Free Trip to Egypt


One great stone face and another.

(2019) Documentary (Kindness) Tarek Mounib, Brian Kopilec, Ellen Decker, Adam Saleh, Terry Decker, Katie Appledorn, Jenna Day, Jason Reynolds, Marc Spalding, Amr Madkor, Ahmed Hassan, Salma Salem, Mohammed Ragab, Asmaa Gamal, Tom Appeldorn, Mark Decker, Nevine Madkor. Directed by Ingrid Serban

 

We live in a deeply divided country that has in many ways become hard right and hard left. There is a segment of our society which was deeply affected by 9/11 and continues to bear the scars of that terrible day even now. Their belief about Muslims, spurred by right-leaning news sources, is that most of the Muslim population of the rest of the world are largely terrorists and those who aren’t are terrorist sympathizers. They believe in President Trump’s agenda of excluding immigration from Muslim countries and maybe, to a certain extent, of deporting Muslims living here back to the Middle East.

Tarek Mounib, a Canadian entrepreneur of Egyptian descent, found himself very disturbed by this attitude. While working in Switzerland, he had an epiphany; why not take some Americans who have this mindset to Egypt, have them hang out with real Egyptians and see if it changes their world view. He thought if he paid for all expenses for such a trip, that he could maybe get a few people to go.

At first, he went directly to what he thought would be the motherlode; a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky. There he met Brian, an ex-Marine with a yen for travel who agreed to go for the experience. Two of his friends, Jason and Jenna, both evangelical Christians, also agreed to go – in Jason’s case, hoping he could use the opportunity to make a few Egyptians see the light. Mounib also got Mark, an African-American police officer working at the rally to agree to go although of all those who ended up taking the trip he seemed to be the least prejudiced of them all.

Other means of recruiting others didn’t work so well. It wasn’t until Mounib appeared on a nationally syndicated radio talk show that he finalized his line-up; single mom Katie who had deep-seeded issues with the way women are treated in the Islamic faith, and elderly couple Eileen and Terry, both of whom had become xenophobic after 9/11. Eileen, who confessed she had marched in the Sixties for racial equality, had realized that she was a racist and hated herself for it but couldn’t find a way out of the vicious circle, especially when their only son Mark took a job in Saudi Arabia.

Mounib paired the travelers with Egyptians who would spend the day with him and in addition to taking them to the usual tourist sights like the Cairo Museum and the Pyramids, also had meals with them and introduced them to friends and family. Most of them are well-paired; for example, Jenna and Jason are paired with a large Egyptian family; Mark with a jovial overweight Egyptian who is more pro-Trump than most of the Americans; Eileen and Terry are paired with a cinematographer and Kate with a female activist. Sadly, we don’t get to know the Egyptians nearly as well as the Americans. I think that might have helped the movie make its point more powerfully.

There are some awkward moments; the group including their Egyptian hosts are taken to a Zar healing ritual, both the evangelicals and their host family are greatly disturbed at what they see on the Muslim side as a perversion of Islam and on the Evangelical side as paganism. An odd place to find common ground, but these are odd times.

This is the kind of movie that we all need to see but especially those who feel, as many of the travelers initially do, that the world is an us versus them type of place and that there is an unconquerable divide between the Muslim world and ours. Not everyone is transformed by this experience who goes – Jason ends up trying to convert Mounib which I found a bit amusing – but there are at least some interesting discussions. Jenna ends up admitting that if heaven turned out to be a place without Christ, she would rather go to Hell. That’s pretty powerful when you think about the ramifications of it.

There is a coda as the filmmakers follow some of the participants well after the trip is over. Two of the participants were truly transformed by their experience (and you can probably guess who just by reading this review) and when a momentous event occurs, we truly see how completely that person had changed. It’s the kind of tug on the heartstrings moment that will leave even the most jaded moviegoer a bit misty-eyed.

Too often we emphasize the differences between cultures while ignoring the similarities. At the end of the day we are all just people, making the best of things in a world that is impossibly hard to navigate at times. We are all just fellow travelers on the same road and maybe when we boil it down that way, then little details like how we worship God or where we live or what we eat or the color of our skin ceases to matter much. The quickest way to heaven’s gates is through an open heart.

