Mr. Kovic Goes to Washington

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Master and puppet, 1993

A lot of talent went into Dave, which is a pure Hollywood contrivance: a romantic comedy inside a political exposé. If that sounds familiar, no wonder. Romcom is a vast genre, and politics are a juicy setting for intrigue and suspense, especially when filmed in politics’ epicenter,  stately and photogenic Washington, D.C. It’s almost a subgenre. The More the Merrier, Born Yesterday (1950, and the 1993 remake), and Something for the Birds are all worthy examples. Goldie Hawn’s Protocol fits the bill at a lower standard, and the screwball dud Legally Blonde 2 brings the standard to an all-time low.

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Puppet and Master, 1939

Dave has screwball elements, too, but takes its cues from a serious source. At its core it is a modified update of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Dave is more purely comic, but both movies are essentially works of patriotic propaganda. Mind you, I have yet to find another moviegoer who regards Dave as such, but I’m sticking to my guns.

In both films, the hero is a clean-cut youngish white man who is emphatically not a politician: James Stewart as Smith, Kevin Kline in a dual role in Dave. Their amateur status is part of the propaganda: Americans will identify more readily with an idealistic innocent than a party member, even a squeaky clean one. Smith and Dave are both abruptly manipulated into powerful positions in Washington— Smith replaces a dead senator, Dave is a lookalike stand-in for an incapacitated President— and each is chosen for the position because they are perceived (wrongly) to be weak men who can be easily controlled. And each ends up engaged in an heroic effort to clean up the debased federal government.

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Capra almost capsized

Mr. Smith is the superior film, of course, and the stronger piece of propaganda, though it is rarely seen as such these days. In 1939, however, it was not welcomed in Washington, D.C. In fact, it was actually considered seditious by some. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The unflattering depiction of government officials so infuriated real-life legislators that there were calls for the film to be banned. For its portrayal of American political corruption, it was called anti-American and communist; some deemed it propaganda that aided the efforts of the Axis countries at the start of World War II.” There’s a terrific analysis of the movie, from the making of it through its reception here, really worth the read.

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D.C. fails the smell test

Frank Capra’s powers of persuasion as a filmmaker were such that he hired by the U. S. Government to make propaganda films during World War II. In fact, it is my contention, not a popular one, that Capra’s other beloved masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life, which is essentially a modern morality play, is also a work of propaganda— a diabolically subtle one. On the surface, it praises the lives of ordinary citizens. But scratch that surface and you’ll see that the opposite is true: a strong leader is required to guide the masses, who are presented as good-natured, long-suffering, and almost helpless people. There is truth to that view of leadership, but it is a profoundly un-American truth that impugns democracy. It’s closer to authoritarianism in the way it pities ordinary citizens– an attitude that certainly reflects more than a few real politicians. Not the more benevolent ones, such as Mr. Smith, but the less benevolent ones, represented by mean old Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who disdains common folk, and exploits them. Hollywood shares that disdain and exploits freely: how many Americans watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas without seeing through the dramatic pretence to its imperious core?

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Dress rehearsal

Dave is kinder, gentler propaganda. The plot gets going early, when President William Mitchell suffers a stroke while he’s philandering in a hotel room. “Who was she this time?” asks the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver). Mitchell is thus efficiently branded as a thoroughgoing bastard, and an incapacitated one, but he’s still POTUS. His Administration’s screwball solution (also illegal, needless to say) to having a comatose Commander in Chief is to hire a body double.  Enter Dave Kovic, an affable entrepreneur who runs a local employment agency and, as a sideline, gigs as a Presidential impersonator. Very handy. And casting Kline is crucial. In his beautifully balanced performance, Dave is at once an affable everyman and a determined and dedicated citizen, an alpha male who doesn’t blink an eye when, at last, he stands face-to-face with his Svengali: Continue reading

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The pieces don’t fit

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Agnes on Ash Wednesday

It’s well-acted, -filmed, and -paced, so I was surprised at how much  Puzzle  disappointed me.

That was my attitude yesterday, when I saw it.

