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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HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012)

December 16, 2012

hyde Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a bit of a curiosity why the only four-times-elected US President has been portrayed so few times on screen. Without putting much thought into it, the most memorable non-documentary occurrence may have been by Jon Voight during Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Bring on Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the 1939 first ever US visit by British monarchs … King George VI(“Bertie” played by Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) … and the stage is set for a behind-the-scenes political tale of the “social” meeting that led to the US and England joining forces in WWII. Unfortunately, that’s not really what we get.

Director Roger Michell (Morning Glory, Venus) and noted playwright and screenwriter Richard Nelson (Ethan Frome) just can’t seem to make up their mind which story they want to tell. Is it the historical meeting between FDR and the King? Is it the hyde3fling between FDR and his 6th cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), whose relationship was uncovered through the diaries and letters left behind when she passed in 1991? Is it the ongoing manipulations by Mrs Roosevelt (FDR’s mother, played by Elizabeth Wilson) and the cagey Eleanor (Olivia Williams)? Is it a political statement that all powerful men have insecurities and needs? The film is narrated and mostly told through the viewpoint of Daisy, a local 47 year old spinster, who gets dragged wide-eyed into the FDR mayhem. Mrs Roosevelt, Eleanor and FDR’s assistant Missy (Elizabeth Marvel, The Bourne Legacy) all understand the President’s reason for allowing Daisy into their inner sanctum. Daisy, a bit slow on the take, learns why once FDR stops the car in a meadow during one of their private, scenic drives. The running story of Daisy is probably the least interesting within the film, and it often deflates whatever momentum might get started.

hyde2 The best and most interesting portion involves the private meeting between FDR and the King that takes place in the study after hours. The two bond as men who are in positions of power, share the same insecurities, and who both curse their afflictions … the King and his stuttering, and the President with his polio. The best line of the film occurs during this meeting when the President asks “Can you imagine the disappointment when they find out what we really are?” It’s a reminder that all great men are just that … men.

This barely qualifies as a historical drama, and the far more interesting personal topic (rather than Daisy) would be the ongoing power struggle between Eleanor and Mrs Roosevelt. FDR does have to remind them that HE is the President! There is acknowledgment of Eleanor’s sexual preference, as well as her acceptance of FDR’s extra-marital desires and needs.

hyde4 Much is made of the famous American picnic where the King and Queen are served hot dogs, and this story highlights the Queen’s paranoia that this is yet another slap in the face meant to dishonor their presence. In fact, it is presented as a shrewd move by FDR to introduce the British royalty as people to be embraced by the American public.

It must be noted that though the film plays much like a made for TV movie, Bill Murray does a solid job portraying FDR as a man filled with humor, mischief and in full command of the burden he carries. His need for “me” time is understandable and his agreement with the press photographers explains why so few pictures exist of his wheelchair or other challenges in living with the polio. Unfortunately, the film just doesn’t keep up with Murray’s performance or with the powerful subject he portrays. Sound familiar Mr. Voight?

**Note: stay for the credits and see footage of the infamous “hot dog picnic”

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy Hallmark-style movies dwelling on interpersonal relationships OR you still need proof that Bill Murray is a legit actor.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a historical drama centered around Franklin Delano Roosevelt

watch the trailer:

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


ANNA KARENINA (2012)

December 9, 2012

anna Greetings again from the darkness. We are all familiar with the phrase “All the World’s a Stage”, and director Joe Wright and writer Tom Stoppard twist the phrase into “All the Stage is the World” in their re-imagining of Leo Tolstoy‘s literary classic. With a bold and ambitious vision, the story plays out mostly within the confines of a theatre … utilizing not just the stage, but the rafters, backstage and all nooks. This is pulled off in a most operatic manner with heavy production, remarkable sets and costumes, and the use of curtains and doors for a change of scene. Additionally, most of the actors move like dancers and, at times, the dialogue delivery borders on musicality.

Tolstoy’s story has been adapted for the screen in more than two dozen versions, including two from screen legend Greta Garbo (1927, 1935). Who better to take on the role of Anna than Keira Knightley, the ultimate period actress of our generation. It’s her anna2third film with Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) and by far, the least traditional in presentation. This version focuses on the affair between Anna and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass), and her resolve in tossing aside her standing in Russian high-society … and even giving up her son.

We do gets bits and pieces of the other story lines: Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) provides some comic relief from the start despite his extra-marital wanderings from his wife (Kelly Macdonald); the stoic determination of the bureaucrat Karenin (Jude Law) as he insists on maintaining the proper illusion; and the down-to-earth landowner Levin (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) with his pursuit of perfect farming and the beautiful Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Some viewer anna4disappointment creeps in when we realize that Levin’s story is minimized here for the torrid love affair of Anna and Vronsky. Levin’s story is allowed to sneak outside the theatre setting … presumably since he is the only character living in the real world.

Tolstoy’s powerful story is stymied to some degree by the lack of sympathy we feel for Anna … while we certainly understand her lack of connection to the cold Karenin, we never sense more than a physical attraction and unreasonable wish between she and Vronsky. The strength of the story stems from Anna’s knowing willingness to surrender her anna3place in society for the sake of what should interprets as true love. When one of the society ladies states she could forgive Anna for breaking the law, but not for breaking the rules, we fully comprehend what a ridiculous state those in high society exist.

It’s difficult to imagine a wide acceptance of this unique presentation; however, the technical aspects of the film deserve much Oscar consideration – cinematography, set design, costumes, etc are all first rate. And Keira Knightley proves again that costume dramas are where she is at her best.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you thought all possible presentations of literary classics had been explored OR you need further proof that no actress today seems more natural in the unnatural costume dramas than Keira Knightley

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: film interpretations of the elite literary classics leave you with an empty feeling

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPGLRO3fZnQ


HANNA

April 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am struggling a bit with how much to say about this one. It is such a different type of film that it’s difficult to categorize. Yes, it is definitely an Action-Thriller (in the Bourne vein), but it also has some dark comedy, as well as some commentary on parenting, governmental agencies and coming of age.

Let me first say that I highly recommend the film if you are a fan of thrillers and/or action films. It succeeds well on both fronts. However, there is much more to this movie, particularly the fantastic talents of Saoirse Ronan. You will remember her stunning turn in both Atonement and The Lovely Bones. Here she plays Hanna, a girl raised in the deep forest by her father (Eric Bana). His sole purpose in raising her was to train her to be a deadly weapon in any situation. Oh and he also “schooled” her with some generic encyclopedia that has the look of a gas station giveaway. Her head is filled with facts, figures and data on all parts of the world, and somehow she speaks an infinite number of languages.

When she finally tires of gutting deer in the wild, she tells her father she is “ready”. We then find out that her father is some type of former CIA agent and with the flip of a sonar switch, the two separate and the CIA moves in to capture her. While sitting in a secured bunker in the desert, her “mission” becomes clear. She is to kill the CIA agent played by Cate Blanchett, who is connected to Hanna’s “birth” and the death of her mother. That’s when the movie kicks into gear.

 What follows are some terrific action and fight sequences, a wonderful segment where Hanna hangs out with a traveling British family led by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng … and their daughter Sophie, played exceptionally well by Jessica Barden. The “friendship” that Sophie and Hanna create really brings into focus how sheltered from society Hanna has been.

The cat and mouse chase with Blanchett and her thugs would have worked even better if Blanchett’s character had been better defined and she wasn’t just god-awful in it. Usually Ms. Blanchett is a strong actress who adds much to a film. Here, she is the dead-weight keeping it from reaching even greater heights.  And what’s with her dental hygenic practices?

 The film is directed by Joe Wright, who has also provided Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist. The man knows how to make a movie … and that’s why this is so much more than an action flick. I must also mention that the Chemical Brothers are standouts with the film score, and though it catches you off guard at first, it really adds impact and effect to the film. There have been a few recent films with young girls in action/fight films. And while Chloe Moretz was excellent in Kick-Ass, this film is far superior. Get to know Saoirse (pronounced Sur-Shuh) Ronan. She is a real talent!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the action-thriller genre … especially those with a twist

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve had your fill of fight scenes OR anytime you see a female field dress a large mammal, you think of Sarah Palin

 


THE GHOST WRITER (2010)

February 26, 2010

(2-26-10)

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not very often we get new releases from Martin Scorcese (Shutter Island) and Roman Polanski within a week of each other. And both are thrillers. And both stories are immersed in water. And both have lead characters who might not be what they seem. Heck both films have PLENTY of characters who might not be what they seem!

Say what you will about Mr. Polanski as a human being, but he is a craftsmen when it comes to film. Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and Chinatown are all classics. Here he works with the source material from Robert Harris’ novel. The story is centered around the process of an ex-British Prime Minister writing his memoirs through the use of a ghost writer. Oh yeah, this ex-Prime Minister is accused of being overly friendly with the U.S. and may have even committed war crimes? Sound familiar? Yes, Adam Lang, played convincingly by Pierce Brosnan, has numerous similarities to Tony Blair.

Ewan McGregor plays the nameless ghost, actually a replacement for the original ghost, who died under suspicious circumstances. Polanski channels Hitchcock by making every character either a suspect or, at a minimum, suspicious. The use of water, rain, stark surroundings, cozy double-edged dialogue, and even a note passed in a key moment all evoke the master of suspense and thrills.

Olivia Williams is Brosnan’s tormented wife who remains oddly loyal and involved despite full acknowledgment of his mistress-assistant (another horrible performance from Kim Cattrall). Timothy Hutton is solid in his role as Brosnan’s attorney, and James Belushi does much with the small role of publisher. Ninety-something year old Eli Wallach is very cool and spirited in his short scene, and Tom Wilkinson adds another powerful turn to his sterling resume.

All of these people could be the “who” in who-dunnit; however, we aren’t even sure what the crime is. Or how many crimes have been committed. The only thing that keeps this one from being an instant classic is the lack of a truly complex web of intrigue. Don’t get me wrong, it will keep you glued for the entire time, but I would have enjoyed a few more clues and dead-ends and real investigative work, rather than the stumbling curiosity of a ghost writer. Still, the story is strong enough and the acting is fine enough to make this one worth seeing. Need to also mention the score … a fabulous score is a necessity in a thriller, and this one is top notch.