The Favourite: A death knell for truth in film?

Now that the Oscar nominations are out (to be commented on at a later time), it’s probably time to write about The Favourite, which ties with Roma for the greatest number of  nominations with 10. I love historical films, and The Favourite is beautifully shot and directed, nasty as could be, and so far from historical truth as to be called a fantasy. The latter two “attributes” are what turn this film sour.

To its credit, the film looks great, with lovely production design and beautiful cinematography, especially in its lighting. Acting also didn’t get much better in 2018 than with the three lead performances (Olivia Coleman and Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone), and even the supporting ones (Nicholas Hoult and Mark Gatiss).

Where to begin with its inaccuracies? Articles that tend to dismiss the inaccuracies often point to the so-called “real” theme of the film, which is the use and misuse of power, specifically with women of another era, and in a court setting. If only the film had stuck to that. But part of the power struggle from a bitter former “favourite” included an accusation of lesbianism between Queen Anne (1665-1714) and the second “favourite” in the film. According to fact-checking sources, this was indeed an accusation, but one that was highly unlikely to be true, and had dire consequences for the accuser. The film leaves this power theme buried, however, under a layer of overheated sexual dynamics. The film completely cuts out Queen Anne’s husband, for instance, whom she apparently loved deeply, and with whom she slept every night until his death. The film acknowledges her 17 (yes, 17) pregnancies but otherwise virtually eliminates the love of Anne’s life.

As with far too many historically-based films, The Favourite completely cuts out the Queen’s faith, which was a key factor behind the scenes leading up to her accessing the throne, and which was an important part of her life. In fact, her personal Christian faith, and in particular, her devotion to the Anglican church when it would have served her better to have been a Catholic in the early years, is worthy of a film itself. The historical consensus is that she would have considered lesbianism a particularly vile sin (along with much of the world in which she lived), that she loved her husband very much and stayed with him in a close bond until his death, and that the letters of affection between the queen and her first favourite were typical of female expressions of the time, especially among the aristocracy and ruling classes.

Unfortunately for historical accuracy, the film goes off in a number of wrong historical directions. The admittedly fascinating power struggles are sexualized far beyond what seems to have happened (which distracts from and dilutes this supposedly important theme), [spoiler alert] a poisoning that features strongly in the film never happened, the costumes are not close to real for the times, there were no rabbits inside the castle, and let’s not get started on the court dance sequence, which seem more out of a drugged fever dream than anything close to might have occurred at court. The greatest damage of all, of course, is to Queen Anne herself. Of course, she’s not here to defend herself or even the truth about herself, and neither is our collective memory of her strong enough to be offended on her behalf. But how many other films are about the queen to counteract this fantasy? Can anyone name even one? Talented director Yorgos Lanthimos, director of off-kilter films such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, knows how to deviate from reality with skill and panache. But real events and people are ill served here by such an approach.

I’ve long lamented other films that are just “OK,” but will regrettably remain the definitive word on a particular subject (e.g., Red Tails). But this overheated spin-off on real people and real events is likely to stand for a long time as what people will remember about Queen Anne and her court. Perhaps it’s because my father was a history teacher that I value historical accuracy so much, or because I have been written about in a particularly inaccurate and accusing way—either way, I tend to view the twisting of facts in film as a lack of imagination on the part of screenwriters, who often shape real people and events into their patterns (many hackneyed and paint-by-numbers) instead of creatively re-presenting reality into dramatic form. It’s understood that all historical films (from older studio films right up to Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, and PBS’s Victoria) are going to re-arrange events chronologically, skip over people and occurrences deemed unimportant, and combine characters and actions. Victoria in particular seems to love to impose preferred modern socio-political perspectives on 19-century events and people. But The Favourite is in a league of its own, and its high production values and stellar acting only make the fictional world it creates more acceptable and believable. All film art deceives to some extent, but the damage to real historical figures and actions doesn’t justify this film’s deviations from reality.

I was also struck by the vile tone throughout. Again, that’s the artist’s prerogative, but I personally struggled with whether mouthwash or a shower was the most applicable response to a viewing. There isn’t a truly decent person in the film, nor any decency shown. My region’s most highly regarded film writer even went so far as to leave the film off his “Best of 2018” list for just that reason, which gave me personal encouragement regarding my reaction, and made me respect him even more.

