Late Night

Late Night is, well, occasionally diverting. Much of the promotion for the film has focused on the fact that current star Mindy Kaling wrote this specifically for legendary actress Emma Thompson, as if that fact had value in and of itself. What does have value is that Thompson actually made the film, and generally helps to make the film come as alive as it ever does.

The film is a updated version of The Devil Wears Prada set in television land. Thompson in the Streep role plays a late-night talk show host resting on her laurels who has been losing viewers steadily over the last decade. When she decides she must have a female writer on her all-male writing staff to re-engage her audience, lucky Mindy Kaling, who has just applied for a job on her team, gets hired. Kaling wrote the script, and it features many of her patented quips that tend to focus on the snarky, and which often elevate a scene by one last quick and funny phrase just when you think the scene has ended. The plot is predictable and threadbare, however, and except for one slight surprise (if you’re not paying close attention), you can see every turn coming a mile away.

There is also something of a tension between the screenplay and the direction. Director Nisha Ganatra, a filmmaker best known for her work in television, often seems to direct at a pace that is slower and therefore at odds with the verbal rhythms of the screenplay, particularly the snappy dialogue. Scenes are sometimes too slowly paced or go on for too long, and Kaling’s rhythms are sacrificed. (Kaling’s scene with a possible romantic interest who is clearly already “busy” is embarrassing not so for the “oops, I made a goof coming here” plot point as for how long it takes our supposedly sharp lead to get a clue.)

Thompson is a very good actress, yet not quite in the league of the “can’t do anything wrong British actresses” like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith. She almost nails the character, yet you can see her acting in the more outlandish and dramatic moments that don’t quite seem to come from her center. As an actress, Kaling is decent, and her moments of sincerity and earnestness—which are comically mocked by Thompson’s character—are well played and believable.  Her range is limited, but the film doesn’t give her anything to do that is beyond her. What is beyond belief is her storyline and her character’s developing closeness with a powerful late-night host. This is supposed to be based on Kaling’s experiences as the “token diversity hire” on “The Office,” but the credibility of the basic plot and several scenes stretches thinner and thinner as the film proceeds.

John Lithgow is credited as being in the film, but he’s alongside the film rather than in it, as if all his scenes were done off-line and at a different time. He doesn’t have to work particularly hard in the film, but the ways his scenes were filmed and cut in separate him even further than how the story presents him. Hugh Dancy (spoiler alert) as the office Romeo and cad is generally accepted due to the actor’s skill and personal charm, but the film demands that he function more as a plot point than a character at times, and the film is the weaker for it.

Probably the best male performance is by Tony winner Denis O’Hare, who brings a warmth and world-weariness to his role on the team that helps keep the film grounded and Thompson’s character from occasionally flying off the frame.

What the film is actually trying to say or portray isn’t always apparent, and actually is quite incomprehensible at times. Is this a story of success through hard work—when her big break is nearly beyond belief? Is it a sly take on Emma Thompson trying to gain younger viewers by pairing herself with Mindy Kaling? (I personally vote no on that, but the similarities are unnerving.) Is this an old-fashioned feminist and/or racial statement about the imbalance of power between white men and women, especially women of color? Or is this a simple success story about a hard-working, clever minority woman with a little romance thrown in that taps on all these issues without really digging too deeply into any of them? (I vote yes on that one.)

While the journey that Kaling’s character takes is not always believable but is always predictable, Thompson’s character apparently needs to get out of her rut, get real, and get woke. Unfortunately for the viewer and the film’s grosses, the supposed brave and breakout moment comes with a musty political stab and a plug for a particular “health” association that destroys young human life and often sells their body parts. (Did I just write that?) It’s divisive and is a classic example of Hollywood playing to itself. There are going to be many wondering how and why this film bombed. There is plenty to look at, but one might at least begin here.

The other scene is Thompson’s character’s “come clean” speech, which is supposed to be brave (again) and revelatory, and which supposedly resurrects her wounded career. It seems at first like it might make sense, and then ultimately doesn’t, and the rousing standing O it receives feels forced, to say the least. Then the last scene is what supposedly occurs in her writing and other staff after a year–an improbable collection of candidates that look like a Benneton ad of 10 years ago or a group hired simply for their contribution to someone’s idea of diversity.

In all, the film succeeds best as a vehicle for Kaling’s varied talents and a demonstration of the skills of one of our better supporting actors (O’Hare). Story-wise and message-wise, however, it feels easily predictable and oh, so yesterday.

