Paddington 2


This may be the ultimate “oh dear” expression.

(2017) Family (Warner Brothers) Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw (voice), Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Madeleine Harris, Michael Gambon (voice), Samuel Joslin, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Richard Ayoade, Peter Capaldi, Joanna Lumley, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Robbie Gee, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Claire Keelan. Directed by Paul King

 

Sequels so very rarely get to be better than their originals but here’s one that is true for that will appeal mainly to the parents with small kids set. The series of British children’s books by the late Michael Bond has made a smooth transition to the big screen and while it didn’t get the box office numbers of a big hit mainly due to circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers (more on that in a minute), it has all the earmarks of being a great franchise.

The plot is simple; Paddington’s (Whishaw) Aunt Lucy (Staunton) is about to celebrate her 100th birthday and for the special occasion the animated bear wants to get her a special gift. He even finds one – a pop-up book that tours London. However, the price is a bit beyond the bear’s meager savings so he goes out to earn enough to buy the book but on the eve of his being able to afford it, someone steals it and Paddington is blamed and sent to prison for it.

Hawkins who returns from the first film as Mrs. Brown, the mom of the family that adopts Paddington, continues to excel in every role she takes on. The last few years in particular have seen some wonderful performances by the actress including an Oscar nomination but this is while not up to that level is nonetheless really, really good.

Grant gets a chance to let his inner ham out as he plays a has-been actor which could have led to lots of really inappropriate jokes, but Grant not only sets to the role with a fine sense of self-deprecating humor but with a lot of gusto as well. He very nearly steals the movie but the fact of the matter is that the film is so well-written, so warm and fuzzy that it’s like pulling a favorite blanket over you on a rainy day and curling up with a nice hot cup of tea and a beloved book you’re re-reading. It doesn’t hurt that the ending is such a feel-good moment that only the most hard-hearted of people will not get misty-eyed. There is no bigger group of unrepentant hard-hearts than film critics but the acclaim for this film has been nearly universal. If you didn’t see this one in theaters – and chances are you didn’t – you owe it to yourself and particularly your kids (if any) to catch this one on home video when it becomes available on it next month.

REASONS TO GO: The climactic train chase is a great deal of fun. Hawkins is becoming one of my favorite actresses. The ending (not including a scene while the credits are running) is one of the most touching and beautiful I’ve ever seen.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in the middle. Some of the acting is a little silly and lots of the humor is very, VERY British.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of action on a kids show level as well as some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing, Paddington 2 holds the distinction of having the most positive reviews (192) on Rotten Tomatoes without a single negative one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garfield
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cocote

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Concert for George


Eric Clapton doing what he does best.

(2003) Concert Film (Abramorama) Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Joe Brown, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, Tom Hanks, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Gary Brooker, Billy Preston, Olivia Harrison, Jools Holland, Sam Brown, Ray Cooper, Neil Innes, Andy Fairweather-Low, Jim Capaldi, Carol Cleveland, Anoushka Shankar. Directed by David Leland

 

Most remember George Harrison as “the quiet Beatle” but the truth is that he was one of the great guitarists of his time as well as a sterling songwriter who wrote songs like “Something,” “My Sweet Lord,” “All Those Years Ago” and “Taxman.” He maintained a strong interest in Indian spiritualism and was a close friend to sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who taught him to play the instrument and who considered him to be a son.

Harrison died too young at age 58 on November 29, 2001 in the home of a friend after a long battle with lung cancer. His widow Olivia and close friend Eric Clapton (whom Harrison had known since childhood) organized a tribute concert which took place a year to the day of his passing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A virtual who’s who of British rock royalty, the concert had the benefit that all of the performers were close to Harrison in some way or form either personally or as performers. The music that was performed therefore was straight from the heart and it shows.

A documentary was made of the event but was never released theatrically as far as I know; it has been available off and on over the years on home video. Now, on the occasion of Harrison’s 75th birthday (which would have been February 25, 2018) music documentary specialists Abramorama have undergone a brief limited theatrical release of the original documentary (for local Orlando residents, it will be playing at the Enzian Theater on March 19).