When it comes to The Favourite, I can’t bemoan that a historically based film is only so-so, and will therefore be a lame representation of real events until a superior film version comes along. The opposite is true: the film is formally stunning. But it has an ugly heart underneath, and veers so far from the truth as to be useless, and even damaging, to the historical events it purports to present. Just think of it as an especially dark and twisted tale using historical events, and as true to reality as 300 and Disney’s Pocahontas.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody is perhaps better known at the moment as the surprise winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama). Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk, and A Star is Born (and of course Roma, which wasn’t even nominated) are better films, so there is a little mystery here. Did the votes get split between two other films, and BR came out the winner? Who knows? But the film certainly doesn’t deserve the win.

The film is a colorful mess, perhaps reflecting its problems with director Bryan Singer—far too complex and strange to even begin to address here—and perhaps with its failed attempts to get a point of view on the subject, Freddie Mercury, himself. Mercury was the lead singer of Queen, which the film at least presents as having an identity and life apart from its troubled frontman.

The structure of the film is typical biopic. Troubled artist struggles against parental expectations, breaks into the musical scene with ease, runs into relationship issues right from the start, achieves breathtaking success, gets cocky, turns his back on his band, then apologizes for being an arrogant idiot, then triumphs on the biggest stage imaginable, gets sick, and then (spoiler alert) dies.

The monkey wrench in the works of this generic formula is Mercury’s struggles with his homosexuality, which the film simply doesn’t know what to do with. Unable to avoid the issue when it was so significant an issue to the singer, who died of AIDS, yet unwilling to explore the dark side of his behavior, the film ends up whiffing this aspect of his personality and life. Apparently, Mercury’s behavior was much more reckless than the film portrays, and a more honest approach to his behavior and internal struggles might have added some much needed shading to both the character and the bland generic approach the film takes to this anything-but-bland performer.

The main problem seems to be the script, which is a paint-by-numbers approach to the musical hits that form the film’s journey, even at the expense of tracking the journey of its lead. Great hits come at key moments, apparently exciting the movie viewer/listener with a familiar riff that leads into the creation and performance of that familiar and anticipated song. Vacillating between telling the story of the songs and telling the story of its lead, the film seems to only have the hand of chronology at its back, pushing it forward with some sense of direction and purpose.

Rami Malek, also a Globe winner for Best Actor/Drama, is getting all the attention, and deservedly so. But as good as he is, especially with the technical elements of a Mercury stage performance, the film’s lack of focus doesn’t provide Malek with the depth of character needed for a more rounded performance (of which he seems more than capable). He has his few obligatory moments of sad-face, the occasional tear, and the requisite moments of entitled shouting, but there is little digging into who Mercury might have been. The film gives a great deal of attention to his first serious girlfriend, who was apparently a key figure throughout his life. But beyond that complicated relationship, which is always touched upon and never really dug into, Mercury’s other romantic /sexual relationships are soft-pedaled and muted. On the positive side, the actors playing the other members of Queen provide some solid work as understandable and relatable colleagues, and help to ground the film in reality.

The film’s main attributes, aside from Malek, are the musical numbers, especially the grand finale of the Live Aid concert. If you’re a Queen fan, or even just a fan of the some of the better-known songs, the film presents them as if we were at a concert, which works well on the simple level of enjoying the numbers. But while the music is a treat for fans, the film’s lack of focus ultimately muddies the story and the identity of it its principal character. Plus…the group never split up, Live Aid wasn’t a reunion concert for them, boyfriend Jim Hutton first met Mercury in a gay bar, record executive Ray Foster didn’t exist, Mary didn’t come into the picture as the film indicates, and as might be expected, Queen’s formation was nowhere near as simple and clean as the film presents. But hey, who needs accuracy in a film about a real person in a real band?

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If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is a film that will grow in stature and appreciation over the next several years. Not that it’s being ignored now–Regina King will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and there will be other nominations as well. Director Barry Jenkins, who staked his claim as a director and screenwriter of substance and style with Moonlight (2016), continues to establish his importance and artistry. Beale Street has its moments of greatness and a few missteps, but it’s not so much produced and directed as woven lovingly together.

What the film is about is many things, including institutional racism, mother-bear love, religious hypocrisy, and romantic love. The plot, which the film sticks to for the most part, is about two model-beautiful people falling in love, and the obstacles that prevent this perfect-seeming match from reaching domestic bliss. It’s the background, of course, that provides the tension and conflict.

Jenkins’s style is dream-like and edgy at the same time. His takes are often very long, using pans instead of cuts in even the longest conversations; the feeling is of old-time films of the thirties and forties that pull you in and keep you there. The focus is generally shallow, embracing the two lovers while keeping the harsh outside realities out of focus, literally and figuratively. He often uses frontality as well, putting us in the middle of the film’s conversations (literally) or challenging us with the film’s Big Conversations. We are drawn slowly and inexorably into the reverie of love shared by Tish (KiKi Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James), who both speak softly and sweetly for the most part. It’s hard to create an immersive love story these days, especially when the love is challenged on so many sides. But Jenkins’ careful and moody cinematography, plus the gentle performances of the actors (even when the action kicks up) draws us in and allows us to experience the sensitive connection between these two.

That very approach, of course, is a warning as well as a creative approach to getting the viewer inside a relationship. Nothing this tender can remain unaffected by outside influences, whether it’s threatened with family opposition, mistaken victims, lying policemen, or even the challenges of everyday life. (A fascinating story could be made out of this relationship uninterrupted by unfair legal action. Where could this kind of dreamy love go when pressured by finances and children?)

The acting is solid throughout, but most attention is being paid to Regina King as Tish’s mother Sharon. King, even in a supporting role, dominates the film and is its very heart, reminding me of Angelica Huston’s “owning” of Prizzi’s Honor, which also won Huston her Oscar. To help guarantee King the win, the film is structured to feature her lightly through the first part of the film, and then have her take the reins of the film toward the end with more highly emotional scenes. King keeps her intensity (and underlying anger) generally muted in the film, leading with maternal love and care, but showing strength at every turn. Her performance toward the end almost promises to release the intensity in a showy turn, but fortunately never does, keeping this part of the performance in synch with her earlier work. Though not one of the two leads, this is her film.

The two biggest weaknesses, IMHO, are the religious mom and the ending. As is becoming maddeningly common, the only person  who professes a deep faith in the film is an odious, hypocritical, and cruel woman. At first, she only seems harshly judgmental. [Spoiler alert.] Then things go from bad to much worse, with statements that are certainly not representative of even the most intensely hypocritical person who professes faith. Her final comments before her “comeuppance” are loathsome, and we as viewers want her to shut her mouth. But not shutting it precipitates an act of violence worthy of a great deal of discussion. Part of us is happy that the cruel and tormenting speechifying is ended. But on second thought, are we to commend such physical cruelty (especially in this age of #MeToo and Time’s Up)? The film presents the act of violence as a logical response to religious-coated cruelty, and comes from an actor of sympathy and accessibility (Michael Beach).  That moment deserves a little more thought and discussion. Is this OK because she presents as religious? In any other film, in any other context, the act would be reprehensible. Talk amongst yourselves….

The ending, to me, is problematic. More than one recent film (e.g., Imitation Game) moves from telling a story to informing us that this is only one example of a larger problem. The question is whether that weakens or strengthens what the film is trying to communicate. My vote is that it weakens it, as the film does here. Jenkins has involved us and moved us. He has made his points through his story. Mansplaining is a thing. Is filmsplaining going to become one, too?

 

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Mary Poppins Returns

Warm, sometimes touching, exciting, and uneven, with a compromised central performance. Plus, oh yes, it’s got to withstand the viewer’s recollection of its superior predecessor. That’s a lot for any film to bear. Mary Poppins Returns is mostly a delight, however, with its bright colors, accomplished dance numbers, and mostly strong, mostly English cast. It’s just too bad that the whole wasn’t quite the sum of its parts.

Most serious film viewers and writers try to see a film in its proper context, which usually means working to see the film in relation to itself. That’s impossible for this film, which must either beat back or transcend the fond memories of the 1964 original. Mary Poppins Returns succeeds to some degree, with knowing but humble references to the original (some of which you might miss if not paying attention), strong secondary performances, and solid production numbers (one of which makes use of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop talents.) The completely uncynical mood throughout is refreshing, and the film is beautiful to look at, evoking the original while setting a color palette of its own.

The original chimney sweep Bert has been updated to lamplighter Jack (Miranda), who gives an open-hearted performance with a clearly improved Cockney accent over Dick Van Dyke’s original. Miranda is such a talent, and has achieved such success, that I feared a certain knowingness and smug aloofness might taint the performance. But Miranda, neither the best singer nor best dancer around, gives a thoroughly joyful performance and makes the best use of his talents—the songs fit him perfectly and the most challenging dance number (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”) is edited to let us enjoy the fine choreography of the main dancers and at the same time give us the impression that Miranda has their same dancing abilities. That’s no dig at Miranda, the heart of the film, but a compliment to the editors. And (spoiler alert) he becomes involved romantically in an arc that is gently (and beautifully) developed and provides a love connection that the first film lacked.

The core of acting Brits keeps the film grounded. Ben Whishaw (the dad), Emily Mortimer (the aunt, Dad’s sister), Julie Walters (the maid) don’t get too serious, but they lay a solid foundation for the leads to go magical when necessary while holding the film together with their charm and honesty. Colin Firth, however, doesn’t exactly make the most of a paper-thin bad guy.

The main problems are the plot, the songs, and Emily Blunt (sort of). The plot is gruel-thin, and boils down to a “will-they-or-won’t-they lose the house?” scenario. Of course ,the end is never in doubt, but the last-minute suspense sequence tends to strain even Mary Poppins credibility while taking the film into a risky direction that fortunately doesn’t erase the childlike joy of the previous two hours.

Some of the numbers are enchanting, mostly because of director Rob Marshall’s choreography and direction rather than the songs themselves. They are, to use a term popular in my household, “fine.”  The aforementioned “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” “A Cover is Not a Book,” and “Nowhere to Go But Up” are particularly strong. “A Cover is Not a Book,” though, fits lyrically into the film yet suffers from the lack of connection to either the plot or the overall mood and sentiment of the film, which never is firmly established. This is another area in which the film unfortunately has to battle with the original—those songs were classics, working on their own while also working for the film of which they were a part. Perhaps one or two songs will live on after this film, but they tend to be solid rather than transcendent.

The classic animation in the film is a welcome change from all the CGI work clogging up current movie screens, but not all those numbers work, either. The dangerous chase sequence is classic Disney on one hand in its scariness, but it disconnects from the rest of the film and seems unnecessary. Also unnecessary and seemingly shoehorned in is Meryl Streep’s number “Turning Turtle,” an homage of sorts to the “I Love to Laugh” number of the original. If I were Marshall, and Streep requested to be in my next film (which is what apparently happened), one could do much worse than this number, but it’s the kind that would have been cut out on TV viewings 20 years ago in the interest of time and momentum.

Which brings us to Blunt, one of my favorite young actresses (A Quiet Place, The Devil Wears Prada, The Young Victoria). When I saw the preview of the film and noted her entrance from the sky to the park, I saw some body language that caused some concern. Unfortunately, that was a genuine preview of a performance that is more of an impression or impersonation of the Poppins character than a genuine performance. I had always tended to under-appreciate Julie Andrews’ work because I assumed her Oscar was mainly due to Hollywood making up for her not getting the lead in the film version of My Fair Lady. But subsequent viewings of the 1964 film show a solid, inhabited performance by Andrews that was funny, mischievous, and slyly subversive. And that voice—one of the great voices of the second half of the 20th century. How could anyone compete with that? Blunt has a fine voice, but no one could be in Andrews’ league. So kudos to Blunt for tackling the project. But she never finds her inner Mary Poppins. The performance varies from scene to scene, and Blunt keeps defaulting to an upper-crust sophisticated attitude that is put on rather than lived in. She is a talented triple threat of actress, singer, and dancer, and some of her lines are delightfully delivered. She shines (if not really dazzles) in the musical portions of the film, but never locks down on her own version of the classic character.