REASONS TO SEE: A strong and vital project with some truly powerful moments. There’s an unexpected coda. Transformative in many ways. Love that it emphasizes the similarities of cultures rather than the differences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t spend enough time letting us get to know the Egyptians.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was timed to coincide with Cunningham’s centennial.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American History X
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
For the Birds

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Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story


All she wants to do is dance, dance…

(2017) Documentary (Greenmachine) Darlinda Just Darlinda, Minnie Tonka, Gal Friday, Hazel Honeysuckle, Jezebel Express, Murray Hill, Duane Park, Garo Sparo, World Famous Bob, Dirty Martini, Perle Noire, Trigger, Jonny Porkpie, Val Valentine, Little Brooklyn, Shelly Watson, Gigi LaFemme, Anita Cookie, Tatah Dujour, Sailor Sinclaire, Blanche Debris. Directed by James Lester

Burlesque is an art form which is rarely considered as such; some reformed to it as “titty shows” and even less flattering epithets and dismiss it as pandering to the male desire to objectify women. This sort of opinion exists both on the left and the right.

Honestly, the opinion is about as wrong-headed as you can get. Yes, the dancers do remove their clothes and there is a sexual element to what they do but that’s only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We see the girls developing and practicing routines putting in long hours trying to hone their craft. There is often a sly and saucy sense of humor to their sets; one particularly clever dancer did a set in a costume resembling a Dungeons and Dragons monster known as a Beholder.

This documentary focuses on the recent revival of Burlesque and focuses on a diverse selection of dancers in the New York City area and fittingly so as the epicenter of that revival has been New York although there are strong scenes in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere as well. That revival has been a hit among hipsters but also in the LGBTQ community to a very large extent. None of the real names of the dancers are there; they all use stage names much like their antecedents did with a somewhat playfully sexual tone.

The film starts with a brief summation of the history of Burlesque and quite frankly, there are documentaries that show off that history much better than this one does but that’s all right; the object here is to concentrate on the modern take on Burlesque rather than looking back at what came before. There are plenty of docs that will give you a more comprehensive look at the somewhat checkered past of Burlesque. For all intents and purposes this movie begins with the 1996 revival that was spearheaded by the Cher/Christine Aguilera film Burlesque, a few clips from which are shown here. It’s hard to believe more than twenty years have passed since that film.

The dancers are preparing for a pair of Burlesque competitions (there’s a competition for everything and documentary filmmakers will always find them) in Las Vegas (the Burlesque Hall of Fame) and New York (the Burlesque Festival) which at least for this veteran documentary viewer gets to be pretty anti-climactic. Yes, these are important events for dancers but the viewer rarely gets invested in them in the same way.

The film shines not so much when it’s looking at the competitive aspects but on the personal ones. The stories of the ladies are fascinating and no two are exactly alike. We also get a lot more in-depth things; explanations as to why they feel empowered by taking off their clothes and what led them to do it in the first place. It is also worthy of note that not all of these women fit the traditional perceptions of beauty; some are heavyset while others have a more alternative aesthetic. Every one of them though are compelling and I daresay I couldn’t think of a reason I wouldn’t want to spend more time with any of them.

The dancing is inventive and the costumes and routines fun. The modern Burlesque dancer is into more than just twirling tassels with their breasts (although there is some of that here) but putting on a coherent show with an actual story of sorts. It is obvious that a lot of hard work and imagination goes into the creation of these routines and the viewer is sure to have a newfound respect for these women when they see the physical hardships as well as the emotional and mental ones that these ladies go through.

The background stories are compelling and the ladies for the most part articulate and thoughtful. I could have done without the two competitions – they seemed an unnecessary distraction. The movie really shines when the dancers themselves take center stage. There are a few male dancers as well (a troupe of men wins one of the competitions) and the movie doesn’t really explore the connection between the LGBTQ community and modern Burlesque but that’s okay. Those looking to see boobs and pubes may end up disappointed; much of the time nipples are covered with pasties and the crotches with panties or décor. The prurient interest factor therefore is a little bit obscured but at the end of the day this is less about the breast than it is about the rest. These are extraordinary women and you won’t be sorry to get to know them.