There are interviews with some of the participants which are very brief; mostly director David Leland is content to let the music speak for itself which it does eloquently. In the interview segments, Harrison’s death is still pretty close in mind and for some the emotion is still raw but the event was a celebration, not an elegy and the overwhelming feeling you get is joy. As for the concert segments, music director Clapton wisely kept pretty close to the original arrangements that Harrison had so the songs remained familiar. The songs themselves range from music that influenced Harrison (like Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” performed by Starr) to his tenure with the Beatles and then his lengthy solo career that followed as well as his work with the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys.

There was also a comedy interlude in which former Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam performed “Sit on My Face” from The Meaning of Life and one of their signatures “The Lumberjack Song” in which they were joined by longtime Python associate Carol Cleveland, Bonzo Dog songwriter Neil Innes, actor Tom Hanks and the Fred Tomlinson Singers. Harrison was a huge Python fan and produced their final two movies through his HandMade Films banner which also produced several other memorable films as well. The levity is a welcome moment and makes a nice break during the concert.

There were some exceptions. Harrison had a great deal of affection for the humble ukulele so McCartney performed “Something” on it, a tribute he’d been doing on his own solo tour that year. The song then opens up into a full rock number with Clapton joining McCartney on vocals. Shankar wrote an original song for the occasion which was performed with his daughter Anoushka. Finally Joe Brown, a pioneering English rocker for whom the Beatles opened for back in the early days and for whom Harrison was best man at his wedding, played “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” one of the few songs not written by Harrison in the concert, on the ukulele. He was joined by nearly every musician that played in the show onstage for a touching finale.

Leland for some odd reason chose not to use onscreen graphics to identify the performers. That’s fine for widely recognized icons like McCartney, Starr and Clapton but not everyone knows who Gary Brooker is or what he looks for and the parade of rockers whose heyday was in the 60s (and in Joe Brown’s case, the 50s) are not always easy to recognize. Some are introduced verbally but mainly we never know who’s speaking in the interviews or performing onstage which is a bit irritating.

One thing that was a little-remarked grace note to the whole thing was the presence of Harrison’s son Dhani who played acoustic guitar on nearly every song. Dhani who was 24 at the time of the show is a dead ringer for his late father. Seeing him playing behind McCartney was oddly comforting, like a glimpse of the past. It is also good to see Petty, Shankar and Billy Preston playing again, all of whom have left us since this show took place as well as Sam Brown, a striking performer (and daughter of Joe Brown) whose career was sadly cut short when vocal issues forced her to retire.

In many ways this isn’t the most polished of concert films as the participants had little time to rehearse. Still, the fact that stars of this caliber made room on their schedules to be at this show is not only a testament to the respect they had for Harrison as a musician but for the love they had for Harrison as a person. That love shows up very plainly in the music they played that night and it certainly makes this worth seeing on the big screen if it plays anywhere near you; you can see where it is going to be playing here. If you can’t make it to a theater or it’s not coming to one convenient to where you live, take heart; the movie will be back on VOD and on various streaming services in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: Clapton’s star power is very much on display. The Monty Python interlude is nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used some identification for the various aging rockers.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Paul and Ringo had performed together on the same stage since the break-up of the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Concert for Bangladesh
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Commuter

For the Love of George


Nothing says Valentine’s Day like cuddling with your honey and a movie.

(2017) Romantic Comedy (Vision) Nadia Jordan, Rex Lee, Rosanna Arquette, Tate Donovan, Kristen Johnston, Shaun Sipos, Petra Bryant, Henry Hereford, Ruth Connell, Adrienne Whitney, Marina Sirtis, Paul Provenza, Ben Gleib, Tracy Ransome, Sandro Monetti, Jo Price, Ron S. Geffner, Danny Araujo, Valley Hintzen, Andrea Batista, Ian Mill, Laura Waddell. Directed by Maria Burton

 

One of the problems with romantic comedies is that although they are theoretically aimed at couples (and let’s face it, women in particular) they very rarely are the products of predominantly female creative sorts. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a rom-com coming from a female writer-director who went out of her way to make sure that as many roles in the film’s behind the camera crew were filled by women. That gives this movie a much more authentic point of view of a female character than we normally get to experience.

Poppy (Jordan) has been going all out to prepare for her husband Stephen’s (Hereford) birthday, making a fantastic meal, baking a lovely cake and preparing for a romantic evening with rose petals on the bed, candles and sexy lingerie. When he calls saying that a rare bird had been spotted in the area (he’s an avid birdwatcher) she’s very much disappointed that he’s chosen to go out and find the bird but it is his birthday after all and he should spend it doing what he likes. After she hangs up, he calls her back and she realizes he’s butt-dialed her. And what she hears turns her world inside out and upside down.

Fed up with being the perfect wife to a man who is cheating on her, she decides to visit her former wedding planner Justin (Lee) in Los Angeles so she heads off to Heathrow and makes the long journey to Southern California to lick her wounds and figure out what happens next. While she’s there she sees a news story on George Clooney, the world’s most eligible bachelor (this is set some years ago) and the charity work he’s doing. The more she hears, the more she realizes that George is THE perfect man and sets out to go get him for herself.

Undaunted by reality, she goes to a bar that Clooney frequents but he’s not there that day. She also tries to attend a party that he’s invited to thrown by her new friend Marcy (Whitney) from Texas but the world’s worst Uber driver torpedoes her plans to meet him. After that disappointment, she goes to a bar to drown her sorrows and runs into a handsy Hollywood producer who tries to take things way too far – a scene that I’m sure resonates with a lot of women both in Hollywood and, well, everywhere else I imagine. Concerned that she has become obsessive about George, Justin refers her to a therapist (Arquette) who listens to her tales of woe with a somewhat skeptical ear.

She starts going out with Luke (Sipos), a vendor of vitamin juices who seems too good to be true – and is. However, she’s bonded with not only Justin but Marcy and Irina (Bryant), Justin’s Russian housekeeper who while at first rubbing Poppy the wrong way eventually finds common ground with her. The strong bonds of sisterhood are very much a theme here. However all is once again thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Steven, looking to win his wife back. On top of that, news of George Clooney’s engagement has put her into a tailspin. Will she give him a second chance or will she embrace the happiness she has found in Los Angeles and continue to live the life she has chosen for herself?

This is very much a woman’s movie in that one of the central themes is empowerment; that women shouldn’t necessarily live for their husband and/or children but also live for themselves. Poppy as a character starts off very nurturing and giving but ends up standing up for herself in ways she probably didn’t know she could. I wouldn’t say that most of the straight male characters in the movie are jerks but most of the important ones are which might ruin the romantic mood for the straight guy in your life.

Then again, most of the characters here aren’t particularly well drawn out with the exception of Poppy. Justin is the gay Asian male who is sexually aggressive and a little bit catty but a loyal gay friend; Irina is the Russian immigrant with vague ties to the mob and an affinity for vodka. Luke is a dumb as a rock hunk who in typical male fashion gives little thought to Poppy’s needs except to use them as a means to get what he wants. Marcy is a Texas hottie with a thick drawl and a big personality, while Sharon (Sirtis) who is Poppy’s boss at the online publication she writes for (yes, Poppy is a writer – isn’t everyone in indie films?) is a high-strung English version of a New York Jewish lady who kvetches with an English accent.

I would have liked to have seen fewer clichés and characters – and plot points – that were a bit more realistic. Considering what Burton was trying to do here, I think it would have benefited her to rather than go for the laughs at the expense of the story to have emphasized the romance and the characters. The empowerment message would have gone a lot farther I think had she done that.