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The King of Kings (1927)

First of all, apologies for how long it’s been. I’ve seen lots of movies, some old and a few new, but have been too busy with other activities. I hope this gets me back in the groove!

So I stepped back into my time machine and went back nearly a century to finally see what many believe is the ultimate film about Jesus Christ, the 1927 The King of Kings. Of course, there was the 1961 version starring Jeffrey Hunter, sometimes referred to as “I Was a Teenage Jesus” (in mock reference to Hunter’s youth and teen idol status and to 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf). And there was 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, featuring John Wayne as the centurion speaking the famous “Surely this man was the Son of God” line in his inimitable style.

Both those more modern films were respectful toward their main character, but none quite had the worshipful veneration of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent classic. And of course none had the strange dichotomy of a real DeMille classic—that rare combination of lush sensuality and a genuine holy reverence toward the religious. The film opens with a rather raucous soiree hosted by Mary Magdalene, here a party girl rather than a prostitute. Historical accuracy has already taken a hit with this scene, and receives another one rather quickly when we find that she has been “dating” Judas, and doesn’t like the idea of “a carpenter” stealing her man and his loyalties. So of course she hops in her zebra-driven chariot and rides off to confront Jesus. All this is in lovely two-strip Technicolor, a technology that highlighted red and green (blue had to wait eight more years to make an appearance), but which was stunning compared to most black-and-white films of the time. Once MM heads off to Jesus, the film reverts to black-and-white until the Resurrection.

There are some inaccuracies Biblically (as with Peter’s restoration), and the film dates itself terribly by having normal conversation be in King James English. Also, Jesus (H.B. Warner) is 50 years old (but admittedly looks younger), and Mary (Dorothy Cumming) is 18 years younger than the man who is supposed to be her son. But aside from these minor weaknesses, the film is powerful, inspiring, and a glimpse into the classic Protestant view of Jesus as viewed from the late 1800’s. The film skips the Nativity and all of Jesus’ pre-ministry life, and gains from the concentration on the later days.

DeMille generally directs with sensitivity when needed and sweep when it’s called for. By sticking close to a thoughtful Jesus always slightly set apart from the world around him, the film achieves a lovely and occasionally glorious portrait of a miracle worker, teacher, lover of children, and finally, a willing sacrifice. Looking at it through modern eyes, the slower pace of a silent film, as well as the absence of the spoken word and any natural sound, tends to keep the King of Kings at a slight remove from the everyday. Yet Warner’s performance and the general “ripped from the Bible story” approach makes this man familiar and relatable. The cinematography from J. Peverell Marley (whom DeMille used nearly 30 years later for The Ten Commandments) is stunning for its time. Yes, the Technicolor is a visual if temporary delight, but so is the way Jesus glows with a holy light, something that could have been nearly laughable but instead is soft and respectful. DeMille’s use of special effects is occasionally subtle (a word rarely associated with DeMille), and even when dramatic, as with the deliverance of Mary Magdalene from seven demons, is strong and effective.

The film uses the references in the Bible when it is directly representing a Biblical story, a feature that is helpful in locking down the various events in the Scriptures, and which sets those stories apart from the much more mundane (and often silly) plot point and scenes that were added.

Warner, best known to modern audiences as the pharmacist Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life, and to film nerds like myself as one of the “waxworks” that William Holden refers to in Sunset Boulevard, is a little long in the tooth here to play a 33-year-old. But he exudes a gentleness and strength, as well as a maturity, that works for the film. The special effects help a bit, but he has a presence that works well with the image of Jesus held by most American Protestants. Audiences used to The Passion of the Christ will find a great timidity in how Jesus is tortured and eventually crucified. But De Mille handles all this with a surprising delicacy and artistry. There is a lot we don’t see directly, and Jesus’ body is hardly wounded compared with modern film, but we more than get the idea.

This film was the standard story of Jesus and his death until the sixties, and some would rightly argue until Mel Gibson’s film. For most viewers today, the film would come off as corny and terribly slow. But while it is clearly a product of the silent era, with the acting styles and pace that go along with that, there is a reverence toward the subject and the Subject that is unparalleled. It’s the holiest and most respectful of religious time capsules.

