Tag Archives | Scott Holleran’s movie reviews

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.

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.

Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Today, I’ve added to the site archives my first review of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s an analysis which posted earlier this year for the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, where I had the pleasure to see the master’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much on nitrate at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Read my review of this interesting movie and thoughts on its screening, which was introduced by Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Departed, New York, New York) here. I plan to add more classic film reviews this year.

Though I review movies only informally and occasionally for the blog, I plan to continue. I’m focussing on classic movie analysis, however, based on pictures I’ve seen on the big screen, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much. I enjoyed seeing an Alfred Hitchcock movie on the silver screen, of course, and I’d like to see more of his work and write more, new reviews and analyses, so let me know if you have one or two in mind you’d like me to review. As of now, my favorite Hithcock movie is 1954’s Rear Window, so I may write about this movie next. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in Hitchcock, who is with Howard Hawks and Lasse Hallstrom among my top favorite film directors, I did see and review a 2012 biographical movie about the master of suspense, which is simply titled Hitchcock, co-starring Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. Read the review here. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s movies and many of the TV episodes. I’m also reading Hitchcock/Truffaut (I’ve seen the recent documentary, too).

I first started to take Hitchcock’s work seriously as a student of film during the 1990s while attending Professor Shoshana Milgram’s lectures and classes in Southern California and at several summer OCONs. Her work in film and literature is always deep, serious and thought-provoking. Dr. Milgram really encourages students to see his movies and think about them and she stirred me to appreciate why seeing a movie more than once can be a rich reward for the rational mind. I’ve written my reviews to be read both before and after the reader has seen the movie ever since. Today is Hitchcock’s birthday, so it strikes me as the best day to post my first review of a Hitchcock film to the backlog. I hope you enjoy reading it.


Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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.