Happy Death Day – Film Review

In the way that the recent Tom Cruise crime thriller, American Made, had fun with the Universal logo, something similar occurs with the new teenage slasher, Happy Death Day; those huge letters keep turning around the Earth, then returning to the beginning, only to try again, then again, then again. As long as audiences know the premise to the oncoming horror, they should recognize that opening as a pretty good joke.

Like most slashers, there are several deaths in Happy Death Day. If we count the ways, it includes death by stabbing, by hacking, by hanging, by shattered bong glass, and by explosion, just to name the few that immediately spring to mind. There are more. But the thing is, there’s only the one victim. It’s Groundhog Day, but as a sick, black joke. Tree Gelbman (Jessica Roth) keeps waking up on the same day, at the same time, and experiencing the same events, until by the evening, she meets an untimely violent death at the hands of someone in a mask. She’s having a really bad day, and it won’t stop, not until she works out who among everyone she knows is the one in the mask doing the kill.

During the first twenty minutes, Tree experiences her birthday at college without knowing how it will end. First, there’s the dorm room in which she wakes after a drunken night of partying. She has no clue how she got there, and she’s flat out rude to the nice young guy, Carter (Israel Broussard) who gave her a place to crash. She’s impolite to a student on campus trying to collect signatures to help prevent global warming. She dismisses the guy who once dated her, insults him, and now she won’t return his texts. “Who takes their first date to Subway?” she asks, adding, “It’s not like you have the foot long.” And that’s just for starters.

Then there’s the catty remarks to fellow sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) once she drags herself back to her own place, not to mention the rudeness to her long-suffering roommate Lori (Ruby Modine) who goes out of her way to make Tree a candle-lit birthday cupcake, only to have it thrown immediately into the trash. “Too many carbs,” Tree states. There’s no doubt, Tree is the mean girl on campus, and she’s growing on no one.  In the movie world of teenage slasher flicks, if anyone deserves to get it, it’s definitely Tree. She even ignores well-meaning birthday calls from her dad, for crying out loud.

But out of those she either ignores or insults, who among them is the one in the mask with the really big knife? That’s what Tree has to find out after she keeps waking up, back in that same dorm room, day after day, experiencing the same events, meeting the same people along the way, until it happens again. And no matter what precautions she takes, what different direction she tries to make the day go, she’ll eventually be killed in one inventive way or another.

But with each day, with determination, a little detective work, not to mention a change of heart against those whom she regularly insults – “I’m not a good person,” she will later admit – plus an unselfish act that makes all the difference, she’ll find out. But there are red herrings along the way and a couple of false endings. There’s even a fade out suggesting it’s all done, but slow down. If you’re the kind that exits the theatre as soon as you can, just to avoid the crowd before the end credits roll, not so fast, Turbo; there’s more, and you don’t want to miss it.

Happy Death Day is unexpectedly good fun. Seriously, who knew that a teenage PG-13 slasher with such a generic title and a cast of young unknowns in a plot that makes Punxsutawney Phil spring immediately to mind could end up being so out-of-the-blue entertaining? But it is, and it works. And it works for at least four solid reasons.

First, there’s invention. When Tree barricades herself in her room, determined to keep the outside world and the killer at bay, she can’t find the TV remote. Then the channels change on their own, and she suddenly realizes – she’s barricaded herself in the room with someone who has more than the volume control in their hands. Then there’s humor. When Tree, now in her redemption stage, treats people nicely, there are a couple of big laughs. Next is the absence of too much blood. Happy Death Day could have have gone all out as a gore-fest, but it doesn’t, and that’s a good thing; it would have ruined the film’s underlining humorous tone and made the mistake of taking it over the top. And finally, there’s its leading lady.

You’re probably not familiar with the name, Jessica Rothe. She’s done some TV, including an episode of Blue Bloods and Gossip Girl. Plus, she was one of Emma Stone’s three girlfriends in La La Land, the one in the green dress who went out for a night on the town with the girls. But it’s likely you don’t remember. But in Happy Death Day you won’t forget. Single-handedly, she carries the film from beginning to end, and unlike most of its ilk, with everything from cattiness, to warm humor, to outright fear, to a kick-ass heroine, she elevates the teenage slasher to an unanticipated, surprisingly diverting level. It’s a plum role; this is Rothe’s chance to be seen, and she’s run with it. With her attractive good looks, she’s a younger Blake Lively, but not so wholesome – less passive, more energy.

And to top it off, the film even references Groundhog Day when nice guy Carter equates what’s happening to Tree with Bill Murray’s character. He asks her if she’s ever seen the Pennsylvania-bound comedy. She hasn’t. She hasn’t even heard of it. Just think, if she had, she might have realized what was happening to her sooner than she does and saved herself the pain of so many deaths. Don’t these kids in the movies ever go to the movies?

MPAA Rating:  PG-13     Length:  96 Minutes    Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Chapter Two – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center, Phoenix

The play may open with a brief moment from Steely Dan’s seventies hit Do It Again, but the recording isn’t there to establish a sense of time. Neil Simon’s comedy-drama, Chapter Two premiered in 1977 but the new Arizona Theatre Company production is not a seventies throwback. The song is there for the lyrics. If chapter one in your life is now over, then, as Donald Fagen sings, chapter two begins by going back and doing it again. Loss or personal tragedy may feel as though life has ground to a halt, but in reality those wheels really do keep going round and round.

In George Schneider’s case, the tragedy is the loss of his first wife, and he’s not coping well. George (David Mason) is a New York writer. He writes paperback spy novels, the kind you’d find displayed on bookshelves at airports, and he writes them under the pseudonym Kenneth Blakley-Hill. His publisher told him it would sound better if the author’s name was English. His well-meaning brother Leo (Ben Huber) is trying to help by pushing dates with women and getting George to answer or make some calls.

Then across town there’s recently divorced Jennie Malone (Blair Baker). She’s a New York actress who was once married to Gus the football player. She’s also single, but she’s handling things better than George. Jennie’s friend, Faye (Diana Pappas) happens to know George’s brother Leo, and between the two of them, maybe setting up a date between the divorced Jennie and the recently widowed George would be a good idea. If only George would make the call. But there’s a problem. After a European trip intended to help him escape the memory of his departed wife, George may be wheeling the one suitcase back from the airport, but he’s carrying an awful lot of left-over baggage besides the single wheelie.

When it opened in ‘77 with Judd Hirsch as George, Chapter Two was an enormous Broadway hit. The ‘79 movie didn’t fare so well; at least, not with the critics, and for two good reasons. First, James Caan as George never felt fully committed. He’s even on record as describing the film as “nothing,” which hardly indicates enthusiasm. Second, writer Simon has often said that when he writes he always thinks in terms of theatre, so even though he adapted his own work for the screen, it suffered from the problem that often plagues a play expanded to the movies; lengthy scenes of arguments, accusations and debates can’t always hold the attention in the way they do on stage. A film is a show-don’t-tell medium – odd when you consider they’re called the talkies – but a play, for the obvious logistical reason of not being able to show, is all about the telling, and in Neil Simon’s theatrical Chapter Two, there are riches to be found in that telling.

In the way Simon’s 1963 light-hearted comedy, Barefoot in the Park was said to be loosely based on the early days of his first marriage, fourteen years later, the writer drew on his second marriage to Marsha Mason for inspiration to Chapter Two. While not a literal telling of his story, Chapter Two is certainly semi-biographical, which is why the pain of loss and the sadness that follows feels so effectively real when seen through the prism of a writer who has truly experienced it, yet can express it in a way where the humor can always surface.

Mason, so good in many things but best remembered for her role in Simon’s original screenplay as The Goodbye Girl, is said to have turned down the role of Jennie on Broadway, understandably citing the potential difficulties of playing emotional scenes based on her own life night after night on stage. She did, however, play Jennie in the film, which is a different forum; once it’s in the can, it’s over. But all these years later, it’s Mason who has returned to ATC to direct this new production, and if there’s anyone with the experience and personal insight to flesh out Simon’s humor in the all-too real drama and have it done right, it has to be Marsha Mason. The end result from the casting, the set design, and the use of Steely Dan’s Do It Again is undeniably first class.

Simon’s script may have been of the seventies, but there’s nothing in it that truly reflects the time. In the way that The Graduate took place during the troublesome sixties, it existed in its own bubble; there was nothing of the outside world that sneaked in, and the piece could be remade today (though please, don’t) without adjusting much to make it seem of 2017. ATC’s Chapter Two is the same. With some tweaking here and there, a casual remark about HDTV and a VCR, cell phones, and the use of a laptop where a typewriter used to be, the play is easily transferred to present time. Only the absence of Caller ID on all the wireless land-lines is the giveaway. When Jennie’s ex calls and she answers, she’s surprised to hear the voice on Gus on the other end, and when both Jennie and Faye are about to leave the apartment and the phone is ringing, Faye remarks, “Oh, my God, maybe that’s George Schneider.” If the characters had Caller ID, as they would in 2017, maybe they’d know in advance who was on the other end.

Our emotional involvement is solely with George and Jennie. The two supports, Leo and Faye, deliver laughs, and they’re good ones, but they’re principally there for the required best-friend roles; two characters to whom the leads need to talk in order for us, the audience, to know what George and Jennie are thinking. Without them it would be phone calls and behavior without understanding motivations. This device becomes all too clear in the second half when, after an emotional confrontation between the two leads who leave each other on a disastrously sour note, we move to a lengthy though funny scene between Leo and Faye. It’s like a humorous interlude, required to break the tension before returning to George and Jennie. Without it, that second half would be far too heavy, and whatever humor surfaced among the drama, the weight of the human condition would be in constant danger of drowning it.

But despite Leo and Faye being a writer’s device, Simon skillfully makes them relevant. Faye’s character is hugely likable, and when Leo visits Jennie to tell her he’s concerned that maybe her oncoming marriage to George is coming on a little too early, it becomes an important scene. But the importance, and certainly the emotional kicker, is all Jennie’s. The look on her face as the muscles drop, the sound of her voice as the rhythm and tone changes, and the sadness in her eyes that becomes all too apparent, all adds to something quite genuine, and it’s Blair Baker’s authentic performance that makes it so. She makes you want to leap from your seat and give her a hug of assurance.

Ultimately, Chapter Two is still a comedy, and it’s the kind of comedy that isn’t written today. But it’s a Neil Simon comedy, and that means it’s a world populated by real characters who just happen to speak with a quick-fire wit full of zingers and recognizable relevance, ones that we wish we could all quote if we could think of them fast enough. When having left a drip running in his bathroom with the window open in February for a couple of weeks, Leo tells his brother there are now icicles hanging everywhere. “It looks like the john in Dr. Zhivago,” he declares. Isn’t that something we all wish we could deliver on the spot? Our real-life exchanges would be much more fun.

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

ATC’s Chapter Two continues at the Herberger Theater Center until October 22

Posted in Theatre

The Woman in Black – Theatre Review: Mesa Encore Theatre’s Black Box Theatre, Mesa

Those who follow theatre should be aware that, for whatever unexplained reason, the longest running play in London’s West End is the Agatha Christie murder mystery The Mousetrap. But what they may not know is the name of the play that currently ranks as the second longest. It has some years to catch up on The Mousetrap’s continuing sixty, but the eerily spooky mystery, The Woman in Black, has packed houses since 1987 where it began a three week run at playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Scarborough theatre as a low-budget fill-in, then moved to the Lyric in London’s Hammersmith, then finally transferred to the West End where it has haunted the Fortune since 1989.

In keeping with the spirit of the original low-budget, three week Scarborough production, Mesa Encore Theatre’s presentation of Susan Hill’s horror novella opened this weekend not at its regular Mesa Arts Center location but at its smaller, more intimate Black Box location, one mile further east on Main Street. Considering the play’s construct of a play within a play, one that’s in preparation for a future performance for family and friends, the Black Box is a good, informal fit.

There’s little to talk of in terms of set. The brick wall backing is painted black, as is the base of the slightly raised platform that acts as a stage. Other than a few white sheets that cover a writer’s bureau and some boxes of documents that will be later uncovered, plus a door stage-left that we’ll learn leads to a child’s nursery, there’s no other color of which to speak. And that’s pretty much how that Scarborough production presented things.