REASONS TO GO: The interviews with the dancers show surprising depth and self-reflection. The girls particularly Gal Friday and Hazel Honeysuckle are intriguing personalities.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary’s format is a bit formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
 RBG

The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower

A United Kingdom


A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante

 

We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

Southside with You


A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

A hot summer day in Chicago; a good day to make history.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Donald Paul, Phillip Edward Van Lear, Deborah Geffner, Jerod Haynes, Tom McElroy, Preston Tate Jr., Fred Nance, Donn C. Harper, Angel Knight, TayLar, Alex Zelenka, Deanna Reed Foster, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers. Directed by Richard Tanne

 

Before they were the most powerful couple in the world, before they were household names, before they were Fox News’ favorite punching bags, they were a just a couple of African-Americans in Chicago trying to make a difference. One had just graduated from Harvard Law and was a summer intern in a prestigious law office, the other was a lawyer for that firm who also happened to be that budding lawyer’s mentor. At that stage of their lives, they couldn’t have possibly predicted what was to come.

Michelle Robinson (Sumpter) was putting on her make-up and getting dressed to go on. Her mother (Calloway) asked her about her upcoming date to which she snapped it was “not a date” – she just liked to look presentable. She was going to a community meeting with that promising young intern she was mentoring. His name is Barack Obama. “Barack O-what-a?” asked her father (Van Lear) gruffly.

Obama (Sawyers) arrived for the “not-a-date” several minutes late, pulling up in an extremely old car in which a hole on the passenger side allowed the passenger to see the road up close and personal. Nevertheless he’s cheerful and persistent. It’s clear he has taken a shine to his beautiful but aloof mentor. She is stern however; she’s the only African-American woman in the office and she has to work twice as hard just being a woman and another twice as hard on top of that for being African-American. Getting romantic with the first cute African-American man to come into the office would definitely set her reputation back. Obama’s response was only “You think I’m cute?”

They have some time before the meeting so Obama cajoles her into going to the Art Institute of Chicago for an exhibition on local African-American art. One of the artists being displayed is Ernest Barnes, whose works decorated the house on the Good Times sitcom, similarly set in Chicago. The works there move the two to recite the Gwendolyn Brooks poem We So Cool which seems to perfectly illustrate the pool hall painting that is one of Barnes’ most well-known.

After a brief park bench lunch and an interlude watching some people do a traditional African dance, they attend the meeting where Obama is well-known and adored and where he gives a speech that will hint at his powerful oratory in years to come. Afterward there’s a movie (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing  to be precise) then ice cream – and a first kiss. In between there’s lots of conversation, the kind that sometimes goes on for a lifetime. Of such things marriages are made.

In a sense I’m not sure why this movie was made, or at least made now. It seems to be an effort to portray the President and First Lady, who have earned a place in history by virtue of being the first African-Americans elected to the highest office in the land, as just ordinary human beings. I don’t have a problem like that, any more than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did the same for the nation’s most beloved president. However, Abraham Lincoln has been dead for more than a century; Obama is the sitting President and it seems a tad presumptuous in some ways, although I suppose the same could be said of Oliver Stone’s W which presented a much less flattering picture than this film does.

In fact at times the script veritably gushes and thus those who are not supporters of the President may well find this movie about as palatable as liberals find the collected works of Dinesh D’Souza. The account here is slightly fictionalized although the actual events of the date are mostly accurate but there seems to be a concerted effort to idealize both the President and the First Lady. Supporters of the President (as I am) will certainly find more to like here. I do have to caution however that even I found the tone a little bit uncomfortably fawning towards the 44th President.

Sumpter and Sawyers both handle their roles well, capturing the cadences of their speech down nicely and some of their mannerisms. Sawyers even has the protruding ears that the President is often caricatured with and which Michelle gently ribs him for here. More to the point, the movie also idealizes the time and the place; the late 80s in Chicago with an urban soundtrack that is a little bit on the pop side (some Janet Jackson and retro soul) that is not going to offend anyone. It also captures the urban beauty of Chicago’s South Side almost lovingly with shots bathed in golden summer late afternoon light.

This is a pleasant film but then there are a lot of pleasant movies out there. The filmmakers aren’t trying to make a point about presidential policies or the legacy of Barack Obama at least overtly. One of the big issues I have with the movie is that it feels a little sitcom-like recalling Good Times a little too closely in places, as well as a little romcom-like with some of the cliches of that genre standing front and center. To the movie’s credit it captures the rhythms of life in an African-American big city community with affection much as Spike Lee is able to.

People are inevitably going to filter this movie through their own political belief system. That’s unavoidable. If you called the lead characters Michelle Jones and Barack Smith, it would certainly change your perception of it and perhaps that’s the best way to go about it. All in all we’re left with a movie that’s relatively inoffensive in a romantic sense but at the end of the day seems to portray the future President and First Lady through rose-colored glasses. That may not necessarily be your cup of java but for my money – and you can take this from someone who has voted twice for Barack Obama and supports his efforts in the White House at least to a point – it might give you a different perspective on the most powerful man in the free world (at least until January 2017) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s sometimes nice to take a step back from the rhetoric and be reminded that the public figure is also a person.

