Film review: Liberal Arts

Have you ever watched a poor magician? Spotted them shoving cards up their sleeves, tugging on invisible threads and swapping props when they thought you weren’t looking? Hopefully not. But you can imagine how it rather spoils the magic.

Watching a poor film can be a similar experience. When characters, or the fates themselves, behave not because that’s how they would in reality, but because the filmmakers are clearly trying to push the film or the audience in a certain direction – when you can see the sleeve-shoving, the prop-swapping and the invisible threads as the filmmakers desperately try to make you feel a certain way or, sillier, make characters act out of character to further the plot – it rather spoils the magic of the film. You feel cheated. When I see such a fudged attempt at manipulation, it’s just as difficult to engage and enjoy on screen as it is at that magic show.

Writer-director-star Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts is full of such poor sleight of hand:

  • When conflict arises it’s clumsy and unnatural – clearly written in because the writer desired conflict, not because it was inevitable or even likely in the scene in question.
  • Characters dispense (dubious) wisdom not because the moment is appropriate, but because the writer wanted to make a film Full of Wisdom.
  • And then there are the Close-Ups at Emotional Moments. You’ve seen them before. Liberal Arts presents them without shame; there you are passively staring at a pedestrian medium shot, when the director wants you to notice that the characters are experiencing something Emotionally Poignant, and suddenly their faces are in yours, ten feet tall. This cut is your cue, audience: care!

But, of course, it’s almost impossible to care when someone is incessantly shouting “care!” at you. Liberal Arts breaks the golden rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. Show me why I should care and I will. Tell me to care and I can’t.

For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Olsen and Richard Jenkins play their parts gracefully. Olsen is believable as a confident, wiser-than-her-years young go-getter, though her role as the innocent virgin the older man must decide not to dirty makes for uncomfortable gender politics. Jenkins is winning as a professor who changes his mind about retiring, but his is a pointless subplot with no resolution. Radnor the actor encounters three other minor characters:

  • Zac Efron pretending to be wacky (clues: he wears a woolly hat and does martial arts at inappropriate moments), an obviously marked deck who exists solely to deliver Radnor the bland epiphany that “everything is okay”
  • Allison Janney as a nihilistic professor who unconvincingly seduces our hero – as usual Janney is great value but her impact on the film or our hero is almost invisible
  • And a suicidal student who I think exists only to make Radnor the actor feel even better about the character he’s playing. None of these characters has any bearing on the plot or themes of the film; they act solely as disappointing distractions.

Radnor the director attempts a couple of cinematic showpieces but they don’t hit any high notes – a montage of New York shots set to classical music turns out to be just a montage of New York shots set to classical music; a scene where opera makes everyone appear more beautiful is more amusing. The rest of the film is taken up with characters navel gazing at one another (but really at the audience); there’s not much to look at, if there’s anything to listen to.

Then there’s the plot itself: Radnor the writer spends most of the film building up a relationship between two well-matched characters, in typical rom com style (the awkward first meeting – featuring I-like-you-lots Close-Ups; the adorable first few dates; the disapproving minor characters; the relationship-jeopardising tiff; the reckless revenge; the grown-up make-up), then in the last 20 minutes discards it for something else altogether. I suspect he’s trying to impart a lesson about growing up or moving on, but it’s difficult to care, I’m so thrown by the fact that what started as a card trick has turned into a juggling act – and so disappointed that he’s made such a poor effort to make me believe in it in the first place.

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Film review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Worst Exotic Marigold Hotel, more like.

That’s about the standard of the jokes throughout this film (with perhaps ten surprisingly very funny exceptions). Imagine it delivered with the flatness of a sheet of paper, tempered between set-up and punchline by a languorous pause during which the editor might as well run into the cinema, attempting to tickle random members of the audience with camp condescension and leering, “waaaaaiiiiiit foooor iiiiiit!”

This just about sums it up.

