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Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

The light, inconsquential Victoria & Abdul steps around its most pressing questions to deliver two solid title performances in what is best described as a going of age picture for Focus Features (a Comcast company, as the audience is obnoxiously reminded in opening titles). The story of a bond between an Islamic Indian servant and the queen of England romanticizes both multiculturalism and monarchy in a lilting, interracial fantasy which is both limited and relatively innocuous.

Written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot and War Horse), Victoria & Abdul is almost entirely crafted in its poster, title and tagline that this is history’s most unlikely friendship. I kept waiting for the reason why as I was drawn into this exotic Asian world of the man summoned to serve the monarch. Without much to go by, Queen Victoria, portrayed by Judi Dench, who played the same queen in Mrs. Brown, and Abdul Kareem (Ali Fazal) are prisoners of their cultures, really, and they find in each other a range of shared values.

At least that’s how they are depicted in this adaptation of a book apparently based on the discovery of Abdul’s writings, though the opening credits also warn that license has been taken with their story, too. As it is, the old queen who feels like a silly old woman until the handsome young Indian looks upon her has lived most of her life. She slurps her soup, tears at her meat and gets a bit piggish with her dessert. But Queen Victoria is essentially dazed and dormant, literally sleeping and snoring when she first appears, until the warm, inviting gaze of the poetic coin-bearer enters her sheltered, scheduled life. When she brings him and his fellow Indian traveling companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), on board, it’s almost immediately like a geriatric Roman Holiday.

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Florence Foster Jenkins, Mrs. Henderson Presents, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen, Philomena), who understands good humor, deft dramatic details and, above all, directing Judi Dench, whom he has directed in five movies, the cinematography, song and dance are as entertaining as one might expect. Thomas Newman’s musical score is among the best assets, as is the late Tim Piggott-Smith (Alice in Wonderland, Creedy in V for Vendetta) as Henry, one of the less caricatured royal attendants, who quite predictably do not accept Abdul.

For his part, Abdul from the outset knows English better than the English do. He’s eager to serve the queen, and eager to continue serving, after being instructed that essence of service is “standing still and moving backwards”, one of the better lines in Victoria & Abdul. Abdul is wide awake and ready to awaken Victoria from her slumber. It is hard not to like Abdul, except that he’s a blank slate, taking the 81-year-old woman on walks among the tree-filtered sunshine while he talks in bromides and tells her when she opens up that “we are here for the good of others”. He knows that she seeks knowledge and he steps up to provide it and, when it becomes clear that he’s Islamic (in a generic way) and keeps other secrets, he quotes the Koran and adopts the infidel and her country more or less as his own. As he quotes Rumi, teaches her Urdu, and, in a memorable scene, is enchanted by Puccini, Abdul trades as well as he’s able.

As a Moslem, Abdul is unholy, self-centered and inconsiderate. Taking in stories of Medici, he offers his own thoughts on art, the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne. He kisses and dances with the queen, who falls in love with love again while singing Gilbert & Sullivan and, tellingly, Abdul ignores Mohammed to whom he promised a quick return to the homeland. For her part, the queen disavows her staff and family and describes a burka as “splendid”. This is when it becomes clear that Victoria & Abdul amounts to benign playacting between two prisoner-impostors in a game well played. Victoria really may turn out to be a silly old woman out for a good time.

With a fatwa or Islamic death decree against the queen, disease and knighthood at stake, Victoria & Abdul could be much richer than it turns out to be. To its credit, and Victoria & Abdul is closer in theme and tone to Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears’ movie depicts what he called in an afterwards interview the “ridiculousness of royalty”. But skirting contradictions detracts from the movie’s intended sweetness. After all, there is nothing splendid about a woman being covered in cloth from head to toe on the premise that woman must be concealed because man is mindless. Or that a person with a crown can “have one billion citizens” after 62 years in office or that Abdul’s life is ultimately anything but deeply sad and subservient. But these two gamers forge a bond as true as possible, amid the magic of snowfall, as the pair trade gentle, deliberate breaths, his for the promise of her — and hers for the fact of him.


An interview with director Stephen Frears and Judi Dench after today’s screening at the ArcLight Hollywood was the usual mix of generic, fawning and flawed questions (for instance, Ms. Dench had to correct the interviewer, who apparently thought Frears directed her in Mrs. Brown) and silly audience antics. But seeing this grand movie star and her extremely talented director was worth the hassle and indignity.

Dench, who looks fabulous, discussed her contention that Queen Victoria was depressed at that later stage of her life “because there weren’t any more treats on the way”, as she put it. Victoria wrote up to four letters a day to Abdul, who, Frears wryly pointed out to laughter, was mere steps away in the royal palace. To one audience member’s question about what she’s learned during her marvelous career, Ms. Dench replied that she’s learned that she now grasps the truth about acting that less is, in fact, more, as in better, which she added she did not know when she was playing Ophelia on stage when she was 23 years old. And she also said that the camera picks up the thoughts in your head. After Frears, an excellent director with whom it’s clear she shares a deep connection, answered that he could not have conceived that he’d be sitting in an ArcLight Cinemas Q & A when he was young because he was constantly “terrified”, his leading actress jumped in and urged the audience to embrace the terror.

“Turn fear into a kind of petrol,” she said. Judi Dench commented regarding a question about locations in Victoria & Abdul that she loved the cold, wind and wet of Scotland. She interjected that the lack of sex after Mr. Brown died led to Queen Victoria being relegated to food as her only joy which was why the queen was obese. The actress who played Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, an eccentric artist in Tea With Mussolini, damaged Agniss in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Shipping News, greedy Ursula in Ladies in Lavender, a predatory lesbian in Notes on a Scandal, Annie Hoover in Clint Eastwood’s underrated J. Edgar, title characters in Frears’ Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, a boss in several 007 films and the glorious old diabetic radical Armande in Lasse Hallstrom’s enchanting Chocolat, emphasized that she is certain that Abdul prolonged the queen of England’s life.

Movie Analysis: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Written by the late Melissa Mathison (The BFG, The Black Stallion) and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jaws, Munich, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Sugarland Express, Lincoln), Universal Pictures’ E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (available this week on a limited 35th anniversary edition Blu-Ray disc) remains sublime. Upon the recommendation of the greatest living philosopher, Leonard Peikoff, who names E.T. as his favorite movie, I saw it long after the original release. I was enchanted.

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After this afternoon’s viewing (my first seeing it on the silver screen) at the ArcLight Hollywood, I’m happy to say that I still am. E.T. is not flawless, though it is close. What Mathison’s screenplay creates, Mr. Spielberg’s mastery recreates in moving pictures with wonder, humanity and deft courage to depict what it means to be kind and loving. E.T. does this with slow, deliberate lighting, scoring and multiple loops that bring characters, action and themes full circle.

The movie begins with a strong sense of fear and dread — Steven Spielberg uses horror in all of his films — in extended scenes of darkness after an alien spaceship lands on earth, dispatching the extra-terrestrial and accidentally leaving him behind. The largely unseen alien finds his way into a suburban California household’s backyard shed, where a middle child of a broken home (Henry Thomas) notices the disturbance. As he’d done with toddler Barry in Close Encounters and Chief Brody in Jaws, Mr. Spielberg in this way acknowledges the legitimacy of being frightened by a strange alien.

But, as in his other films, he shows that it’s also easy to be alienated from familiar beings, too. With a mother (Dee Wallace) still adjusting to divorce and an older brother (Robert Macnaughton) who is cruel and reckless, freckle-faced Elliott has his reasons to be drawn to an alien in spite of the risks. The wide-eyed child has an ‘enter’ sign on his room’s door, a clue that he’s actively seeking friendship. Simply, in perfect scenes of two young males earning trust, trading and cashing in, which starts when ET witnesses Elliott’s decision to run from an authority figure, boy and ET bond.

The bond first seals when they begin to sleep, as if the pair can really, only and deeply find peace in having found one another. Of course, the alien’s suddenly a fugitive from the United States government, and the boy’s gone rogue from his family, which mocks and repels him. From there, E.T. takes the friendship to a higher level, as Elliott tutors his new friend, whom he selfishly conceals from his siblings, mother and everyone else, first explaining to ET that he’s human, then that he’s a boy and, finally, that he’s Elliott. Hidden in Elliott’s room with posters, comics and figures such as the Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and Lando from the Star Wars serials, ET adapts. He refuels, recharges and overcomes his fear through Elliott’s sense of life.

All of this joy and enlightenment coming from the boy’s bedroom finally makes the middle child the center of the family’s home, sort of bringing the broken home together as the newly confident Elliott, as recharged as his friend, asserts himself in life for the first time. The boy draws a picture of the extra-terrestrial at school. He takes his younger sibling (Drew Barrymore) and, later, the older brother into his confidence, though Mom’s still too caught up in her new single parenthood to appreciate her growing children, let alone revel in her intelligent son’s emerging individuality.

Against this domestic setting comes the government, E.T.‘s villain as much as E.T. has one. While it’s kept in the backdrop for most of the movie, the threat of the state against their friendship creeps out in earnest — interestingly, fittingly — in the first scenes at a school. Amid a bulletin board about extinction and a teacher who remains essentially unseen, Elliott experiences a kind of telepathic communion with his friend back in his room. This entails Elliott’s dog, a can of beer and a clip of John Wayne sweeping Maureen O’Hara off her feet in The Quiet Man. The mayhem that ensues leads to Elliott’s coming of age. So, in a certain sense, does the teacher’s instruction in basic biology with frog dissection, which includes a lesson to “locate the heart and notice that it’s still beating.”

Elliott, melded with ET, acts so that it keeps beating. And this is one of E.T.‘s emblems; that what makes a heart beat, love and affection, is what keeps you alive. In ET, this vitality emits light.

The character suggested chiefly by dangling keys (Peter Coyote) represents the U.S. government, which, for 1982 when E.T. was released (the year Leonard Peikoff’s first book was published, in a happy coincidence), features an early depiction of the American surveillance state. For the state’s use of technology to violate rights, however, revitalized ET is one step ahead, devising and constructing his own machine, carefully using his friend’s possessions and lessons for electrical engineering.

Whose technology will triumph climaxes around Halloween in what’s probably Steven Spielberg’s most secular, individualistic movie — and, for this reason, his most American movie. Culminating as a contest of the byproduct of American culture, friendship and love and the state-sponsored result of government medicine, surveillance and coercion, ET explicitly embraces the former. “This is my home!” someone objects as the United States government violates property rights, as dishonestly and unjustly as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, stressing another subsidiary theme and planting one of many bookends in this intimate fable about friendship. E.T. unfolds in its own time, not in rushed, fast-cutting jumps, graphics and effects.

The state’s total invasion of one’s private life versus the power of shared values yields the film’s most searing scenes in a makeshift medical trauma in which the Peter Coyote character — a kind of older, alternate version of what Elliott might become if he loses his idealism and innocence — refers to the “miracle” of the extra-terrestrial. It’s the closest ET comes to getting and giving religion. Followed with a question about how the government can help, which begs to be answered to get the hell out of the way, government’s role in the miracle is totally, utterly repudiated.

Yet the government’s not a realistic villain because they do not act in accordance with their power and conviction, one of the movie’s flaws. We know what the state does to an unwanted alien and it’s the opposite of what happens here (remember Elian). It’s a forgivable error on E.T.‘s terms, though, as Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg focus on the love and light between the two young males. Other flaws include too many insider references to movies and other contrivances.

Light and love charge E.T. like one of its big, Ray-O-Vac batteries in the picture that all but created product placement. In this way, E.T.‘s as fabulously commercial as Christmas. This doesn’t mean E.T. doesn’t integrate matters of the mind with the power of a beating heart. In gentle, soft and mercifully slow scenes such as a boy’s breath on glass as he holds vigil for the one he loves, taking a solemn oath to be hereE.T. is a perfect example that it’s possible to dramatize soulfulness in secular terms — and expressing love both in physical and spoken affection, E.T. sustains its “heartlight” theme.

As it does, each character within Elliott’s family is also touched, moved and, ultimately, exalted (even Harvey the dog). Here, its two-point circles illuminate like fireflies. Mother reads J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to her daughter — activating the sense of belief that arcs into a mother-daughter wish affirming life in reality. An angry boy lays down with imaginary friends, curls into a fetal position and awakens as an enchanted hero. In the most obvious example of the two-point loop, two friends’ flight by moonlight comes back around as the sun (and friendship) sets as E.T. rolls with a boy’s bicycle — backed by a band of boys’ bicycles — into one final, pulsating glow capped by the colors of a rainbow. With cinema’s most symbolic use of the sunflower as a metaphor for love as a matter of life and death since David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), E.T. charms, brightens and radiates.

Books: True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy

In a 1935 photograph of Soviet spy Noel Field at a London disarmaments conference — Field had been recruited by Soviet Russia to spy on the United States of America — his lantern-jawed face contains the faraway vacancy of one who knows he’s too far gone. Field, who never showed remorse for his crimes or renounced his admiration for Stalin, was part of the same Soviet spy cell with Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, who outed them both, in Washington, DC.

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The picture’s included in True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, on sale in paperback next week. In it, author Kati Marton tells Field’s dark, horrifying story of Communist faith and fanaticism. Though she tends to romanticize his suffering and makes the common mistake of granting good intentions for his idealism, despite evidence to the contrary, True Believer demonstrates that Noel Field, an American who passionately spied for Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, ruined his family and believed in Communism until the very end, when he was kidnapped and tortured by the KGB and forced to testify against his Communist comrades in one of Stalin’s show trials. In particular, she discloses that Field’s work with the Unitarian Church was a front for helping Soviet Russia and resulted in at least one murder, proving once again that, as Ayn Rand observed, faith and force are “the destroyers of the modern world.”

How a Harvard-educated, State Department employee became friends with Alger Hiss and made himself a Stalinist is True Believer‘s focus, starting in earnest with the Red Decade, the 1930s, when Field enlisted in the International Communist Movement, which New York City-based author Marton partly blames on U.S. evasion of the rise of European fascism. Author and reporter Marton, the child of a Hungarian political prisoner whose parents found and spoke with Field in the only press interview he ever gave, is author of several books.

In often engaging narrative detail, she traces Noel Field’s presumed pursuit of a meaningful life using access to Soviet Secret Police records, the Field family’s correspondence and historical research and reports on Communist spy Hiss, CIA Director Allen Dulles and, of course, Stalin, the bloodiest monster of the 20th century. True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy — published in softcover by Simon & Schuster and available on Sept. 19 — accounts for this faith-based little monster’s pathetic life of crime, treason and evil in what amounts to another volume documenting Stalin’s mass murder and the full force of Communism with notes, bibliography, photos and an index.

Why Hollywood’s Finally Got a Hit

The worst summer at the box office in decades finally closes with a record-breaking hit in a new adaptation of an Eighties novel by horror writer Stephen King. The movie’s titled after the bestselling book, It. The Warner Bros. picture stars Jaeden Lieberher (Aloha, Midnight Special, St. Vincent) as the leader of a group of bullied children who are terrorized by a clown, and, this weekend, It smashed records in several categories, including an opening day beating of Marvel’s recent hit Deadpool. Why It is a hit is as simple as ever; audiences figured It looked like a good movie.

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And It is a good movie (read my review here) if a clear, coherent and character-based plot’s the standard for what makes a movie good. Not every good movie’s a hit, let alone a records-breaker, and, of course, not every hit’s a good movie. This summer’s dismal returns suggest a confluence of factors for declining box office trends. When it comes to seeing movies, people are more savvy about oversaturated marketing and advertising, more discriminating with their dollars and there are many more sources for discernment, for starters. There are more sources for entertainment, too, and, with rising cable prices and lower quality service and control of choices, streaming is growing as an option.

Today’s consumer has a wide range of choices in not only creative material but also the format for seeing the material — streaming a movie or TV show or listening to a book being read on a tablet, watching a Blu-Ray or DVD or seeing a classic movie or show via a variety of free, pay and subscriber models — and the range is both exhausting and daunting. An invitation to accept a clear-cut value proposition such as It‘s promise to deliver a coherent blend of character-based humor, plot and frights in the movie theater makes the choice easier: come to the theater and you’ll be scared, humored and entertained. That’s the appeal of It in a nutshell. Weekend receipts indicate that word of mouth was apparently better than decent. It blew past the summer’s overrated hit Wonder Woman.

But an article by Brooks Barnes in last week’s New York Times about an aggregator website co-owned by movie studios, to the extent they’re still studios, points to trouble for Hollywood movies in the future. The popular site, founded by Berkeley college students who named it Rotten Tomatoes, evoking the medieval practice of mobs physically assaulting criminals (which the Times reports spread to theaters and pelting artists with tomatoes in the 19th century), purports to rate movies based on an aggregate of numerous reviews.

Now, the studios that bought the site blame the site for poor box office results.

There is some truth in the claim. Audiences tend to stay away from movies with low ratings, which are decided by a committee of the site’s employees at an office in Beverly Hills. A 36-person bunch, who report to a former studio executive at a company partly owned by a unit of NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC, NBC News and Universal Pictures which is itself owned by Comcast, the cable TV cartel, decides numerical ratings. The site’s senior “editor” sports a pink mohawk and dresses up as a comic book character at events the site sponsors in which audiences and movie critics are squared off in a confrontational contest. Rotten Tomatoes calls these events Your Opinion Sucks. The site’s “editor”, Barnes writes, was in charge of three such “sessions” at this summer’s Comic-Con. “Let’s just say that it’s not an accident that I chose a costume that needs a whip,” the Rotten Tomatoes senior movie “editor” quipped in a Catwoman costume.

This is the caliber of operations that studios, which the article admits game the movie review system with pre-release screenings of carefully selected critics deemed more likely to write a positive review of a given film, both condone and condemn. Not that it’s possible to rely on ratings by committees that (claim they) skim or read reviews and then put numerical values on them to choose which movie to see. Rotten Tomatoes, for its part, told Barnes that it aggregates a diversity of reviews because “critics at traditional outlets tended to be white men” and “Rotten Tomatoes wanted to include female and minority voices.” Try to numerically factor that, RogerEbert.com.

As Barnes reports, Americans increasingly use aggregated reviews from sources such as Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor to make decisions on whether and what to buy. According to an entertainment industry consulting firm, 34 percent of U.S. teenagers consult Rotten Tomatoes before buying a movie ticket, an increase from 23 percent a few years ago. But he wrongly concludes that this rotten chicken coming home to roost represents a “battle between movie companies and critics.”

Going by what other people think of what other people think of other people’s reviews is not a conflict between the Hollywood moviemaker and movie reviewer. It’s the oldest, laziest form of conformity and it’s a byproduct of the mass dumbing down of American culture — the refusal to read, think and form a judgment based on the thoughts of one’s own reasoning mind — and this groupthink, rule by consensus or mob rule poses the gravest threat to Hollywood, movies and the culture. Whatever its merits, despite the fact that its audience may have been drawn by the groupthink, too, though I am more optimistic than that, at least It appears to have earned its audience based on the promise of a good movie, not by the allure of an arbitrary number picked by a band of bean-counters in Beverly Hills. On the other hand, It, a horror movie which also gains from the theme that deep-seated fear can be conquered, was made by a movie studio that also owns part of that popular and meaningless website.

 

Movie Review: It (2017)

It is a scary movie, no more, no less and better than most horror movies these days, not that I’m an expert in the genre (which I generally abhor). I have seen and do appreciate the occasional good horror movie. I saw the new adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel with a true King and horror fan (who hated It) at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome at the ArcLight on Sunset Boulevard.

Beginning with the sounds of a nursery rhyme and a boy’s laughter followed by a floating red balloon, It signals that this is a dark fairy tale which plays centrally on fear, not gore. There is a difference. In this sense, It, like the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, is not as gratuitous as today’s blood porn, though there are buckets of blood. It isolates and examines potent childlike fear in each character: Georgie, the adorable little brother whose stuttering older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent, Midnight Special, Aloha) leads a group of bullied grade school boys, fears going into the basement. Another boy fears germs. More than one kid fears a parent. Or facing life without the parent. And so on. This band of prepubescent boys is like a bundled afterschool special in 1988, the year this New England town-based tale takes place; there’s a Jew, a black, a heavyset kid, a sick one, a stuttering one, a boy with eyeglasses. Later, a girl later the bunch.

They have deeper fears, of course, and It gets into certain character subplots more than others, with serious themes of adult abuse of children underlying each kid’s story. All the adults — from parent and policeman to pharmacist and librarian — in this tidy little Maine town are lousy, rotten or evil, some by benign neglect, others by calculated choice. This makes It more involving. The contrast between child and adult gives the kids an additional layer of fear and it seals the audience bond. There’s something to be afraid of for almost everyone.

Fear takes the form of a monster carnival clown that anticipates, amalgamates and promulgates each boy’s fear. When one of the kids does some historical research, a pattern is discerned that enhances the mystery of the town’s children and what they may have in common. On top of everything else are a bunch of bullies, all white males, riding around in a black Pontiac Trans Am that’s as menacing in a way as the clown. A girl bully plays a role, too. One of kids’ grandparents says the town’s cursed and it certainly isn’t lacking in miserable human beings. But this only makes the band of brothers more endearing, despite their handicaps, flaws and irritating habits.

For example, the token female (Sophia Lillis) has a tough exterior, which is sufficiently explained, and flirts and shoplifts her way into the boy’s club. All of the kid characters have some mildly challenging, annoying or morally questionable practice, habit or action, and, between the kids’ burdens to bear and their adult parents and guardians, It provides a stark lesson in how friendships form, fall apart and form lifelong alliances. I say stark because the story encompasses a lot of themes without really developing them, so there’s a hint or suggestion here and there about issues such as grief, body image and puberty. The main theme that love conquers evil, or friendship trumps fear, comes through.

With a few shock moments, a murder that goes unresolved and a few flat characters, It‘s far from perfect. As I said, It‘s a scary movie, no less and no more than that (and Bill Skarsgård as the clown is spot on). It brushes up against loss, pedophilia, alienation, incest, overprotective parenting and physical abuse and more, with computer-generated horror, songs by the Cult and the Cure and lots of juvenile banter that titillated the audience at the Cinerama Dome. But, with a strong leading cast and a consistent theme that one’s darkest fears can be conquered — and how refreshing to see a band for once in an absolute, unfiltered, unequivocal and unified assault on evil — to mine the good, It delivers steady, gripping terror, thrills and, at its best, something to think about that transcends fear.