Blithe Spirit (2020)


Won’t you look sweet upon a seat…

(2020) Comedy (IFCDan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Judi Dench, Isla Fisher, Aimee Ffion-Edwards, Emilia Fox, Julian Rhind-Tutt, James Fleet, Michele Dotrice, Simon Kunz, Dave Johns, Adil Ray, Calie Cooke, Peter Rogers, Delroy Atkinson, James Fleet, Issy van Randwyck, Tam Williams, Colin Stinton, Stella Stocker, James Sygrove, Georgina Rich.  Directed by Edward Hall

 

Noel Coward was one of the most brilliant wits of the 20th century. He plied his trade at the height of one of the most creative literary periods in history, rubbing elbows figuratively if not literally with such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Wofe. While most of his works were pithy and lightweight, they helped set the standard for British humor that endures to this day. I find it absolutely incredible that his work isn’t filmed more often.

Charles Condomine (Stevens) is a feckless crime novel writer who has found great success, but hasn’t written a word since his first wife Elvira (Mann) died young. Now commissioned to write a screenplay adapting his first novel by the father – a producer at powerhouse Pinewood Studios in the UK –  of his new wife, Ruth (Fisher). The trouble is, he is apparently beset by a writer’s block that is the size of a small country.

The Condomine couple and some friends take in the performance of Madame Arcati (Dench), a spiritual medium, as a means of distraction, but the performance goes howlingly wrong. Charles is struck by inspiration; he can work a supernatural element into the plot! Elated by the idea, he asks Madame Arcati to do a private séance at his London home, and while she’s reluctant, after the disaster of that performance she knows she needs the work, so she reluctantly agrees.

To her own amazement, she actually makes contact with the other side and manages to raise the spirit of Elvira, but the trouble is that only Charles can see her. Once she gets over the shock of her own demise, she becomes extremely perturbed that Chares has remarried, and sets out to win back Charles for her own – even if it kills him.

The bare bones of Coward’s original work remains, but the writing team of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth have made some pasing strange updates to the work, demoting the showstopper Arcati to a much reduced role and giving her a backstory that is meant to inspire pathos. Dench, ever the trooper, pulls it off with aplomb and manages to remain the highlight of the show, but the movie needed a lot more zing and the writers fail to deliver any.

Coward is known for his often barbed and acerbic dialogue that might seem a bit dated now. The decision to keep this a period piece might have rendered that less of a problem, but instead the writers chose to make the dialogue more updated – this feels more like a sitcom, with far more slapstick than Coward would ever have tolerated, and a few dick jokes which in 1945 would have been unconscionable but Coward himself might have arched an eyebrow, deftly flicked an ash from his ever-present cigarette holder and said “Well, one must admire a man who doesn’t mind displaying his shortcomings for all to see.” One really needs to understand the source material in order to properly adapt it, and I don’t get the sense that the writers – or the director – could really claim that distinction.

Admittedly, the cast is marvelous and most of them do pretty well with what they’re given, particularly Dench (as previously mentioned) and Stevens, the Downton Abbey vet who shows a flair for drawing room comedies here. Unfortunately, those aren’t particularly in vogue and this effort is unlikely to bring them back. The production looks sumptuous, and the costumes are Oscar-worthy. However, the score sounds like something you’d hear in a Looney Toon cartoon and often distracts from what is going on in the fim which might not necessariy be a bad thing.

I do really admire the work of Noel Coward and I heartily recommend that you see David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Blithe Spirit along with other Coward gems like Private Lives and By Which We Serve. Unfortunately, this won’t go down as a masterful interpretation of his genius, but hope lives on that we shall one day see a new version of one of his plays  that does.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench is magnificent in this droll period piece.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unaccountably diverges from the source material in senseless ways.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While this is Hall’s first motion picture feature, he has had a long career as a theatrical and television director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews; Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Topper
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Me to Tarzana

Exodus: Gods and Kings


Christian Bale takes aim at a critic who gave his latest film a harsh review.

Christian Bale takes aim at a critic who gave his latest film a harsh review.

(2014) Biblical Epic (20th Century Fox) Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Hiam Abbass, Isaac Andrews, Ewen Bremner, Indira Varma, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Dar Salim, Andrew Tarbet, Ken Bones, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

Most of us are aware of the story of Moses, either through religious education or through repeated viewings of The Ten Commandments. Moses the Lawgiver remains one of the most iconic figures of the Old Testament, who along with Abraham is one of the foundations of the Judeo-Christian faith.

Moses (Bale) was born to Jewish slaves and when the newborn sons of Israel were slaughtered to prevent a prophecy that the deliverer had been born, his desperate mother floated him in a cradle of reeds down the Nile where he was picked up by the barren sister of Pharaoh Seti (Turturro) and raised in the royal household as a brother to Ramses (Edgerton). Ramses and Moses were as close as brothers and Seti felt that Moses would make a more effective ruler than his more impetuous biological son.

However despite the fact that Moses saved his life and has no ambition to rule Ramses has a healthy distrust of his childhood friend. When Moses discovers his true past from Nun (Kingsley), a Hebrew slave, his world is turned upside down. When Hegep (Mendelsohn), an Egyptian viceroy who has run afoul of Moses and seeks to curry favor with the new Pharaoh discovers the truth, Ramses is reluctant to kill his erstwhile kin. Instead, he exiles him to the desert, figuring that the Gods can deal with Moses.

The Gods deal with Moses by allowing him to traverse the desert to an oasis where he discovers the comely young shepherdess Zipporah (Valverde) who captivates the exiled Moses. The two marry and have a son. In the meantime, Moses is visited by God in the form of a young child who instructs Moses to raise an army and prepare to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. However, the Egyptians aren’t about to let the Israelites go so first there’s a matter of a few plagues – ten to be exact – before Moses is finally allowed to lead the slaves from bondage. However, they won’t get to the promised land without crossing the Red Sea and with a fired up army led by an enraged Ramses right on their tails.

Any cinematic version of the story of Exodus is going to inevitably have to deal with Cecil B. DeMille and his classic The Ten Commandments and anyone playing Moses is going to have to deal with Charlton Heston. For T10C the effects were impressive for their time, and the effects here are impressive for this time, bringing the plagues of frogs, flies, crocodiles and so on to vivid life. We can see the Egyptians trying to explain the plagues in anything but supernatural terms, much as we would do. But of course, they were also playing a game of “My Gods are better than Your God” with the Hebrews as well.

Heston was imperious, the very picture of an Old Testament prophet, intoning in a voice booming like thunder “Behold the Hand of the Lord” as he parts the Red Sea. Bale’s Moses is nothing like Heston; he bickers with the manifestation of God, feeling that he is a bit bloodthirsty for his taste and that his heavy-handed methods will be less likely to move Pharaoh’s heart. God essentially tells Moses he can do what he want because he’s God mofo! There has been a lot of controversy about this version of God who is not only a child but a petulant one.

Bale is a fine actor but this seems a bit out of his depth. In all fairness, there aren’t really any actors out there who can go all Old Testament on an audience; I honestly can’t think of any who would make a great Moses. That’s no knock on Bale; he can be as heroic as anyone but there is always an edge to him and there is one here as well. Moses here isn’t a Hebrew except by birth; he’s all about raising an army and taking on the Egyptian army – after all, with God’s help what army could stand against them, but God seems to prefer the art of gentle persuasion – by using a hammer on innocents. Moses has a problem with that and frankly, so do I and I appreciate Scott bringing it up because it is a question worth asking.

Some have complained that Scott, an agnostic, has diverged a fair amount from the source material but I think that as Scott himself has stated, his lack of Judeo-Christian faith gives him a certain amount of perspective that directors like DeMille who was known for being devout lack. However, Scott has justifiably been raked over the coals for casting white actors in parts that are essentially Middle Eastern, mostly casting what Middle Eastern actors he does have as slaves and soldiers. Scott raises the point that no studio is going to finance a $200 million film without name actors in the lead roles and that’s true enough. Which of course makes me wonder if that’s a statement on the racial bias of the movie-going public as much as it is the studios. Fill in your own answers here.

I liked Edgerton’s performance as Ramses although he has been getting a bit of flack for his work for the most part. Yes, he uses a bit too much eyeliner and he looks like some sort of giant Gerber’s baby with his head shaved but he captures Ramses as a man raised to believe he was a living God but full of insecurities, particularly because his brother was so much better than him in just about everything.

So this is one of those event movies that really relies on spectacle and there’s just enough here to make it worth seeing on the big screen if you can, but this isn’t great moviemaking or a great movie. Scott has done far better work, some of it recently. That doesn’t mean this doesn’t have merit and in this case, just enough for a guarded recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Edgerton makes a decent Ramses. The effects are spectacular.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and strays far from the Biblical source material. Insensitive to the religious in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, particularly on the battlefield. There are also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Mendelsohn previously worked with Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises and Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Noah
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Foxcatcher