But you are waiting for it. You saw it coming, it would seem, long before the writers themselves. Had you been in a position to do so, you would have raised your hand and said with quiet solemnity, “No. That’s not funny.” I implore you, if you’re invited to see this film, to do precisely that.

Please don’t mistake me for the kind of person who enters a film such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel expecting a great cinematic achievement; don’t think that I’m merely a dusty high-brow cineaste for whom only the severest of standards will suffice. I was prepared for a simple, heartwarming, predictable tale of loveable Brits learning life lessons in a colourful setting. This film manages to defy the very lowest of expectations (and be assured, in case you have somehow misjudged the tone of the review so far, it does not defy them felicitously). I’m generally loathe to make sweeping claims containing “most” or “worst” or “wittiest” ever, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel warrants it; it is unequivocally one of the most ill-judged comedies or dramas I have ever seen. It’s like watching a flailing first-time stand-up fluff all the punchlines to a series of old knock-knock jokes – but worse because you know that, had they really tried, they could have been a blazing success.

Because there is potential and talent here. It would have been wonderful to see a charming, well-written, well-paced film about elderly people. Three of the seven (yes, seven) central characters are played with respectable skill and patience, by Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. None of them are given much to work with – every character in the film is wafer thin – but these three manage to be, respectively, graceful, charming and touching. It’s a shame that one of the side-effects of their admirable performances is to draw more attention to the one-dimensinonality of the rest of the cast, from the four remaining retirees who just shout (Penelope Wilton), look startled (Maggie Smith) and gurn (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup, who, for no reason I can discern, play the same character), to the hotel owner and his acquaintances, who are determined to extract drama from the most mundane situations. “My feelings for you are too great for one word,” says Dev Patel’s character, simply so he can have a denouement when he finally dose profess his love. I don’t mind that everyone saw it coming, but I mind that it’s not remotely interesting.

Gosh, that paragraph went in too many directions at once, didn’t it? I struggled to refrain from dumping all the criticisms I wanted to make into one overlong, ugly sentence. But perhaps it was naïve of me to think that I could deal with seven-plus characters and their various plots and narrative arcs all at once. Yes, perhaps that was a poor writing decision on my part. I was in danger of undermining all my points by dedicating so little time and attention to any single one of them that, not only did they not have time to grow, but I felt inclined to resort to cheap clichés and lazy stereotypes just to muddle through to the end of it, and losing your interest along the way because you couldn’t possibly care about such hastily and poorly-written characters.

The preceding paragraph, by the way, represents the single, cloying, totally misplaced visual metaphor (a slow motion bird flying away to represent the release of death) that suddenly appears in the middle of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, accidentally highlighting how devoid of craftsmanship every element of every other moment of the film is.

For the sake of my blood pressure, which I feel rising at the mere prospect of writing more about how dismal this film is, I shall quickly summarise its flaws in bullet points and examples.

Lazy, clogged up writing:

  • One of the seven supposedly central characters (Imrie’s gurner) isn’t even granted an ending to her story.
  • Nighy makes a clunky segue from a perfectly good line to a completely irrelevant one in order to give Dench an opportunity to bed in some exposition.

Poorly-judged/-timed/-written jokes:

  • Wilkinson bumps into Dench one night and asks quizically during an otherwise serious scene, “can I show you something”? A few audience members titter, unsure whether this is a bad, poorly-timed double entendre or a bad, poorly-timed unintentional double entendre.
  • “I’ll give you your money back,” says Patel. “Right now?” asks Wilton. WaitForItBeat. “Right now. In three months.” says Patel. It’s hilarious.

Pointless subplots:

  • Patel’s hotel manager has to save the hotel from closure, convince his mother to accept his girlfriend for who she is, and tell the same girlfriend he loves her. None of these have anything to do with the main characters. None of them are interesting.

Characters stating clearly and eloquently what they’ve just learned:

  • Honestly, the actors might as well have just turned to the camera and told the audience the moral. Oh wait –

Infuriating cod-moralism:

  • Dench is forced to narrate with endless monotonous proverbs that sound like someone entered the closing words of various episodes of Sex and the City into Google Translate and selected the language “dull”. These lessons, like the film (which is at least 30 minutes too long) never seem to end.

