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

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The Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head