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Avengers: Endgame

Image result for avengers endgame

I’ve been lax in writing lately, and for those who look for and enjoy what I write, my apologies. I’ve been busy working on other people’s scripts. I’ve also been seeing lots of films, including two 1938 classics (Only Angels Have Wings and You Can’t Take it with You), 1959’s Room at the Top, 1965’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, plus some little trifle called Captain Marvel, which wasn’t interesting enough to write about. Just didn’t have time to write about them.

But the behemoth of the year is Avengers: Endgame, which is more than a mere movie. It’s an event (as anticipated as a royal birth), a catalyst of far too many passionate discussions about people and events that aren’t real, and the culmination of a hugely successful series. (Its march to the top of the money heap is another story in itself, and worthy of discussion in other quarters).

I’ve tended to look at Avengers films as problem-solving cinematic machines that are challenged with having to give space and time to a variety of superheroes within the film itself, creating a recognizable universe, strategically introducing new characters along the way, and oh, yes, telling a story. And all that activity culminates in Endgame.

The emotional investment that most viewers are likely to bring to the film tends to override the film’s flaws (like the rather leisurely first hour), and can at least temporarily connect one to the film with love and nostalgia while viewing it, and then rethinking the experience with some misgivings later. The film is successful in giving every superhero his/her space, though no one will be completely happy that their faves didn’t get perhaps as much time as they would have liked. A friend and I agreed that there was not enough Chris Pratt or Spider-Man—our personal preference. Others may take issue with who lives and who (spoiler) dies. And of course that sweet, soft ending will likely be a point of contention for a while as well.

But the film succeeds as a whole. It brings everyone together, and though there is a sense of shoe-horning them in, every major character appears, sometimes at just the right moment. Again, the first reaction is joy at seeing another loved and temporarily forgotten character appear on screen; the second reaction, perhaps days later, is how dissonant these characters and worlds can be when they share a frame. As subgroups, they have been defined well, and they work well within their worlds. Lumped together, it’s a good thing they are in battle mode, as the fight scenes bring common cause to disparate heroes, and the energy of the fight scenes tends to distract us from noticing how the various superheroes and the worlds and values they represent don’t really gel.

I will confess that the grand explanation for how (spoiler alert again) the heroes can go back in time and undo Thanos’ nefarious deeds made my head hurt, and the doubling up of the characters in one time frame being visited by the same character from other time frame often left me confused. I’m sure some Avengers nerd (no offense meant—I’m nerdy about other things) might explain it from a place of full understanding. But I wouldn’t understand it (not being that deeply connected with the Marvel universe) and I don’t really care enough to make the effort. I was just happy they could get their friends back.

One thing I’ve always admired about the new wave of superhero films is the absolute commitment of the actors. No one phones it in, and good actors contribute good acting. Robert Downey, Jr. is a very good actor, and he is a standout among a solid group of performances. Let’s hope there is no going back to actors not giving their all in films like this.

What is a bit lumpy about the film are some of the choices made about the characters. Opening with Hawkeye and his family—why do that? Fat Thor? Some loved that; I am not among them. I wanted him to have a stronger presence and perhaps clash more with the others. Why did Peter Quill and Gamora get such little time together, especially when the film actually brings them together?

Bringing in Ant-Man and using him so significantly seemed a good creative choice, and limiting the confusing character and bland performer of Captain Marvel also seemed good. What she can and can’t do, and why she chose to do her thing so sporadically, was only stabbed at in the film, and ineffectively. But I’m glad she wasn’t a major presence in the film. I was also hoping that Peter Q. would redeem himself for all the chaos he contributed to in the previous film, but alas, such was not to be. What was in its place, however, worked, and helped bring the franchise around full circle; having Iron Man move from selfish to sacrificial in the first Iron Man film was repeated here, with more depth and much more resonance.

And yes, the final battle scene was gargantuan. But layered as it was with various superheroes making their arrivals when they did, it kept the viewer emotionally connected throughout, and prevented the battle scene from turning into a DC slugfest that goes on far too long.

There will be endless conversation around the artistic choices made here, as they nearly all involve characters that we love, love more, and love less. And what happens with all these characters is really at the heart of this franchise. Yes, there is an alternate universe with a Tesseract, wildly different rules from our universe, etc. But what has always counted are the characters, much more than the stories we find them in. Endgame is actually overstuffed with them, and most viewers will joyfully gorge themselves on their favorites.

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A Trip to the ‘30s: Peg O’ My Heart, Lady for a Day, Morning Glory, and King of Jazz

Saw a trio of films that turned to be central to the 1933 Best Actress race. Katherine Hepburn won her first Oscar for a somewhat strange performance in Morning Glory, playing an actress who goes from young, innocent, naïve, and quirky to a confident star.

She was up against May Robson, who gives an excellent and touching performance in one of Frank Capra’s earliest successes, Lady for a Day. (You may have heard the story of the Best Director Award being announced by Will Rogers, who just said, “Come and get it, Frank.” Capra was halfway up when he realized Rogers was speaking to Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade. Awkward.)

 

Peg O’ My Heart wasn’t nominated for anything, but the lead, Marion Davies, gave what many considered her most solid performance. Her much older and married lover, magnate William Randolph Hearst, apparently devoted a great deal of energy—pre-Harvey Weinstein—to try and secure her a nomination, as he rightly felt that this was her best work as well. But to no avail.

All three of these films are in that peculiar early talkie period where the camera hasn’t yet rediscovered its pre-sound freedom, and much of the action is played at a mid-range, with little movement and stage-like blocking of the actors. Capra’s film is by far the most sophisticated visually of the three, and Robson’s performance has echoes of the stage, but still feels fresh and engaging. It’s the corny story of a poor alcoholic who is believed to be high society by her overseas daughter until such daughter announces her engagement to a European aristocrat, and tells her mother she’s on her way to see her. Then she receives help from rather unscrupulous characters to pull off the charade of her being as high society as her daughter believes. Robert Riskin’s screenplay is full of energy and wit, even while the plot itself combines a creaky Damon Runyon central story with a dip into the occasionally wisecracking New York underworld. Riskin and Capra fared better the next year with Oscar wins for It Happened One Night, with awards for them as screenwriter and director, plus wins for leads Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, plus the Oscar for Best Picture.

Peg O’ My Heart’s best feature is Davies, who gets to show off her charisma and comic skills, too often hidden by Heart’s insistence that she be in stuffy costume dramas that didn’t suit her. The story had been filmed more than a decade earlier with Broadway legend Laurette Taylor in 1922, a film based on the play written for her by her husband a decade before that (Taylor was 38 when she played the teen in this film; Davies was 36.) Her co-star Onslow Stevens (yes, that’s his name) gives a compelling, naturalistic performance that is ahead of its time. He has star quality to beat the band and is leading man handsome, but in spite of a long acting career, never made the leap to full-fledged stardom. The film itself, like Lady for a Day, is a fish-out-of-water film, with country Irish Peg being forced to go live in London with rich relatives for reasons that seem more confusing as time goes on. The clash between fresh, stubborn and innocent Peg and her snooty rich relations is at the heart of the story, though the love story (such as it is) and her love for her father via for domination at times. As most of the Davies films, it’s primarily a showcase for Hearst’s admittedly talented paramour, but Davies makes the film hers, and it may well be her best sound film performance. The story is as creaky as Lady for a Day’s, and it “feels” more like a silent than the others mentioned here. Plus, it ends far too abruptly, raising interesting questions it doesn’t answer.

Morning Glory is perhaps the oddest of the three. Director Lowell Sherman, who was also a successful actor who made the transition to sound (e.g., 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, really the first of the A Star is Born films), directs in an old-fashioned manner in terms of camerawork and blocking. But he also elicits a modern performance from Hepburn, whose angular features, unique voice, and unusual vocal delivery make for an uneven but compelling performance; you can’t and don’t want to take your eyes off this strange creature. One could say she exhibits a broad acting range in the performance; others might say she was all over the place.

Up-and-coming son-of-legend Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays the male lead, and is pretty much eaten alive by Hepburn. He has a pleasant presence however, that helps balance the film. Adolph Menjou plays, well, Adolph Menjou, and happily, C. Aubrey Smith has a substantial role and helps to hold the film down to earth.

All the above films are worth seeing for their central female performances. Personally, I found Robson’s to be the most consistent, mature, and well-rounded. But seeing a silent (and controversial) star succeed so well in a talkie, and seeing a legend in her first Oscar-winning performance—well, also worth the time.

Lastly, there is the intriguing King of Jazz, which is firmly in a short “moment in time” period of film history, when talks often meant musicals, and film didn’t quite know what to do with its new abilities. This isn’t a musical, but a revue of songs, dance, and comedy routines put together in chapters. The central personage is Paul Whiteman, generally unknown today except for his introduction of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924. But for a time, he was the King of Jazz, and well known for it.

This is a Universal Film, but with an M-G-M look to it. It was hugely expensive for its time–$2 million, and it looks it. There are hints of Busby Berkeley-style work (but better directed in many cases) and early moments that presage the over-the-top numbers in The Great Zeigfeld. Some of the numbers are stunning, and surprisingly grand.

The film strongly features John Boles, a star-of-the-moment with a lovely operatic voice that worked well in more popular songs. He was handsome, and seemed destined for great stardom. He worked throughout the 1930’s, and not just in musicals. But he faded and became an oilman. Ironically, the film also has a much less handsome crooner who was part of a Paul Whiteman group called The Rhythm Boys, formed in 1925 and picked up by Whiteman the next year. They are featured strongly twice in the film, with cameos along the way. That much less handsome crooner became as famous as Boles became unknown. His name was Crosby–Bing Crosby–and it is a delight to hear him in his early years. The charisma is all there, as is that magnificent voice, which was featured (solo) over the opening credits. (He made things difficult for the production, though, by having to be escorted to the set every day from jail, where he was servicing a four-week sentence for drunk driving, a sign of things to come.)

Aside from being a hybrid musical-revue-comedy-skit parade, the film is also the richest example of a two-strip Technicolor film I’ve ever seen. The two-strip process, starting from the last ‘20’s up until the three-strip process came to fruition in 1935, featured reds and greens, and the film nearly overwhelms the viewer with the colors. (It won the Oscar for Best Art Design.) Within those limitations, the film is wild with color, and has more variety than one might think possible. Anyone interested in the history of color film, or anyone interested in art design, has to put this on their list to see. The film has been lovingly restored (which is a complicated story of its own), and is a fascinating treat to experience.

There is one breathtaking omission, however, and one that damages the film’s reputation today. “Jazz” in those days meant lightly-jazz-infused pop/dance music, and is not what we think of today when we think of jazz. But the grand finale, the Melting Pot number, ostensibly celebrates modern music as the amalgamation of influences from all over the world as they blend together to create modern American music. And there is nary an African-American to be seen or referred to. To attempt to present popular music of 1930 as a combination of musical influences without considering true jazz or the overwhelming contributions of black artists is somewhere between laughable and tragic. It’s thought that this had less to do with Whiteman than with the producers, as Whiteman was known for working with black musicians. But the whole in that portion of the film is huge.

Aside from that gaping omission, however, the film offers a glimpse into the period of great “in-betweens”—between two- and three-strip Technicolor, in between rigid camerawork and the more fluent cameras of just a few years later, and in between having the opportunity to use sound for music and dance, and actually knowing what to do with those opportunities. There hadn’t been a film quite like King of Jazz, and there certainly never will be again. As a time capsule for film and vaudeville, it’s invaluable, and charming, enthralling, and curious all at the same time.

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Quick Thoughts on the 2019 Oscars Show

The Oscars have come and gone, and the show was not that bad. Not having a host may or may not be the best idea for future shows, but it worked just fine this year. If anyone can pass the test of politically correct squeaky cleanness in the future, perhaps they can venture into the mouth of the beast and try to be a future host. At this point, I don’t blame anyone for not trying or refusing if offered.

The 90-second rule (the guests apparently had 90 seconds from the announcing of the name to the end of their speech) was broken all too much, but it seemed to be a good idea nonetheless. Here are some unsolicited recommendations:

  • Keep up the good work turning mics off after 90 seconds (with some sensitivity to those obviously finishing up).
  • Future winners—learn from last night. It’s possible to get up on the stage and give a gracious, meaningful speech 90 seconds.
  • Have one person be the spokesperson for the group. Interest in what is being said immediately plummets when a second person joins in, unless it’s just two and the first person keeps it very short. If it’s more than two, it gets ridiculous. I agree that the speech for Vice’s hairstyling and make-up might well have been the worst acceptance speech of all time. Every nominee for 2020’s ceremony that is part of a group of winners should view that right before the show next year.
  • There should be no phones and no pieces of paper whipped out with the names of everyone you want to thank. It’s an award for one movie—not a lifetime achievement award. If you can’t name those you want to thank by memory, we don’t care.
  • I agree with the New York Times Carpetbagger that it’s time to take the short film awards out of the main telecast. It was a dumb idea to take the cinematography, film editing and makeup and hairstyling awards out of the main telecast, and thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. They belong in the main show. But the live-action short—yes, during a commercial or in an earlier ceremony, along with the other awards for short films.

OK, the awards themselves. There were two shockers—Olivia Coleman for The Favourite, and the Best Picture Winner—Green Book. I’ll simply say that I’m sorry that Glenn Close didn’t win and that she retains her position as the most nominated living performer who hasn’t won an Oscar. As far as the Best Picture is concerned, sociological arguments will be raging over the next few days about the film and its “controversies.” I’ll leave that to others. I just didn’t expect it, that’s all. I was hoping that with the weighted voting system, A Star is Born would somehow sneak into being the winner. Not that Roma wasn’t the best film—it was—but it was certainly rewarded aplenty last night. It’s been strange watching A Star is Born sink so much after such a deservedly warm greeting when it opened.

It was heartening to see Black Panther win for Costume and for Production Design. Deserved, and a blessed change from historical dramas winning that category so often.

It was slightly disappointing but not surprising to have Rami Malek win for Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a solid, showy performance, and the technical aspects of playing Queen’s frontman were solid. But I didn’t think that he quite nailed the other scenes. I was hoping that Bradley Cooper’s deep and subtle performance might win the day, but I usually get disappointed in at one or more acting categories.

Roma’s cinematography well deserved to win, and this in a year of some great work. But this gloriously shot black-and-white film deserved the love it received here.

The Academy still can’t decide on how to present the five nominated songs. They had them shortened for the most part, which helped. But they still don’t seem to know how to handle the option of a medley. “Shallow,” which everyone knew would be the winner, was so well done (singing, playing, filming) that it made the case for doing an entire song. But “I’ll Fight” was pretty bad. It was not Jennifer Hudson’s best moment by any means, and the staging and costuming of it dominated the presentation, and the melisma-drenched vocal performance distracted from the song itself. “The Place Where Lost Things Go” was similarly lost via performance by a megastar (Bette Midler) who is clearly losing vocal strength, and whose strong presence completely overwhelmed the lovely little song. Again, not a good choice. Dear Academy, there are several better options for this problem. Give me a call—we’ll talk.

Bottom line: The host issue shows more about where Hollywood and society is at at the moment. What about James Corden? Or does he have a skeleton in his closet, too? Or is he just too smart to want to jump into that mess? The tightening up of the show is a good start. Let’s cut out the short film awards, or do them during commercials and do a quick recap when the show comes back. Let’s squeeze the winners just a little tighter in terms of their acceptance speeches; maybe the limit of one to two speakers should be enforced. Someone needs to figure out how to do a medley, or how to feature the song that might have taken off and entered the zeitgeist. There are ways. Whatever you’re doing, producers, to reduce the politics of the show was an excellent idea. When politics is part and parcel of a film, OK. When it’s not, keep politics out and just celebrate the art.

Not that I have any thoughts about this….

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Isn’t It Romantic

 

I tried, I really tried. I thought I could be somewhat objective about this film, but have failed utterly. Full disclosure: The film is directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, my former film student who became and has remained a friend. I love the guy. So I was watching very analytically (as he told me my lectures were going to be all over the film), and also, watching with bust-my-buttons friend-pride. I have to see it again—one, because it’s worth multiple visits, and two, so I can see it simply as a film. There are also loads of visual jokes that I’m sure I didn’t catch the first time around. See how many you can catch.

But in the meantime, here we go with some observations:

The film is fun and “out there” by all outward appearances, but is actually a tightrope walk as it sends up romantic comedy tropes while ultimately remaining true to rom-com sensibilities. I’ve often told my classes over the past 20 years that I’m sorry for them, as they have grown up in the era of the worst rom-coms in film history. I’ve only been able to mention a few good ones (e.g., Notting Hill, About Time, The Big Sick, 500 Days of Summer, to name a few) among the many adolescent crude-fests that have passed themselves off as a version of a rom-com. The few good ones put various intelligent twists on the genre; Isn’t It Romantic turns rom-com tropes upside down, then right side up again just in time. It’s smart, very funny, and sweet all at once, and it manages the near-impossible of sending up and embracing genre elements at the same time (much as TS-S did with his earlier meta-horror film, The Final Girls, a criminally underseen 2015 film that is fortunately getting mentioned again with the release of this new one).

Another huge success has to do with its lead, Rebel Wilson. Wilson is the perfect choice of the non-traditional romantic lead. She’s unconventionally large and exudes cynicism, but is under it all a hopeful dreamy romantic. But the dangers of casting her were avoided completely, another achievement of the film. Wilson has a wildly distinctive comic style, with ricochet dynamics and stop-and-go energy patterns that could be difficult to direct. Perhaps the film’s greatest feat is keeping this ball of dynamism contained within the confines of a romantic lead (she’s played supporting parts up until now). The film keeps her moving forward narratively, even when the tempo slows, and she fills the role instead of busting out of it. Good work, my friend.

The cinematography is not just beautiful, especially in the temporary rom-com universe the film creates. The camerawork is also hysterically funny if you pay attention. How the camera is “supposed” to act in this kind of film. The musical numbers in particular are lovingly shot and edited, and are standouts in the film, deftly hiding the obvious fact that Liam Hemsworth has, shall we say, limited dancing skills. And the production design is equal parts lovely and romantic-comedy tasteful.

I can knit-pick of course—but just a little. The specific references to romantic comedies in the beginning of the film were a bit too, as they say, on the nose. The specific genre was mentioned a few too many times when more general film references would have sufficed. And, spoiler alert: I’m not sure how or why Hemsworth’s character suddenly goes bad. Maybe I missed something, but it seemed abrupt. There are a few other “how exactly did we get here?” moments, but the film mainly takes place in Oz rather than Kansas (or to be more precise, dream New York rather than real New York), so the rules of fantasy have to trump the rules of logic at times.

My standard for evaluating a film’s ability to entertain, however, is not me, but my wife. I’ve occasionally joked to my classes that Hollywood would save a great deal of money by abolishing focus groups, and just show the film to my wife. If she likes it, America will like it; if there is something she doesn’t get or like, just change those things. She knows the director, but doesn’t have the same level of friendship with him as I do, and therefore was just enjoying the film as it was. She heartily laughed her way through the film (not always the case with comedies), and told me later she had to stifle herself for fear of embarrassing herself. She also said—a first—that she wants to see it again. Both actions are the highest praise, and a much more honest evaluation of the film’s ability to entertain than I could provide.

There are other strengths, too. The casting is well-nigh perfect. Adam Devine has a lot of history acting with Wilson, which makes for the easy camaraderie the film presents between the two. But he’s just perfect for “that guy” in a rom-com. Hemsworth (probably best known for The Hunger Games and for recently marrying Miley Cyrus) steals the limelight, at least temporarily, from his more famous brother Chris (Thor, etc.) and brings a combination of suaveness and silliness that’s not easy to do (and evokes more than a bit of Cary Grant). Priyanka Chopra (AKA Mrs. Nick Jonas) moves past Bollywood and TV’s Quantico with this comic role that leans easily on her stunning beauty. But perhaps the most delightful supporting character is television’s Betty Gilpin, who eats up her role as Wilson’s character’s assistant in a similar role and in the same way Emily Blunt announced her arrival as a serious talent in The Devil Wears Prada. Gilpin owns every scene she’s in, and her character has to make the most dramatic change from the real to the fantasy world. Her personality and physical makeover give the viewer whiplash, just as intended.

The ending of a film that consistently upends its own genre could be tricky business, but this one resolves not only well, but in a way that elevates the film. For those of a more delicate sensibility in film, note that a PG-13 film can contain one F-bomb. The film makes great narrative and comic use of this odd fact, and while it’s not this writer’s favorite word, if it had to be in the film, it’s used brilliantly. And then there is the beautiful, sweet, and touching next-to-final scene that wraps the film up story-wise. The film takes its time here, and plays a strongly romantic moment with tenderness and integrity in a way that surprises and delights after all the satire preceding it. Don’t tell anyone, but my eyes got wet, partly from the moment itself, and partly because of the surprise of that moment.

Isn’t It Romantic takes its place as a unique and delightful entry in the genre. There have been a number of meta films in the past few years, and pulling off a meta rom-com that’s self-aware, cynical, and ultimately not afraid to be openly moving is something to be applauded. It’s also something to be seen. And more than once.

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2019 Oscar Nominations: First Thoughts

 

Oscar time is funny. The guilds have voted for their individual categories, and there is the hope and thought that they generally vote for what they think is the best for their category. Of course there will be thoughts of rewarding a friend, or rewarding a consistent or even stellar career. And of course there is the coattail effect, where the “best pictures” of the year tend to get nominations in areas that really aren’t that strong. But that propensity has been lessened in recent years with a better understanding of the different elements of filmmaking by the Academy as a whole, and by the tendency for guild members to see their own category a little more clearly than the Academy.

But now that the nominations are in, we kick into other gears. Friendships and personal preferences matter, as do political concerns. Certainly there is the tension between voting for what one thinks is the best “whatever” and the desire to grant a career award before someone kicks the bucket, or simply because “it’s time”—a ridiculous train of thought of which I am occasionally susceptible.

2018 was not the best year for films, and possibly the weakest in many a year. But possibly the two “best” films are the two that are on the opposite ends on the Best Picture nomination spectrum: Roma and Black Panther. These two films will last, and could be considered great for different reasons. Certainly Roma is the best film of the year, but it’s a kind of standalone classic, and may turn out to be Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece more than anything else, while Black Panther is one of the best superhero films (and arguably the best), and one packed with several levels of significance. Yet A Star is Born is also considered “the total package,” a film that recalls Old Hollywood while being strong in nearly every aspect of filmmaking. It’s too early for predictions, but these are the pick of the pack. A Star is Born has surprisingly lost in many categories in several recent awards celebrations, and the sure award for Best Director going to Cuarón may lead some voters to want to reward Bradley Cooper for a job very well done with Best Picture award. Roma may deserve that, but Cooper’s directorial debut is more than impressive, and a foreign-language 1) has never won Best Picture, and 2) has its own category, which it will surely win this year.

I think the word “snub” is rather ill-used when it comes to the Academy’s choices, as I don’t think that folks are being snubbed as much as passed over in favor of choices that the voters think are superior. Only Cooper could be considered snubbed for not getting a Best Director Award, especially after winning the National Board of Review’s award in that category. There has been a little noise about Emily Blunt not receiving a nomination for A Quiet Place (Supporting Actress) or Mary Poppins Returns (Best Actress).  The Screen Actors Guild gave her the supporting actress award for the former film (in a surprise move that could be called the opposite of a snub), so it is unusual, with SAG making up so much of the Academy, that she was not nominated there. But she simply didn’t deserve Best Actress for Mary Poppins Returns, in spite of the Golden Globe nomination and the hype (https://film-prof.com/2019/01/01/mary-poppins-returns/).

Only Willem Dafoe was a surprise in the Best Actor category for At Eternity’s Gate, and hasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades. But it might work to draw folks’ attention to the film. Christian Bale (Vice) has been the one that supposedly had this in the bag, but Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) has gained a great deal of momentum recently.

The Best Actress award has been Glenn Close’s for months for The Wife, ever since early word was leaking about the quality of her performance. Add the fact that this is her seventh nomination with no wins at this point, and it’s a lock. Lady Gaga was gaining momentum a few months ago, but has lost it. Olivia Colman might have looked like a winner when The Favourite was released, but she too has faded. It’s going to be Close’s night.

The big question about Best Supporting Actor is whether Mahershala Ali (Green Book) has any chance of losing the award. Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman) is too new and has a long career ahead of him, Sam Rockwell (Vice) has won the same award recently, and Sam Elliott’s and Richard E. Grant’s nominations are a combination of a job well done and a reward for long and respectable careers.

Supporting Actress could see long-nominated and never-won Amy Adams (Vice) win over long-time favorite Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk. That would be a surprise, but King wasn’t even nominated for a SAG award, so her inevitability can be questioned at this point. And the Academy loves Adams and at this point, hates to see her lose again.

Other thoughts:

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is up against a great many different kinds of animated films, but should prevail.

Roma has the most beautiful and luscious cinematography of any film this year and should win.

Black Panther should win Best Production Design and Best Costumes.

“Shallow” from A Star is Born will win Best Song. Not even a question here.

How did Black Panther not get nominated for Best Visual Effects?

It will be fun to see what the buzz will be these next few weeks. The best fun is hearing why folks won’t vote for what they think is the best artistically, allowing relationships, unrewarded careers, and political leanings to determine their votes. And don’t forget that this is Hollywood’s great night of self-congratulations, which always figures highly into thinking and voting. If the Academy can find a way to vote for a person or film while simultaneously patting themselves on the back with that vote, they tend to add that strongly into the mix.

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