I’m not so sure this is an ideal Valentine’s Day movie – Poppy is a little too hung up on Clooney and the flaws a bit too glaring for an unqualified recommendation, but certainly there are some aspects here worth cheering for and hopefully Burton will learn from this film and go on to make some movies that really do send positive messages that young women in particular need to hear at this point in time.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much of a feminine perspective with a side of empowerment.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few too many stereotypical characters and plot devices.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burton was inspired to write the movie after reading Don Cheadle’s book Not on Our Watch which details Clooney’s involvement with raising awareness of the genocide in Darfur and she realized that the world’s most eligible bachelor (at the time) was also an unusually sensitive and compassionate man. Two weeks later his engagement was announced and she had her idea for her film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love Field
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Millionaires’ Unit

Above & Beyond: Giving Up the Day Job


EDM goes acoustic ensemble.

(2018) Concert Film (Abramorama) Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, Paavo Siljamaki. Directed by Myles Desenberg and Paul Dugdale

 

From time to time musicians feel a need to reinvent themselves and/or their sound. This can be done for a number of reasons; to keep their music from stagnating, to keep their own interest high, to move into a more commercially viable arena or to find success where they had found none previously.

The latter is not the problem for the Grammy award-winning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) group Above & Beyond. The core trio of Grant, McGuinness and Siljamaki has inspired millions of fans with their aggressive beats tempered with chill-down breaks that gave them one of the most rabid and loyal fan bases in all of electronic music, no small feat. It was the reaction of their fans to those breaks that inspired them to take the steps from the DJ booth into the recording studio with acoustic guitars in hand and pianos on their mind instead of samplers.

The results are actually gorgeous. Their goal is playing the venerable Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, one of the most distinctive and respected concert venues on Earth – think of it in terms of similar to Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and Royal Albert Hall (which they also play during the course of the film). For the Hollywood Bowl concert they enlist an orchestra of L.A. classical musicians to accompany their 17-musician band (which includes four vocalists; one male and three females. It sounds in many ways like Darkwave music – a kind of ethereal goth – crossed with ambient pop. These are acoustic versions of the band’s own songs, sometimes with lyrics added but re-imagined for the concert stage rather than the dance club. Not being a fan of EDM myself, I was unfamiliar with their music so it came as a surprise to me that the songs were so inherently musical. It’s caused me to reassess my opinion of EDM in general.

The film doesn’t get any favors from their marketing department who characterize it as following the journey of the band from the DJ booth to the Hollywood Bowl. I suppose in a strict sense that’s true, but this is almost entirely a concert film rather than a musical documentary; we don’t see much of how the band transitions, mainly seeing rehearsal gigs and some backstage footage and interviews. The film follows the concert film cliché of moving from one song interspersed with rapturous fan reactions to some interview footage and talking head appearances from the band, to another song with rapturous fan reactions to watching the band hanging out on a New York basketball court to another song…you get the drift. I was expecting yin and I got yang which can be disconcerting when you’re viewing the film – be warned in that regard.

The fan reactions seem a little over-the-top from time to time. Some critics have sneered that it is manipulative, but aren’t all concert films essentially gifts to their fans? Of course the fans are portrayed as reverent. Honestly I wonder sometimes if various online movie review sites and daily newspapers hire people because they are absolutely ignorant of how movies work.

As with most concert films the appeal is going to mostly be with the band’s core fans but that doesn’t mean people who aren’t into the band can’t enjoy this either. It might very well make some new fans for the band which I suspect is icing on the cake for them. It might not convince you to paint your face with Day-Glo colors, grab some glowsticks and head out to your local palladium to dance and sweat your ass off but it may well make you wish, as I do, that the soundtrack to this film and that concert is eventually released. I would buy that in a New York minute.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely stunning. This might very well change your appreciation of EDM bands as it did mine.
REASONS TO STAY: The film utilizes standard concert film tropes. I could have used much more background about the transition from electronic than acoustic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the group hadn’t performed in acoustic venues regularly, they have released two acoustic albums prior to the Hollywood Bowl show depicted here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Disaster Artist

Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Victoria & Abdul


It’s good to be the Queen!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.

As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.

The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.

Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.

But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.

Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.

I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Geostorm

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick