VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

1

victoria_and_abdul_poster

There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

DETROIT (2017) – Powerful Portrait of 1967 Detroit Race Riots

1

DetroitMovie

The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all.  It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time.  It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.

In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie.  You will find horror and revulsion.

The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end.  It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while.  Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.

DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire.  The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.

Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel.  Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.

Dismukes is on the scene as well.  He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea.  Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent.  He does a nice job here as Dismukes.  I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.

The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated.  It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment.  It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots.  The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger.  Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.

But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy.  He’s that despicable.  This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013).  Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.

Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn.  They’re the epitome of racist police officers.

And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department.  During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations.  The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it.  This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.

There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel.  When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores.  They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.

The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).  The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.

Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes.  She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit.  I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.

I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one.  But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.

—END—

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Routine Actioner Falls Short

1

AtomicBlonde

It’s 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War is about to get turned on its head.  Spies are running this way and that, and secrets are more closely guarded, as no one knows what will happen after the wall falls.

It’s in this world, the frenetic days leading up to the tearing down of the wall, in both East and West Berlin, that ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) takes place.

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to East Berlin to help  fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) extract a man with the code name Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has in his possession a list of spies which if it falls into the wrong hands would compromise the intelligence agencies of the west, namely Great Britain, the United States, and France.

As such, the CIA is involved, as their man Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) is working closely with MI6 operative and Lorraine’s superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones).  Likewise, the French also have an agent on the ground in East Berlin, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and they’re all working together— or are they?— to successfully get Spyglass out of East Berlin before his secrets fall into the hands of the heavy-handed KGB agents.

Further complicating matters is the knowledge that Spyglass has lost the list, but he also has committed it to memory, so the mission becomes twofold- get Spyglass out of East Berlin alive, and also find the missing list.  And oh yeah.  Someone in the operation is a double agent.  It’s a messy job in a messy city in an even messier time.

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay movie but falls short of expectations and never really captures the insanity of the waning days of East Berlin before the wall came down, nor does it possess enough style to overcome its story limitations.

Kurt Johnstad wrote the screenplay based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.  One of the bigger problems I had with ATOMIC BLONDE is for a movie based on a graphic novel, it doesn’t boast the best visuals.  First-time director David Leitch starts off fine with some colorful and energetic opening credits, but after that there isn’t a whole lot visually that captures the graphic novel feel. It seems as if Leitch couldn’t make up his mind whether he was making a colorful adaptation of a graphic novel or a hard-hitting cold war spy thriller.

The film also did not grab me right away and took a while to get going.  The second half is definitely stronger than the first, and there is a brutal and well-executed fight sequence between Lorraine and several KGB thugs towards the end that is by far the best action scene in the movie.  But for the most part the action in ATOMIC BLONDE is standard and by the numbers.

Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is also nothing to be excited about.  The dialogue is all rather flat, and the story is nothing we haven’t seen before.

ATOMIC BLONDE does boast a strong cast but even the presence of solid veteran actors doesn’t help all that much.

Charlize Theron is a wonderful actress, yet I think she was miscast here as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, as I didn’t find her all that believable in the role.  When she’s kicking the stuffing out of the KGB thugs, these scenes just didn’t ring true for me. Granted, she’s as beautiful as ever, but as the unstoppable indefatigable Lorraine Broughton, I wasn’t buying it.

I enjoyed Theron much more in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015).  Her performance in that movie was rugged and convincing.  Her performance in ATOMIC BLONDE is more like a Tom Cruise performance than a Tom Hardy performance.  The toughness and grit Theron showed in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD isn’t really on display here.

James McAvoy delivers a decent performance as David Percival, but in all honesty, it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before. Plus, he looks like he walked off the set of SPLIT (2016) and simply put on a coat to blend in on the streets of East Berlin.

Sofia Boutella is okay as French agent Delphine Lasalle, and I enjoyed her more here than in her recent turn as Ahmanet the Mummy in the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). But she was most memorable as the alien Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016).

Veteran actors Toby Jones and John Goodman are on hand as the older agents in the proceedings, Jones representing MI6, and Goodman the CIA.  They are both solid in supporting roles.

In the key role of Spyglass, Eddie Marsen does a decent job.  I actually enjoyed him more in THEIR FINEST (2017), where he played a different kind of agent, one that represents actors, in that superior period piece comedy drama about making a propaganda film about Dunkirk.

Bill Skarsgard, the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard, is memorable as Merkel, one of Lorraine’s contacts in East Berlin. It’s a small role, but I thought he gave one of the better performances in the movie.  Skarsgard will be playing Pennywise in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT (2017).

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay actioner, but it never really gets into high gear, nor does it possess the pizzazz to sustain its two hour running time.  The script is meh, the dialogue standard, and the story is routine, and while the actors are all solid in their roles, none of them put this film on their backs and carry it to the finish line.  Also, director David Leitch does little to make this one visually exciting or cinematic, save for one extremely well-executed fight scene.

At the end of the day, I expected more from ATOMIC BLONDE.  As it stands, it’s not bad, and it does remain fairly entertaining, but it’s not the in-your-face graphic novel interpretation it should have been.

It’s more sub-atomic than atomic.

—END—

 

 

THEIR FINEST (2017) – World War II Comedy Romance is Movie Making at its Finest

1

Their Finest poster

Even though THEIR FINEST (2017) is mostly a comedy romance about the making of a propaganda movie about Dunkirk, what it does best as a World War II period piece is capture what life was like in Great Britain during the war, when men of age were off fighting, and left to pick up the slack at home were women, the elderly, and the injured.

It’s certainly the film’s strongest attribute.

It’s 1940, and the Nazis are bombing England relentlessly.  In this harsh environment, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) shares an apartment with her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston).  Catrin lands a new job as a scriptwriter for a studio that makes propaganda movies for the war effort.  She’s hired to assist screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) with her specific duties being to write female dialogue.

The studio decides to do a movie on the Dunkirk rescue, and they base it on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat without his permission in order to rescue British soldiers.  Aging has-been actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is hired to play the role of the drunken father, in the film changed to a buffoonish drunken uncle.  At first, Hilliard is not interested but eventually changes his mind when he’s reminded by his agent Sophie (Helen McCrory) that he’s no longer a young leading man and needs to take advantage of the roles now being offered him to keep his career alive.

When the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) informs them that Churchill plans to use their film as a tool to inspire Americans to join the war effort, the film takes on a whole new meaning and suddenly it becomes a major production.

I really enjoyed THEIR FINEST.  It’s full of fine acting performances, features spirited direction by Danish director Lone Scherfig, and has a literate script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour by Lissa Evans.

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin Cole. She plays Catrin as an independent intelligent woman who’s not afraid to ask for more money for her work when she knows she has to support her artist husband.  Arterton enjoys nice chemistry with Sam Claflin who plays fellow writer Tom Buckley.  Catrin and Tom grow closer together, even though Catrin tries her best to ignore her feelings since she’s married, but eventually fate intervenes.

Arterton has appeared in a wide variety of roles, but of the movies I’ve seen her in previously, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013), and RUNNER RUNNER (2013) this is by far the best role I’ve seen her play.  She’s smart, sincere, and sexy.

Sam Claflin also does a nice job as fellow writer Tom Buckley, who recognizes Catrin’s talent and eventually falls in love with her. Claflin played the young filmmaker in the underrated Hammer thriller THE QUIET ONES (2014).  Claflin has also appeared in THE HUNGER GAMES movies, THE HUNTSMAN films, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  ON STRANGER TIDES (2011).

And Bill Nighy delivers a scene-stealing performance as aged actor Ambrose Hilliard who is so full of himself that when he first reads the script for the Dunkirk movie he believes he’s being offered the role of the young hero, not the drunken uncle. Nighy gets the best lines in the film, and he also enjoys some of its best scenes.

In a movie-within-a-movie scene, where Catrin rewrites the uncle as a more heroic character, Nighy plays the uncle’s dying moment on the boat.  He hallucinates and thinks the two soldiers with him are his sons, who were lost in the previous war, World War I.  It’s a brilliant moment.  The scene works in the fictional movie, and it works in the main film because Nighy nails Hilliard’s delivering the performance of his life.

And the most poignant moment in the film comes near the end, after Catrin has endured tragedy, and it’s Hilliard who’s there by her side to keep her from falling, and he tells her that they only have these opportunities because the young men are all at war, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t take full advantage of these opportunities, which sums up the main theme of the movie.

Jack Huston is also very good as Catrin’s husband Tom, struggling with both his artistic career and sense of worth since an injury has kept him from fighting in the war.

Helen McCrory stands out as Sophie Smith, whose husband was Hilliard’s agent until he was killed by a Nazi bomb.  Sophie decides to take over her husband’s practice, and once she does, Hilliard’s career never looks back.  It’s a very strong performance by McCrory, and like Arterton and Claflin, she shares nice onscreen chemistry with Bill Nighy.

Likewise, Jake Lacy is memorable as Carl Lundbeck, an American war hero who is added to the cast to make the film more appealing to Americans, which causes some headaches as well as some comic relief because he has no acting experience whatsoever.  Lacy ‘s performance reminded me of something a young Christopher Reeve might have done.

