Two French Classics: Lola Montès (1955) and Pépé le Moko (1937)

My new FilmStruck subscription (thank you, children) is giving me access to many older films that help fill in my cinematic gaps. Recently, I saw two French classics that couldn’t be more different from one another—Lola Montès (1955) and Pépé le Moko (1937).

Lola Montès is a huge Technicolor epic that was hailed, if only temporarily, by legendary writer and critic (and my professor at Columbia) Andrews Sarris as the greatest film ever made. To quote Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game), “tout le monde a ses raisons” (“everyone has his reasons”). Sarris was in love with the moving camera of Max Ophuls, Lola Montès’ director, and the sweep and mood of the piece. Sarris backed off from that claim not long after, but only to substitute another Ophuls masterwork, The Earrings of Madame de….

Lola Montès is ambitious in scope and seems to borrow its then-confusing flashback narrative style from 1941’s Citizen Kane, and can be seen as a forerunner of the kind of monetizing of one’s foibles and living in an embarrassingly public way that we find surrounding us today. The film is based upon the real exploits, trials and scandals of a woman who is a kind of 19-century combination of Forrest Gump and scandalous courtesan. Filmed in widescreen with high production values and in luscious Technicolor, the film is a feast for the eyes. What either works marvelously for the viewer or what alienates the viewer is one of two things.

First, the central conceit of the film narratively is that Lola’s life, and perhaps all our lives, is a circus act, with little reality and a great deal of cynical show. The circus framework can be seen to continually pull us out of the story of Lola’s life, and/or to reduce to inanity the exciting tale of a half-broken woman who exploits and is exploited by men. Perhaps the device was both too jarring and too ahead of its time.

The other problem is one that doesn’t change over time. It’s the rather dull and lifeless performance of Martine Carol, the early-50’s sexpot actress chosen to play the central character. While nearly all agree that her acting skills are limited, to be kind, some think the vacuity of her performance works for the film. It does so by presenting a rather dull figure in bright colors and fine costumes, in a context of dramatic historical events with some famous figures (Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, to name two), which sets the title figure up to be both celebrated and denigrated in equal amounts, with perhaps a greater emphasis on the swirl about her than on Lola herself.

This argument is similar to those that look at Barry Lyndon and don’t find fault with Ryan O’Neal, but excuse the performance because O’Neal pretty much was a modern-day version of Lyndon. With a weak central performance, the viewer’s attention is put on the stunning look of the film, the camera movement, the costumes, and the quality of the performances around O’Neal. This is the case with Lola Montès, both in terms of acting talent and reputation. Apparently, Carol was a second-rate actress who had a similar reputation to that of her character, which might have brought something to a contemporaneous viewer, but which doesn’t resonate today. And when one is surrounded by Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, and Oscar Werner, the contrast can be occasionally painful.

Yes, it’s Ophuls’ last film, and a masterpiece of imagery. But perhaps its most telling attribute will prove over time to be its then-shocking combination of narrative structure and attitude—not just the European coolness toward sexual mores, but the cynical and dismissive perspective toward a human life, even one billed—and hyped–as fascinating and scandalous. The reduction of a life, even one colored by important events and people, to a sumptuous but silly circus act was not of its time, and might even be considered controversial today.

The other film I saw was Pépé le Moko,a wonderful film that made its star Jean Gabin internationally famous. It’s a great performance with colors and shadings that is the highlight of the film. Gabin can perhaps be compared for Americans to Clark Gable in that they were both “salt of the earth” actors, but Gabin’s talent far outweighs Gable’s, and he is inescapably French, which may well, along with a difficult personality, have limited his chances at a major career outside his birth country.

The film was remade the next year in English as Algiers, and much of the American film is nearly shot-for-shot the same. That film starred a smoother and more Continental Charles Boyer, who didn’t have a machismo or power of Gabin. It also served as a platform for presenting Hedy Lamarr to the public, and her beauty and the film’s insistence on featuring that beauty made for quite a different film, as did Hollywood’s habit of smoothing out rough edges and glamorizing its sets and characters. Pépé le Moko moves much more quickly, both within scenes and from scene to scene, and features some stunning moving camerawork. In some ways it’s more like Gabin himself—rougher, faster, and more animalistic.

