Tea With the Dames (Nothing Like a Dame)


What could be more English than old friends having tea on the lawn on an overcast day.

(2018) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Roger Michell

 

Four mature English ladies get together for tea and gossip – four ladies who happen to be some of the most beloved and respected actresses in the history of the British theater. Two of them = Dench and Smith – are fairly well-known in the States due largely to their movie work which the ladies in question are almost dismissive of. Clearly, the theater is the first love for all these ladies, three of them who were born in 1934 whereas Plowright, the eldest of the quartet was born in 1930.

Apparently they gather annually at the country cottage of Plowright which she shared with her late husband Laurence Olivier. There, the four gather at the kitchen table and in the living room with tea and champagne to gossip and take a stroll down memory lane, augmented by a fair amount of archival footage and stills of the girls in their youth.

Michell, a veteran narrative feature director with such films as Notting Hill and Venus to his credit, is often heard directing questions at the ladies although he is not seen onscreen. That isn’t to say that we don’t have meta moments here; often the crew is seen setting up shots, while one taking still pictures off-camera clearly distracts Smith who chuckles “We would never actually sit like this, you know.” In fact, it is Smith who comes off as the most down-to-earth and delightfully droll as she discusses an occasion when she was acting onstage with Olivier and he actually delivered a real slap to her face. Not to be put off, she delivers the best line of the show “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre.”

While the movie doesn’t have many bon mots quite as clear as that one, it does have plenty of laugh out loud moments as the girls discuss their careers, their own foibles (Dench comes under much jovial fire as the others complain that they can’t get movie roles because Dench has nabbed them all) and quite a bit of gossip. Talking about her time in the Harry Potter films, Smith says that she and the late Alan Rickman had a great deal of difficulty coming up with original facial expressions for the innumerable reaction shots both of these decorated actors were forced to give at the antics of the children, which Smith is quick to point out “as was proper.”

Although the ladies rib the director for artificially setting up what is supposed to come off as an informal and natural conversation, in fact at the end of the day it feels exactly like that – as if we as viewers were sitting at the kitchen table with these extraordinary ladies and getting the benefit of their recollections, their humor and their honesty. As old friends are, the four are completely comfortable with one another.

Although all the actresses here are in their 80s, mortality isn’t discussed much other than Dench dismissing an inquiry from Miriam Margolyes about whether she had her funeral arrangements made with a curt but affectionate “I’m not going to die.” Plowright, who is retired now, has severe vision issues and is nearly blind but is still as regal as she ever was. In fact, the vitality of these ladies in their sunset years is impressive in itself; I hope that I’m as vital in my 80s as these marvelous ladies are now.

The thing about a movie like this is that it rises and falls on how the conversation goes. Not to worry on that account; clearly most viewers who see this will be wishing for more when the credits unspool. The thing is though, not everyone is going to be impressed with a film of this nature and that’s okay. It will appeal to cinemaphiles, theater lovers and particularly those of a certain age. It’s impossible not to like these ladies after spending a too-short hour and a half with them however. I’d be absolutely over the moon to share a cuppa with any of these magnificent women. To be in on a conversation between all four is something like manna from heaven.

REASONS TO GO: The conversation is fascinating throughout. This is very much like sitting around the kitchen with a bunch of old friends.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the wealth of archival footage feels a bit busy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite the film title, none of the four actresses are ever seen in the film actually drinking their tea.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Optimum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Dinner with Andre
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Mandy

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Death Valley (2015)


Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

(2015) Thriller (Indican) Katrina Law, Lochlyn Munro, Victoria Pratt, Nick Tarabay, Kelly Hu, Jeremy Ratchford, Juliette Beavan, Cela Scott. Directed by T.J. Scott

It is said that in the desert that there are no shadows to hide in and that the scorching sun boils away the pretense and exposes the real person inside. I’m not sure who said it. Maybe it was just me.

A quartet of attractive people are driving on a brand new road in Death Valley on the way from a charity party in Hollywood to a spur-of-the-moment wedding in Vegas. The road is so new, in fact, that it isn’t open to the public yet but for producer Billy Rich (Munro), Hollywood Golden Boy, rules don’t apply and every door is open. He is the prospective groom and star actress wanna-be Annie Gunn (Law) is the bride. Along for the ride are married couple Roy (Tarabay) and Jamie (Pratt) Dillen, who won tickets to the star-studded exclusive party on a radio station promotion and have befriended Billy and Annie. Presumably, they will be the witnesses at the wedding.

One thing that is true about the desert is that oddball things can happen at any moment. A scantily dressed blonde (Beavan) emerges from out of nowhere and starts shooting at the people in the car. Rich, who is behind the wheel, swerves and manages to hit the blonde before skidding off the road.

The blonde is a goner. So is the car, which the blonde managed to perforate in some vital places before expiring. Of course, there is no cell service in the middle of nowhere – and because the road hasn’t opened yet, not much hope of any good Samaritans showing up from either direction. The old road is said to be about five miles away, paralleling the new road. With no real choice, the quartet begin hoofing it, taking with them the champagne they were going to toast with at the wedding.

The further they walk, the more frayed their nerves get – and the more secrets get revealed. Like a good noir film, layers begin to be scrubbed away by the gritty sand exposing further layers below. Will they find the road and presumably rescue? Or will the journey there kill the lot of them?

Those who are paying attention to the opening scene will know the answer to that. Veteran TV director Scott has a good feel for suspense, building slowly without turning it into a tension fest. This is more than a slow burn than a quick flame. He also makes excellent use of the environment, giving us some really beautifully desolate footage of the desert and giving the audience an excellent feel for how vast and forbidding an environment it is.

The movie’s problems tend to lie in the characterizations. It’s difficult to find someone to identify with in this movie because all of the main characters are pretty rotten, particularly when their guard is let down after the downing of much booze and pills. While it is kind of enjoyable to watch some sleazy Hollywood types get their comeuppance, from a human standpoint it isn’t easy to watch people suffer even though they may well deserve it.

It is also not easy to watch people make bad decisions, some of them incomprehensibly bad. For example, one of the women given an opportunity to change from her party dress and heels into something more appropriate refuses, and goes out walking on the desert sands in her heels. While I admire the grit of women who walk in heels because it requires balance and a certain amount of fortitude, I would think that heels would be absolute torture on sand. Not that I would know. In any case, I don’t think any sane person would choose that nor would anyone in a survival situation allow vanity to trump practicality.

Another thing I would have recommended is a little more focus on the Billy Rich-Annie Gunn relationship particularly in flashback. We see a little bit of them interacting at the party but we never get a sense as to why someone who is as likely commitment-phobic as Billy would be would agree to pull the marriage trigger with someone he just met. We get that Annie’s sexuality is a large part of the reason but we don’t really get to see it on display except for one scene in the desert. A little more exposition would have been nice on this matter.

Most of the technical aspects of the film are strong, but a caveat – I’m a fan of 8mm, the band that delivers the soundtrack here. While this isn’t their best work, it was definitely a plus for me to hear them doing their thing on a movie soundtrack. There are those who likely won’t think it is the advantage that I do. C’est la musique.

The ending is on the dark side, but that’s what happens with noir. You don’t get many uplifting, feel-good movies of the year with noir. This is a movie about a dark descent of four people who are More Than What They Seem, another noir trope. Fans of the genre should be sufficiently pleased although the movie has its share of flaws. Nonetheless, a fine effort for those looking for some sun-baked (literally) off the beaten path entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautifully desolate cinematography. Dark ending. Soundtrack by 8mm.
REASONS TO STAY: Lack of sympathetic characters. Some weak moments in the script. A little bland for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexuality and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Law and Tarabay have both appeared in the television shows Arrow and Spartacus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lifeboat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Walk

The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

An Education


An Education

They'll always have Paris...

(2009) Drama (Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Sally Hawkins, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson, Cara Seymour, Matthew Beard, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Ellie Kendrick.  Directed by Lone Scherfig

There comes a point in all of our lives when we are just on the cusp of blossoming from awkward teenager into adulthood. The world is alive with possibilities then, and our future is positively limitless. There is a magic in that period, one that we never ever re-capture except in memory.

It is London in 1961, not the swinging London of Carnaby Street but a London that is more 50s than 60s. The Beatles were still backing up Tony Sheridan then and the counterculture were brewing more in the American Beat generation than in the shores of the UK. It is a staid, conservative place and stifling for 16-year-old girls with stars in their eyes and dreams in the heart.

This exactly describes Jenny (Mulligan), whose parents Jack (Molina) and Marjorie (Seymour) want to get her into Oxford where she can put some of her intelligence to good use. They even have her join the student orchestra so that she has a better chance of matriculating there, but the thought of having her attend a concert to hear the music she’s learning to play never occurs to them. Jenny is tired of the pimply attempts at seduction by awkward boys and the trifling conversations of her peers. She wants more out of life.

Out of the rain comes David (Sarsgaard), a charming man nearly twice her age. He gives her a lift on a rainy day, taking her and her cello back home. They discuss the music of Edward Elgar and she finds him fascinating. He offers to take her to a concert; she agrees to it.

This might seem creepy, a 30-something man taking out a teenage girl – and it is – but Jenny is no ordinary teenager. She is fully aware that David’s attentions might turn to sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until she’s of legal age (which at the time was 17), and in the meantime she means to plunder every experience she can from the older man and he’s okay with that. They attend a series of art auctions and nightclub performances of jazz and classical music. He introduces her to champagne and cigarettes. He even takes her to Paris, promising her parents that they would be chaperoned by his aunt who lives there – and of course, someone whom she never actually meets. Her parents are as charmed by David as she is, but something like this can only end in tears and so it does.

Director Scherfig, who made the sadly underappreciated Italian for Beginners and the upcoming One Day, does a lot of things right here. She captures the period excellently, from the conservative suburban English attitudes of Twickenham to the sophistication of David and his friends Danny (Cooper) and Helen (Pike). She also cast very wisely, from brief but scintillating cameos by Thompson (as an uptight headmaster with subtle racist attitudes) and Hawkins, to meatier roles by Williams as a sad teacher who knows the waters Jenny is navigating well.

Molina, a veteran character actor who has many memorable performances to his credit, may have outdone himself here. Jack is naïve but his heart is in the right place; he is completely out of his depth and Molina captures that without getting maudlin. Seymour also hits all the right notes as the mother who may very well be living vicariously through her daughter the lifestyle she always wanted but never had. Sarsgaard oozes charm and snake oil as a character that is thoroughly rotten and knows it, but is just repentant enough to be relatable. His actions have no redeeming qualities, but the character does.

However, the movie belongs to Mulligan. She deserved the Oscar nomination she received here and although there was some grumbling that she was playing 16 as a 23-year-old, she truly brings Jenny to life, making her an indelible character that may well go down as one of the most memorable movie personalities in any single film of the decade. She has been compared to Audrey Hepburn by some critics, but I think it’s more accurate to say that Jenny is influenced by Hepburn, although Mulligan does share those gamine features that Hepburn was famous for. It is her transformation that makes the movie worth watching, and she carries it squarely on her shoulders. With the right roles, she could well be a star in the making.

The movie does rely a bit overly much on the charm of its actors and there is a low-key vibe that I think clashes with some of the serious aspects of the film. There is also a sexual frankness, mainly in dialogue, that might startle those who are sensitive about such things.

The movie is based on the memoirs of British journalist Lynn Barber, and it is worth noting that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby, author of such books as “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity,” both of which were turned into pretty decent movies. I think it was Hornby’s doing that softened David up a bit and made him less of a creep and more of a pitiable creature; while Barber’s account treats her relationship a little bit more matter-of-factly, there’s a sense that the David-Jenny romance is being looked back upon with a bit of a sheen of sentimentality, which makes perfect sense. The education referred to here is not about Jenny’s romance with David – it’s about Jenny’s romance with life.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-nominated performance by Mulligan and an overlooked supporting performance by Molina. Sarsgaard is also charming. Period capture is dead on.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Fairly low-key which handles a serious subject with a very light touch. Might be too sexually frank for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some pretty adult thematic material as well as plenty of period smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Orlando Bloom was initially cast as Danny but dropped out a week before shooting began; he was replaced by Cooper, who had previously been in talks for the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s some footage from the film’s Los Angeles premiere if you’re into that sort of thing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.1M on a $7.5M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda 2