A UNITED KINGDOM (2017)

February 23, 2017

a-united-kingdom Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes I just know immediately that I’m going to be out of touch with popular opinion on a movie, and this historical-romantic-biopic from director Amma Asante (Belle) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is one of those times.

It’s a crowd-pleaser featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in a real life story with some similarities to last year’s Loving (the chronicle of Richard and Mildred Loving’s interracial marriage). Mr. Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a 1947 university student in London when we first meet him. Ms. Pike is Ruth Williams, a local Londoner working clerical at an insurance company when the two meet at a local dance. The attraction is immediate.

Not long after, Seretse discloses to Ruth that not only is he in love with her, but he’s also the King-in-waiting for Bechuanaland in Africa. The marriage is met with dissent from all fronts: family (racism), Seretse’s people (cultural and societal reasons), and Great Britain (mostly concerned with appeasing its ally South Africa and the growing notion of Apartheid). Seretse and Ruth believe their true love is strong enough to win over those dissenters. The backlash is much worse than anticipated.

A very cool element with the film is the use of the actual house Ruth and Seretse lived in, and the locals were more than willing to contribute. While the strength of these two individuals remains inspirational to this day, the film falters in a few ways. Both Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are stuck playing British foils in the overwritten manner in which we would expect from a 1940’s movie on TCM. Again acknowledging my out of step opinion, Ms. Pike simply lacks the range for such a role. Her deer-in-the-headlights go-to facial expression is a slap to the courageous woman she is portraying. However, the biggest issue with the film is its lack of continuity … its choppiness, if you will. So many scenes abruptly end right as the substance is beginning. Multiple times we are left hanging, wondering why we don’t get to finish a conversation or finalize a conflict. There are some terrific moments that are torn apart by the numerous butchered scenes, though the strong performances of Oyelowo and Terry Pheto (Tsotsi) as his sister shine through.

This is a terrific and interesting piece of history that deserved a better film. In 1966, Bechuanaland gained its independence and became what’s known today as Botswana, and the story of Seretse and Ruth is one that needs to be told. Most viewers likely won’t be bothered by the things that irritated me, and that’s probably a good thing.

watch the trailer:

 

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BELLE (2013, UK)

July 12, 2014

belle Greetings again from the darkness. Always a bit partial to films based on a true story, I would have to label this as a fictionalized historical period piece, and a step above most costume dramas (though the costumes here are quite stunning). While it’s a very attractive movie to look at, I was a bit frustrated at the multi-directional approach that just skimmed many topics.

The movie could have focused on the relationship between cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Or it could have zeroed in on the unusual complexities raised by the illegitimate mixed race Belle being raised in British Aristocracy. Still another option would have been digging into the historical impact of Zong massacre and the subsequent arguments, court trials and appeals. Instead, we get a splash of each … which leaves the viewer wanting more detail on all three.

The cast is very strong and features Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Court … he raises Belle at the request of his nephew (her father). Lord Mansfield’s wife is played well by the always excellent Emily Watson.  Also featured are Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton (always entertaining), James Norton, Sam Reid, and Tom Felton – who creates yet another despicable character to go with his Draco from the “Harry Potter” series.

Maybe the best term for this is historical melodrama, as the courtroom decision comes across as anti-climatic, with more third act attention paid to Belle’s love interest (Mr. Reid). Very little is known of the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, but it seems clear that her role in the Zong trial was dramatically enhanced for the purposes of the film. In fact, more drama may have played out for the film’s writing credit between the director Amma Asante and the WGA. Though the director lost the writing credit, she can be proud enough of the final product.  The two cousins are featured in the famous 1779 painting (see below) that inspired the story.

1779 painting

 

 


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

August 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. As a young kid I saw the original Planet of the Apes at a drive-in with my parents. At the time, I mostly just thought the talking apes were cool and enjoyed the surprise ending, despite having no ability to really process the statement that Pierre Boulle (novel) and Rod Serling (screenplay) were making. Since then, I have had a soft spot for the series, including the Tim Burton version 10 years ago.

As you can tell by the title, this latest version is truly a prequel. It is meant to explain the beginnings of how the Apes gained intelligence and created a powerful society that would one day rule humans. It begins in a genetic engineering lab run by James Franco and his team. They are using chimps to test an experimental drug that will hopefully be used to treat and cure Alzheimer’s. In no small coincidence, Mr. Franco’s father is played by John Lithgow, a once renowned musician and teacher, who is now suffering the effects of this horrible disease.

 When things go wrong at the lab, Franco breaks most every known law and tests the drug on dear old dad. Of course, it works miracles. The accident in the lab, leads Franco to adopt a baby chimp born to one of the chimps used to test the drug. This chimp quickly becomes the smartest one in the house, neighborhood and city. Named Caesar, his learning curve is off the charts. And yes, after a couple of years, his strength and temper are as well.

After yet another accident, Caesar is put away in a chimp camp run by greedy Brian Cox and sadistic Tom Felton (Draco of Harry Potter fame). Caesar uses his intelligence and the unsuspecting and unobservant nature of the humans to organize a coup. This part is really something to behold.

 By far the best acting in the film is delivered by Andy Serkis. Don’t recognize the name? You might know him better as King Kong or Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Mr. Serkis is a motion-capture actor-extraordinare. It is sometimes difficult to tell where these effects stop and the CGI begins, but overall the look of the chimps is pretty good and the action sequences are downright amazing.

What hurts the film is the weakness of the human stories. Franco as a genius scientist? Doesn’t work for me. Freida Pinto as a primate specialist? The script gives her nothing to work with. Lithgow and Cox are excellent actors, but mere pawns in this story.

 Director Rupert Wyatt tips a cap to the original film a few times: tribute names such as Bright Eyes and Dodge Landon, an orange orangutan named Maurice (in honor of Maurice Evans), a quick glimpse of a Statue of Liberty puzzle, horse-back riding, Charlton Heston on TV (as Moses), and a couple of classic lines including “stinking paws”.

In what was supposed to be a transition story, this one really belongs to the apes … and it’s teed up beautifully for a sequel.  The apes are planning it in a wooded area located at the sign post just ahead … across the Golden Gate.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Apes series that dates back 43 years OR you want to see how James Franco can screw up even worse than he did hosting the Oscars

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t buy off on the whole brilliant apes idea OR after a hard day at the office, the last thing you want is more talking apes!

watch the trailer: