THE PAST AIN’T WHAT IT USE TO BE: Movie Reviews of Genius and Finding Dory by Howard Casner

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rev 1Two movies have opened that deal with the past in some way. One takes place in it, and one has a character trying to find it.

Genius is the based on a true story film about the editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) and his nurturing of the somewhat difficult, to say the least, writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and the publication of Wolfe’s two books, Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

It was certainly a tumultuous relationship as artist/mentor relationships go. Perkins, though responsible for the publishing of such authors as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, was a Puritan at heart. Wolfe was larger than life, obnoxious, rude, an egotist and near sociopath, who lived life as if it were a last meal to be devoured.

One might very well ask, then, how a drama revolving around two such men could be, well, if truth be told and the devil shamed, tedious and almost never gripping?


rev 2It’s a fair question, and there are several reasons. But I think one of the main ones is that by the time the final credits roll around, the movie is about two men who wouldn’t be remotely interesting if their names weren’t Perkins and Wolfe.


And I’m not sure name dropping is the most dependable way to insure audience interest in a story.


From what I can tell, the filmmakers, director (Michael Grandrage, a first film) and screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator, Penny Dreadful, so anything but) see Perkins and Wolfe’s story as a sort of love affair between two straight men.


That’s certainly more than a perfectly reasonable approach to dramatizing two people’s lives. But the issue for me was that try as the filmmakers might to make this non-sexual love affair believable, I never bought it. I never believed that these two men had any real interest in each other than the deep of skin mind.


For all their passionate wooing, their lover’s spats, their make-up sex, I never believed that either of them would have given each other the time of day if they had passed each other on the street if Wolfe didn’t have a book to publish or Perkins didn’t want to publish it. Firth as Perkins is all Protestant reserve and Law as Wolfe is all bombast (at one point Perkins asks Wolfe if he’s not gilding the lily and I wanted to ask, do you mean Wolfe’s writing style or Law’s performance).


In this case, I never felt two opposites attracting.


And in the end, I felt their relationship was all sound and fury, signifying well, not much.


And it’s all set against the monochromatic browns of the Depression. Wolfe’s personality may be colorful, but nothing else in this movie is.


And we don’t even get to see this supposed love affair play itself out since Wolfe has the inconvenience to die before anything can be settled. It may have really happened this way, bit that doesn’t make it any less of a deus ex machina.


There’s also something rather unpleasant, if not misogynistic, in the portrayal of the distaff characters. There are only three, really. There is Mrs. Bernstein, a stage designer who discovered and supported Wolfe up until the publication of his first book. There is Louise Perkins, Max’s long suffering wife. And there’s Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott’s mentally troubled wife.


But Bernstein is portrayed as a Xanthippe who is neurotic and comically suicidal. Louise is meek and mousy, the ideal little woman who is made fun of for her theatrical pretentiousness. And Zelda is catatonic.


For some reason it reminded me of a line from the movie The Savages delivered by Salma Hayek about the ménage a trois between the three drug dealers. Hayek said the two men only fucked the female member because they couldn’t fuck each other.


One almost gets the same feeling here.


Of course, maybe this is just an unintentional commentary on the way woman actors are treated in movies today. Because what’s even more insulting is that Bernstein is played by Nicole Kidman and Perkins by Laura Linney. These roles are more than sorely beneath the talents of these two actresses.


rev 3Is this really what the motion picture industry has become? Not only could one find it hard to believe that Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn would ever do such minor roles (and take great umbrage to even be offered them), I very seriously doubt that Firth or Law would ever stoop to do the same courtesy if the situation was reversed.


With Dominic West as an unlikely, but effective, Ernest Hemingway and Guy Pearce giving an empathetic performance as Fitzgerald.


From this perspective, one can also see the move as a metaphor for U.S. film: American characters, iconic ones at that, played by British and Australian actors with the actresses being given the scraps from the table.


rev 4For those of you who have just returned from Mars with Matt Damon, Finding Dory is the enormously successful sequel to the enormously successful Finding Nemo.


Like many sequels, it’s not bad and never really boring. But it’s not that interesting either and tends to suffer from having nothing really new to say and saying it in even a less subtle way than in the original… in case you didn’t catch it the first time round, maybe.


But the animation is thrilling, even rapturous at times, and there’s a chameleon like octopus who is desperate to get to Cleveland who tends to steal the show.


Of course, my view is that anyone desperate enough to want to go to Cleveland definitely deserves to go there.


The filmmakers obviously don’t agree and they do manage to get some edge of your seat tension going at the end and with some nice bits of wit concerning sea lions and otters thrown in for good measure.


rev 5The filmmakers seem to play it a bit fast and loose with the sea world tourist trap where much of the action takes place. They in no way remotely denigrate it, while at the same have a happy ending with all the captured sea life returned to the ocean rather than the oceanarium.


With all the voices from the previous film along with a bunch of new ones. Check IMDB for a complete list.


It took four screenwriters to come up with this. It took three for the first. More does not mean better.

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