Even with all of that, the film is a pleasant and occasionally charming film with more strengths than weaknesses. Miranda and the secondary players (save Firth) are wonderful, and the musical numbers are genuinely entertaining. Then there is the “just-in-the-nick-of-time” appearance of the then 91-year-old Dick Van Dyke that rushes the ending of the main narrative, but does so with so much surprise and energy that it doesn’t really matter. And then there is the surprise appearance of another legend at the end of the film, which is a lovely revelation that dovetails perfects with the film’s final musical number and finishes the film on a literally high note. The whimsy and wonder of the film may not match those of its predecessor, but there are some enjoyable  moments and the occasional highlight in this sequel.

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The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is one of those older, well-regarded films I’d put on my list to see “sometime.” Sometime turned out to be last night, and since I didn’t really know much about the film, many of the surprises of the true story were part of the enjoyment.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is the “based on true events” story (I can’t in good conscience call it a “true story”) about Gladys Aylward, a British maid who felt called by God to be a missionary to China. Obstacles ensue, of course, but she manages with great difficulty (that the film papers over) to get to China in time to learn the language, become a Chinese citizen, meet a man that may or may not have been more than a friend, and to help a huge group of children get to safety in the middle of the Japanese war with China (1937 to 1945).

The film was nominated for Best Director Mark Robson, who, ironically, had been nominated the year before for the quite opposite Peyton Place (he’d also directed Champion, Bright Victory, and The Harder They Fall.) It’s an epic that falls easily in look and production among the large-scale productions of the period, such as The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur, though the central story is much smaller and focused, and the background is a foreign field and a foreign war rather than the Exodus or the beginning of Christianity. It’s in CinemaScope, which adds to the visual scope, but the non-Technicolor color hasn’t survived well over the years.

What it gets wrong: The production is simply too big and grand for the story. The story is grittier, smaller, and stronger than what the film portrays. The film is far too long at 2 hours and 38 minutes—and this in 1958. The film broadens at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, and rather quickly becomes something of a war epic followed by a combination Great Escape/Journey film. It works, but just barely.

The real Gladys was a short, dark-haired, Cockney-accented woman, and the book the film was based on was entitled The Small Woman. None of these make anyone automatically think of the tall, Swedish Ingrid Bergman, but Bergman was a star and could hold a film like this as few could. The central personage of a film narrative like this needs to be strong and demanding of attention. My guess is that Aylward was the former and nothing of the latter; Bergman was both. Bergman continues the good news/bad news of her casting with her performance. No one suffers on film or swoons as beautifully and romantically as Bergman, and she shares with fellow Swede Garbo that slightly removed, “floating above it all” flavor that gives her an otherworldly air. Fortunately, we’re not in Gaslight or Notorious territory here, and that performance is set against a set of difficult circumstances that ground her work here.

The film, like all others, is also a reflection of its time, and not only in its slightly bloated production. The key male in the story was Chinese, and here is portrayed by Curt Jurgens, who is German and has been changed into a supposed half-Chinese, half-Dutch officer. He looks as Chinese as Bergman, and it’s distracting, to say the least. The other male lead is supposed to be completely Chinese, and is played by the ailing English actor Robert Donat (The 39 Steps, Goodbye, Mr. Chips), who died during production. He is made to look as Asian as possible, but since Donat is 1) not Asian, and 2) a major star of the time, it’s also distracting now, though less so than Jurgen’s character. Since casting Asians as Asians is still an issue, we can just look upon the casting here as typical of its time. What’s also intriguing is the love interest in the film, which falls somewhere between romantically almost believable and shoehorned into an otherwise romance-less story (Aylward insisted that she had never kissed a man.) Apparently, it was OK to place a romance into a story where there wasn’t one, but heaven forbid it be between a Swedish-looking supposed Englishwoman and a genuinely full-blooded Chinese.

What the film gets right: What the film gets right makes up for all the things it gets wrong. It’s a Hollywood version of a missionary, but while presenting Aylward as strong and capable, it also shows her as stubborn and occasionally difficult, leading to a more well-rounded characterization. Even better is that unlike most mainstream films of today, there is a great deal of accuracy and respect shown to her faith. Opposition abounds of course, as it would for any missionary, be it on a personal or societal level. But there are people whose faith takes hits and never waivers, and there are people led by a genuine call of God. In the world of this film, Christianity is real, and powerful, and occasionally quite effective in accomplishing deeds great and small.

The film also succeeds in not doing the typical Hollywood dance around the key issues of a missionary. The goal is to bring people to faith, and the film doesn’t back away from that. One might call the climax of the film the (spoiler alert) successful rescue of scores of children over difficult terrain, but in some ways the climax comes somewhat earlier when (another spoiler alert) the Mandarin (Donat’s character) becomes a Christian, and Aylward bursts into tears of joy that don’t subside quickly. For a true Christian, the genuine conversion of a soul is on a par with the rescue that follows, and the case can easily be made that they are two fruits of the same heart and work. I can’t recall seeing a mainstream Hollywood film of that era, except perhaps for a few moments at the end of Ben-Hur, that not only respects faith, but gets it so right in its presentation.

The film is slow, and could easily have been 45 minutes shorter. The traveling at the end gets a bit long and dragged out, as so a few of the other sequences. And oh, the music: overdone, overloud, and though typical of its time for big-budget productions, a distraction. Yet in the middle of the noise and the scope is a story that gets more right than wrong at its essence, and is, in spite of itself at times, genuinely inspiring.

 

 

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A Star is Born (2018)

In film school, we learned that one of the most intriguing of artistic collisions is when a strong auteur director with a signature style decides to take on a genre with its own rigorous formulaic demands. The result is usually something unique, combining the elements of both director and genre while demonstrating what happens when the two collide.

 

The story of A Star is Born is its own genre at this point, and its various versions are worthy of study not only as films in themselves, but as reflections of their creators and the times in which the films were created. To me, this is the fifth telling of the tale, not the fourth, as the first in my mind is 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, directed by George Cukor, whose only major difference is that it separated the love interest and the character with the failing career, while the subsequent versions combined the two. (See https://film-prof.com/2018/09/25/two-prototypes-what-price-hollywood-1932-and-stranger-on-the-third-floor-1940/)

Since 1954’s version with Judy Garland (also directed by Cukor), the films have all been musicals, or at least dramas with a great deal of music. The current version is no exception, of course, featuring a surprising tour-de-force performance by Lady Gaga as Ally, and an unsurprising great performance by director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper as Jack. The film is beautiful to look at, intense, and occasionally confusing.

Watching the film just for the performances is a worthwhile venture, as the two leads bite into their roles with energy, not quite chewing the scenery, but not holding back, either. They are joined by Sam Elliott, a sure-fire Oscar nominee, for a solid and grounding performance that provides some needed real-world perspective in this crazy arena of famous musical artists. Gaga, of course, is the big revelation, and she gives herself over completely to the role with all its ups, down, joys, and disappointments. Cooper has dug out a new basement-low voice for himself in both singing and speaking, and reminds us again that this is one of our best actors, with an astonishing range and now, solid musical chops on display. He and Gaga contributed to the writing of the majority of the songs, but the songs feel natural to the characters and don’t come off as a second-rate vanity effort.

As a director, Cooper is certainly an actor’s director, but he succeeds in keeping this a story of people relating to people, even as it’s set against the world of huge concert venues and a heartless and often soulless music world. Cooper keeps the focus on Gaga and his character’s relationship with her, never letting the film get sidetracked or overwhelmed by other concerns.

The film hits all the required notes (pun intended), from the tagline of “I just wanted to take another look at you” to the embarrassing awards ceremony to the tragic end. What’s going to be the center of study for a while are the differences between this version and the previous incarnations. Perhaps as a nod to the singer’s earlier audiences, Gaga’s character Ally is introduced to us musically in a drag club. The film does its best to ease that into the plot, but it seems a little forced. What is occasionally perplexing is the film’s view of Ally’s musical directions once she becomes famous. Are we to go along with all the dancing, lights and costumes? Ally seems to have dancers imposed on her at the start of her rise, then drops them (and we applaud), then brings them back as she becomes a better version of Britney Spears. Just when we might go along with Jack’s negative reaction to all the glitz and noise, he is just arriving at his jerk phase, and he comes across as one who’s beginning to lose it than one who might legitimately object as a musical artist.

In keeping with the times, there are dozens and dozens of f-bombs (this is not a film for children and many young folks), even a few more than might be considered natural in this environment. And then there is one very quick shot that wins the award for the most gratuitous piece of nudity in any film this decade.

While the 1976 version of A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson is widely considered the weakest of the named versions, this one contends with the 1937 and 1954 versions for consideration as the best. The differences between the two earliest named versions are significant enough that a ranking of one over the other comes down primarily to taste and preference. The same can be said of this one. The leads in all three films are great, the films speak to their times, and at least in this version and the 1954 version, there is an element of surprise, here with Gaga and there with Garland’s stellar adult performance. The differences ultimately arise from the actors, the directors and the times. Comparing is fun, but in terms of determining a best, ultimately a joyful futility.

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Green Book

Note: It’s been a long time since my last entry. Apologies. I’ve seen many an older, classic film, but no films in the theater. Yes, it’s been that busy. The older films I saw deserve their own entry, but an entry for an old film takes as long as an entry from a newer one.

I feel more of a reviewer than a serious film writer when I write about Green Book. It’s the feel-good film of the season, and (spoiler alert) since it ends at Christmas, can conceivably be considered something of a Christmas film.

The film itself is middle of the road, and a bit paint-by-numbers. It’s the story of a talented black pianist, great as a solo act but financially successful as part of a trio, who engages a dees-dem-dose Italian guy from Brooklyn to drive him on his next tour—one that will take him to the deep South. Once you hear this, and know that the time is 1962, nearly any adult could map out what might happen. And it does. But it doesn’t really matter that much.

A film like this stands or falls on its performances, and this is where the film most succeeds. Viggo Mortensen, a Danish-American actor who is probably best known for playing Aragon in the LOTR films, veers far from his normal stick-thin film character to play this version of the overweight Tony Danza Italian-American. The film doesn’t ask Mortensen for much more than believability here, but he supplies it with a performance that first nails the character, then enriches it with the occasional emotional detail; his great success is transcending all the clichés which could so easily could have dulled this character.

Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Moonlight) plays the polished, half-isolated musician who doesn’t feel at home anywhere. Of course he’s the perfect balance to Mortensen’s earthy, street-wise sauce-and-pasta kind of guy. To say more is to sound cliché, but also to give away too much. Each learns from the other, which viewers can see from a mile away, but that process is fortunately linked to the great chemistry between the two actors and characters.

Holding these two together beyond the plot is Linda Cardellini, who plays Tony’s (Mortensen’s) wife Dolores. Cardellini is an underused American treasure who brings her A game to a small part, and is really the third solid performance of the film. She is woven into the plot as the two go on the road, and it’s a smart screenplay idea to keep her in our minds as the two men travel.

Every racial situation you can think of is addressed, usually in a way consistent with the film’s PG-13 rating, the spoonful of sugar that makes the social-comment medicine go down. Again, though, this is a writer’s success when the focus needs to be on the two main characters and their evolving relationship. This isn’t a film about racism; it’s about two people connecting, growing, and learning in the context of a tour that takes an effete black male boss and a prejudiced white male employee through the Jim Crow south.

Though the inevitable racial conflicts are uncomfortable, perhaps the most disturbing element is the existence of the Green Book (full name: The Negro Motorist Green Book) itself—a guide to the black traveler to the most welcoming (or perhaps more accurately, the least unwelcoming) hotels, service areas, and restaurants. With all the “normal” conflicts presented in the film, perhaps the very existence of the Green Book is the greatest social service the film provides, and the one for which the film may be best remembered.

The film is, with all its all-too-obvious racial encounters, is primarily a warm, lightly funny buddy movie in the context of a road trip. Not challenging, but quite enjoyable.

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