Thursday, May 29, 2014

Movie: Belle

Belle: a British drama based upon the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle.  We first meet Dido in 1769 when she is approximately 8 years old.  In the opening scene, her father, Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), a Navy captain, has come to retrieve her.  He, in turn, leaves Dido with his uncle and aunt, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).  Sir John is never seen again on screen.  Also, we never see Dido’s mother, Maria Bell, an African woman.  After introducing us to Dido and her new family, the movie jumps ahead ten years where we meet Dido, played superbly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as a young woman.  The movie was inspired by a portrait of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon), and shows the girls living at Kenwood House as aristocrats in 18th century England before slavery was outlawed.  The painting still exists.  It hangs at Scone Palace in Scotland.  Lord and Lady Mansfield do not have any children and raise the two cousins, who are about the same age, as their own.  Critical to the film is the fact that Lord Mansfield is not just an ordinary lord; he is the Chief Justice of England.  Further, he has pending before him the Zong case, whose primary issue is whether an insurance company must pay a ship owner/slaver for the death of slaves who drowned allegedly saving the ship.  While the legal story is a vital part of the movie, it is not the film’s central focus.  Rather, the film is a Jane Austen telling of aristocratic courtship rituals in 18th century England.  The film plays on the fact that Elizabeth Murray has no inheritance but her cousin, Dido, does.  The acting is excellent and the script by Misan Sagay and Amma Asante holds your attention.  Asante is also the director.  Very little is actually known about life in the Mansfield home.  The historical record validates the fact that although non-whites were permitted to interact with guests after the meal, the dinner itself was segregated.  However, there is no “Butler tells all biography” regarding the cousins, their interactions with the granduncle and his wife, and their interactions with each other.  Historical dates are treated loosely in the film.  For example, the film presents the portrait painting of the cousins and the Zong case in the same time frame.  However, the Zong ruling, which was an important link to the eventual outlawing of slavery in England, was decided four years after the cousins’ portrait was completed.  When Lord Mansfield renders his decision in Zong, it has him commenting on slavery.  The quote used in the film, however, is from the Somersett case in which Lord Mansfield made clear his anti-slavery views.  If you research Belle, you will find a variety of factual inaccuracies, none of which interfered with my enjoyment of this excellent 105 minute movie.  I highly recommend it.    


Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie: Neighbors

Neighbors: a comedy.  The opening scenes introduce us to a  young couple, Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne), who have just bought a house, and their baby daughter.  Shortly after they move into their new home, the house next door is sold to a college fraternity.  The setup is obvious and at times the script delivers.  The question is whether the film will work for you over its 96 minute duration.  If your type of comedy is visual slapstick, you’ll be okay with this film.  As for me, I found the characters one dimensional and the married couple’s behavior unrealistic.  Neighbors is a Netflixer and not worth the cost of a movie ticket.  I might have enjoyed the film more sans baby; you just don’t leave a baby home alone, and a lot occurs at the frat house while the baby is home alone.  This was a distraction as were the scenes of Mac at work.  They were merely fillers, which illustrates the thinness of the primary storyline.  I also found the chemistry among the fraternity brothers odd.  Zac Efron gives a good performance as Teddy, the president of the fraternity.  Dave Franco plays the second in command, Pete, and this character had potential.  Unfortunately, the film offers only hints of what could have been an interesting story about two seniors, one of whom matures through his college tenure.  A possible nominee for Worse Supporting Actress in a Comedy is Lisa Kudrow as a college dean.  The only other female with any substantive lines is Carla Gallo as Kelly’s divorced friend.  The scenes with Gallo are funny.  Hannibal Buress, who plays a police officer, also offers some humorous moments.  Otherwise, the movie, directed by Nicholas Stoller, is mostly male humor with drugs.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Movie: Particle Fever

.       Particle Fever:  a brilliant science documentary.  This is the story of the development in Switzerland of the Large Hadron Collider and the task of proving the existence of the Higgs particle.  The Higgs particle has been referred to as “the God particle” because it may be the initial building block for the universe.  In 1964, Peter Higgs postulated the existence of a boson, which is a type of subatomic particle.  It cost the European Organization for Nuclear Research billions to prove its existence.  The movie presents the cooperative partnership that developed between theoretical and experimental physicists in order to learn whether the Higgs particle existed.  While the story’s premise may sound less than exciting, the whole process is explained within a structure that allows a non-scientist to understand and appreciate the tale.  For the film to succeed, it had to offer an entertaining verbal and visual presentation of mathematical theories.  The director, Mark Levinson, a physicist by training, successfully manages to keep the audience involved while remaining honest to the science.  There is no dull moment in this 99 minute film.  Part of the film’s success lies in allowing the individual physicists to tell the story with appropriate background scenes.  By focusing on a select few physicists, you learn what is at stake while also learning various backstories.  Levinson co-produced the film with David Kaplan, another physicist, who appears on screen.  Presumably, the fact that both Kaplan and Levinson are themselves physicists helped to relax the various physicists, which allowed for a discussion of theories, such as how matter was created, without the usual insider jargon.  Special acknowledgment also needs to go to the photographer director Claudia Raschke-Robinson, the editor Walter Murch, and whoever did the animation.  The film covers a number of years including the House Republicans killing U.S. funding of the project.  As you may recall, the Collider was initially intended to be built in Texas.  As explained by American physicist, Monica Dunford, the five story structure was built to house two things, smash them together and see what happens.  The resulting collision at astonishing speeds would either validate or repudiate the theory postulated by Peter Higgs.  While sharing the joys of success, the film does not hide the failures that were encountered.  If you have any interest in science, this film is a must see. 

Movie: The Railway Man

The Railway Man: a British drama based upon a true story.  The movie, after an opening sequence that is partly repeated later, begins in 1980.  You are introduced to Eric Lomax, played excellently by Colin Firth.  Lomax enters a train compartment and meets a nurse name Patti, played by Nicole Kidman.  Patti brings Lomax out of the shell of a life he had been living.  They marry.  The movie then gets quite interesting.  First we see Lomax’s violent nightmares.  Because he won’t share the reason for his moodiness and nightmares, Patti seeks out one of Lomax’s former army buddies, played by Stellan Skarsgard.  We learn that Lomax’s WW II experience included being a member of the British troops who surrendered to the Japanese army in Singapore.  At this point, the story becomes fascinating.  The cause for Lomax’s post-traumatic symptoms becomes clear as we watch graphic scenes of the Japanese Army’s treatment of its prisoners, which includes water boarding.  We are then returned to 1982.  Lomax learns that the Japanese translator who was present when he was tortured is still alive and appears to be financially exploiting  what occurred during the building of a railroad alongside the River Kwai (the same forced labor tale told in The Bridge on the River Kwai).  Lomax travels to Thailand and confronts the translator.  Jeremy Irving plays the young Lomax, Tanroh Ishida plays the young translator, and Hiroyuki Sanada plays the translator in 1982.  Jonathan Teplitzky directed this 108 minute film based on the book written by Eric Lomax in 1995.  This is an excellent film about events too few people know about.