The tradition of Gothic storytelling remains intact in playwright Stephen Mallatratt’s faithful adaptation, but it comes with a twist. As there was no money in the budget for that 1987 opening, Mallatratt kept costs to a minimum by writing the play to order. There would only be two actors employed, an empty stage, and no real effects other than sound. But by presenting the involved plot within such a limited and obviously artificial frame, he came up with the idea that what audiences were watching wasn’t simply the unfolding story of a ghostly woman dressed in black, but a play in rehearsal for a later, one-time only showing. A bench becomes a moving pony and trap, then later a vehicle, and two chairs become seats in a train carriage.

Arthur Kipps (J. Kevin Tallent) who we presume must be somewhere in his mid to late fifties, has written a manuscript telling the story of something disturbing that happened to him thirty years ago when he was a young lawyer. When the production begins, he’s reading the script aloud, including both dialog and stage direction, but without feeling or any sense of character. There’s a moment of adjustment required when it’s not altogether clear what’s occurring. Then from the audience, a younger man, a more experienced actor (Tim Fiscus) leaps from his front row seat and attempts to give direction. After Mr. Kipps declares, “I am not an actor,” a point all too painfully clear to the younger man, in order to get through the reading, they swap roles. The younger, more experienced performer will be Kipps, and the older gentleman will take on all the other, smaller, supporting roles. And so begins the play.

The story is what you know from either the book, the BBC TV production that you may find on DVD if you hunt it down, and the hugely successful 2012 film that put the classic Hammer Horror productions temporarily back in the limelight. Each telling tweaked the story and added elements befitting its forum, but the bare-bones play is probably closer to the book than anything else. Kipps, the young lawyer from London, travels to the small, country village of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client, and to sort through the files and documents of her large, dark, empty house by the marsh. What he discovers in the files, what he sees at the funeral, and what it is that’s sitting in that creaking rocking chair in the nursery, will change his life. Writing about it, thirty years later in a manuscript acts as a form of personal exorcism; he needs to get it out of his system once and for all, but even then, as revealed in the final moments, there’s one last twist that no one saw coming.

During the show’s Friday night opening performance, a technical lighting difficulty occurred in the first half that hit the second even further, but while some audience members may have noticed, it’s possible that the majority did not, and that’s for one very good reason; the focus of attention remained solely on the performances of the two actors, both so accomplished with their interpretations that incorrect lighting cues, or their absence, were of little consequence.

With just a change of hats, a glare, a glance, and a slight alteration of an English country accent, Tallent (which he assures us in the program notes really is the family name) in an instant became among many others, a passenger on a train, a local landowner, and a driver to an old-fashioned pony and trap.

As the younger, more experienced actor, Tim Fiscus, who scored so well as the nerdy lead in last year’s Hale Centre Theatre’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone, takes full control, transporting us to the brooding, atmospheric setting of the house on the marsh with impassioned descriptions of what he’s seeing, feeling and experiencing to the point where we can practically see and feel the same things ourselves. Under director Virginia Oliveri’s guidance, miming the rescue of a small dog called Spider who is drowning in the marsh becomes as much a nail-biter as if we were watching the real thing.

The show would have benefited from the fog machine effect, something to illustrate the eerie look of being cut off in the marsh from the rest of the mainland, as is often used in subsequent productions, though logistically, because of the Black Box theatre setup and its limited wing space (there is none) it’s likely that the theatrical illusion would have been less effective by having to see the machinery at work. However, Emma Walz’s atmospheric sound design and its timing is excellent. Off-stage voices bounce from one stereo speaker to another, while whips crack, crows caw, and busy street sounds fill the house.

With Halloween on the horizon, Mesa Encore Theatre, with Oliveri at the helm and two experienced performers working well together, delivers its own treat with minimal tricks, but with a lot of creativity born of a production with practically zero in the budget. In its heyday of broadcasting dramas, radio was usually considered the theatre of the mind, but The Woman in Black cleverly employs those same imaginative qualities to the Black Box Theatre where sound and suggestion create the illusion that you’re there, in the house on the marsh. It’s very effective. And with a woman dressed in lacy black silently hovering in the background, it’s also effectively spooky.

The Woman in Black will continue at Mesa Encore Theatre’s Black Box Theatre at 933 East Main Street until October 22

Posted in Theatre

Blade Runner 2049 – Film Review

There’s an impression of importance surrounding the release of Blade Runner 2049. It clearly suggests that the studio thinks it has something special on its hands. Evidently, so does director Denis Villeneuve, the man who accepted the task of delivering a sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott directed cult favorite.

