SWIMMING WITH MEN (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are surprised to find a movie about an all-men’s middle-aged synchronized swim team, then you’ll likely be shocked to learn that another film on the same topic, LE GRAND BAIN (Sink or Swim), was released earlier this year, and these follow up a 2010 documentary MEN WHO SWIM covering the Swedish Men’s synchronized swim team. That’s right … three films! It is with great pleasure that I report director Olive Parker and writer Aschlin Ditta have delivered a charming and heartfelt movie that is really quite enjoyable, and more nuanced than you might pre-judge it to be.

Rob Brydon (THE TRIP) stars as Eric, a successful accountant going through a mid-life crisis that negatively affects his work, his marriage to Heather (a terrific Jane Horrocks), and his relationship with his teenage son Billy (Spike White). Eric spends his office days in a foggy haze, waiting for 6:00 pm so he can hit the local pool for a few laps – his only time alone without thoughts of boredom. On one of these evening dips, he (and we) get quite a visual … 7 men in goggles and caps sitting on the pool floor in a coordinated manner.

Soon enough, thanks to his math and analytical skills, Eric is invited to join the swim club (first rule of swim club: Don’t talk about swim club!) consisting of team leader Luke (Rupert Graves), dentist Kurt (Adeel Akhtar), young scofflaw Tom (Thomas Turgoose), recent widower Ted (Jim Carter), former youth footballer Colin (Daniel Mays), the “new guy” (Ronan Daly), and “Silent Bob” (Chris Jepson). Rather than the island of misfit toys, it’s a group of slightly damaged men – each with their own story of why life isn’t so great at the moment. We learn about each right along with Eric, and easily see how he fits right in. This group alternates drowning their sorrows with a pint at the local pub with nearly drowning each other at the local pool … with only the best intentions, of course.

Once the lads learn there is a competition in Milan, they bring on local swim teacher Susan (a spunky Charlotte Riley, “Peaky Blinders”) to coach them towards respectability. Sure, we get a few clichés and the predictability of events is usually spot on; yet, there is a core to the story and to each of the men that brings a welcome depth. Their coordination in the water leads to their better balance on dry land (aka, everyday life).

This is far from traditional cinematic masculinity, and instead shows us the impact of friendship and purpose. The original reason for forming the team was to protest the meaningless of life – to find their purpose. This is accomplished through the brilliance of gentle British humor (think DANNY DECKCHAIR, THE FULL MONTY, EDDIE THE EAGLE), and the clumsiness of full-bodied men in a pool … accompanied by Tom Jones’ version of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”.

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VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Stephen Frears has enjoyed a long career by focusing on the interesting stories of people, rather than the salient specifics of history or politics. He received Oscar nominations for THE QUEEN and THE GRIFTERS, and helmed other crowd-pleasers such as MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, PHILOMENA, HIGH FIDELITY, and FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. While purely entertaining movies are always welcome, it’s important to note the filmmaker’s approach when the story is entwined with historical importance.

Based on real events … mostly” is Mr. Frears’ cutesy way of kicking off the film and asking us to enjoy the unusual story of connection between a Queen and a servant, and cut him some slack on the historical depth. For most of us, the real enjoyment will be derived from watching yet another standout performance from Oscar winner (and 7 time nominee) Dame Judi Dench as the longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria in her elderly years. It’s a role she played twenty years ago in MRS. BROWN, and her relationship with John Brown (presented in that film) has some parallels to what we see here with Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). Dame Judi is the rare actress who can capture both the loneliness and tiresome burden of six decades of rule and the re-invigorated woman we see learning a new language and new religion. She plays weary and spunky with equal believability.

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, and in 1861 her beloved husband Prince Albert died. This film picks up in 1887 with the pomp and circumstance of the Golden Jubilee – a celebration of her 50 years of rule. The early scenes tease us with obstructed views, and the comedic element becomes quite obvious as we see her so carelessly slurping her soup at the formal lunch. Part of the celebration includes the presentation of an honorary coin by two Indians peasants Abdul (Fazal) and Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), the first chosen because of his height, and the second as a last minute fill-in.

Lee Hall (Oscar nominated for BILLY ELLIOT) wrote the screenplay based on the book by Shrabani Basu. The journals of Abdul Karim were only discovered in 2010, a hundred years after his death. Some of the less favorable moments of this era are mentioned, but most of the Queen’s lack of knowledge or awareness is attributed to the “boring” reports from her advisers. This leads to some awkward moments later in the film regarding the Muslim mutiny and the subsequent Fatwa.

Rather than dwell on history, the film prefers to focus on the unconventional friendship and the re-awakening of the Queen. Abdul becomes her “Munshi” – a spiritual advisor and her teacher of Urda and the Koran. As you would expect, this is all quite scandalous and frustrating for those such as Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Lady Churchill (Olivia Williams), Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), and the royal staff: Sir Henry (the recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith), her physician Dr Reid (Paul Higgins), and her quivering maid Miss Phipps (Fenella Woolgar). There is even a comical sequence with the great singer Puccini (Simon Callow) as the Queen herself belts out the Gilbert and Sullivan song “I’m Called Little Buttercup”.

Balmoral, the Isle of Wight, and Windsor Castle are all part of the breath-taking scenery, while the absurdity of the royal status is viewed through the eyes of the Indian servants. Most of the focus is on Victoria’s transformation from joyless, isolated monarch to the anything-but-insane (an Oscar worthy scene) and eager to engage elderly woman (one who has an entire era named after her) falling back in love with life as she fights off “the banquet of eternity”. Come for the laughs and the performance of Dame Judi … just not for a history lesson.

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THE BIG SICK (2017)

June 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who tend to avoid Hollywood Romantic Comedies honestly have nothing against them in theory (no really, it’s true). The problems with the genre stem from (years of) cringe-inducing clichés, story structure re-treads, and inane dialogue – all of which is usually accompanied by acting that comes across as significantly short of believable. So when a rom-com (like this one) hits the silver screen and it provides emotionally dramatic moments, organically generated laughter, and multiple characters that we genuinely care about … expect the accolades to start flowing.

Real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Emily Gordon have collaborated on the script; an autobiographical re-telling of the saga known as the beginning of their relationship. It’s a story that starts simply enough with a meet-cute in a Chicago comedy club where Pakistani-American Kumail is performing his stand-up routine (in between Uber-driving shifts), and Emily is in the audience firing off some mild heckling which progresses to flirting and then … well, activity that leads to both saying “this can’t happen again”.

Director Michael Showalter continues to prove that he doesn’t mind breaking the mold for relationship movies. Hello, My Name is Doris was one of last year’s more creative films in this genre, and now Showalter has taken another step forward with this true life script. Kumail plays himself, and rather than a larger-than-life presence, he comes across as exactly life size. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) plays Emily. The two actors are believable together (and apart) and allow us to buy in to them as a couple – and as not a couple. Their relationship shines a spotlight on religious and cultural challenges, and family pressures that those from a traditional Muslim family carry. For some, moving to the U.S. doesn’t override religious and cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and preferred professions. The script addresses this beautifully and without pulling punches – although some humor does help.

The supporting cast is excellent and plays a substantial role in the story, especially as Emily (Kazan) lay quite ill in the hospital. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her parents, and deliver an emotional wallop, even while dealing with their own marital issues – one of which allows Romano and Kumail to bond a bit. Kumail’s parents are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, while his brother is played by Adeel Akhtar. They each capture the shock and disappointment that follows when Kumail seems to choose Emily over the family. Since this is a rare multi-dimensional script where characters can’t just be labeled “boyfriend” or “best friend”, Kumail’s cohorts at the comedy club are played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and David Alan Grier – each bringing more depth to the story.

Expect the best giraffe and 9/11 jokes you’ve likely ever heard, but mostly rejoice in the graceful balance between life and death, comedy found in daily life, and the real relationship struggles. It’s not even the first coma-centric romantic-comedy (While You Were Sleeping, 1995), but here, the human feelings on screen remind us that most decisions in life are complex, and we all make mistakes of the heart. Kumail is caught in “no man’s land” between family obligations and his own identity. Hopefully life hasn’t stuck you in Kumail’s spot – hanging out in the hospital waiting room with the parents of your ex as she lay comatose down the hall as you slowly come to realize that she’s the girl of your dreams (and your parents’ nightmare). It may not sound like the makings of a traditional rom-com, but that’s what makes it so exceptional.

watch the trailer: