Victoria and Abdul: a movie “based upon real events . . . mostly” states the film’s opening text. Victoria is Queen Victoria of England (Judi Dench) and Abdul is Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a Muslim Indian. The story takes place between 1887 and 1901 during the last years of the Queen’s life. Judi Dench as Queen Victoria is the reason to see this film. She offers another remarkable performance. The story begins with the arrival of Abdul, one of two Indians sent to the royal household to present the Queen with a ceremonial coin commemorating her Diamond Jubilee. Abdul is instructed not to make eye contact with the Queen but he does. The Queen takes note of his good looks and fine bearing, and a close mother/son relationship develops. The opening scenes are presented with a light comedic touch, but you soon begin to wonder how much of the story is real as the relationship develops. Abdul becomes the Queen’s munshi (teacher) as she learns Urdu and reads the Quran. Abdul is portrayed as the person who provides the Queen with new vigor during the final years of her life. The Queen’s staff, the political crowd that surrounds her and her son Edward VII/Bertie (Eddie Izzard), are quite displeased about the Queen’s interaction with Abdul. The film’s presentation of Queen Victoria as having a progressive perspective on race and cultural relationships is not consistent with my understanding of the historical record. The screenplay by Lee Hall makes a point of showing the racism that dominated Victorian society. When Abdul’s wife and mother-in-law arrive at court wearing burqas, the antagonism towards Indians escalates. Although the film directed by Stephen Frears never adopts a sanctimonious tone during its 112 minute span, its level of playfulness decreases. I suspect the degree to which you like the film will depend upon your reaction to Abdul and whether you find his relationship with Queen Victoria believable. Personally, I couldn’t shake off the “mostly” qualifier in the opening text. Nevertheless, Judi Dench is on screen for a significant part of the film and so long as she is present, this film is one worth seeing.
Saturday, October 14, 2017
Marshall: a courtroom drama based on a real case. The year is 1941. The place is Bridgeport, Connecticut. The lead lawyer is Thurgood Marshall. The movie is about the criminal trial against Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a chauffeur/butler employed by Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy white woman, whom Spell is accused of having raped and thrown off a bridge. Chadwick Boseman, who is making a career playing famous Black men (Jackie Robinson, James Brown), is outstanding as a young Marshall. The excellent script by Michael and Jacob Koskoff draws its courtroom scenes from newspaper accounts as no trial transcript exists. The Spell case was reported in the mainstream press, including the New York Times. It was a major case for the NAACP because, unlike most of Marshall’s cases, this one took place in the North. The movie opens and closes with Marshall traveling by train from one town to another to defend black men. Most of this 118 minute film focuses on how Marshall manages to defend an individual who would otherwise not have had any counsel. The first step in the process is finding a licensed Connecticut attorney willing to take the case. That attorney turns about to be a young insurance defense counsel named Sam Friedman (Joseph Gad). A major reason why the film works is the interplay between Friedman and Marshall. Despite the seriousness of the story, there are some delightful comedic scenes. In the courtroom, the presiding judge (James Cromwell) is presented as being every bit as racist as one would expect a Southern judge to be in the 1940’s. The movie also includes scenes showing the community’s reaction to Friedman defending a black man accused of rape. An additional twist to this case arises from the fact that the Judge would not allow Marshall to speak in the courtroom. This results in an unexpected courtroom dynamic because, as it happens, this is Friedman’s first criminal jury trial. The only scene that does not work is when Marshall and his wife are out at a Harlem nightclub with Langston Hughes, and particularly the short scene where Zora Hurston appears. Showing Marshall having a life independent of his NAACP work is a good idea but limiting it to the interaction with Hughes would have been sufficient. This, however is a minor shortcoming. The film, directed by Reginald Hudlin, is excellent. The characters come across as authentic and the dynamic between Joseph Spell and Eleanor Strubing make for a story worth telling. In these interesting times, it’s good to be reminded while simultaneously being entertained just how overt the racism in this country was a mere 75 years ago.
Saturday, September 23, 2017
Wind River: a mystery set on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. The movie opens with a woman running barefoot through a bleak, snowy field at night. We then meet Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U. S. Fish and Wildlife agent who also works as a hunter/tracker. In his introductory scene, Lambert is lying on his belly camouflaged in the snow. He is killing wolves that have been preying on sheep. A bit later we see Lambert searching for a mountain lion that has killed a neighbor’s cattle. This is when he discovers the body of an 18 year old Indian woman named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille Chow). Lambert immediately recognizes Natalie as she was his teenage daughter’s best friend. Natalie is the woman we saw running through the snow at the film’s opening. We learn that three years earlier, Lambert’s daughter had been found dead under similar circumstances. The balance of this excellent 111 minute story involves our learning what happened to Natalie while simultaneously glimpsing into life on an Indian reservation. Because Natalie appears to have been murdered, the FBI is summoned to investigate. It is the federal government which has jurisdiction over capital crimes on Indian reservations. A rookie agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson), is sent to Wind River from Las Vegas. She has not been advised as to the weather and must borrow the snow gear of Lambert’s late daughter. Lambert and Banner develop a close relationship, which is presented without slopping over into a Hollywood romance. As the story unfolds, cinematographer Ben Richardson offers beautiful shots of the Wyoming winter. The cast of Wind River is small but includes some very strong, honest performances. Gil Birmingham plays Natalie’s grieving father, Martin. His screen time is relatively short but Oscar worthy. Graham Greene as the Tribal Police Chief also offers a fine performance. Renner is excellent, both as a grieving father and a professional hunter. The bad guys are one dimensional but the storyline from writer/director Taylor Sheridan remains powerful. Due to the cinematography, this superb movie is one that should be seen on the big screen.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
Menashe: an engaging story about a father and his son. The film takes place in Brooklyn. Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a widower whose wife died about 11 months ago. Although the wife is frequently part of the film’s conversation, she never makes an appearance; we’re not even shown a photo of her with one brief exception, a cell phone picture. Menashe’s son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski), is about 11 years old. When the film opens, Rieven is living with his uncle and his family because the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) believes a child should live with a family and Menashe is not interested in remarrying. Menashe and almost all the characters in this film are Hasidic Jews. As such, the Rabbi’s Talmud perspective that a good man should have “ a good wife, a good home, nice dishes” is the governing principal that drives this 82 minute film. Menashe is directed and co-written by Joshua Z. Weinstein and the film is about Menashe’s attempts to regain custody of his son without remarrying. There is only one date scene in the movie and I doubt it lasted even five minutes. Scenes of females speaking total less than 5 minutes. The story is authentic; it is based upon the actor Menashe Lustig’s own life and is about the Hasidic life style as much as it is about Menashe and Rieven. Most of the dialogue is in Yiddish with very readable English subtitles. Menashe is an ordinary guy working in a supermarket, but because he is an appealing person, the film works. If you are interested in seeing a slice of Hasidic life, you should see this film.
Saturday, August 12, 2017
Maudie: a film based on the Canadian artist Maud Lewis. The film commences during the mid-1930’s. The location is Nova Scotia. Maud (Sally Hawkins) is in her early 30’s and lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) but wants to return to the family home. Maud sees her brother and only sibling, Charles (Zachary Bennett), speaking with Ida. She begins pestering Charles about returning home. We learn from Charles’ remarks that Maud has a disability which, in Charles’ view, renders Maud incapable of caring for herself. Charles tells Maud he sold the family home and leaves. As the film unfolds, we learn more details about Maud. Contrary to the impression we’re given by Charles, Maud’s disability is physical, not mental; she has rheumatoid arthritis. To escape from the control of Aunt Ida, Maud takes a job as a housekeeper to a loner named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Everett grew up in a male orphanage. He has a temper and lacks basic social skills. With these two very different characters, director Aisling Walsh weaves an entertaining and surprisingly romantic tale based upon the screenplay by Sherry White. The 116- minute film works because of the Oscar quality performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. From the outset, it is obvious that Maud has grit and will somehow prevail. Everett grows on you. Based upon very quick and selected shots of the real Maud and Everett at the end of the film, you learn that Maud was far more handicapped than she is portrayed, which makes her success as a painter that much more remarkable. The film shows Maud painting for the sheer pleasure it brings her. The postcard size pictures are noticed by a summer resident from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett). Although the film does not offer details, we learn that Maud’s drawings are becoming well known, presumably through Sandra. Maud’s fame explodes. Even Vice President Richard Nixon contacts Maud by mail asking to purchase one of her pictures. The film takes you up to the time of Maud’s death in 1970. As the film credits run, her paintings are shown. The characters’ lives are hard but they endure. The film may treat Everett more kindly than he actually was, but as you watch the relationship between Everett and Maud grow, the story becomes inspirational. The opening of the film is a bit weak, however, if you stay with it, you will be rewarded. This film has no special effects and can easily be enjoyed at home with a bottle of wine.
Monday, July 31, 2017
Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks: a book I read one week prior to seeing Dunkirk. If you’re a fan of either Winston Churchill or George Orwell, I think you will enjoy this book. It is a very readable 270 page account of these two men. Although both made their historic marks during the 1940’s, Churchill and Orwell never met. The book devotes a short chapter to each man’s life prior to the 1930’s. We then pick up with Churchill being politically ignored prior to 1939 and Orwell’s education by way of his brief participation in the Spanish Civil War. Each man is given separate chapters as world events leading up to WW II unfold and the subsequent fight for freedom. The author points out the commonalities that existed in Churchill and Orwell’s lives, notwithstanding the fact that they had completely different upbringings. Both men were capable of looking directly at reality; both were seekers of the facts. The chapter relating to Orwell’s experience during the Spanish Civil War and his reaction to what actually occurred versus Hemingway’s version, is reason enough to read this book. The chapter about the German air blitz and the reaction of the British people, including Orwell’s personal observations, is excellent. There are 50 pages of notes and citations at the end of the book. A recurring theme throughout the book is the importance of language and the fact that words truly mattered to both men. Ricks was a journalist for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; Ricks is not an academic. His account of two of the most famous British men of the 20th century is presented in a very engaging manner. I highly recommend this book.
Dunkirk: the film expertly depicts what occurred at Dunkirk in late May 1940. The city of Dunkirk is located on the coast of Northwestern France approximately 10 kilometers from the Belgium border. A significant portion of the film takes place on the beach where as many as 400,000 British and French troops were stranded as a consequence of Germany’s successful blitzkrieg through France. Rather than having his tank force continue their push to the sea, Hitler chose to have his air force finish the campaign. This allowed Britain time to evacuate approximately 300,000 men. Had Hilter chosen to continue the push westward using his ground troops, the allied forces at Dunkirk would have been decimated. This film by Christopher Nolan tells of the British evacuation. At the beginning of the film, we are told that “The Mole” (the jetty protruding into the Atlantic Ocean from the beach) lasted for one week, “The Sea” (the military ships and civilian boats involved in the evacuation) lasted for one day, and “The Air” (the aerial battle between British and German planes) lasted for one hour. During the course of its 106 minutes, the film weaves these three campaign narratives into a single cohesive tale about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Most of the characters remain nameless, and you never see a German soldier until the closing scene. The aerial sequences are outstanding, starting with the three British spitfires and their subsequent confrontations with German fighters. Tom Hardy does a magnificent job as the lead pilot. The British soldier who has the most on-screen time is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) but you learn his name only by looking at the credits at the end of film. The major character who is clearly identified is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the officer in charge of the embarkation. The evacuation was successful due to participation by British civilian boaters who answered the call for assistance in rescuing the Dunkirk soldiers. Of the civilian boaters, the film highlights a father (Mark Rylance ), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s schoolmate (Barry Keoghan) who happened to be at the dock when the call for help came. Of the film’s large cast, these three characters are among the most developed. Because the film stays tightly focused on the goal of getting the men off the beach and back home, there is no back story for any of the individual characters. From the opening scene, it is clear that you are at war and war’s consequences are constantly present. The typical scene of war room strategizing is omitted. Instead you are shown men waiting on the beach, men struggling to across the channel, and the superb aerial scenes. My father refused to attend war movies because he said they never showed the horror of what was truly occurring. This film, with its three pronged narrative, is one of the rare exceptions. Dunkirk concludes with a reading of a portion of Churchill’s famous speech that rallied the British people once the majority of the soldiers were safely back home. Most films would have included a shot of Churchill speaking but, to the end, Nolan remains true to his storyline. Dunkirk is a film about how one saves lives in war. With its expert cinematography, this is a film that should be seen on the big screen with full capacity audio. The film’s musical score by Hans Zimmer also deserves praise. The major Oscar winners are usually films released towards the end of the year. Dunkirk should prove to be the exception.