Fences

Sometimes life, responsibilities, and priorities conspire to prevent me from seeing a film I “should” see in the theater. Such was the case with Fences, which was often my number two choice to see, and never managed to make it to number one. While I felt disadvantaged in terms of dialogue with others, especially during awards season, there is often a benefit to seeing something outside of the context of hype, others’ opinions, and awards.

While it’s unfair to say that the emperor has no clothes, it is fair to say that the royal robes found by others turn out to be more of a linen undergarment. Its themes are momentous, wide and often moving, but the film itself has significant problems. Some of those problems arise from its origin on the stage. This is based on August Wilson’s 1985 play of the same name, the sixth of the playwright’s 10-cycle “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play (as well as acting awards), this is a highly regarded and respected work, and therein lies some its challenges as it made its way to being filmed.

First though, its high point is another magnificent performance by Viola Davis. The film gives her every opportunity to display her talents, and she makes full use of them. As seen in some previous films (Doubt especially), no one ugly-cries like Davis. She’s not afraid to look bad, or off-kilter or complicated. To use an overworked word, it’s a stunning performance, and well deserving of all the awards she received.

Denzel Washington, star and director, fares less well. As a star, Washington is deeply loved by the viewing audience and the Hollywood community. He has star power and always grabs the screen. I believe he’s won certain awards because of who he is and not because of the performance. But he’s only a good actor, not a great one, and between the theatrical origins of his performance and a character that doesn’t quite fit the actor, what we see is the acting, not the character. He thunders, berates, and reminisces in fine fashion, but it’s the writing of his part that keeps things in bounds more than his locking down on his character. He’s at his best when he’s not declaiming and dressing down, but when he has a single line here and there that doesn’t carry the weight of the longer addresses.

The film may well go down as a film-school example of the difficulties in adapting a theatrical work for the screen. Fences reminded me of the problems with the cinematic versions of Phantom of the Opera, and to a lesser extent, Les Misérables. There was such misplaced fidelity to the original that the films (which I’m sure were creatively bound by contract to keep in almost every last note of music) ended up becoming music videos, or “filmizations” of the original stage work.

For Fences, there is a similar problem, but with words, words, words instead of notes. Yes, the words are glorious, but they were written for the stage, to be proclaimed in a live setting, with every theatrical convention in place around them. The words are all a part of the slight unreality that is the stage, and the obvious respect for them has hurt the film. There has been a good deal of criticism that this is a stagey film, and some have counted this as a blessing, as it preserves the essence of the original work. Yes, and so do those live video productions of operas and musicals.

Washington helped mount a highly touted Broadway production of the play in 2010, and he and Davis starred in it to great acclaim and Tony Awards. His support for the play, and then the film to follow, may well have been what opened the door for the film version to be made. Washington’s decision to direct may have opened the door to production, but also limited the final product.

But back to the screenplay. There were apparently small changes made from the play, but it was Wilson himself who wrote the screenplay before his early death in 2005. It didn’t veer far from the play, and it should have. Wilson was clearly not a filmmaker, and the occasional camera movement, montage sequence, or close-up can’t hide the fact that at this point, Washington is not much of one, either. His direction is serviceable at best, and what he’s serving are Wilson’s words and his and Davis’ performances. Again, that’s a great focus for the stage; for a film, not so much. The film opens, for example, with such a barrage of verbiage from Washington’s character that it overpowers the frame (and thus the viewer). That power likely rocked a theater audience. Here, it tends to either push away the viewers, or dull their senses, or both. Nearly every scene goes on too long, either a little or a lot. The story itself is buried under the words and the filmmakers’ dedication to them, and is never allowed to emerge cinematically in all its pain, power, and perspective—a tragic loss. It’s clear that the filmmakers revere the play, and that reverence handicapped the work as it made its way into a film.

In spite of the authority of its insight into the world of 1950’s black America, racism, marriage, fathers and sons, and many other worthy topics, this film is finally a vessel for some commanding words and one great and a few good performances. It’s also a classic example of what too much respect for the source material looks like.

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Victoria and Abdul

The greatest service this new trifle from director Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) offers is to put forth a cinematic version of a hitherto unknown story of Queen Victoria’s friendly relationship with a much younger Indian man. The real story itself is rich with racial and caste prejudice; more politics than any one film could hold regarding Britain, India, and their connection; and possibilities of a unique exploration of age, friendship, and intrigue in the world of the royals.

Instead, the film follows the pattern of Frears’ latest film before this, Florence Foster Jenkins, beginning as amusing farce (though might to feel guilty about whom and what we are laughing at, especially the two Muslim women that arrive in the second half—badly done) and moving into more serious fare in the second half. The film opens promisingly enough with light fun being poked at both the British at the end of the 19th century and the Indians. The Brits and Indians both have reason to look upon one another as barbarians, and the opening lines about the film being based on a true story—mostly—seems to promise something of a romp through what could be a deadly serious study of an aging, lonely queen and the complications of a Muslim (“I thought he was a Hindu”) lower-caste interloper who may or may not have been what he seemed, tossing a rigid and judgmental circle of sycophants into a tizzy.

The serious possibilities are indeed introduced, one by one, almost as tough medicine that should only be administered in spoonfuls. Then they are dropped nearly as quickly as they are introduced. (Spoiler alerts galore….) Yes, he’s Muslim, not Hindi, which mistake could have been a ripe field for exploration. Oh, yes, he’s married (now we hear this?) Yet bigger revelations await, and their lack of follow-up is the film’s biggest mistake. He has gonorrhea, which is announced with gusto, and is never explained nor dealt with past the shock. And perhaps most ridiculous of all, he turns out to lie about the role of the Muslims in India during a certain event that is fascinating from a personal and political point of view, but which is dropped like a hot potato, which perhaps current political correctness determined it was.

The acting veers from solid to overblown. If this was Dame Judi Dench’s first film appearance, she would be hailed all over the world and name-dropped into nearly every Oscar Best Actress discussion. But this is Dench, after all, who has already won an Oscar for playing a queen and who played Victoria not all that long ago. So it might be tempting for the viewer not to notice how precise she is, how skillfully she attacks every scene, lovingly developing her character from sleepily and uninvolved to awakening and engaged to feisty and fierce. It’s a (typically) masterful performance unmatched by those around her, and set in a film that doesn’t deserve it.

Ali Fazal plays Abdul Karim, the young Indian who makes his way into the Queen’s heart and, uncomfortably for everyone else, her inner circle. He is tall and handsome, which might have been all he had to offer. But while he can’t match Dench’s work, he brings an easy connection with her in their scenes together that presents the likely connection that the Queen so enjoyed. He treats her as an equal while still recognizing her position, and a few of their scenes together demonstrate what a breath of fresh air he must have been for a tired queen surrounded by people waiting for her to die (no comment on any current situation across the pond…).

Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard and the legendary Michael Gambon all tend to chew the scenery as they surround Dench, but it may well be the writing of their parts and the direction that is to blame. Perhaps their innate talent kept their parts from being even more overblown than they are.

The saving grace of the film is the newness and surprise of the story itself. For those like myself, learning a new (mostly true) tale is of historical interest, and anything Dench does is always enjoyable to watch. It’s what the film fails to investigate that harms it. It fails to follow up on things that it announces with a flourish, and the darker aspects of Karim’s personality—his self-advancement, lies, and manipulation—are disappointingly not explored. Probably the best lines in the film come from his friend and servant Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), who begins as the silly-but-funny comic second lead, and then has a marvelous moment ripping the British Empire to verbal shreds as he admits to the Queen’s advisors that while Karim is indeed self-interested, he is no more so than they.

Frears began his career with hard-edged films (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters) about less than reputable people. His more recent work, including The Queen and Florence Foster Jenkins, but also Philomena and Mrs Henderson Presents, presents a softer and lighter touch with jokes in Part One and moving into somewhat darker territory in Part Two. Unfortunately, the “softer and lighter touch” translates a bit too often into superficiality and inconsistency of tone; it comes across as pandering. Dench is the main reason to see the film; for those for whom that is not enough, a Google search into the story will suffice.

 

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The Lost City of Z

Finally caught up with what many critics considered one of the great films—as well as one of the most unsung—of 2016, though it wasn’t released in the US until 2017. It was stunningly beautiful, slow but in the best sense, and the kind of film seldom made anymore. It “tells” the true story of South American explorer Percy Fawcett, a British explorer whose yearning for lost civilizations made him famous, put extraordinary pressures on his family, and may have cost him his life.

Writer/director James Gray (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) approaches his material like a modern-day David Lean, taking his time and not being afraid of painting on a large canvas. The images are often breathtaking, and remind home viewers like the author that watching certain films should be limited to seeing them in the theater. No home screen—no matter how large—could do justice to the images he creates and to the effect he is working to create.

Those images, too, are not just pretty pictures, but are part of the film’s total objective. For this is not the tale of an explorer—a specific person—as much as a story of exploration at a certain time in history, its highs and lows, and what an increasing drive to explore and discover can do. The camera stays at a distance throughout, keeping us viewing the lush greenery, majestic mountains, and groups of men working together, but also keeping us from a more sympathetic connection with our main character. We see what Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) goes through, and we alternately approve or judge this determined and flawed man, but we don’t get into his life. We view what happens, but just don’t connect with it.

Certainly this has to do with Gray’s long takes and camera distance, which keep the focus on the physical environment rather than the emotional journey of our main characters. The lack of connection may also have to do with Hunnam’s performance. This is the second film (the first being King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) that starred Hunnam and failed at the box office, delaying and perhaps halting his journey to dramatic leading man status. Hunnam, perhaps known best for television’s Sons of Anarchy and for having the good sense to walk away from Fifty Shades of Grey after landing the lead, was here directed to keep a slow pace and stay British. He reacts internally in many a scene that could have been more externally expressive. His only shouting is with his peers back in England, but it’s dignified and strong without being personally dramatic. Between the look of the film and Hunnam’s performance, it’s hard to be drawn into Fawcett’s own internal journey.

The big surprise is the fine work done by Robert Pattison, who with his co-star Kristen Stewart has done the near-impossible in throwing off the memory and stench of the Twilight vampire series. Both have shown themselves as capable of doing fine work recently. Pattison is almost unrecognizable beneath his beard and as a fine supporting character here—the most important in the film. Sienna Miller, fresh from playing the long-suffering wife whose husband is away for too long in American Sniper, here plays a long-suffering wife whose husband is away for too long. But there is a century of time between the parts, and this chameleon-like actress slips right into the early twentieth century while staying surprisingly progressive in her character’s thinking. Tom Holland (title role in Spider-Man: Homecoming) plays the “grown-up” version of Fawcett’s oldest son. Only 19 when the film was made, Holland, whose slight frame and young face worked for his character’s high school setting in the Spider-Man film, goes from looking quite younger than 19 to looking quite older than that—a feat for any actor, but especially for one so young.

Something that does begin to bring some dramatic excitement to the film is the surprise development of a villain, a fellow explorer named James Murray. This secondary story pumps some life into the film, but then ends up giving the film an imbalance as we boo and hiss this character and his outrageous actions, but are not allowed an equal connection with our purported hero. The film begins to veer off-kilter as this side story develops, but ultimately this subplot doesn’t derail it. But it does makes one wonder why the rest of the film couldn’t have been as emotionally engaging.

Gray has made a classic film in a classic style, and has evidently chosen to pull back from too much emotional connection with his main character. Some may complain that a little editing (it’s two hours and 21 minutes), a faster pace, and a more character-driven cinematic approach may have yielded a more popular film. That’s probably true, yet that would be another film entirely. But with a budget of $30 million and a take of just a little more than $8 million, it may be a while before we see something similar. And if we do, let’s choose to see it in a movie theater, where many beautiful and timeless, and yes, old-fashioned, films like this belong.

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Another of my websites is kicking into gear again

Dear Everyone: I’m re-presenting my “other” website, www.dedicatedtogrammar.com, starting next week. It’s for professionals and students that want to speak and write correctly, and not sound dumb! It’s been a while since I paid attention to it, and I’ve noticed in passing (!) that things haven’t gotten any better. So, in the spirit of near-futile perseverance, but with naive hope in my heart, I’m kicking it off again next week. Want to get a weekly entry that helps you sound and write better? Check out www.dedicatedtogrammar.com and sign up. First entry is next Tuesday!

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The Salesman (Iranian, 2016)

For MSM, “my Persian son”

The Salesman is the newest film from Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi, creator and Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Film) for 2011’s A Separation. As with A Separation, The Saleman is a meticulously crafted, well-acted film with moments of intense dramatic impact. Unlike A Separation, The Salesman tries to do a bit too much, and ultimately can’t quite decide what kind of a film it wants to be.

The film opens on a set, which provides a near-meta moment for the viewer that sends the head in a few different directions. Then the set turns out to be a stage set, not a film set, and we open with the Grand Suggestion of a metaphor. Oh, they’re doing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (now of course I’m remembering the film’s title, and wondering….) and I am signaled that there will be a connection between the events/themes of the play and what I’m about to see as a film. That’s a lot of weight to put on a film from its onset.

Because “reviews” of films seem to have to regurgitate the plot, I will oblige to an extent, for a reason. There is an apartment that our leads need to move into because their apartment building is cracking and needs to be evacuated (a rather imposing metaphor for what—Iran, the government, the lives of the principals?). Their new apartment used to be the home of a loose woman that draws a visit by someone who doesn’t know there are new tenants. With some discretion and the use of a Hitchcockian shot, we are led to an awareness of a violent, and perhaps sexually violent, act, and begin to see the film as a drama about violence and its aftermath–in this case its effect on a marriage, a stage production, friendships, etc. But then the film evolves into something different, which viewers will have to discover for themselves. Narratively, and emotionally, the twists and turns of the story veer from its original storyline to encompass a whole new story, one that isn’t just indicated, but explored, nearly making for short film within the film.

The film has a realist flavor, combining the modern realist cinematic approach of the Dardenne brothers (L’Enfant; The Kid on the Bike; Deux Jours, Une Nuit) with classic Hollywood editing patterns that keep the drama moving and the style from becoming too self-conscious. The acting is uniformly strong, with even the minor players playing fully lived-in characters who never come near playing either stock or stereotype (especially Babak Karimi as Babak). Shahab Hosseini as the male lead is the standout, holding the film together playing a slightly entitled, intelligent, talented man who is revealed to be less emotionally mature than either he or anyone around him thought. Tareney Alidoosti plays a necessarily more recessive role as wife and victim, but one who ultimately gains an emotional strength as the film moves into its “second story.”

It’s unfair, but the film suffers from its comparison to the superior A Separation, which focused its drama more simply, but allowed the viewer moment after moment of discovery and connection in a way this film doesn’t. That film’s “themes” were more subdued, less obvious, and were submerged under the narrative. Here, the metaphors start in the first minute, and continue to pull the viewer out of the admittedly strong story as we wonder if we’re watching a drama (and which kind—family, marital, crime?), an artistic stage-film compare-and-contrast expression, a socio-political commentary on the distrust of law enforcement in Iran, or a meditation on the power and effects of revenge on the soul and relationships. And then of course, are we to take in Shakespeare’s dictum that “all the world’s a stage,” etc., and apply that to what we’re seeing? Finally, the accumulated weight of all these connections and suggestions tend to dilute the focus and impact of the film, which nevertheless, even in its disparate directions, still manages to finish out with impact and a certain depth.

Farhadi has admitted that his love of theatre had led him to want to combine that love and expression with a film story. It’s been done well over the years by many others. Here, it’s not quite the most elegant fit, and with the several other dramatic and thematic shifts, has resulted, with all its stylistic confidence and uniformly excellent acting, in a film that has been too weighed down and bent just a little out of shape.

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Dunkirk

Dunkirk is extraordinary. It’s a film, yes (a real film, but more on that later), but also an event and an experience. It should be seen in IMAX if at all possible, as with much of director Christopher Nolan’s previous work, it needs to be experienced as a gestalt of sound, image, and thought.

As most would know before seeing it, Dunkirk covers the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France to England in one of the most dramatic military withdrawals of all time. Nolan presents the story from three perspectives: the traditional divisions of land, sea, and air. But he puts a different time frame on each story, presenting the stories in one week, one day, and one hour, which makes for added energy and occasional confusion; Dunkirk becomes our modern-day Intolerance, crossed with the scope and beauty of Lawrence of Arabia.

There are three groups or individuals followed in Nolan’s telling. We have three very young men, one of whom is virtually silent, and another of whom is One Direction’s Harry Styles. The last is Fionn Whitehead, who has been getting a great deal of press as “the lead” in the film. All three young actors are fine, but none has what one would call a breakout role. Nolan films have good performances, but these are director’s films.

The “one day” portion is headed by the wondrous Mark Rylance (upset Oscar winner for Bridge of Spies), a stage legend who thankfully has chosen to also work in films. Here he anchors (no pun intended) this segment with grace, intelligence and, to use an overused word, gravitas. Either he is the perfect choice for this part, or he is simply a great actor, or both. He also provides the heart of the film, a challenge in Nolan’s heady film world.

The third segment is centered on a pilot played by Tom Hardy, who is apparently making a habit of covering his face with some kind of mask for many of his roles lately. Perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated work in The Revenant and for his breakout role in Nolan’s Inception, Hardy has been facially covered up here, in Mad Max: Fury Road as the title character, and in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as the villain Bane. Hardy is an excellent actor who nearly singlehandedly carries the weight of the entire “air” segment of the film. With his strong screen presence, Hardy most definitely holds down his portion of the film.

The cinematography is, in a word, stunning. Much has been made of the film being actual film, and not video (a rarity these days), as well as how much of the film has been able to be captured on IMAX cameras, including many of the aerial shots. Much will be made of what Nolan has filmed and how he’s filmed it. Just when you thought the aerial scenes were the most spectacular you’d ever seen, Nolan brings you back to the land and his moody beach scenes, and you realize it’s strange, evocative and beautiful all at once. The film is our latest reminder of how good film can look.

Nolan has almost always been more head than heart, and I was just about sure his approach would keep the film solidly in the cool registers of the intellect when he allowed for one true moment of emotion. It didn’t last long and it was underplayed, and almost any other director would have made this moment the climax of their film, or would have built upon the moment. But at least there was a flash of warmth to help balance Nolan’s Brechtian visual and aural style. There were other touching moments, as with one gracious communication to a soldier suffering from

PTSD. But Nolan tends to stay in the realm of the intellect and, with a soundtrack that occasionally overwhelms the dialogue and can shake the viewer, in the realm of the physically experiential.

Familiar faces abound, but the level of acting is so high that one can soon forget the actor for the character. Cillian Murphy has a key role, as does Kenneth Branagh, whose legendary status as an actor/director works with his particular character. The underrated actor James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch), who can pretty much do anything, disappears into his role as one of the leaders. And Will Attenborough (grandson of director/actor Richard Attenborough) adds yet one more proof that this is one of the most accessible, relatable and warm-hearted young actors working today.

The scope of the film is huge on one hand, covering three stories with three different chronologies. And the visuals of land, sea, and air make for striking panoramic images. And yet the film is strangely truncated as well. While Branagh’s character makes some remarks that fit the huge rescue endeavor in the context of the war, Nolan provides strangely little context for this historic operation. We need to remind ourselves, as Nolan doesn’t, that this was a key moment in “the good war,” when the fight for civilization against a madman was raging, and no one knew what would happen.

