Tag Archives | 2017 movies

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.

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.

Read the review

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: Wonder Woman

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The summer’s big hit, Wonder Woman, features a heroine and certainly has some wonderful moments, though it leaves me underwhelmed. From the start, when the main character, Diana, admits in voiceover that she “used to want to save the world” before delving into the World War 1-set story, the DC Comics-based fantasy hints at an anti-romantic theme.

While it is decidedly mixed with larger than life action, Wonder Woman lands its anti-romanticism on the mark. Girl meets boy but barely has him to lose. They go to war after an extended mythology setup, though it never gets to the roots of war. Conflict never lets up, as is often the case with comics-based pictures, the earliest of which (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor) I’ve enjoyed, though they’ve become bloated, artificial and generic. Wonder Woman is warrior Diana’s origin story, so it’s all about war.

Except that there’s not much war in Wonder Woman. Other than a beach battle, a village countersiege and two protracted military assaults, the long running time doesn’t contain the battle action one might expect. Like Xena the Warrior Princess TV series, and Wonder Woman is episodic and televisionary, it’s focused on woman at war. In this sense, because of the novelty, it’s often involving.

But the goddess-superheroine contemplates, prepares for and talks about war (superficially, I must add) more than she wages it. Diana (extremely fit and sufficiently expressive Gal Gadot as an adult) trains as a warrior thanks to her aunt (Robin Wright, A Most Wanted Man). Diana goes off to war with a downed spy pilot (Chris Pine, The Finest Hours, Into the Woods, Star Trek Beyond) to find the god of war and slay him in a subplot with a resolution that’s not hard to guess. Diana gets a London makeover, enlists, helps and surpasses Pine’s spy and his requisite band of misfits and they go off to stop World War 1’s chemical warfare. Some of the music, photography and scenery is stunning. Gadot’s natural and engaging, especially with snappy comebacks such as “I’m the man who can.” Pine’s well cast, too.

Early on, there are clues that the larger than life mythology and episodic story won’t exactly meld. After all the buildup on the elusive, warrior women’s-only island, where Diana’s queen mother (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) rules, everyone looks fit and fabulous in their skirts, headgear and hairdos but no one appears interested in keeping up with the rest of the world, for self-defense if nothing else. Diana ages from child to young adult and, inexplicably, stops aging after that. The trip to London from the island on a sailboat looks and feels as artificial as it sounds. Being paid to deliver exactly what the boss wants is compared to slavery. It’s easier to overlook these shortcomings because the cast, including David Thewlis as a pacifist and Lucy Davis underused as a secretary named Etta, is spot on under Patty Jenkins’ direction.

Part of an entire Justice League series for Warner Bros. with at least four credited writers — all men, incidentally, not counting the character’s male creator, which I mention because much has been made about the fact that this hit movie is directed by a woman — Wonder Woman is thrilling and fun in spots, such as when Diana steps into the battlefield to lead and inspire others to charge and fight. Diana doesn’t know her own power which I think is intended as the movie’s theme. The world is lacking movies about heroes, though Snowden and Sully are good recent movies about heroes in this regard, let alone heroines. So, a movie about a goddess who fights for peace certainly has enjoyable charms. The way Pine’s spy looks at Diana after she shows her strength and innocence is a welcome twist on the comic superhero genre.

Wonder Woman is not more than that, though, and, when it introduces ideas it never addresses or resolves, such as free will and an undefined conflict between belief and whether humankind deserves to be saved, it’s as lost and fantastic as that island of primitive women somewhere out at sea. That and a mass murderer whom, it’s implied, was a victim of the patriarchy and the lack of suspense inherent to a movie with a plot climax about a world war which some people may know something about mean Wonder Woman is best viewed as another comic book-based movie which entertains with light, occasionally marvelous heroism never made realistic and with flat, bleak outcomes for man and woman alike, if you think about it.

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde

Conspicuous, gratuitous and more than a splash preposterous, the stylized Atomic Blonde, based on a graphic novel or comic book, moves too slow, picks up speed and ends up making a statement on the world. Like Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire and the cult-punk film Liquid Sky, Atomic Blonde employs 1980s’ New Wave, electronica or punk rock. It’s also in the vein of noirish movies about a femme fatale empowered through extreme use of force, such as La Femme Nikita, its remake Point of No Return and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Bloody, hyper-violent and hyper-realistic, Atomic Blonde plays the 80s tunes to infuse its Dirty Harry-type anti-heroine with a dash of embittered romanticism.

Surprisingly, it works, though it takes too long to get there and Kurt Johnstad’s (Act of Valor, 300) screenplay, based on The Coldest City comics by Sam Hart and Antony Johnston and directed by stunt man David Leitch in his feature film debut, badly needs editing. The plot defies description. The characters almost do, too, except as the body count rises, a band of players emerge in an apparently high stakes, 10-day Cold War spy showdown on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

In a platinum blonde ‘do, sexualized getups, thigh-high boots, pumps and low-tech accessories, Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Lorraine, the main spy. She’s called to London for an inquiry by superior Toby Jones (Frost/Nixon, The Painted Veil, Captain America). There, she tells a convoluted tale involving a secret list, gunplay and extreme fighting, nudity, Machiavelli, hedonism, lesbianism, a watchmaker, Soviets, East German Stasi agents, Brits and a Frenchwoman who may be an innocent youth. I told you it was convoluted. In fact, Atomic Blonde is overstuffed. Toss in ropes, knives and a peek at Larry Flynt’s raunchy Hustler and this slice of fetishized spy kink belongs in the rough sex trade genre with Harley Quinn, Sucker Punch and whatever emasculating fanboy fantasy’s playing on a device near you.

But the music punches almost as often as the spies, hinting that Atomic Blonde might have a point. With the Clash, David Bowie and Siouxsie and the Banshees on the soundtrack, sampling but not overdoing pouty, punk songs such as “Cities in Dust”, Theron’s vodka-drinking tough character starts to melt, just a little. Of course, her explicitly sexual encounter with Delphine (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy, Star Trek Beyond) helps and not for the reasons you might think. No, Lorraine does not need to dress like a prostitute and neither does Delphine need to dress like a stripper but, then, KGB thugs don’t always bounce back so easily from keys being lodged in their faces, so you go along to some degree.

Featuring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class, Split, Rory O’Shea Was Here) as one of Lorraine’s Berlin contacts, Atomic Blonde shifts focus at its best with the propulsive energy of The Bourne Identity. This climaxes with amazing shots, camera work and touches, such as a thrilling car chase and the whipping sound of a cigarette lighter’s butane at the point of ignition.

Nearly every spy smokes cigarettes in this movie, which, with the unflinching ease with which the Westerners shoot to kill the Communists, is something of a throwback. Though John Goodman’s character grows more grating with every scene and could have been changed, edited or jettisoned, Atomic Blonde‘s elaborate fight choreography and graphic violence have a kind of realism lacking in most comics movies. You can tell who’s getting hit and you believe it’s real, for one thing. This star vehicle about what’s coming down and what’s not coming down in Berlin in 1989 nicely spins the punk Eighties’ ethos into bloody, bittersweet pulp fiction.

Movie Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Telescoping a major battle in the second world war, writer and director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) touches on major aspects of war in his harrowing epic, Dunkirk. This movie for Warner Bros. is sufficiently horrifying and powerful and it is also daring in certain respects. Dunkirk is also flawed.

Putting the action to three arenas—land, air and sea—permits Nolan, a talented storyteller and filmmaker, to fold his refined tales into each other neatly and with a strong, meaningful sense of purpose. This he accomplishes with economy, too, bringing Dunkirk in under two hours, keeping his top cast in a proper scale and cutting dialogue down to phrases and brief exchanges. Most of Dunkirk is told in pictures, many of which are riveting. The gray, droning disorientation of days at this coastal place called Dunkirk in the north of France as the Germans push the British to the sea, leaving hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—as sitting ducks waiting to be shot, bombed or rescued. The aerial view of the coast, the tilting views of Spitfires and Messerschmidts, the rolling waves of the English Channel as it erupts in crashes, sinkings, gunfire, torpedoes and the flames of hell on water.

Much of Dunkirk is also told in audio, too, with a Hans Zimmer score which is both too obvious and too much. The droning begins the movie, pegging the film to a ticking clock, and never lets up. Not that any of that is necessary, however, and it’s often distracting, diminishing and detracting from what little’s being said among characters.

But Mr. Nolan knows the stories he wants to show and, to his eternal credit, he wants to show the audience what happened at Dunkirk. This remains his focus, not importing modern ideas into the past, thank goodness, or pictorial fancies and flourishes that have nothing to do with the battle, the war and the civilization desperately at stake. And this—civilization—is very much the point of Dunkirk, again to Christopher Nolan‘s credit. His characters, composited from those hundreds of thousands and those who came to get them out and the nearly 70,000 killed by National Socialist Germans, fight. They fight to live—not to die and not out of duty to the state, the volk or the tribe.

This is an important distinction and essential part of why Dunkirk is emotionally moving; in its two most powerful scenes, Dunkirk affirms the values and ideals of Western civilization.

Christopher Nolan‘s war history movie does so in other scenes, too, such as his shots of a sunny countryside to accentuate that which they’ve fought to preserve and protect. One gets the sense that the writer and director knows on some level that this grand story about soldier and civilian alike uniting to save civilization from barbarians applies centrally to today’s jihadist siege against the West. This is unmistakable if you think, reason and judge and it is lurking nevertheless if you don’t. A combat pilot (Tom Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road) feels for his comrade Collins (Jack Lowden) when he goes after the Germans, for instance, and, because he gets the best view and sense of what this disastrous battle means, he alone knows the widest perspective; he sees the lines of British soldiers on the beaches and he sees the civilian boats racing to the rescue. It’s both wrenching and haunting and he knows what must be done.

“Dead, mate”, “home”, “for the French” are a sample of the sparse words used to punctuate the blistering, whistling battle in action, further underscoring that the Brits act to live, not to serve a fuhrer, and Dunkirk evokes Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan for its capture of the combat. One of the flaws, though, in this otherwise tightly drawn and focused war movie, is its failure to depict what the soldiers say. Half the dialogue, especially in battle scenes, is lost. Sensory immersion is a tradeoff. Subtitles might have helped, not that I’m proposing this as a serious solution, or toning down the self-important score, though I suspect there’s a deeper problem with Dunkirk: it’s hard to follow.

This is a common Christopher Nolan problem and it’s not the same as saying it’s too difficult, deep or abstract (Dunkirk is none of those in excess). Titles lack exposition; the audience that knows the history of this major turning point of world history will feel underserved and still want to know more. Those that do not know Dunkirk’s history—almost anyone born after history teachers replaced facts with agendas—are likely to be like, meh, whatevs (confirmed by the chat between smug Millennials overheard after the movie). Dunkirk‘s expository history feels tacked on. Dunkirk’s geography and significance (that Dunkirk led to Churchill’s great line to “Never surrender” is as parenthetical as this is) are too abbreviated.

Those waiting to go home, and those coming for them, keep eyes on the skies in what is primarily a visual motion picture and Dunkirk in this sense is balanced, integrated and framed perfectly for its revolving stories of individual men. Christopher Nolan lets Dunkirk’s men at war go completely to war—there are no opposite sex love stories, for instance—and this is a pointed and proper writing and directing choice because it never lets the audience forget that this is what happened in those days and moments. So, too, is Mr. Nolan’s decision to not show every gash, limb and drop of blood, none of which is needed to dramatize the horror of war. Without leading ladies, gore and, not incidentally, Nazis portrayed as characters—hardly a Nazi appears on screen—Dunkirk leaves its audience as stranded as the soldiers, civilians and pilots fighting to turn an epic loss into a reason to rally for man.

Whatever it’s missing, and it’s missing a lot, this is chiefly what Dunkirk does.