To answer the question many in my generation might have, yes, Pepé le Pew was based on this character, though specifically the more romantic Boyer version.

To see the two films back to back made for some obvious comparisons. Lola is definitely the better film but has a weak spot in the center. Pépé le Moko had a strong central performance, and solid work around Gabin. One film is grand and epic in scope, is set against thrilling historical events and people. and addresses the human condition. The other is a tight little thriller that author Graham Greene rightly said “rais[ed] the thriller to a poetic level,” creating a star overnight in Gabin. If you have to choose, go with the older Gabin film and see why he has a unique place in French film.

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Summer Fun: One good, one medium, and one piece of dreck

    Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2, a financial success and the longest animated feature film in history, is a good argument for not popping out a sequel right after the success of the first film. Fortunately, this film is more like a continuation than a sequel, and remakes rather than recycles the best parts of the first film. Emphases switch, focusing on Elastigirl rather than Mr. Incredible, and giving Jack-Jack a slowly developing role that delights with each revelation of his budding powers.

It hasn’t quite the edge of the first, with that film’s still politically incorrect exchange of Elastigirl saying “Everyone is special, Dash,” with Dash’s response of “That’s just another way of saying no one is,” and with the film’s blatant encouragement of viewing those with certain gifts as special. It also contained a blistering—and comic—send-up of the darkest aspects of insurance companies that still stings today. There are political asides in the new film that connect its early-1960s world with today, but aside from a “frustration with-new-math” thread that runs through the film, socio-political issues are softly alluded to in isolated moments rather than landing hard or being a part of a underlying theme.

The big switch of putting Mr. Incredible in the house and Elastigirl out battling the bad guys could either be seen as prescient, being an idea more than a decade old, or as a nearly cliché gender switch. There was enough strength in her character in the first film, and enough male buffoonery for his, however, to make this switch believable and a little less forced.

The film is funny, beautifully rendered (apart from the light sequence that theaters are warning those susceptible to seizures about), and builds on rather than repeats the structural and personal elements of the first film. It can’t have the pizzazz of the first film, whose strength was its originality combined with warm support for the traditional nuclear family. It also has a few too many action sequences that recall too many Marvel and DC moments. But it has its well-thought-out joys. Besides, any film that properly uses the word “conflates” as part of an impassioned exchange will always have a warm spot in my heart.

 .   Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Then there is Jurassic World: Fallen World, which continues the argument of not rushing out sequels. Unlike Incredibles 2, this film gets most of the sequel aspects wrong. It retains the two leads, a good idea of course, as well as an always-bizarre appearance from Jeff Goldblum. But the film doesn’t do anything new, or even interesting, with the characters. It introduces some new ones, but only two are part of the central team, and they each threaten to be more of a stock than a real character throughout the movie. The movie bad guys signal their nefariousness a mile away, or appear full-blown wicked upon arrival, neither of which provides depth or surprise.

Figuring out how to make the sequel fresh was apparently too much for the creators. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl had a believable switch in Incredibles 2. Here the switch is to make the dangerous creatures the object of pity and concern, a concept which is mangled and trampled upon as much as a stomping dino in a parking lot, especially at the confusing and wretched end of the film.

The film doesn’t know how to use the previous film’s strengths to its advantage. There is one dramatic dino-roar against an equally dramatic background, recalling earlier such images. But then we see it at least two more times. The first film in the series had us discover, along with the movie’s characters, the beauty of seeing these creatures for the first time, while also clearly admiring the special effects behind their creation. Here someone just talks about it, and the film denies us our own experience of the wonder of these beasts. It seems as if there were a series of boxes that needed to be ticked, and what we see is the compilation of those ticked boxes—the person who seems to escape but doesn’t! The sea monster that brings about a surprise death. The rolling ball. The big bad business guy (a cliché which Incredibles 2 actually turned on its head).

The only new character outside “the team” that we could care about is [spoiler alerts] a little girl who is woefully misused. She’s the One We Care About, because she’s young, cute, and in something of a tough position. But then she becomes something of a mystery, which [spoiler alert again] which is under-addressed and which coulda/shoulda become a central part of the film (which may well have made It stronger), but which is revealed and then undeveloped in the lamest manner possible. Finally, in something of a unexpected but welcome move at the end, the temporary surprise turns in a forehead-whacking moment that nearly drains the character of almost all of our built-up sympathies.

And the editing! What coulda/shoulda been seamless action sequences are divided up into separate pieces of film where the characters seem to be positioned in place and then told “Wait…wait…go!”—normal filming techniques. But then those pieces were put together with little respect for the flow of the action. Certainly normal people don’t wait so long before running away! A film like this needs all the believability that it can get, and film technique shouldn’t contribute to the problem.

The ending of the film only makes sense as a set-up for a sequel. Sigh. Bored.

   Rampage

This is easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. (If you’re never heard of it, count your blessings, and considered yourself warned—it’s coming out on video soon.) It looks bad, has an awful script, is consistently badly acted, and is completely unbelievable, even for its genre. Dwayne Johnson is bland, Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris is bland and wasted, and Malin Akerman is truly awful. (I don’t understand how she has a career, as the only palatable performance I’ve seen her in is Todd Strauss-Schulson’s underseen The Final Girls.)

ToWhy did I see such an awful movie? I was with my brother, a film-lover, as he was recuperating from a painful medical procedure, and we saw three movies in three days to get him distracted. We saw a couple of good ones, and then thought this would be dumb fun. We were half right. But we decided to redeem it in our memories by harking back to an infinitely better film—Casablanca. From now on, “We’ll always have Rampage”!

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Two Audrey Hepburn Films: Roman Holiday and The Nun’s Story

Enough time has passed that many filmgoers today have only barely heard of one of the biggest starts of the middle of the last century, and one of the most sparkling and engaging presences in all film history. There was no one like Audrey Hepburn, and I was reminded of her unique appeal and talents in seeing two of her greatest films.

Roman Holiday (1953) of course, was Hepburn’s first lead and first American film, and it won her the Oscar for Best Actress. The competition wasn’t particular stiff that year, but nothing stood out like Hepburn, exploding on the scene from apparently nowhere. She was charming, delightful, funny, and when necessary, regal. The film, also starring Gregory Peck and directed by the great director William Wyler, stands up in more ways than her performance. It won the Oscar for Best Writing/Motion Picture Story, which was written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (that’s another story) and for Edith Head’s costumes. But it was also nominated for seven other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Eddie Albert for Supporting Actor Eddie Albert, for a performance that may well have been his best. It’s a little slow by today’s standards, but the story moves along, buoyed especially by that then-fresh screen presence.

The film is also known for its locations all over Rome, and for one scene of unplanned laughter that made Hepburn an overnight star in the same way that Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts a star nearly 40 years later when Richard Gere snapped a jewelry case on her fingers.

Peck was a good 13 years older than Hepburn, but the romance is believable (though the film skirts some of the edges of the Production Code). Some of Hepburn’s early scenes seem a bit overplayed, but for most of the film she is a revelation. It must have been shocking to see a virtual unknown, looking unlike any other female star of the time (think Marilyn Monroe for contrast), completely owning a major film opposite one of the biggest male stars of the time.

[Spoiler alert.] One of the surprises when I first saw it years ago was the ending. When I was young, I was disappointed. Now it makes complete sense, and any other ending would have been illogical.

One of the best topics in my film class is the topic of stardom, and what makes a star. There are certain stories of star build-up in film history, and descriptions of certain attributes that critics try (in vain, I believe) to attach to stars to attempt to understand what makes a star. My take is that it is very often individual in nature as well as a mystery. But for those who believe they know a star when they see one, Roman Holiday is a delightful necessity.

The Nun’s Story is as different from Roman Holiday as was possible in Hollywood of the ‘50s. It’s completely serious and anything but light, and has the scope of the great epics of that time. It’s based on the true story of a Belgian nun who leaves her old life for the convent and faces great challenges internally and in her various assignments. The most time is spent with her in the Belgian Congo (on location), especially with Dr. Fortunai (Peter Finch), a brilliant and atheistic doctor with keen insight and a sharp tongue. Hepburn’s Sister Luke is every bit his equal in intelligence and quick wit, and the verbal jousting between them is the highlight of the film, though the subtle sexual tension between the two is considered to be a screenwriter’s invention.

The film is largely forgotten today, and at two-and-a-half hours and with a v-e-r-y slow first half, can be a challenge to modern moviegoers. But at the time, it was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann, of High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons), and Best Actress for Hepburn. It ended up with none, though the picture and Hepburn won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in their categories. Hepburn expanded her already sizable reputation as an actress with this performance, one that dug deep and bore no resemblance to her more romantic work earlier in the decade. Ironically, the film was thought to be a poor financial risk, and it was only when Hepburn expressed interest that the film was able to be produced. It turned out to be a great success.

That slow first half is going to prove the downfall of many who try to see the film. But it is a classic example of either asking a film to entertain you, or allowing yourself to give yourself over to a film and let it draw you in. The first half contains many scenes of life as a novitiate and later, a nun. The pacing is glacial by today’s standards, but it is a demonstration of a different kind of life, with different values and different challenges. It also functions as the context in which to view the rest of the film. Considering what comes after, it is well worth the experience.

Aside from Hepburn and Finch, both doing excellent work, the film features Dean Jagger and five powerhouse actresses: Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, and Patricia Collinge. That’s what is known as an embarrassment of riches.

When it comes to Hepburn, what can one recommend first? The classic suspense thriller with that gut-grabbing moment, Wait Until Dark? Or the romantic triangle of Sabrina? The cool play-by-play with Cary Grant in Charade? Or the influential Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Hepburn plays against whatever “type” means. And that doesn’t even cover My Fair Lady, Two for the Road, or War and Peace.

Her first, Roman Holiday, is the best introduction for those unfamiliar with her work. The viewer can taste something of the experience the world had in seeing her for the first time. After that, try The Nun’s Story for something completely different, and then having seen her range, enjoy as many of the others as you can find.

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The 15:17 to Paris

Clint Eastwood’s most recent film came and went rather quickly, and was nowhere near the success of either Sully or American Sniper. There are many reasons for that, but also several reasons to see the film in spite of its weaknesses.

As I began watching the film, my heart sank as I began to think that this was another example of a film based on a fascinating and dramatic event that should have been as dramatically interesting as its real life foundation but wasn’t. Yet the film had “good enough” production values to prevent the great story behind it from being filmed again any time soon, in some respects “burying” this great story inside a mediocre film. Yet…

Of course, the event in question is the true tale of the three brave American friends who stopped a potentially devastating terror attack on a train in France in summer 2015. Devastating in this case meant 270 rounds of ammunition and several different kinds of guns and a radical on a mission. The bravery of the three men in stopping the attack is unquestionable and unquestionably dramatic. So is the fact that the three shared a nearly lifelong friendship in spite of significant personality differences before this event brought them even closer together. It had all the possibilities of being a film like Sully. It isn’t. Yet…

The two biggest problems are the script and the acting. The script seems to want to follow a kind of Slumdog Millionaire route of connecting events and thoughts prior to the “big event” as little more than preparation for that event. In some ways, that is part of the story’s power. But the script makes the connections painfully obvious and literal. The dialogue is also stilted and unbelievable at times, striking at the core of reality that Eastwood seems to be wanting to create. The structure of beginning to cut into the final event throughout the film, though, is a strength, and keeps reminding the viewer of where we’re going with all of this.

Much has been made of the fact that the three adult leads are being played by the three real heroes themselves. That’s not the central acting problem, however, as limited as they are as non-actors (though at least one looks like a Hollywood actor). The acting of the three children playing them as school age and the adults playing their parents is as awkward as the acting of the non-professionals in Gran Torino. And this includes Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer! The level of performance is somewhere between high school and college. And then having Thomas (“Reno 911!”) Lennon, Jaleel (Steve Urkel in “Family Matters”) White, and Tony (“Arrested Development)” Hale be part of the staff at their middle school temporarily turns the film on its head by taking the viewer out of the film time and time again—and toward comedy, no less? What was the great man thinking? Yet…

Once the three actual heroes take over the film as adults, however, we shift into another gear, once that combines a dramatic film with a documentary using a series of reenactments. It’s an odd mixture, but if you are engaged at that point, it works. The three have natural charm, the camaraderie is easygoing, and we as viewers keep telling ourselves that the acting isn’t all that bad after all.

Once they board the train, suspense builds (safely—after all, we know what happens) and the film suddenly pulls together all its raggedy pieces. The attack is furious and wild and looks as awkward as it likely was. And dramatically, of course, it brings a culmination to everything before it—the friends’ closeness, their military and medical training, and of course, the idea that something was “catapulting” them toward some unknown event, now known. Perhaps the most effective non-actor acting was the (spoiler alert) man shot by the terrorist, and his life-and-death struggle. The man playing the wounded man was the man wounded himself, and the wife was played by, yes, his wife. This is just as dramatic in its own way as the attack itself, as we don’t know for a long while if he will live or die, and if Anthony’s medical background is enough for the situation.

At this point, the film is all about the attack, the successful events to stop it, the efforts to save a possibly dying man, and the awarding of all this bravery by the French, and later, by the Americans. Here is where the story finally dominates the filmmaking, and it ends on a satisfying emotional note.

The film seems something of a rush job by Eastwood, and it pales in comparison to his previous two. Those films had some good (Sully) and excellent (American Sniper) acting, and good (Sully) and excellent (American Sniper) scripts. Aside from the action on the train, the care doesn’t seem to be there. Lucky for the film and the viewer, however, that action comes at the end, and the lackluster early scenes and pleasant but aimless middle scenes are apt to be forgotten. Ultimately, this is a film that those interested in the main event may well find worthwhile. But it’s also a film most viewers will only see once.

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A Quiet Place

Image result for a quiet placeEvery so often a small, focused, even intimate film comes by and reminds us that not every film has to have CGI as a foundation, has to be loud, or needs to address the horrors of the contemporary political landscape. Wisely released as a counter to the latest Avengers film, A Quiet Place is a surprisingly good piece of work. Marketed primarily as a horror story, it is much more than that, and all the better for it.

Yes, the premise is a horror premise, but the situation is more of a MacGuffin than in other similar films. We have a post-apocalyptic world (thank God I didn’t have to write the word dystopian one more time) taken over by creatures that can’t see but have over-sensitive hearing and that can destroy you in no time if you make too much noise. It’s a spin on the usual horror set-up, and while we never forget the vulnerability of our main characters, there are other explorations that elevate the film far above the usual horror fare.

There will likely be many a master’s thesis written about the place of sound and noise in the film. Yes, these dangerous creatures force silence or at least a greatly reduced noise volume, and that sets up the world in which the film operates. But the presence of Millicent Simmons (Wonderstruck), a young actress deaf since infancy, does more than help explain how the family could know sign language so well. Her character’s deafness plays naturally into the film and should be a treasure trove for those analyzing the role of silence and sound in film, as well as the role of deafness in cinema. Simmons also happens to be a talented actress and is well poised to be this generation’s Marlee Matlin.

Probably the strongest theme, however, has nothing to do with horror tropes. It’s family, and this is where A Quiet Place may well become a classic. As nearly everyone knows, director/lead actor/co-writer of the script John Krasinski and lead actress Emily Blunt are man and wife in real life as well as in this film. Looking for how their real-life relationship and their filmic one might cross into each other may be an absorbing topic for some. For me, it’s obvious that the love and respect they have for one another informs this movie couple with a high degree of connection and affection. There is a tenderness and protectiveness on both their parts that make this a new kind of “family film”.

The couple’s scene dancing to music they can both hear (no more said about that here) is one of the most touching marital moments in recent cinema. It’s a kind of stolen moment in the midst of constant tension, and it’s lovely to behold. There is a connection between the two leads that serves the film well as they struggle to keep their children safe, constantly having to connect quickly and deeply with one another to avoid harm to themselves or their children. They “go there” quickly and believably, strengthening the film at every turn.

