Everything about Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul is downright repellent. It’s sanctimonious and pedestrian. It’s unthreatening and designed to be consumed by the geriatric community. It’s Love & Friendship for stupid people, extricated of all wit and confrontation. The sampled population that attending my screening skewed to the senior variety and they ate this shit up. But just because your grandparents find the quote unquote problematic relationship between an elderly white monarch and her Muslim servant-cum-tutor to be cute, doesn’t make it harmless. No, Victoria & Abdul is a terribly backwards film that conceals its latent prejudices under the guise of smug progressivism.Read More
In under a half hour, Stephen Frears’ The Program, a biopic on the life of Lance Armstrong, spins its spokes past the athlete’s initial professional failings, his subsequent doping, his bout with testicular cancer, and his following reemergence as he wins his first (of seven) Tour de France. This casual and ultimately indifferent Greatest Hits approach to Armstrong’s legacy is among the many suspect choices that plague The Program. And for a director of Frears’ standing, one whose filmmaking credentials include minor though inarguably thoughtful pictures like The Grifters and High Fidelity, the tonal deafness he exhibits in The Program is astounding.Read More
Stephen Frears may be credited as the director of Philomena but it remains a film indebted to the written and on-screen force of Steve Coogan. Philomena is a comedic drama, often times depending on the former element at the expense of the latter, about a shamed broadcast journalist played by Coogan. In an effort to rebuild his tainted image, he takes up a human-interest story by agreeing to meet with the titular Philomena (Judi Dench). In what he initially pegs as a fluff piece blows up into a deconstruction of Irish-Catholic teachings, slavery, and even a brief American history overview of the Republican response to the AIDS epidemic. This is a seismic laundry list of Big Theme topics that most filmmakers would struggle to approach and Frears’ hands-off approach forces Dench and Coogan to make do with some heavy lifting that they’re ill-equipped for.Read More
I’ve been a bit behind on my writing (ok, really behind), as work/life/Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84/etc gets in the way. But as I’m looking through the 10+ films I’ve seen that I haven’t written anything about, I’m going to single out Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity. It’s not the best film I’ve seen of the bunch. It happens to be the most recent, but that doesn’t really come into play as to why I’m writing about it. I read Nick Hornby’s novel before seeing the film, but even then, that’s not the sort of thing that motivates me to write this piece.
What I found so interesting about High Fidelity is its setting. Whereas The Dark Knight uses Chicago as its Gotham City or The Untouchables uses contemporary Chicago to realize its Chicago-of-old, High Fidelity uses the city as it is. There are subtle little touches seen throughout the film that speak specifically to the people of Chicago. The film avoids using Chicago as merely a skyline, and instead allows its characters to wander through its neighborhoods. There’s a certain novelty to seeing my old high school used as the backdrop for blossoming romance. It’s one of the rare opportunities of seeing my city through such a concentrated lens.
High Fidelity begins with a break-up, wherein Rob Gordon (John Cusack) begins his countdown of his top 5 worst break-ups. Laura (Iben Hjejle), the girl who had just left him, doesn’t even crack the top five. Girls have come and gone, but the one constant in his life is the music. Owning a small record shop on the corner of Milwaukee and Honroe (I know where that is!), Rob runs the store with Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). Dick is quiet and reserved, whereas Barry’s exuberance and elitism tends to drive customers away. The shop does mediocre business, to the point that it gives the trio the opportunity to use the shop as an open forum for their top 5 lists.
But for a break-up that doesn’t crack his top five, Rob becomes increasingly infatuated with the why of it all. He lingers on the memory of Laura. The memories of his past relationships seep into his every move, until he finally decides to seek out the women who broke his heart and find out why exactly they left him. His soul searching opens Rob up to more heartbreak, but it all serves to reinforce this notion that Laura really was the girl for him; or at the very least, the girl that he needs right now.
High Fidelity is consciously simple, and much like Hornby’s novel, geared toward deconstructing a certain type of male. It’s not universal and makes no effort to be as such. But its effectiveness rests in the fact that it’s not compromising. You get a very clear depiction of a man and his friends and the women in his life. Cusack speaks directly to the camera, where his relentless monologues give us the ins-and-outs of his character. When the film begins, I saw Cusack playing a character with his share of quirks. But the end, it was Cusack playing a character that mirrored some of my own experiences. Combined with such a palpable setting, it was a sobering experience to go from point A to point B.