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Tulip Fever (2017)

Tulip Fever was originally filmed back in 2014 and has endured two years of delayed release dates. In the time it took the studio to make and release Tulip Fever, Alicia Vikander filmed The Danish Girl, it was released, and she won an Oscar, and now she’s going to portray Lara Croft in a new Tomb Raider franchise. The question arises why something seemingly so innocuous would take so long to release. The studio seems quite hesitant about the finished product. The Weinstein Company even packaged a rare red band trailer for their movie, something more associated with ribald comedies and bloody action films. A movie about tulips and love affairs seems like an odd choice, but hey, people got to see some extra Vikander nudity for free. It’s being dumped into theaters over a tepid Labor Day release and the advertising is billing it as an “erotic thriller,” which is a mistake on two fronts. It’s not truly erotic, lacking a primal carnal power, and it’s not really a thriller. It all smells less than rosy and more of desperation.

Set in the early 1600s in Amsterdam, and the nation has gone wild for tulips. The flowers are being traded and sold in the backs of taverns, and the tulip market seems limitless. Meanwhile, Sophia (Vikander) is a young woman who is married off to Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz), the self-described “king of peppercorn.” The relationship lacks passion as their nightly sessions fail to deliver a child. Cornelis, thinking about his legacy, hires a painter, Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), for a portrait of he and Sophia. The painter falls in love with his subject and he and Sophia begin having an affair. The servant woman, Maria (Holliday Grainger), is witness to her mistress’ secrets, and as their affair continues, both parties devise an elaborate means that they can be together.

Tulip Fever is awash in strange and ineffective plotting. Firstly, the film never presents a suitable rationale for why Sophia would fall into bed with Jan. It presents her frustrations and malaise with her husband, so being in a position for finding a passionate alternative and outlet is established. After a few painting sessions with Jan, apparently they’re smitten with one another, though the movie never does the slightest work to establish a spark between them. It’s not like much would have been required. Make Jan a charmer who makes Sophia feel valued and desired. A handful of careful exchanges hinting at an inappropriate fascination are all that was needed. Instead their coupling feels largely arbitrary and from thin air. Movies directly hinging upon romantic affairs succeed on the virtue of making you feel the desire of the characters, whether that’s a romantic yearning or even just simple hardcore lust. Sexual tension is a paramount necessity. I felt no chemistry, desire, or even sexual tension between DeHaan and Vikander. There was no heat or sensuality here. Then there’s the matter of Sophia’s relationship with Maria, our curiously chosen narrator. We’re told that Maria sees Sophia like a sister, but once again the movie doesn’t show anything to indicate a particularly close relationship between the two. Then when Maria announces her pregnancy she threatens her “sister” if she gets thrown out of employment. She’ll tell Sophia’s husband what she’s been up to with her painter pal. Maybe it’s the hormones but that doesn’t exactly sound like a close, sisterly relationship. Although just when it seems like Maria might be a thorn in her mistress’ side and upset the power balance, the story abandons this idea altogether and Maria recedes back into a harmless cherubic aid.

It’s during Maria’s pregnancy where Tulip Fever’s plotting becomes its most tonally egregious, becoming a 17th century episode of Three’s Company. Sophia’s mission ever since her wedding has been to get pregnant and produce a son for her husband to carry on his family line, but due to a combination of erectile dysfunction and impotence, this seems like an unlikely task. So when Maria is pregnant, the two ladies scheme to do a switcheroo; they’ll pretend that Sophia is really pregnant, downplay Maria’s changes, and then pretend the newborn is Sophia’s child. This plan leads to several almost comical sequences to maintain the ruse, like when Sophia pushes Maria aside to take claim over her recent spate of morning sickness. The entire time I kept thinking that wouldn’t it be so much easier for Sophia just to get impregnated from her younger lover? Instead we’re given this storyline that approaches farce, and that’s not the end of it. Tulip Fever also features faking one’s death, sending the drunkest person out to retrieve the most valuable item in the country, a character conscripted into the Navy immediately, and contrived mistaken identity developments that also require characters to never do any follow-up questions to confirm the worst of what they think they just witnessed. These kinds of farcical plot elements indicate that the filmmakers were not confidant that their central relationships could sustain a narrative unto themselves. And yet I’ll admit that these unexpected plot turns provided a level of entertainment that was lacking beforehand.

The actors do what they can with their characters and marshal forward with straight faces. Vikander (The Light Between Oceans) is a luminescent actress who can communicate paragraphs through her tremulous eyes. She very capably conveys Sophia’s mixed emotions over her marriage, her gnawing sense of loyalty, and when in the throes of passion, an unburdening that serves as a personal awakening. Sadly, those romantic throes are paired with DeHaan, an actor I’m becoming more and more skeptical with every new performance. In the recent sci-fi bomb Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he chose to speak in a bizarre voice that mimicked 90s Keanu Reeves. With Tulip Fever, I understood the origin of that voice, because in this movie he sounds like 90s Keanu Reeves gamely attempting his woeful British accent in Dracula. Does Dane DeHaan have range or is he incapable of playing anything without ironic detachment? He makes for a pretty pitiful romantic affair option, and I never cared what transpired to him. Waltz (Spectre) becomes the most sympathetic character by the film’s end and has a genuine character arc that might elicit some real emotion. He’s pompous and a bit oblivious, but he never really becomes the film’s villain. He doesn’t mistreat Sophia. He doesn’t threaten anyone. He just wants a child, and a wish he made to God haunts him. He truly cares about his wife, and it’s only later that Sophia realizes what her plot machinations have done to this man. Waltz’s performance is well within his nattering wheelhouse. The supporting cast includes Judi Dench, Cara Delevigne, a hilariously pervy Tom Hollander, Kevin McKidd, and an unrecognizable Zach Galifianakis. It’s enough to make you wonder what in this story got them all here.

The story seems to exist only in parallel with the tulip market that gives the film its title. It feels like two different movies on different tracks that rarely come together. I hope you enjoy textbook economics lessons on market bubbles, because you’ll get plenty information imported on the buying and selling power of tulips. These little flowers just kept going up and up in value and investors believed that they would never go down (oh how familiar this sounds). At times the movie hints at being a Big Short in 17th century tulips futures. This could be an interesting topic because of how foreign it is today, the thought of flowers being so valuable that a person’s life savings might get squandered. However, the story that takes shape in Tulip Fever feels generally unrelated. It’s a love affair with comical complications but the only time the bullish tulip market factors in is when supporting characters get rich quick from some lucky bulb prospects. They just as likely could have gotten their fortunes through any form of gambling. It didn’t have to be tulips. The setting doesn’t feel integral to the story the movie wants to tell, which is a waste of such a supremely unique moment in world economics history. Although there is a moment where Maria narrates that a madness took over people, and I so dearly wanted her to follow up that statement with, “A tulip madness.” Unfortunately, she did not.

Tulip Fever is a costume drama that may have appeal for those usually left cold by the stuffy genre of half-glances and unrequited passions. It does have some screwy plotting linked to its screwy couple, so while it doesn’t quite work as a developed story with engaging characters, it does make for a fitfully entertaining experience. The messy plotting and arbitrary coupling limit the power and empathy. I ultimately felt more for Waltz’s character by the end than anyone else, and I don’t know if that was intended. It’s a handsomely made film with strong production design, costuming, and cinematography. If only the characters and their exploits were worthy of such efforts.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Philomena (2013)

judi-dench-philomenaA more family-friendly alternative to the wrenching The Magdalene Sisters, the drama Philomena is ostensibly a good movie, but woe unto thee if you thought you were in store for a crackling comedy. Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) was forced to work in a Catholic workhouse in Ireland when she became pregnant as an unwed teenager. Her child was placed into adoption into America and now, 50 years later, she wants to find her long-lost son and learn about him and his life. Helping her in her quest is Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, co-writer as well), a recently unemployed journalist. Their odd couple pairing should inspire comedic repartee, as so the ads would also have you believe. The film is funny, in spurts, but it’s much more effective as an illuminating drama on the abuses of the church-run workhouses that guilted poor girls into, sometimes lifelong, slave labor. At the thirty-minute mark, when Martin comes across a makeshift graveyard of dead teen mothers, who were forced to give birth on the workhouse premises as punishment for their sins, you can pretty much abandon any hope of a ribald road trip comedy. Once your expectations are realigned, you can enjoy the film for what is has to offer: an intriguing mystery, solid characterizations, a terrific Dench performance, and an ending that doesn’t pull punches. Be warned, you will walk away from this movie wanting to punch nuns in the face. Coogan’s role is one of anger and outrage, and there’s plenty to go around with church corruption, scandals, and cover-ups uncovered. But it’s Philomena herself who is the life lesson for us all; her church fails her but her forgiveness is the model we should all strive for. It’s a moving film with as much compassion as it has criticism. Just don’t watch it in the company of a nun.

Nate’s Grade: B+

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.

J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.

The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.

Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.

I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.

The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.

At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.

The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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