The rest of the cast is solid and enjoyable.  There’s not a weak link to be found.

I loved the script by Gaby Chiappe. It works on several levels.  The most fun and rewarding level is the film within a film concept, and by far the liveliest scenes are the behind the scenes workings of the writers and film crew trying to get this film off the ground.  And the finished product, a Technicolor production entitled THE NANCY STARLING, which we catch glimpses of as Catrin sits in an audience of enthusiastic filmgoers, generates lots of emotion.

The movie also works as a wartime romance, as well as a World War II period piece drama. And just when I wasn’t so sure the romance part was working, the film delivers a menacing blow and at that point reaches a whole other level.

I also enjoyed the direction by Lone Scherfig.  The film looks great, and she captures the period of World War II England, bombed on a regular basis, perfectly.

There’s even a nod to Alfred Hitchcock..

The title, THEIR FINEST, comes from a speech by Winston Churchill, where he described England’s resistance to the Nazis as “their finest hour.”

THEIR FINEST is a wonderful movie.  In addition to being a love story and a comedy, it’s also a thoughtful and poignant look at the role women played in England during the war.

It’s movie making at its finest.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

MISSING REELS By Farran Smith Nehme Is Lighthearted Cinematic Fun

0

What I’m Reading – Missing Reels  By Farran Smith Nehme

Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDAMissing-Reels - cover

 

I don’t usually read romances, even of the screwball comedy variety, but being a film buff, I decided to check out Missing Reels  by Farran Smith Nehme, a lighthearted story about a young woman living in New York City who happens to be a huge fan of silent films.  She discovers that she’s living next door to a former silent film actress who starred in a now lost silent movie directed by a controversial German director.

It’s New York City in the late 1980s, and young Ceinwein (pronounced KINE-wen) lives in an apartment with her two gay roommates, Jim and Talmadge and works a minimum wage job at a vintage clothes shop.  There she meets Matthew, an Englishman who’s a postdoc working with a Math professor at NYU.  He’s at the store shopping with his Italian girlfriend, but when Matthew shows an interest in Ceinwein, romance blooms.

Around the same time, Ceinwein engages her elderly neighbor Miriam in a conversation and learns that she once starred in a long lost silent movie.  As a silent film fanatic, Ceinwein takes it upon herself to search for this long lost movie, thinking that if she can discover a copy, Miriam would be thrilled to see it again, but this is a misplaced assumption since Miriam’s feelings toward the film and the man who directed it are much more complicated than Ceinwein ever imagined.

The search for this elusive silent movie serves as a backdrop for the romance, as Ceinwein enlists Matthew’s aid in tracking down the missing film.  The deeper Ceinwein looks, the more complicated her relationships become with both Matthew and Miriam.

I really enjoyed Missing Reels, mostly because the story centers more on Ceinwein’s quest to find the missing film than on her romance with Matthew.  I found the whole search for the movie, THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO, fascinating and enjoyed the story the most whenever Ceinwein was actively looking for it.  It made for a satisfying detective story.

The numerous conversations throughout the novel about movies, old movies in particular, were engaging and thoroughly entertaining.

One of the reasons I wasn’t crazy about the love story is that I didn’t particularly like Matthew’s character.  When we first meet him, he’s with his Italian girlfriend, yet he’s romancing Ceinwein almost immediately after, with no mention to Ceinwein that his other relationship is over.  I thought he gave off a bad vibe from the get-go, and frankly I had a difficult time understanding what Ceinwein saw in him.

Likewise, the elderly Miriam is continuously rude to Ceinwein and is not supportive in her search for the missing movie in the least.  I couldn’t help but wonder why Ceinwein was so interested in finding the movie for this lady.  It seems to me she was more interested in finding the film for herself.

Unlike Matthew and Miriam, Ceinwein is an affable character, and I enjoyed reading about her.   She’s witty and funny, and she’s confident yet vulnerable, traits that make her very attractive.

I also liked her roommates, Jim and Talmadge, and whenever they’re in the story, the book livens up quite a bit.

The story takes place in the 1980s presumably to include an aging silent film star as one of its main characters.  Plus, others who worked on THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO are still alive in the story, making them available for Ceinwein to interview.  This would not have been the case if the story had a contemporary 2015 setting.  Other than this, the 1980s time period adds little value to the tale, nor does the novel do much to recapture the feeling of that decade.

Missing Reels is an enjoyable light read, especially for fans of old movies.  Ceinwein’s search for the missing silent film and the discussions that go along with it provide satisfying material for the hardcore movie enthusiast.  Plus, a lot of the snappy dialogue between Ceinwein and Matthew is reminiscent of the dialogue in the old black and white comedies, films featuring the likes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, and William Powell and Myrna Loye.

And for those of you who like love stories, Missing Reels satisfies as well, as Ceinwein is head over heels in love with Matthew, a man who by his own admission is not interested in leaving his Italian girlfriend, but as is the case with so many classic movie romances, the strong-willed heroine will not be denied.

A novel that hearkens back to the romantic comedies of yesteryear, Missing Reels provides both a lighthearted love story and a compelling account of one film buff’s quest to locate a long lost silent movie in one tightly written package that doesn’t miss a beat.

—Michael

What I’m Reading: Z – A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD By Therese Anne Fowler

0

Zelda FitzgeraldWhat I’m Reading – Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald By Therese Anne Fowler
Book Review by MICHAEL ARRUDA

I often read in themes.

Last year, I taught a unit on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to a class of high school sophomores. This combined with the 2013 film THE GREAT GATSBY starring Leonardo Di Caprio, got me in the mood to read more Fitzgerald, and so I read Tender Is The Night  considered by many to be Fitzgerald’s most autobiographical novel.

Now comes Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, a fictional account of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott, who often is cited as being the ruin of her famous husband.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald paints a sympathetic portrait of Zelda Fitzgerald, and in this meticulously researched work of historical fiction, author Therese Anne Fowler takes the stance that more often than not, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who incurred the majority of the damage in their troubled relationship, and it was Fitzgerald who actually held his wife back and ruined her career.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald opens with a teenage Zelda living in the Deep South—Montgomery, Alabama—with her large southern family, under the guiding hand of her patriarch father, the judge. When Zelda meets Scott, he is an officer in the army, on his way to serve in Europe in the Great War. Even during these early years, Scott is teeming with confidence and tells Zelda he’s going to be one of the greatest American authors. They fall in love, much against her father’s wishes, who sees life as an author as a poor career, one that will not be able to support his daughter. But they will have to wait, as Scott is about to be shipped off to Europe.

During these early scenes, Fowler really brings the courtship of these two young lovers to life. Take this scene, for example, where Zelda and Scott dance for the first time:

He danced as well as any of my partners ever had- better, maybe. It seemed to me that the energy I was feeling that night had infused him, too; we glided through the waltz as if we’d been dancing together for years.

I liked his starched, woolly, cologne smell. His height, about five inches taller than my five feet four inches, was, I thought, the exact right height. His shoulders were the exact right width. His grip on my hand was somehow both formal and familiar, his hand on my waist both possessive and tentative. His blue-green eyes were clear, yet mysterious, and his lips curved just slightly upward.

The result of all this was that although we danced well together, I felt off-balance the entire time. I wasn’t used to this feeling, but, my goodness, I liked it.

 

Fate intervenes, as the Great War is suddenly over, and Scott is spared going off to battle. In a state of jubilation, Scott proposes to Zelda, promising her a wonderful life, eager to whisk her off to New York City for a grand time, one that she could never have imagined before. Seeing this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to leave her southern rural life behind, Zelda agrees. She and Scott marry, and the next thing she knows she’s living in the greatest city in the world, New York.

Zelda and Scott begin their life together on top of the world. Zelda is absolutely flabbergasted by everything in New York City, and she and Scott are head over heels in love with each other.

The buildings, the people, the noise of engines and whistles and voices, the commotion of cars clattering past! I glanced at my sister; she looked frightened. I laughed and said, “I might never leave!”

But when the entry and front spires of St. Patrick’s came into view, my eyes filled with tears. I’d never seen a structure that was at once so ornate and so serene. The sight- the complexity of architecture, the graceful, intricately carved spires towering over the street, inlaid with smaller intricately carved spires, all of them topped by crosses- literally stole my breath. No wonder the woman at the station had looked impressed.

The thought of being married in this church felt overwhelming, but fitting, too; I was convinced that ours was no ordinary union. Scott was no ordinary fiancé. How, though, had he engineered this?

 

And Scott even manages to make good on his promise to support her through his writing. His short stories sell with regularity, to great critical acclaim, and even better, for top dollar. His early novels, This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby also sell well, and money is not a problem for Scott and Zelda.

In this scene, Zelda and Scott spot a display of his novel in Scribner’s bookstore:

The window display featured a number of books individually. Copies of Scott’s, though, had been built into a pyramid that dominated the display. In front of the pyramid was a sign:

At only twenty-three years of age, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s have ever published a novel.

I said, “Is that true?”

Scott nodded.

“This is my husband’s book!” I shouted, pointing to the display. Passersby smiled. I turned to Scott and said, just to him, “And this is my husband.”

They become almost drunk with success.

“Are we rich?” I asked.

“We are unstoppable.”

Not quite. Scott and Zelda live way beyond their means, attending one social event after another, spending money on whatever they want, living the highlife, and consuming alcohol, plenty of alcohol. Scott even receives offers from Hollywood, where the real money is, and it seems for a time that they will be unstoppable. Even better, they become national celebrities, trend setters, and it seems the entire nation knows Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

But then the rejections start. Scott’s Hollywood scripts are turned down, and suddenly he finds himself suffering from massive writer’s block, as he can’t seem to finish his next novel. They move to Europe, where they socialize in a literary circle unheralded before this time. Scott meets Ernest Hemingway, who he sees as a younger author who he would like to mentor, but according to Zelda, he spends too much time helping Hemingway instead of his own works.

With Scott seemingly completely focused on Hemingway, Zelda begins to feel alone and ignored, and she seeks attention elsewhere. The pattern begins, an extramarital affair, depression, illness, Scott’s deepening alcoholism, and soon what was heaven is now hell.
Zelda tries her turn at writing, and she publishes several short stories, all of which she’s told by Scott and his agent must be published with both her name and Scott’s in the byline, as they wouldn’t sell without Scott’s name, even though Scott did not write them. Eventually, her name is dropped and only Scott’s remains, even though again, she wrote the story.

When Zelda is committed to a sanitarium, the doctors there tell her not to write anymore, because that will only upset her, and Scott agrees. She grows distant from her daughter Scottie, who grows closer to her father.

In this story, there are no happy endings. As Zelda fights to regain her mental health, she dreams of getting back together with Scott, who has professed to her that in spite of everything, he will never leave her, but at the age of 44, he does just that, dying of a heart attack, leaving Zelda alone. She lives the rest of her life in and out of sanitariums, and it is in a sanitarium that she dies, in a fire.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a compelling read, mostly because Fowler has done such a masterful job of telling the story of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald that it practically plays like fact. She captures the lives of these two flamboyant personalities so naturally and with such confident ease that it’s easy to accept these things as true.

The early scenes profiling Zelda’s infatuation with New York City are particularly effective. Fowler also does a fine job showing how much Zelda and Scott love each other, setting up the reader for the emotional toil of having to read the details of when it all goes downhill and falls apart. Then there’s Ernest Hemingway, portrayed here as a manipulative predator, who’s kind and accepting of Zelda until she rejects his sexual advances.

In an Afterward, author Fowler explains that she wrote this interpretation of the Fitzgeralds based on exhaustive research, and it shows, although she admits it’s difficult to find the truth, as the two sides, Scott’s on the one, and Zelda’s on the other, both blame each other for the other’s problems. Fowler writes that she based most of her story on what she found in the letters written by Scott and Zelda.

My favorite part is that Fowler depicts in Zelda and Scott a complicated relationship that at its core is held together by a love that neither one of the two ever wanted to see end. Through it all, the alcohol, the extra marital affairs, the writing struggles, the bouts with mental illness, Scott and Zelda never stopped loving each other, and it’s this central theme that Fowler keeps throughout the novel that makes the eventual ending all the more sad and tragic.

In spite of their problems, they truly loved each other.

Near the end, Zelda is devastated by one reviewer’s reference to her work as “the work of a wife,” that after all these years of trying to make it in the world on her own, she has never been able to get out of the shadow of her husband Scott, and that her legacy, how she will be remembered in the world, will be as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at this point in the story that Zelda pretty much gives up.

Time magazine ran a review and had found a label for me: Work of a Wife, read the headline, and despite the praise that followed in the body of the review, I felt myself deflating.

That was it. W-I-F-E, my entire identity defined by the four letters I’d been trying for five years to overcome.

Why was it that every time I finally chose, every time I did, my efforts failed- I failed- so miserably? Why was I so completely unable to take control of my own life? Was there any point to it, for me? I’d thought it was Scott I’d been fighting against, but now I wondered if it was Fate.

When I was young, I’d believed that it would be awful to try and try and try at something only to find that you could never succeed. Now I knew I’d been right: I was not a sufficient dancer, or writer, or painter, or wife, or mother. I was nothing at all.

Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler is a fascinating chronicle of one of America’s most celebrated literary couples, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, seen through the eyes of Zelda. They lived their own version of Gatsby, fighting for a lost dream, and like Jay Gatsby, constantly struggled to repeat the past, to reclaim a past that they viewed as ideal, a battle that like the famous literary character they ultimately lost.

It’s a sad tragic tale brought to vivid life by Fowler’s sharp and insightful prose.

A highly recommended read.

—END—-