Everyone knows that Blunt is a greatly talented actress, and some of us look forward to her improving her craft even more over the years. Krasinski, though, was a revelation. Known mostly for television’s “The Office” and for lighter and even comedic roles outside of television, here he puts in a fleshed-out dramatic performance that necessarily has to keep the drama to a minimum. He is my new favorite movie dad—strong, caring, self-sacrificial, and equal parts accessible and softly confident. He’s also not just playing the character; he’s settling comfortably into it, making the unbelievable premise that much more believable. This is a man who loves his wife and children, understands that even in this crazy world they inhabit that he needs to connect differently with each child, and is a hero that never acts like one.

Of course, Krasinski also directed the film, which has made ten times its budget domestically alone (as of this writing). To call this a surprise hit is likely the understatement of the year. It will be fascinating to see what he does next. Here he has crafted a film based on something of an absurdity, and has made it tense from the word go, only giving occasional moments of respite, and filled with solid performances and camerawork that keeps the focus on the family and the relatively small world in which it’s trapped. There is one cliché move borrowed from every other suspense/horror film that works in context, but was ultimately a small disappointment. Yet as a whole, the film was a small cinematic jewel.

Yes, it’s a horror film with more than enough tension for a few films. But it’s also a film about sound, about silence, and most of all, about family. Some films, especially those released around the end-of-the-year holidays, have family as a theme. Krasinski has made a film about family that happens to be hidden under the cloak of horror. Go for the thrills; stay for the beautiful picture of what a family can be.

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Avengers: Infinity War

In the “old days,” some films, for various reasons, were called critic-proof. That could mean that it didn’t matter what the critics would say, it would still be financially successful. It also meant that some films seemed impervious to any serious critical analysis, as they somehow inhabited a rarified place where regular analysis and critical review were as unable to connect with the film as a rubber band would be to knock down an invading spacecraft.

Avengers: Infinity War is the newest of those films. On its way to becoming one of the top moneymaking films of all time, and still dominating the box office, the film is something of a juggernaut (no pun intended) that is somehow separate from the world of cinema. This is a marketing triumph, a franchise culmination of sorts, a social event, and a cultural moment. It’s also a movie, though that can be lost in the noise and the hype.

The disappointment in viewing the film through one of those lenses is that this is a pretty good movie. There are a myriad of approaches to saying that, and I must set out my terms. A pretty good movie here is an entertaining film that solves the problems set out before it. As with the first (recent) Avengers film (https://film-prof.com/2012/05/14/the-avengers/), the great success of this filmic collection of superheroes is how it addresses its many challenges. I don’t think its challenges were to present a thoughtful treatise on the human condition or present a cogent critique of the modern political landscape. This, like the Star Wars universe or that of the LOTR trilogy, inhabits a universe only tangentially related to the one in which most of us live (I tip my hat in equal parts respect and dismay at those who tend to live in said universe). In spite of its many, many, many plot and logic holes (even considering the make-believe world we’re speaking of here), the film succeeds because it meets and solves its challenges well.

The biggest of those challenges isn’t the plot. Literal-minded folks need not apply, nor attend. For heaven’s sake, it’s a world where a raccoon speaks, a twig plays video games, a blond god survives innumerable deadly situations—oh, never mind. The main problem is how to present as many of the Marvel characters as possible in a way that we as viewers can connect with. The film does so with imagination, wit, and occasional feeling.

First, it gives its heroes as much time to connect with the viewer and the other superheroes as they can. Some admittedly come and go at too quick a pace, but the major players are fleshed out well enough to remind the viewer of their identity, their personality, and their powers. [Nota bene: I’m not a big Marvel fan, I don’t know all the players, and I don’t geek out at these films.) Some of the old is kept, and most of the new works. The old includes Iron Man’s snark, in abundant display here, as is his intelligence. It includes Spider-Man’s naiveté and sweet nature, and Gamora’s fierceness and tenderness. It includes Captain America’s cool and Thor’s lumbering bravery and entitlement. I could go on and on.

What’s new is even better. Dr. Strange is the only one able to go one-on-one with Iron Man, and watching Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch face off is worth the price of admission. Just as delightful is how the film handles Thor’s arrival on Peter Quill’s (Star Lord’s) spaceship. The respect and adulation the crew gives to Thor is funny enough; Quill’s immature reaction to it is classic. The one-liners throughout are also genuinely funny and work in their context better than many a funny line does in other films.

In some ways, like Thor: Ragnarok, the film is one of the funniest of the year. Having Peter Dinklage play a giant is only one of the film’s great moments. Having Quill’s team completely ignore him and pass him while he’s giving the clenched-fist “hold it” signal is another. At the same time, the film is surprising (even shocking) in whom it kills off, and then is moving and touching in moments that are unexpected. There is a kind of “father-daughter moment” that is first poignant, and then startling. The end features certain “departures,” shall we say, that include a surprisingly emotional and open-hearted exchange between Spider-Man and Iron Man that pulls the film into a depth and seriousness that harkens back a century to Chaplin’s ability to make us laugh, and then turn around on a dime to make us cry.

One of the strongest elements of the best of these more recent films is the complete commitment to the character that the actors provide. There is no winking to the camera, no pulling back into a star persona. The commitment to the reality of the character is as real as the five actors nominated in the four main acting categories at the Oscars every year. Some of these actors have been nominated in the past for those other films. Their talent is no less on display here. Certainly one that needs to be called out is Josh Brolin (another Oscar nominee, for Milk) whose career path has been fascinating to watch. Here he plays the villain—a great one at that—with all the power, anger, evil, and vulnerability of the great villains of the past. He’s only beginning to come into his own as an actor.

For the geek, there are certainly holes that one could drive a truck through. The trip to Wakanda feels as shoe-horned into the film as it probably was. There are probably too many fight scenes. But the film moves with energy and enough logic (within the confines of its universe and its possibilities) to keep the viewer engaged, and it ends (is there anyone left who doesn’t know this?) on a shocking note of devastation and plot irresolution. What a great creative risk! We feel full and we are left hanging at the same time. Yes, it’s “just” a superhero film, but it’s well-written, well shot, briskly paced, very well acted, and occasionally brave artistically.

Note: It’s been fun reading reviews from those striving to bring this film into their own socio-political or traditionally cinematic perspectives. To them I say: The film is outside of your world, so don’t try to evaluate it on those terms. You’ll miss the point. This film has other goals, and they are more than making money and entertaining. Take the time to respect it, and you’ll understand.  

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I Can Only Imagine

Oh, what a challenging task it is to analyze a film such as I Can Only Imagine! I come at film on this site (and in my class) from an artistic perspective, and as with all critics and analysts, there are topics and storylines that resonate more deeply for me in some films than others.

Full disclosure, as I am posting this on two websites: I am a Christian who loves Jesus, and I am a film professor with two film degrees from Columbia University. (I’m sure there are folks who don’t think this combination in one person is any more likely than finding a unicorn in one’s backyard.) I am also a musician(singer and pianist) and musical performer. The song I Can Only Imagine didn’t change my life, but I was profoundly moved by it, and still am. To make matters more complicated, I’ve met Bart Millard at a music studio, and spent some time with him and legendary producer Brown Bannister. And I have family connections to both Amy Grant (through my brother) and Michael W. Smith (double—through my brother and my son) who both feature in the film. So while it’s not hard to be clear-eyed about the art, my enjoyment of the film is partly predicated on these personal elements.

Factoid: As I write this, I Can Only Imagine has brought in $60 million, much more than anticipated. Why this is will be left to others.

Briefly, the film covers the story of Bart Millard, composer and singer of the song, from early childhood with a terribly abusive father, through his eventual spiritual and artistic success with this song, the biggest-selling Christian song of all time. As always, a Christian film, especially one that is relatively well-made, is going to be something of a Rorschach test, depending on one’s view of Christianity and Christians, though many critics may try to run from that truth. It’s easy to dismiss poorly made Christian films, as there are so many. And while this film can be accused of preaching to the choir, its story of father issues, self-doubt, artistic struggle, self-defeating behavior, and forgiveness touches on a number of universal themes. Perhaps some reviewers have a hard time with one of its central plot points—that a relationship with Jesus can turn a life around, sometimes dramatically. If I were not a Christian and hadn’t viewed the same thing personally, I might also bring my requisite analytical skepticism to that aspect of the film.

Compared to other “Christian films,” I Can Only Imagine is well-made. Contrary to some folks’ opinions, it is lovingly photographed, and even creatively so at times. It’s generally well-acted as well. Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (yes, she’s still around) has a strong supporting part that requires little of her, though her lovely and surprised reaction to hearing her grandson sing for the first time is a joy to behold. Dennis Quaid as the “monstrous” father has a more challenging part. He’s the angry beast in the first half, and Quaid works hard at it, but doesn’t seem to connect with the personal rage indicated by his actions (which are surprisingly rough for a film like this). As his character begins to walk with God, Quaid gets better. His awkward attempts to be genuinely spiritual and to connect with his son are nicely played, and that famous Quaid smile does get a moment in the sun at the right time. His casting was an inspired choice (no pun intended), as his general likability helps us to stay connected through the difficult parts of the film.

Michael Finley as Bart has by far the hardest task. He’s a close enough lookalike to the real Bart that it works on a physical level. His acting is more than adequate, considering that this is his first film. He captures the anger of an abused young man, and the scenes of him with his band reflect the reality of band life, and the support and teasing that comes with shared work and performance. The whole musical aspect of it, in fact, is probably the strongest part of the film. From composing to listening (and reacting to) honest and even harsh criticism, to recording—it all seems right.

The editing is almost there. There are some well-cut flashbacks that serve to connect childhood experiences and conversations with some later struggles. Most of them work, though some flashbacks are just a few seconds too long, seeming to wait for the audience to make sure they get it. Please, filmmakers, it’s OK to challenge the audience a bit artistically. Shorter, tighter snippets would likely have had a stronger impact.

I laughed at one complaint that the film couldn’t make up its mind on what to focus on: the abusive childhood or the creation of the hit song. Uhhh, they are completely related, and needed to be interwoven. One strength of the film is that it blends these two elements fairly well, and also includes a number of other relatable situations, including Bart’s childhood sweetheart and how that develops into adulthood, how people deal with hotheads, and how adult criticisms can bring up and connect with old abusive memories. Unlike many Christian films, there is little action in churches, highlighting Bart’s home, life on the road, and in the office or recording studio. These are refreshing and realistic settings for the story, and they add to its accessibility.

The script is an improvement over others of its type, though there are problems. Some of the dialogue is witty, strong, and completely believable. Then there are bits of dialogue and turns of action that seem more clichéd and paint-by-numbers than they needed to be. While not setting up the elements of success as done explicitly by Slumdog Millionaire and The Man Who Invented Christmas, the film has fun slipping in the various inspirations Bart eventually makes use of.

Watching—and experiencing—the film brought back other films I’ve seen recently, such as The Post. IMHO, The Post was overrated upon its release by those that were deeply touched by its themes of journalistic integrity, freedom of the press, and the attempts of our country’s leaders to suppress incriminating truth. As someone who thinks our involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, that various administrations lied about it for political advantage, and who as a member of the media (at one time) loves the First Amendment and truth, those themes resonated with me as well. For those poised to find the obvious connections to current events with The Post, and for those who feel most deeply troubled by what they see, the film tapped deeply into those concerns, and many critics were stirred by their responses to the issues raised in the film. I understand that, but also posit that many reviewers and film analysts are swayed to connection with some films and negative reactions to others because of their reactions to the content. Contrary to more than one review, The Post was not a great film, and certainly not one of the greatest of all time.

Like those who experienced The Post through their strong political beliefs, and like other critics that experience films through their own concerns, fear, and likes, I was deeply touched by the themes of I Can Only Imagine, as well as being connected to its music (both because of my history as a musician as well as having enjoyed the song so much). Like Walk the Line, the film connected with me in a way that doesn’t necessarily connect with others, and that doesn’t reflect its value as a well-made work of art) and I need to be aware of those connections and try to not them overwhelm my understanding of the art (as I believe many did with The Post). My faith and my role as a musician greatly connected me with the film, and I “enjoyed” it a great deal, and was deeply touched by it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t see and point out the film’s limitations; I’d also be remiss if I wasn’t honest about how a film acutely connects with me on issues that I deem eternal, and more profound and significant than any social or political issue.

 

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