Movie Review: “Monsieur Verdoux” (Charles Chaplin, USA 1947)

Charles Chaplin has become a misunderstood figure in Hollywood history. He is remembered as the Little Tramp character the he played in several silent films, a character whose physical comedy high jinks are often still delightful and reveal Chaplin’s incredible performance skills. However, he was not just a circus performer. He was much more.

Those who learn more about Hollywood history will probably first encounter Chaplin as a legend who was a victim of the Red Scare of the ’40s and ’50s. He was a man who had been a Hollywood legend but then was exiled from the United States and his latter-day masterpiece Limelight (USA 1952) banned from distribution on the basis of his supposed political views. Continue reading

Movie Review: “Into the Woods” (Rob Marshall, USA 2014)

Fairy tales are bizarre. They are full of sexual innuendo, corrupted morals, oversimplified ethical dilemmas, bizarre behavior, intense violence, and general weirdness. I have often thought that much of the weirdness inherent in most fairy tales is fairly well exemplified by a fundamental problem I have long had with the story of Cinderella: how the hell does the prince apparently have no idea what she looks like after dancing with her all night? Is he just a pervy sort who spent all night staring at her chest? Does he have prosopagnosia? Is he actually in love with the shoe and just looking for anyone who fits it? Is there some ancient curse on his family that can only be lifted by marrying a woman with exactly that size foot? Is he a very focused foot fetishist?

And of course the real logical answer is that the “dancing” wasn’t dancing at all, but rather an activity that did not force the prince to view Cinderella’s face. You can use your imagination there; but, especially considering the prince’s possibly already-established foot fetish, there are plenty of directions to go. Dancing is always a metaphor for sexual activity anyway, and the specifics of what’s happening around this dancing suggest something other than just making out. So, is there actually a veiled sexual agenda to Cinderella? Continue reading

Movie Review: “Fading Gigolo” (John Turturro, USA 2013)

I can’t ignore a Woody Allen project, or even someone else’s project on which he is working, even if it’s only as an actor. And John Turturro is a good actor, even if I have to admit that I had not seen any of his previous films as a director (Who did?). Even the film’s premise seemed to have some promise, as long as it wasn’t in the hands of some hackneyed, sophomoric gross-out artist: When their business fails, a pair of unattractive old men end up falling into the prostitution business, one as a gigolo and the other as his pimp.

Unfortunately, it turns out that while Turturro may not be a sophomoric gross-out artist, he’s something far short of a filmmaker.

If you read any guide for aspiring screenwriters, it will likely begin with discussion of the idea that most who first attempt the job string together scene ideas with little cohesiveness in story, theme, or point. The beginner tends to think about moments that she would like to see based on the basic character concepts or situational premise, and write to those moments, not thinking about how to tie them together or what point she wishes to make. While moments can be a good guide to a writer–Ingmar Bergman always said that he wrote his plays and films to get to a single image in his mind and William Goldman writes extensively in the essay on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, USA 1969) that appears in the collection William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays about how much of that script he wrote planning on the “I can’t swim!” climax–a collection of good moments does not a film, or indeed any story, make.

Somehow, John Turturro, in a Hollywood career that dates back over three decades, has apparently never learned this simple lesson. Fading Gigolo has no point. It has no strong themes. It has two-dimensional, uninteresting characters. It does not even really have a story. It has a premise, two name stars who are capable of great humor, and a few comic moments, and Turturro seemingly thinks that’s enough.

Just listen to how confused and nonsensical the plot sounds: Murray owns a bookshop that is closing its doors after many years in his family. As his friend Fioravante helps him pack up the shop, he casually mentions that his attractive dermatologist asked him whether he “knew anyone” to join her with her girlfriend for a threesome. Murray says that he immediately thought of Fioravante, for reasons that he really does not explain and never make any sort of sense to Fioravante, and volunteered his friend for this service. The dermatologist proves willing, and hires Fioravante, and it turns out that he makes an excellent gigolo and word gets around quickly, leading to a profitable business. Murray is finally able to provide some income to the African-American family with whom he lives (His relationship to them is unclear) and Fioravante is able to make ends meet. Murray then decides to use Fioravante’s services to help a widow who removes lice from the children with whom he lives, a lonely orthodox Jew  named Avigal whose husband had died a year before. When she meets with Fioravante, they end up kindling a romance, complicated by her faith. The orthodox Jews’ own neighborhood watch of sorts puts Murray and Avigal on trial for her corruption, and then she finally enters into a relationship with the head of said watch who had been after her for the last year.

That’s probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve ever written, and for a reason: nearly every scene in the film is adding another element to the plot not furthering the elements that are already in place. It’s a confused and messy narrative that’s so confounding as to be almost painful viewing, and that’s because it’s hardly even a story–it’s just a bunch of half-connected scenes. And then, there is no unifying point that connects the threads of this narrative. If it’s making a point about the dangers of repressive religion, it ends on a shockingly positive note. If it’s making the point that people need physical connections to one another, the entire Fioravante-Avigal romance is superfluous. Nothing ties together the film, because it simply has nothing to say.

Unsurprisingly for a film with nothing to say, Turturro and cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo don’t say anything visually. Every scene is shot in the same palette, with the same type of lighting, with essentially unmoving cameras sitting at about the same distance from the actors. It’s so old-fashioned in the dullness of its visual approach that it almost seems as if Turturro was attempting to make a point about the nonstop movements and lightning-quick editing of modern films, but making that point in a film with this premise doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s instead just pretentious nonsense.

And for all of its problems, even the acting isn’t a saving grace. The only people who stand out as seemingly natural in their roles are Sofia Vergara, Bob Balaban, and–weirdly enough–Woody Allen. Allen is easy enough to explain: he’s not acting so much as performing his usual persona, just as he has done in so many of his own films. He regularly says that he’s not really an actor, saying, “I just do what I do,” but he’s been doing it so long that he’s actually quite natural at it, and it shows in a film where so many are so wooden and so clearly false. Vergara is playing an oversexualized, sexy woman with little depth, so that’s a simple role as well, but she comes across as more believable than the caricature she could have been. Balaban just does what he usually does, but that’s a good fit for his cameo as Murray’s lawyer, and indeed one of the few moments when this film comes to life is the courtroom scene when he and Allen work together and prove to have a fantastic chemistry and energy. Everyone else ranges from too flat to be accepted as reality (Turturro) to annoyingly and painfully over-the-top farcical (Sharon Stone). For a film with such poor characterization, it’s amazing how poor the acting could be. And even with how bad the rest of it was, Liev Schreiber stood out–he wasn’t just bad, he was aggressively awful, seemingly trying to win awards with his ridiculous clenched jaw and blank stare but only succeeding in proving that Dovi is not a real person.

In Fading Gigolo, John Turturro has produced an absolutely horrendous film, one with so few redeeming qualities that it could easily rank among the worst I have ever seen. There is nothing about this film that deserves commendation–it is a failure of the highest order.