Today, I’m of a different mind– though I doubt director Marc Turtletaub would agree with the reasons for my change of heart, nor would the writers who adapted Natalia Smirnoff’s Argentine film, Rompecabezas (2010) for U.S. audiences. Today, I think the main character, a Catholic wife and mother named Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), is effectively presented not as an admirable woman in stifling circumstances, but as a stubbornly selfish and suspicious one. She’s generous (and doesn’t seem resentful) when it comes to running a household for her family– full cooked breakfasts, cleaning, etc., etc., even doing all the laundry not just for herself and her husband but for their two grown sons, like she’s teaching them that domestic tasks are women’s work. She has strong opinions (rejects vegetarianism and Buddhism, e.g.), but when it comes to deeper matters, particularly her own emotions and wishes, she keeps to herself and even goes so far as to spin a web of lies.

No reviewer I’ve yet read has felt this way, so I feel obliged to offer evidence:

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Secret trips to Manhattan

She’s deceitful. After she discovers her puzzle skills– which are formidable, her hands don’t even pause while she’s working on a puzzle– she connects with a wealthy man and fellow jigsaw aficionado named Robert (Irrfan Khan) and begins commuting twice a week from Connecticut to his townhouse in Manhattan to practice for the national championship as partners. So why does she lie to her family about what she’s doing, explaining her absences and lateness by saying that she got caught up in a church meeting or went to visit an ailing aunt? (There is indeed such an aunt, who is visited, once, mainly to back up the lie.) Agnes’s husband, Louie (David Denman), is an old-fashioned man-of-the-house type who wants a stay-at-home wife, but he’s a hard-working garage owner and a dedicated family man who simply adores Agnes. Their two college-age sons also love her and– here’s the thing– when she finally does tell the truth, they delightedly encourage her, which guides their father’s response. So what was the problem with telling the truth in the first place? Continue reading

Timeline of a ghost

Ghost_Mara sortingMaking A Ghost Story was a daring act by writer/ director David Lowery, and he has delivered a film that proves his worth as a true auteur. Anyone with the vision to imagine this story as a movie, let alone the creativity and courage to bring it to the screen, is an artist to keep an eye on. His biggest movie to date is Pete’s Dragon (2016), with Robert Redford. They work together again on Old Man and the Gun (2018?), which also stars Casey Affleck, who was also in Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with Rooney Mara, who is also in this movie, A Ghost Story. Lowery may be developing a roster of players in a way that so many film directors do, from John Ford and Ingmar Bergman and Mike Leigh and Spike Lee.

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The deceased, in costume.

The plot is simple but ambitious: A modest bungalow is occupied by an unmarried couple, M (Rooney Mara, the sister with talent) and C (Casey Affleck, the luckiest actor alive, as he admitted in his Oscar speech when he thanked Kenneth Lonergan who “made this part and without this part and without his writing, I wouldn’t be here”). We don’t learn much about M and C, other than that he is a musician and composer, and is soon dead. Early on in the film, he is killed in a car accident, she returns home— and so does he, invisibly, as a ghost who rises up from a slab in the morgue wearing the sheet he was covered with (a powerful image and idea). Time passes, but he stays even after she moves away, haunting the property far into the future as well as the past, as far back as when the first white settlers arrive, and then forward again to the present, when he watches himself and M move in.

This is not a conventional movie in any way. The bold strokes include: Continue reading

About 1.5 laughs per hour

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Simian Simonischek

The opening scene of Toni Erdmann gives you fair warning. The camera lingers on the front door of a house in Germany. And lingers. A mailman arrives with a package. He rings. And rings. The door opens and Mr. Winifried Conradi appears (actor Peter Simonischek). He makes jokes about the package being for his brother, who defuses bombs. He calls into the house for his brother but gets no response. He goes inside. We wait with the postman. And wait. The brother shows up, but it’s Conradi again, in fake teeth and a wig from the Sandra Bullock collection. Truly, he looks like an extra who escaped from the set of War for Planet of the Apes before the makeup crew had finished. The mailman scene eventually ends, but the movie continues at the same pace for 165 minutes, every one of which ate away at my precious equanimity. During the last 30 minutes, to revivify both brain and butt, I left my seat and took to pacing behind the back row.

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Human Simonischek

When he is in disguise, Herr Conradi introduces himself as Toni Erdmann, but with or without the get-up, he is a grotesque, ill-favored old man who would be difficult to watch even if he wasn’t a deplorable lug who treats people as if they were pawns in some grand game he’s playing. His bull’s-eye target is his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a hard-working executive stationed in Bucharest. (Most of the film was shot in Romania for no creative or artistic or even financial reason, but because the director Maren Ade thought “it’d be fun to work there.”) Conradi flies to Bucharest and, willy-nilly, begins to invade Ines’ life as Toni Erdmann,  embarrassing her however, wherever, and whenever he can. Without dignity himself, he treats no one with respect, especially not Ines. His buffoonery seems to be a tactic meant to win her over to the buffoon lifestyle. But there’s no depth, no resonance in his actions. He isn’t accessing playful inner-child stuff as his alter ego; Toni Erdmann is more like an inner-juvie—tiresome, troublesome, and immature.

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Cutting room floor, please

The film, written and directed by 40-year-old Ade, won awards, including the European Film Award, for which I have high regard. That made me think twice about my reaction, at least until I looked at the other nominees in 2016. It was a weak year. I’ve seen three of the other nominees, none of which had much merit, especially Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which is obscene trash, and Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, which is maddeningly boring and feeble-minded. Still, I don’t know how Toni Erdmann even could have been nominated, flabby and tedious as it is. It could and should have been shortened by as much as half– seriously, ninety minutes is more than enough for what amounts to an untrained circus clown barging around in his daughter’s adult life. Whole scenes (e.g., the handcuffing, and the seduction scene that ends with sperm-frosted pastries) could have been cut without losing any of the point– which by the way, is anything but fresh territory.

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Zorba in Crete

Zorba the Greek leapt to mind as an obvious high-profile precursor– a comedy with undertones of drama and a two-word message: enjoy life. Both protagonists, Zorba and Toni, are aging and unkempt, but Zorba (Anthony Quinn) is earthy and exuberant while Toni is bogus and brash. Zorba, at the end, teaches his up-tight acolyte (Alan Bates) how to dance the sirtaki on an Aegean beach. Toni Erdmann ends with Conradi’s daughter putting his false teeth in her mouth. So, okay, both pupils are converted, but given my druthers, I’ll dance on a Greek beach until I drop before I open wide for somebody else’s novelty dentures.

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Daughter, fed up

The multiple-award-winning Thuringian actress Hüller holds the film together, and the scene, toward the end, when she belts out Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All, is a triumph of performance over production. That scene is pretty much it as far as affecting storytelling goes (and I’m not forgetting her prolonged and gratuitous nude scene). Without her presence, I might have walked out of the screening, which was at an art house in New York. It was a full audience, but laughs were sporadic and if more than a handful of people ever laughed simultaneously, I missed it. For my part, I laughed three times. Correction: four, because at one point I remembered the old joke about the shortest books ever written, a list that includes 1000 Years of German Humor.

Adventures in infidelity

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First and only for both

The scene is dinner for four in a New York restaurant. It’s Anna’s 30th birthday, and she’s celebrating with her boyfriend Will, who plans to propose. The other couple is her brother Hale and his boyfriend Reece, who happens to be Will’s partner in a carpentry business, an enterprise that includes remodeling a brownstone for Will and Anna. In an awkward conversation (“Our sex life is really, really great!”), Anna and Will admit that neither of them has had sex with anyone but each other. Reece promptly declares his disapproval (“The two of you are so constant and inevitable and boring”) and admonishes them to start screwing around.

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Bare skin hug

Did I walk out of Permission at that point? Almost, and for a couple of reasons. It wasn’t Will and Anna’s quaint sex lives: unusual as total monogamy is (except among certain religious devotees), I know at least one married couple who were each other’s first-and-only (and atheists besides). Rather, it was because I knew what was coming– them, literally, on screen, with various lovers. Essentially, I’d bought into an x-rated chick flick with a lewd premise. Nobody I know (or want to know) would put up with an intrusive conversation like that, let alone be baited into adultery. It didn’t help that the characters all stammer and falter as if they were the kind of neurotics that populate Woody Allen movies. Turns out, Woody minus jokes equals Brian Crano, a name that will never find its way into my long-term memory.

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You want me to sleep around?

In subsequent awkward stuttering conversations, Will (Dan Stevens, using less than an ounce of his talent) and Anna (Rebecca Hall) wonder if Reece was right. They finally decide that he was (of course, or else no movie), and therefore they should see how other bedmates perform. And so they’re off to cruise a bar, together. He goes one way, she goes another, and soon she’s picked up by one man, who is superseded by another, better candidate, a charming young man called Dane (François Arnaud). Will watches, then proceeds introduce himself as a friend, and is eventually left to watch some more as Anna go off into the night with Dane. The result of this is predictable: Will wonders, and eventually asks, is he better than me in bed? The tables will predictably turn, causing Anna to wonder and ask of his chosen lover, is she better than me? Continue reading

Making faun of civil war

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Del Toro with Doug Jones as Pan

Long mystified by the grand reputation enjoyed by Pan’s Labyrinth, I watched it for the second time recently, and the nicest thing I can think to say, really, is: I don’t get it. Maybe that’s because I can’t easily dismiss plot devices and plot holes, even when they’re part of an elaborate fantasy. Ultimately, this film is a simple-minded fairy tale ginned up with computer graphics, gloomy lighting, and an imagination preoccupied with horror. But never mind the murkiness and the monstrosity, my problem was, what’s was the movie trying to say? That war is grotesque? that childhood is perilous? Both? Something else? What does Pan, the Greek god of mountains and forests and meadows and shepherds, have to do with war? or childhood? Grasping at straws, I note that Pan was a stalker of Nymphs, but the protagonist in this movie is a nymphet, 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), and her sexuality isn’t a piece of the puzzle.

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The wartime origins of Hellboy

I stand ready to be persuaded otherwise, but as far as I can tell, the Mexican-born writer/director Guillermo del Toro is trying to have it both ways— a fantasy based in the reality of a tragic historic event. Ofelia is growing up in Spain after the Civil War, when Franco’s forces faced continuing resistance in from rebel guerrillas called the Maquis. We don’t see much of the rebels, but we see plenty of the sadistic army Captain hunting them. The story boils down to him, Ofelia, and just a few other characters: a doctor and a housekeeper in relatively minor roles, and Ofelia’s pregnant mother, a widow now married to the Captain. More memorable by far is the array of grotesque creatures who appear only to Ofelia. The action is all played out with a relish of repulsiveness and cruelty that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a faintly decadent gourmand. Del Toro has done this before, of course, most successfully when he used heavily stylized Nazis in the brilliant opening sequence of his pure fantasy, the wild and witty Hellboy.

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Ofelia’s fairy is a stick insect

Here, del Toro dispenses with stylizing the warmongers. That’s a problem. We’re supposed to simultaneously believe that we’re in the guerilla war in Spain, with genuine soldiers doing genuine harm, and we’re in a fantasy. The biggest failure is with those characters, because at  no point did I take any of them seriously, especially not the relentlessly evil Colonel (Sergi López). He is as hard to believe as the monsters because he’s the equivalent of a cruel stepmother. There is no depth, no complexity, no nuance. He’s a bad guy. Are we supposed to chalk that up to a child’s viewpoint? I want to say yes, but there’s no indication the mother, the housekeeper, or the doctor see any other side to him, nor do any of his actions suggest an evolved human being. He’s plot-device evil.

As disappointing as ill-developed characters are, other things troubled me, not all of which can be written off as fantasy and/or a child’s viewpoint— if it is a child’s viewpoint: adolescent Ofelia is the heroine, but powerful Pan is the voice-over narrator. Four problems in particular made me impatient for the movie to be over: Continue reading

Why not a comedy?

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Billie Jean and Bobby, enjoying the sex-in-sports spotlight

The 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King was quite a lot of fun when it happened; if it hadn’t been appealing as such, it wouldn’t have sold out and drawn 50 million viewers besides.  All the more mysterious, therefore, is the fact that Battle of the Sexes is so little fun.

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Smiling Bobby, sour Steve

The themes feel mostly manufactured: King’s necessarily closeted homosexuality, and Riggs as an inveterate hustler and gambler. Riggs and King, in real life, were so friendly that hers was one of the last voices he heard the day before he died in his comfortable home in Encinitas. In this film, Steve Carell does a skillful job as Riggs, and he’s got comic chops like nobody’s business, but the character he’s given is a gambling addict, an irresponsible husband and father, and a desperate self-promoter.

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Stone and Riseborough

As for Billie Jean King, she was not only game for tennis, but game for the grandstanding “Battle of the Sexes” that Riggs rigged up. She was both amused and amusing, and Emma Stone plays her well. Her character is written as the intelligent, witty, determined person that King is– except when it comes to her sexuality. Then it’s gloom and tears. Even with the extraordinarily gifted British actress Andrea Riseborough as her girlfriend, the role of Billie Jean as written locates none of the joy that she showed before, during, and after the showcased Battle of the Sexes.

If there is one thing feminists need to do, it’s deploy their wit. Billie Jean King’s story is the real thing: a woman who actually effected change, and she did it with light-hearted flair, which is in very short supply in this tedious film.