If A Bridge Too Far covered the greatest European defeat of the war for the Allies, Dunkirk covered its biggest retreat. Yet we walk away with the story of Dunkirk as less a great historical moment as one experienced simply through two small groups (land and sea) and one individual (air). The personal approach is a valid one for any historical event (e.g., Mrs. Miniver), but Nolan doesn’t dig deep into the personal stories of his main characters. We get some insight into Rylance’s character’s personality and his depth of intelligence and compassion, but little into his personal story. So we are left viewing (and listening!) to these three sets of stories at something of a dispassionate distance. We are provided with some of the most amazing images film has ever offered, but Nolan’s three-part structure and his objective distance from his material tends to keep us, in spite of the occasional touching moment and dazzling shot, a bit detached emotionally.

Prediction: Like Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Alejandro Iñárritu (The Revenant), and Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Nolan may well win the Best Director Oscar next year for his technical achievement while his brilliant but cool picture comes up short in the Best Picture category. Dunkirk may not warm your heart, but it will stimulate your mind and rouse your senses. Whether or not you’re a WWII aficionado, the film is a must-see.

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The Big Sick

I’ve been telling my film students for the last 20 years that they have been raised during one of the worst periods for romantic comedies in film history. I’ve encouraged them to pretty much ignore what passes for both comedy and romance in films made in their lifetimes, and to go back to the last years of the last century and the first couple of years of this one to find some good ones (though I still claim the best were from the ’30s and ‘40s). The Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan/Billy Crystal days have some good offerings, as well as my personal favorite during that time—Notting Hill.

Now, finally, there is a romantic comedy that works. It shouldn’t—it has too may disparate elements, too many subplots, and a variety of acting styles. Yet it all holds together as one of the best romantic comedies in ages.

A warning to those hoping for a PG- or PG-13 film. This is essentially a PG-13 film with a number of f-bombs, especially in the first half, that have turned it into an R. If that’s a deal-breaker, avoid it.

For the rest of the viewing audience, this is (finally!) an intelligent, genuinely funny, genuinely touching film. Directed by Michael Showalter and produced by Judd Apatow (but don’t let that dissuade you), the film stars Pakistani-American actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote the script with wife Emily V. Gordon, who crafted a fictionalized version of their relationship (and its manifold cultural and family difficulties). The title is something of a spoiler, but the more serious aspects of the film bring both a real-world depth and a context for the humor, which veers from cute and delightful to breathtakingly outrageous.

The humor comes from a multitude of directions, starting with the flirty back-and forth between the two leads (the female lead, Emily, being the adorable Zoe Kazan). Stand-up figures in a great deal of the film, as the lead character is a developing stand-up comedian (also named Kumail). The semi-skewed, semi-snarky humor of the stand-up permeates the film, and provides the most cinematically significant marriage of stand-up and film language since the groundbreaking Annie Hall. Most films featuring stand-up comics merely shoehorn them into “funny” situations; here the humor arises from the comic perspectives that draw forth humor laughs and from any number of situations throughout the narrative. It’s what makes this film continually funny and unpredictable even through some rather conventional romantic stumbling blocks.

Perhaps the least expected but most valuable subplot involves the introduction of Emily’s parents, the powerful team of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. They have reason to be hesitant about Kumail when “the big sick” occurs, but they bring their own quite hefty baggage with them. Hunter, as always, is a force of nature, and she more than convincingly portrays a woman who will not be denied. For those not paying attention the last few years, the big surprise is Ray Romano, who just as convincingly plays a father in pain and with a boatload of regrets. His comic skills are used at times, but much less than one might think. It’s the kind of surprise performance that in a weak year might be touted for Best Supporting Actor.

The film almost tries for too much, covering too many people’s stories and heading down too many side streets. But due to Nanjiani’s charm and Showalter’s sure directorial hand, the film holds together. Comically, this is a brave film in how far out on a limb it occasionally goes, but it doesn’t feel brave, just enjoyable. If you, like me, have been waiting a long time for a funny, heartfelt, fresh romantic comedy, your wait is over.

 

 

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