Before the press screening, where names were carefully checked, arm-bands were handed out, then re-checked upon entrance to the theatre by those who had just insisted that you wore them in the first place, a notice was read to reviewers in attendance allegedly written by the director himself. It politely asked that writers refrain from giving away key moments of the story in their articles, allowing the audience to enjoy the film in the way preview reviewers would see it. A fair request, even though if you look, most of the spoilers are already out there.

But then there was an added call for everyone to remain seated throughout the lengthy end-credits for something else, which is what the reviewers did, silently sitting there, all the time wondering if perhaps there was some extra final scene to come with a reveal worth the wait. But there was nothing, just the never-ending list of names for technical and eventually catering positions that mean little to most, except to those who actually negotiated a credit. Instead, what came was a second, more detailed request that was read to the critics, this time asking for something that amounted to a laundry list of things not say, which, frankly, smacked of studio hypocrisy, particularly when the studio itself was already guilty of doing that very thing. The marketing gives away what should have been the film’s best kept secret. Consider the following.

Blade Runner 2049 is essentially the search to find Harrison Ford’s character, Deckard, from the first film. He’s been missing for thirty years. Is he still alive? Was he ever really a replicant, as the final moments of director Scott’s fifth version, The Final Cut, suggested? And if he really was a replicant, wouldn’t he have expired after the in-built, limited, four year life span concluded? How great the surprise would have been when, in the final act, just around the two hour mark, Ford’s aged and weathered features suddenly stepped out of the shadows and shocked us all. But we already know what’s going to happen. Does Ryan Gosling’s character find him? Of course he does. He’s on the publicity stills, he’s on all the late-night talk shows where he’s helped promote the film, and he’s prominently displayed on the poster with equal billing, standing back to back with Gosling. Demanding the best of all worlds by asking reviewers not to indulge in plot-spoilers when, for the sake of business over art, the studio has given away the biggest, is a dangerous precedent. It’s one thing to politely request refraining from given away too much in a synopsis, it’s another to list them out, one by one, as if dictating how to write a review.

Present-day audiences tend to forget that when the ‘82 original was released, it wasn’t that well received. And it wasn’t just because of the so-so reviews; audiences stayed away due to the lackluster word of mouth from those who did attend. And to blame the lack of appreciation on the late addition of Harrison Ford’s dead-pan gumshoe, Dashiell Hammett style of voice-over narration, later removed on subsequent director tweakings, is wrong. That was always the director’s idea, not studio interference. Over the course of the film’s thirty-five years, calling it a masterpiece is something that has developed mostly by those who were not around in ‘82. It’s not and never was a masterpiece, but it was good and certainly under appreciated. Repeated viewings helped that reputation grow, like a new album that when first heard is only okay, but repeated plays makes it sound better.

Interestingly, the time-date for the original was 2019, just two years from now. As the new title states, it’s 2049, and the world (that is to say, America) is more polluted than ever. In fact, the whole of San Diego is one large trash dump, the film’s only laugh. Unlike Scott’s dark, yet colorful looking future of a smoky, densely populated metropolis, director Villeneuve’s 2049 appears somewhat closer to the color scheme of his 2016 sci-fi adventure, Arrival. Skies are a depressing gray. With the exception of the rusty looking glow of some later desert scenes in what used to be Las Vegas, colors are mostly drained.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is beautifully framed and shot. It looks enormously impressive on a large, wide screen, but its general, somber appearance underlines the burdensome weight of the film’s overall form. With a running time nearing three hours, its slow-burn, deliberately leaden style of story-telling, where dialog is often spoken in single sentences and responses come only after lengthy pauses, is taxing; it’ll test the patience of many. To his credit, director Villeneuve is doing things his way without compromise, the studio is letting him because of past successes, but for those hoping for a retread of the original, this sequel may prove a slog.

There’s also major differences to the interiors. Where Ridley Scott’s designs had that intentional shards-of-light-reflected-through-shutters look, where everything seemed shadowy, smoky, and in need of a good feather duster, Villeneuve favors a clinically clean, anti-septic appearance. Jared Leto’s blind Niander Wallace, the man who invented the new line of replicants, appears to operate in a spacious, empty, futuristic spa with running water pouring down the walls. It looks anything but practical; there’s space to waste.

That same look of emptiness appears throughout on Ryan Gosling’s inexpressive face. Never one for depth but good at appearing blank, Gosling plays LAPD officer K whose job as a Blade Runner in 2049 is to hunt down early model replicants and kill them. Had he cracked even a modicum of a smile, there might have been a glance of something vaguely resembling a living being, but Gosling’s portrayal sticks to long, cold stares, with eyes that are simply dead. His runner is always thinking while silently looking around, taking inordinate amounts of time, soaking up the atmosphere before either responding to a question or making his next move. Is this really acting, or was he just blocking his moves and Villeneuve used the footage, knowing that with Gosling he wasn’t going to get anything more?

The best and most interesting roles belong to the female supports. Robin Wright plays Gosling’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi. She shouts at him, and that brings a moment of life to the proceedings, plus the scene where Wright faces murderous bad girl, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks in a black wig) has some effective tension. But, as revealed through holographic advertising, in-house adult toys with a remote, and with the young women Gosling meets on the streets, the future has not only preserved the role of females as servants, play things, or sex-objects, it enhances it. When Gosling treks through a derelict desert setting, he’s passing over-sized, weather damaged sculptures of enormous naked women while walking between shapely legs spread apart, with feet in giant-sized stilettos. What these busted, amazonian statues are doing there has no relevance to anything. And just to prove there’s no real life to Gosling’s character, he doesn’t even bother to stop and take a look.

The score by Benjamin Walifisch and Hans Zimmer occasionally echoes the synthesized atmosphere of the original Vangelis score, in fact, part of that haunting soundtrack is actually used, but here there’s a lot of pounding, pulsating beats, and like Zimmer’s Inception and more recently Dunkirk, there is an overload of those notes where things sound less like music and more like explosive, speaker-blowing, electronic farts.

The dedicated Blade Runner fan, the ones determined to enjoy themselves at all costs, will take it all in, seduced perhaps by influential marketing, and by the film’s size, its epic 163 minute length, the volume, the excellent photography, and its faultless visual effects. But for others, Blade Runner 2049, will be a passive experience with a not altogether interesting story consisting of plot-points not worth revealing; a film of some action without thrills, and a spectacle without real heart or feeling. Perhaps director Villeneuve should take that replicant character test himself. The results might explain a few things.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length: 163 Minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Victoria & Abdul – Film Review

An amusing title appears at the end of the opening credits to director Stephen Frears’ often humorous account of the biographical period drama, Victoria & Abdul. It reads,‘Based on real events,’ then adds the word, ‘mostly.’

Yet, once seen, check the details of the film and you’ll find something interesting. The statement is actually less whimsical than the title suggests. It really is mostly true. And for anglophiles who thought they knew just about everything there is to know regarding the history of the British Royals, the story of the little known relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim should prove nothing short of fascinating.

There’s a good reason why the friendship was little known. The queen’s idiot son – her words – Albert Edward, who would later go on to become Edward Vll, King of England, ordered that every picture, every sketch, and every piece of correspondence that related in some way to Abdul and his mother should be destroyed, and upon his mother’s death, Abdul’s family should be dismissed from court and sent back to India. Abdul and his story would eventually fade from memory.

And the manservant’s story did fade. But when the memoir of a distinguished Victorian era British soldier and courtier, Frederick Ponsonby, was published in 1951, the story of Abdul resurfaced, forcing a more thorough and scholarly examination of Queen Victoria’s affection for her Indian attendant.

At its opening, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has formally ruled India for 29 years. It’s 1887, the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Back in India, a 24 year-old clerk, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), is chosen to present her majesty with a special commemorative coin, minted from British India, a mohur, something that when placed in the middle of a plush, presentation cushion appears no larger than a nickel. Yet, it’s symbolic importance is enough to have the government ship Abdul and his accompanying friend, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) all the way from India to London to personally present the coin to the queen at a lavish royal court dinner.

Do you know how cold it is?” asks a less than enthusiastic Mohammed to his friend when the prospect of going to England is first presented. “The place is completely barbaric,” he adds, and reminds Abdul that the British even eat fried congealed pig’s blood presented in the form of a sausage; which is true. It’s called Black Pudding and remains today an essential part of a traditional English breakfast.

When we first meet Victoria, she’s overweight, bored, and sad. As she will later lament, “Everyone I’ve loved around me dies, and I just go on and on.” It’s the seemingly endless year upon year of being a queen regnant that has made her what she is. Yet when, at that court dinner, Abdul bows and presents the commemorative coin to her majesty, their eyes meet, there’s a moment of connection, even though Abdul was instructed never to look directly at her majesty. When asked by a court representative what she thought of the coin from India, she responds, “I thought the tall one was terribly handsome.”

Abdul will go on to remain in England as a personal servant, footman, and even occasionally teacher, a Munshi, to Queen Victoria until her death, much to the annoyance of practically everyone in the Royal Household; a hostility born of snobbery, racism, and prejudice. But among the mounting jealousy for the queen’s platonic affection for the man from India, none was more hostile and ultimately vindictive than the queen’s son, Albert Edward; Bertie to the queen, Dirty Bertie to almost everyone else who knew him.

Acting honors will deservedly focus on Judi Dench, whose scenes of connection to Fazal feel genuine and often delightfully playful. There’s a certain sparkle and a new enjoyment of life that returns to the queen’s demeanor when in Abdul’s presence.  But the surprise is comedian Eddie Izzard, so effective as the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, Albert Edward, a man more famous for his playboy activities, his sexual appetite, his personification of the lazy elite, and his presumption of entitlement than for anything else. He was undeserved of the throne, and appeared to be doing nothing other than passing the time having fun, the kind afforded the privileged while waiting with impatience to become king.

When backed by the queen’s personal secretary (the late Tim Piggot Smith for whom the film is dedicated) the whiny Bertie tells his mother that Abdul is a complete fraud, and adds, “He’s using his position for his own gain.” “And how does that make him any different from any of you?’ she angrily retorts, calling both her son and her secretary racists and despicable toads.

Based on the heavily researched book of the same name by novelist Shrabani Basu who finally put the pieces together from what evidence there was left of the events, Frear’s Victoria & Abdul is a hugely likable film that tells the story with grace, style, and a considerable amount of warm humor. To stateside audiences, because of its historic appearance, the costumes, the design, and its cast of outstanding British actors in supporting roles – look for Olivia Williams as Baroness Churchill, Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, and Simon Callow as Mr. Puccini – the film may initially appear as Oscar bait, but there’s a lightness in its overall telling that says it’s not. It’s simply very entertaining and fills a historic void that most never knew existed.

MPAA rating:  PG-13   Length:  110 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

American Made – Film Review

Remember those manic moments during the final act of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas? It was where the world around Henry Hill spiraled recklessly out of control, and then kept spiraling. The real-life mobster took on so much, was juggling so many deals, that the ever-increasing whirlwind around him finally lifted him off the ground and practically flung him to the doorstep of the FBI.

Now meet Barry Seal, once a real-life American airline pilot of the seventies, and think of that same manic whirl, but this time with a major difference. For Henry Hill, that frenzied, chaotic madness came in the final days of a life-long career as a New York criminal. For Barry Seal, it was like that from day one.

In director Doug Liman’s new comically toned biographical crime film, American Made with Tom Cruise, there’s a very real sense of the seventies that begins the moment the Universal logo appears. No sooner has the present day design of those enormous letters started to circle the earth when the film puts on the breaks and cuts. It’s as if a pirate broadcaster had hacked the presentation and flashed the older, seventies throwback Universal logo on the screen. With a sudden burst of disco under the credits from Saturday Night Fever, we’re off on a nostalgic ride that starts some forty years ago and keeps going until 1986. That’s when the unbelievably profitable, madcap world for the madman pilot ground to an all-too abrupt halt.

Known as the crazy gringo who always delivers, Seal (Cruise) began as a bored TWA pilot. Just for his amusement, he would switch the commercial flight’s Auto Pilot off, grab the controls, and create his own rocky, airborne turbulence, just to scare the passengers and to wake a complacent co-pilot out of a deep sleep. Plus, he smuggled illegal cigars into the country to make a little extra on the side.

When a mysterious guy called Schafer (Domhall Gleeson) approaches Seal and invites him to do some reconnaissance work taking pictures over South America for the CIA, Seals takes the job. “Is this legal?” asks Seal. “If you’re doing it for the good guys,” Schafer responds.

But while satisfying the fun of danger when flying so low that his reconnaissance pics are practically head and shoulder shots of secret guerrilla armies, it doesn’t pay. Unlike TWA, there’s no health insurance for his family, no savings account. So when the opportunity of smuggling drugs for the ruthless Medellin Cartel out of South America on his return flights back into the Unites States is presented, Seal takes it. There’s big money to be made in smuggling cocaine. In fact, there’s so much, Seal will later run out of room and have trouble hiding the bags of cash, resulting in stuffing them in cupboards. And when there are no more cupboards, he buries them in his yard.

Things go from crazy to frenetic when Seal is asked by the CIA to run Soviet made, Israeli seized AK 47’s to the Contras, weapons secretly sold to America. He even flies several of the Contras back into America for secret weaponry training in Arkansas, but that doesn’t go according to plan. Once on United States soil, half of those South Americans would bolt and disappear into the country. “They would run away faster than we could ship them in,” Seal would declare.

And so it goes. Seal keeps negotiating new deals, taking on more jobs, and even makes a trade with the White House to gather evidence that the Sandinistas are trafficking drugs. But like Henry Hill’s world when the speed would eventually go no faster, Seal’s high-flying airborne antics take a nose-dive. As he confesses in a video report dated December ‘85, “I should have asked more questions.”

Like the recent Battle of the Sexes, American Made doesn’t simply take place in the late seventies, it looks as though it was actually filmed back then. But unlike that re-enactment of a world famous tennis match, the appearance of cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s work for American Made is more than just a filmic, grainy look. As if complimenting the film’s fragmented, hastily-put-together rhythm, there are scenes that look as though they were lost in canisters, then found, overly exposed or degraded, and inserted into the movie. Even the stylized closing credits have the appearance of a cassette tape played in a VCR where the lettering looks electric and the colors bleed. But it’s all effects. Where Battle of the Sexes was shot on 35mm film, American Made is director Liman’s first film to be shot digitally. Curiously, in Europe, the film has a widescreen, letterbox ratio of 2:35. In America, the sides are cropped for 1:85.

But there’s something important to keep in mind. While the film revolves around TWA pilot Barry Seal, it’s really Tom Cruise you’re watching. Cruise and director Limon worked together on the underrated sci-fi thriller, Edge of Tomorrow, where Aliens met Groundhog Day. The title American Made may be a cynical label for what occurs in the film, but it could easily apply to its star, for that is what the film is really about – a vehicle for a cinematically good looking, all-American movie star.

As the not particularly likable Seal, Cruise posses that handsome, boyish look with the dazzling smile that elevated him to A-level marquee status long before some whacky, real-life business caught up with him, not to mention (though we must) The Mummy. And while everyone around him looks as though they’re of the time, Cruise walks as if in a hermetically sealed bubble, one that keeps his appearance timeless, unaffected by seventies haircuts, fashions, and an overall coloring of decades past. He exists in Cruise time. He could have just walked off the set of Risky Business and on to American Made, and you wouldn’t see the join.

If you do your own research and look things up, the events of American Made really did happen, even if they didn’t quite happen in the way depicted in the film. Barry Seal’s real-life adventures were so outrageous, and his reckless manner, so out there, that to tell the tale as it really occurred would make for one unbelievable story. But when told in this light, breezy, and overall comical manner with a movie star at its center, strangely, things are easier to accept.

Though, as with many films of late, the movie feels ultimately too long, and it’s style catches up with it. When Seal enters into dealings with the White House, and well known, real-life types like Oliver North (Robert Farrior), his secretary, Fawn Hill (Mickey Sumner), and Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino) walk on, the film takes the appearance of an extended SNL political character skit that won’t end. And if you’re the kind that considers everyone in politics, particularly those in the White House, as crooks and deserve to be behind bars, American Made will only confirm what you’ve always believed. Really. They should all be in handcuffs.

MPAA Rating: R   Length: 115 Minutes    Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)

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