but don't expect much.