Endless clichés:

  • Potential partners Nighy and Dench find themselves in an awkward tight embrace after a near-miss road accident.
  • A young lover’s difficult mother finds her heart suddenly opened by a perplexing reminder of her own (never-before-mentioned) past.
  • An old woman learns the Important Life Lesson™ that racism is wrong because, I don’t know exactly, an Indian woman gives her some Branston Pickle, or something.

“Words fail me,” croaks Smith during one of the film’s few clever exchanges, when asked to detail what she likes about the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I can think of three – Dench, Nighy and Wilkinson – but their performances can do little to save this otherwise dreadful, dreadful clunker of a film. What do I like about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? Maggie, I’m with you.

Film review: The Iron Lady

In Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone neatly lampooned the film convention of the montage (“… show us a passage of time / we’re gonna need a montage … show a lot of things happening at once / remind everyone of what’s going on … to show it all would take too long / that’s called a montage …”). I wish someone had played this song to Phyllida Lloyd before she began editing The Iron Lady. I didn’t count the number of montages in the film but I’m confident there were at least 10 – perhaps closer to 15. That’s ten to fifteen lengthy sequences of cobbled-together news footage representing selected events that occurred during Margaret Thatcher’s political career, often without introduction, explanation, or follow up. “To show it all would take too long”, I suppose. To show something, though, would at least be courteous. Including one montage is (arguably lazy but) passable; sitting through ten in a row is less like watching a film than having a list of events read out to you.

Not just a list, though: a checklist. With each 80s newsreel, it feels like the filmmakers are ticking off significant historical moments to cover themselves when someone inevitably points out that a (seemingly biographical) film about the most divisive politician in Britain otherwise steers lightyears clear of any political action. Some viewers – and some of the filmmakers – would counter that this isn’t a biopic about Thatcher the politician, but a broadly fictional piece about a once-powerful woman coming to terms with the loss of her power. If that’s the case, the question rings loud and clear: why is it about (the decidedly non-fictional) Margaret Thatcher at all?

Most of the few non-montage sequences to which we’re treated are shot with bizarre – and entirely inappropriate – horror-film techniques: all canted angles, shaky handheld shots and extreme close-ups. In the middle of one such scene we cut to a shot so up close and out of focus that it’s little more than a blur of fleshy colour, before returning to the scene itself. Is this the editing equivalent of a typo? Or a failed attempt to create an effect? The whole film feels misjudged in this way: there are two catastrophic explosions, the consequences of which are dealt with in no more than 20 seconds; we’re constantly reminded of the huge significance of Margaret’s husband’s absence yet his decline and death is never shown and barely referred to; Thatcher’s declaration of war with the Falklands is shown but the consequences are barely felt by her or the audience in the few minutes dedicated to the subsequent events (and guess what film convention the filmmakers use to present those events…). There’s no plot, no narrative – nothing for the audience to hold on to besides Streep’s performance.

Which brings us to the film’s only saving grace. Those pervasive, infuriating montages are interspersed with scenes of Meryl Streep and Alexandra Roach playing Thatcher as, variously, an aspiring politican, an MP and (most of the time) a senile elderly lady. Streep and Roach both do excellent, compelling impersonations of “the iron lady”, Streep with the help of some profoundly detailed prosthetics (though once or twice you get the impression her face wants to move rather more than the make-up allows). There are also one or two touching moments – Thatcher’s blank dismissal to her daughter during an emotional exchange the most notable – but the film is otherwise completely undone by poor editing, lazy plotting and a naïve refusal to acknowledge that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is neither her attachment to her husband, nor her senility, nor a series of anonymous newsreels. Thatcher’s legacy is her politics; an element that, along with a plot and a structure, is fatally absent from this film.


Oh, and, for good measure: