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.

watch the trailer:

 

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VICEROY’S HOUSE (2017)

August 31, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1947 Partition of India is personally important and influential to director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), though we don’t understand exactly how until the closing credits roll. Until that point, we find ourselves questioning why Ms. Chadha and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges (her husband) and Moira Buffini attempt such an obvious crowd-pleasing structure for this historical saga. Perhaps the strategy was to educate as many as possible on the events from 70 years ago.

An opening quote tells us “History is written by the victors.” Is this true? If so, who are the victors in this story? The British Empire ruled India for three centuries and their last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (great-grandson of Queen Victoria), was charged with structuring a peaceful transition to independence. The near impossibility of this challenge should have been readily apparent given the deep divisions created by religious and cultural differences, plus the immense friction between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. “Giving a nation back to its people” is not so simple when dealing with 20% of the world’s population.

Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson play Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, respectively. Despite managing what history has proven to be a disastrous decision, he is treated quite kindly by the filmmakers. Seemingly with his heart in the right place, Lord Mountbatten is presented as a pawn for the real power broker in England. His wife, on the other hand, is quite progressive and appears sincere in her efforts to better understand the Indian citizenry. In fact, as the most intriguing figure in the film, more focus on Edwina would have been welcome.

Michael Gambon plays General Hastings Ismay, while Tanveer Ghani is Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) and Denzil Smith plays Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Pakistan’s leader). These are the key players in negotiations, while inexplicably, the filmmakers choose to veer from history and offer up the worst kind of cinematic melodrama: star-crossed lovers in the vein of Romeo and Juliet.

As a metaphor for the Partition, the two lovers being torn apart by forces beyond their control is quite simply an unnecessary distraction. Mani Dayal (so good in THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) plays Jeet, a Hindu servant (one of 500) at the Viceroy House, while Huma Qureshi plays Aalia, the beautiful Muslim daughter of Ali (the late great Om Puri). Furtive glances are about as close as the two come to an actual relationship, but the film spends an inordinate amount of time on their wishes to be together.

There are too many cringe-inducing moments for the film to be considered a serious historical epic. Gandhi gets some screen time and is absurdly described as “The British Empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth”. Other moments seem all too relevant today. The promise that “Muslims will not be treated as second class citizens” could easily be heard on a current newscast. The decision to split Pakistan and India seems motivated by Britain’s design on oil and geographic protection from Russia … both contemporary motivations for many decisions these days.

The closing credits highlight the effects of the Partition: 14 million people migrated with approximately one million dead. We also get actual newsreel footage of the key figures from the story, as well as the documented reasoning of why this was so personal for director Chadha … perhaps too personal.

watch the trailer:


HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)

February 6, 2016

hail caesar Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man (2009) and Burn After Reading (2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.

The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men (2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).

We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.

With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.

Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.

Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.

watch the trailer:

 


QUARTET (2013)

January 27, 2013

quartet2 Greetings again from the darkness. The latest entry into the gray cinema genre is also the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. Oddly, Mr. Hoffman chose a British play for his first film. Ronald Harwood adapted his own play for the big screen and it certainly benefits from some giants in the acting world.

Beechum House is a retirement home for retired musicians and performers. It’s a beautiful home with a stunning property ideal for long nature walks, croquet or simply taking tea on the patio. Many details of the movie probably worked better on stage, but Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins are wonderful as renowned singers famous for their rendition of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

quartet3 In a convoluted plot mechanism, Beechum House needs a cash infusion to keep its doors open, and the answer comes from a hoped for reunion of the above mentioned quartet in this year’s fundraising gala. Convoluted seems like the right word because, of course, the house gets “saved”, but there can’t be more than 50 people in the audience … some of which are the students Mr. Courtenay teaches in his music class.  It seems doubtful this crowd would have generated enough money to save the house from financial ruin.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to be an in-depth character study. It’s just a simple, sentimental, and even sweet story of some aging, quartet5talented performers who are struggling with the pains and insecurities of old age. Michael Gambon wonderfully captures the pomposity of a once-great director who still thrives on what little power can be grasped at Beechum House.

This one is not near the level of last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, though it’s enjoyable enough for light-hearted and well-meaning entertainment. The gala also features a wonderful aria performed by famed opera singer Gwyneth Jones. Take this one for what it is … a pleasant movie experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: a pleasant, light-hearted movie with likable characters is what you are after

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking something with a bit more insight into the aging process

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSEnh8Hi62E

 


THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

December 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. British royalty is such easy pickings for film. The pomp and circumstance, colorful characters and dress, excessive everything, and especially the scandals provide an endless supply of material that can be twisted every which way. Director Tom Hooper who was responsible for fine work in the recent “John Adams” mini-series, takes the story of Prince Albert in a much different direction than one might think by reading history books.

Collin Firth does a masterful job of portraying Prince Albert, who falls directly into the role of King after the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) and abdication of the throne by his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) when he, for some reason, must marry the love of his life – a thrice divorced woman named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Now from a perspective of scandal, Edward and Wallis aka Duke and Duchess of Windsor, would make a far more juicy movie. Heck, even the story of pending World War with Hitler’s Germany would have, and often has, made for a more juicy movie. But Mr. Hooper has chosen to deliver a human drama filled with frailty, doubt, tenacity and hope. Turns out, this was a very wise choice.

Prince Albert ascends the throne as King George VI, husband to Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) whom we knew as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002. The two were the parents of a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth, the current Queen of England. Yes, we Americans do struggle with our Royalty and all the re-naming, yet remain fascinated by it. However, it’s important to note that this was a much different time. The film leads up to King George’s infamous 1939 speech in which he calmly and steadily explained to many nations that England was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany.

 What many do not know is that George suffered a severe speech impediment that caused him to stammer excessively under pressure. As you might imagine, this is a horrible affliction for a war time King! The guts of this story is the relationship between King George and his peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). There are so many dynamics in their relationship that each scene is like a skirmish between the two. Truly a fascinating progression to behold.

A deep friendship based on respect and trust develops and remains through the rest of their lives. More importantly for Britain and the world, Logue guided the King to a strong performance in the most crucial speech … thereby bringing strength to a nation and commitment from allies. Not sure which of these men was the better leader, but together they were proved very strong.

Firth, Rush, and Bonham-Carter are all excellent in their roles, and I also got a big kick out of Timothy Spall as a young Winston Churchill. Mr. Hooper does a remarkable job of creating a very human drama out of a historical period and event. The death march to the microphone is just excruciating in the climatic scene. We can feel the pain of the onlookers and supporters as they will their King to perform. I can only guess that the Queen Mother was instrumental in the development of Rolaids after so many trying moments!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true Oscar contender OR you are looking for an inspirational, historically based story

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of Royalty is a Royale Burger with cheese OR you don’t mind missing out on one of the best lead actor and one of the best supporting actor performances of the year.