REASONS TO GO: Has a Spike Lee vibe in places. Revels in its soulfulness.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little bit idealized. Combines sitcom and rom-com cliches, not a good thing at all.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, a disturbing image, a drug reference and the future President smokes like a chimney.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to the director, all of the events that are depicted in the movie actually took place on the first date by the Obamas with the exception of the community meeting which happened on a later date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chi-Raq
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bad Moms

45 Years


Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are up next on Dancing With the Stars.

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are up next on Dancing With the Stars.

(2015) Drama (Sundance Selects) Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley, Sam Alexander, Richard Cunningham, Hannah Chalmers, Camille Ucan, Rufus Wright, Max Rudd, Kevin Matadeen, Paul Goldsmith, Peter Dean Jackson, Martin Atkinson, Alexandra Riddleston-Barrett, Rachel Banham, Michelle Finch. Directed by Andrew Haigh

There are things in a marriage, events of one’s past that our spouse isn’t aware of. Not because we want to keep it from them, but simply because it hasn’t come up. However, there are things we keep from our husband or wife intentionally, perhaps because we’re ashamed of it or because we want to keep that part of ourselves to ourselves. However, one thing is clear; without transparency, pain beckons.

Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) are getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary and they’re throwing a big party at a banquet hall in their native Norfolk. The misty grey mystery of that part of England makes for cozy cuddle weather and although the two are getting on in years, they haven’t lost the desire for one another. They don’t have any children but they do have plenty of close friends so all in all one has to say they lead a good life.

Then word comes of a discovery that directly involves Geoff’s past, before he’d even met Kate. The ripple effect is like a tsunami hitting their relationship; Kate discovers that her husband had kept things from her, things that have affected their relationship

As the days count down towards the big party, subtle changes begin to occur in their relationship. Geoff takes up smoking again, something he promised Kate he’d stopped forever. He becomes sullen, withdrawn and obsesses over the pictures he has found of an old girlfriend in the attic. She starts to snoop into his past and the hurt slowly changes her view as to how stable the relationship really is. As the party starts, Kate is beginning to wonder who the man she married truly is – and whether or not she wants to stay married to him at all.

Let me take the suspense out of this review – this movie is extraordinary and is truly a must-see for any lover of the cinematic arts. Rampling delivers a performance that is simply sensational. She does so much of her acting here with her facial expressions and her eyes and less with the dialogue. Sometimes a whole range of emotions plays over her expressive face in a matter of moments, expressing Kate’s thoughts far more effectively than dialogue. Her Oscar nomination was well deserved and while she didn’t win the statuette, she more than deserved to.

Courtenay is equally sensational. He spends much of the movie hunched over, drawn into himself and slowly he unwinds during the course of the film, becoming less hunched and more straight as if the revelation of his secret is slowly freeing his soul. In many ways, he’s reverting to a younger self in the movie with all the ridiculousness that implies. Geoff is not a bad man but he is a flawed man.

Haigh is a gifted director and really flowers here, the movie seemingly capturing a plethora of seasons during the course of the four days that the movie takes place over. He utilizes bad weather, a common occurrence in Norfolk, to great effect, the wind and the rain becoming part of the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, he peppers it with some wonderfully-chosen tunes from the 60s and 70s.

The movie, which is based on a short story by David Constantine, benefits from a beautifully written script. The dialogue is realistic; Kate and Geoff talk like a married couple that has been together for 45 years and their friends talk like real people as well. This feels like an unflinching look inside a real marriage. It’s occasionally uncomfortable – neither of the protagonists are perfect and neither one does the right thing all the time. But as the movie comes to an end, you sense a turning point has been reached and hard questions remain to be asked. What the answers will be are not necessarily the ones that either of the main characters – or those of us following them – wants to hear.

This is an amazing movie that I recommend highly for everyone. Yes, kids are not going to get the dynamics here and find the pacing slow and the grey landscape of Norfolk dreary. However those of us who love movies that give us insight into the human condition will find this to be an absolute jewel of a movie. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s real. And that makes for great cinema.

REASONS TO GO: Relationship of the leads is very realistic and natural. Emotional and raw in places. The dialogue sounds like real people talking to each other. Terrific soundtrack. Rampling and Courtenay do fantastic work, doing a lot of their acting with their faces.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too honest for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, a scene of brief sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rampling and Courtenay last appeared together in The Mysteries of Lisbon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Late Bloomers
FINAL RATING; 10/10
NEXT: King Georges

Happy Feet Two


It still sucks to be a penguin.

It still sucks to be a penguin.

(2011) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Hank Azaria, Alicia Moore “Pink”, Sofia Vergara, Common, Hugo Weaving, Brad Pitt, Anthony LaPaglia, Matt Damon, Ava Acres, Carlos Alazraqui, Magda Szubanski, Benjamin Flores Jr., Jeff Garcia, Johnny Sanchez III, Lombardo Boyar, Meibh Campbell, Richard Carter, E.G. Daly. Directed by George Miller.

The first Happy Feet, directed by George (Mad Max and sequels) Miller held some interest despite a message shift from being yourself and overcoming obstacles to a global warming warning which led to a half billion dollar box office take and an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, one of the few non-Pixar movies to have won one. The bar was obviously set pretty high for the sequel.

The hero of the first move, Mumble (Wood) has married his sweetheart Gloria (Pink) and they’ve had a son of their own, Erik (Acres). In the land of Emperor Penguins, dance has take over from singing as the means of expression of one’s heart but there’s a lot of both. It’s like an unholy cross between March of the Penguins and Glee. Erik, who can do neither and disgraces himself by wedging himself into a hole in the ice headfirst, urinates on himself in embarrassment and winds up running away.

He makes his way to Adelie Land where his dad’s old friend Ramon (Williams) is from and is now ruled over by Sven (Azaria), a penguin whose people had been forced to leave when their fishing grounds were overfished. He had escaped only by learning to fly – but he’s not actually a penguin but a puffin, although nobody notices the difference. Sven sends Erik home with his dad but not before Erik has fallen under Sven’s spell of “if you can believe it, you can make it happen” philosophy.

However, the climate change issue is being felt most here in the Antarctic as Emperor Land calves away and becomes a gigantic bowl with no way in and no way out. Mumble and the boys are unable to return home and their family and friends are facing starvation. They do all they can to feed them but it will take a lot more than the four of them can provide to save the Emperors.

The plot is actually much more convoluted than that, with a side plot of a pair of krill named Will (Pitt) and Bill (Damon) who have ambitions of being more than a snack for whales and break away from their swarm, as well as one involving Bryan the Beachmaster (Carter), a seal whom Mumble saves.

Certainly the ecological message of climate change and its consequences remains here although the original message of self-reliance and being your own person seems to have fallen by the wayside to be replaced by a “we’re all in this together” theme with a side of “when we work together we can do anything.”

The animation, as with the first film, is nifty and colorful; your kids will love it, as well as the cuddly penguins who are as in the first movie, adorable. However if you are setting this up on the Blu-Ray player, you might want to leave the room; as I said the story is pretty confusing and frustrating. There really isn’t anything here that will persuade you that your time with the kids kind of out of the way won’t be better spent taking care of things around the house or better yet, having a bit of me time.

Sadly, this is unoriginal and uninspiring, a combination that non-discerning kids might be able to get past but most adults are going to wind up fidgeting like a four-year-old at a Merchant-Ivory screening. With the abundance of really quality kid-friendly animated features that appeals to adults as well, there isn’t a good reason to put this on your list unless you either love listening to Robin Williams do his thing (and admittedly he does it very well) or if you just like the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely animated. Very kid-friendly.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A jumbled mess. Lacks originality and adults will be squirming throughout.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor and a bit of peril which might upset the really young but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pink, who sang a song (“Tell Me Something Good”) during the opening credits of the first film, replaces the late Brittany Murphy who voiced Gloria in the first movie. The film is dedicated to Murphy and to Steve Irwin, both of whom voiced characters in Happy Feet but had since passed away.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Includes the Looney Toons short I Tawt I Saw a Puddy Tat which preceded the theatrical showings of Happy Feet Two. There are also four (count ’em) music videos including Pink’s latest single (at the time), as well as three sing-a-long tunes from the film. Finally there is an app which you can download on your iPad Touch or iPad which allows you to view additional content while the film is playing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $150.4M on a $135M production budget; the box office performance was disappointing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the Center of the Earth

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Last Holiday