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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.

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: 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: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.

‘Hidden Figures’ on Home Video

The movie almost everyone loves, last year’s popular Hidden Fgures, debuts on home video today.

When I saw it last year, I enjoyed it so much that I thought maybe I may have missed something; that it might have been too polished for me to notice any shortcomings. So I asked for a second screening, which is something I rarely do and only in an extreme effort to be objective. I liked it better on a second viewing, even as I became more aware of its flaws, such as some overacting.

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Why is this Oscar-nominated movie so universally well liked by audiences? I think it’s because, like any serious, goal-driven project, Hidden Figures keeps perspective and keeps its topic rooted in reality. So, while the story of three individuals of ability, who happen to be Negro women at a time when blacks and women were prejudged and unjustly treated, takes injustice seriously, the movie co-written and directed by Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent) also takes its higher aim seriously: to depict the achievement of excellence. The women’s accomplishments were not overdramatized; they were properly depicted as an important and integral part of a whole which led to an act of outstanding, and uniquely, inextricably American, progress.

The struggle was portrayed with realism, not sugarcoated or diminished. But so, too, the byproduct of the ladies’ productiveness was depicted and Melfi and company did so without minimizing the achievements of the NASA (actually, pre-NASA) engineers, scientists and astronauts. Too often, movies about overcoming adversity and injustice oversimplify facts, drop context and present a false dichotomy, lacking in depth and nuance. Hidden Figures, whatever its limitations, dramatizes the hard work of real progress, social and scientific, the simplicity of being appreciated for one’s ability and the power of unifying to achieve a grand and noble goal.

This is a rare and desperately needed depiction, and, sometimes, these points are obscured or lost in press tours, but that’s what makes this upbeat, uplifting movie appealing—it shows everyone that being one’s best is the perfect defense of every persecuted individual, especially the persecuted person of ability. I’ve added my exclusive interview with the film’s director, Ted Melfi, to the archive. Read the interview, read my review of Hidden Figures and buy the movie.


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Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Interview: Theodore Melfi on Hidden Figures