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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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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