DTF


Fun in the sun in L.A.

(2020) Documentary (GravitasAl Bailey, “Christian,” Neil Jeram-Croft, Nathan Codrington. Directed by Al Bailey

 

Finding love has never been easy, other than once parents made arranged marriages for their children so the kids really didn’t have to do anything but show up at the wedding, then endure thirty years of marriage to someone they may or may not like. Later, when that wasn’t an option anymore, we hung out in bars, dated people from school, work and church, did whatever we could to meet that perfect someone. Sometimes, a friend or relative would make an introduction.

The digital age would make it easier, you might think but anyone who is a recent veteran of the dating wars will tell you it’s, if anything, harder. Dating apps more often than not hook you up with people who have fibbed about themselves, and finding love in the age of Tinder has become something of a minefield.

Al Bailey, an English filmmaker, had introduced his friend, a long-haul Scandinavian airline pilot who is called “Christian” – not his real name for reasons that will become eminently clear in a moment – to the woman that Christian eventually married, but after her tragic death, decided to make a documentary about the difficulties airline pilots face in finding love. He proposed to follow Christian around on a series of dates made through Tinder in a series of cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong. Al was hoping that one of these dates would lead to lasting happiness for his friend.

That was the documentary he set out to make. What he ended up with was something very much different as Al realizes that the happy-go-lucky party guy that was so much fun to hang out with was a very different person than he thought he was. Far from looking for love, Christian turns out to be an amoral hedonist with absolutely no empathy for the women he uses so long as they provide him with immediate gratification (DTF is internet-speak for “Down to Fornicate” – except they don’t mean fornicate) and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process. Christian also has a drinking problem and turns up to work hung over from time to time, which concerns Al (and you as the viewer no doubt) greatly. As Christian proclaims this party lifestyle is common among airline pilots, Al makes a half-hearted attempt to investigate it but doesn’t really turn up anything concrete. I would tend to guess that it’s more a Christian problem than an industry problem; otherwise there would be a whole lot of mainstream media exposes trumpeting the state of affairs. That’s the kind of story that sells advertising – just not from the airline industry.

The more that goes on, the worse Christian’s behavior gets, leading to an incident in Las Vegas that completely changes the tenor of the film. Those who have lived with or been close to addicts are likely to find it unsurprising and sadly familiar terrain, but for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid such issues, it might be a bit jaw-dropping. From there, the end is pretty much inevitable.

Bailey is a fairly affable guy and he makes someone that the audience can identify with, dancing merrily with Hare Krishna disciples early on in the film but as the tone becomes darker, the lighter side of Al becomes more like a stern parent as he struggles to rein in the irresponsible behaviors of Christian who often leaves Al and his crew hanging.

Some may be tempted to find alternate modes of travel the next time they have somewhere to be, but again, let me stress that there is no evidence that this kind of behavior is widespread in the airline industry; obviously, given the kind of stress pilots are under to begin with, it’s understandable how some pilots might traverse the primrose path into alcoholism and substance and sex addiction, but one shouldn’t view Christian as anything representative of airline pilots. Hopefully, his employers will have gotten wind of his behavior by now and taken steps to get him the help he needs, or fired his ass if he was unable to stick to it. Addiction is a morass that destroys everything in its path, including careers and friendships, and the movie is as stark a reminder of that as I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering look at addiction. The documentary evolves as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a little hard for those with addicted loved ones to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity including crude sexual references, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker and his subject have not spoken since filming ended.
 BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Courage to Love
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ronnie Wood: Somebody Up There Likes Me

The Perfect Candidate


Roles in Saudi Arabia are changing.

(2019) Drama (Music BoxMila Al Zahrani, Dhay, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Ahmed Al-Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th, Rakan Abdulrahman, Nojoud Ahmed, Naser Al Algeel, Saeed Almana, Ahmad Alsulaimy, Reem Fahad, Bandar Hadadi, Bandar Alkhudair, Hamad Almuzainy, Ismaee Nasser, Muhammad Shaman, Abdullah Ateeg, Reema Mohammed. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an enigma to Western minds. While it remains one of the most pro-Western governments in the Middle East, its government remains at times painfully repressive of women, although it did lift the ban on them driving by themselves in 2018 – not even two years ago. Lifting the veil, so to speak, on the lives of women in the Kingdom is no easy matter.

But who better to do so than Al-Mansour, who was the first Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film with the wonderful Wadjda back in 2012. Her protagonist, Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Al Zahrani) has a medical degree and works at a small hospital in a small town near Riyadh. She is constantly belittled by male colleagues, and encounters an elderly patient (Almuzainy) who refuses treatment by a female doctor. When Maryam refuses to back down, her hospital administrator (Hadadi) orders that the man be treated by the male nurses.
Back at home, she helps her sisters Selma (Dhay) and Sara (Al Awad) prepare a Ramadan meal for their father Abdulaziz (Abdulraheem), one of the country’s most gifted oud players. He is still mourning the untimely death of their mother, a beautiful wedding singer whose unusual choice of vocation (for Saudi women, unusual) had made things difficult at times, particularly for the sensitive Sara who disapproves of anything that might bring scrutiny down on the little family.

With Abdulaziz leaving on a national tour, Maryam uses the opportunity to attend a medical conference in Dubai where she is more likely to be noticed and find herself a new, more prestigious job. But there’s a problem; as an unmarried Saudi woman, she needs the permission of her father to travel, and his signature is apparently out of date. Stuck at the airport, desperately trying to get approval to fly to Dubai and with her father unreachable, she tries a cousin (Alsulaimy) to fix the problem. The trouble is, the supercilious administrative assistant won’t let Maryam see him unless she is planning on running for a municipal council office, and she grumpily declares that she is and then is told that her cousin isn’t willing to break the law on behalf, but she decides to make a serious run at it, even though she is told that she doesn’t have a chance in hell of defeating the incumbent. With the support of Selma, an ebullient wedding photographer, and the surly resentment of her younger sister Sara, who remembers the difficulties her mom’s profession brought on the family,

While the movie is ostensibly a drama, it is lighthearted enough so that there’s never a sense of gloom or hopelessness. Things are changing in Saudi Arabia and, apparently, even women themselves seem to think that progress might be taking place too quickly. We see the ladies taking off their niqab – a mask-like veil that only allows the eyes to be seen – in their homes, and gathering in gender-segregated halls in western dress, something unthinkable not so long ago.

This isn’t the kind of political underdog film that Frank Capra might have made; one gets the sense that Al-Mansour has to tread a very tricky line in order not to be overly critical of her government (she isn’t) while allowing the changes to be celebrated, yet there is certainly an underlying feeling  that more needs to be done. At times the way women are treated is positively medieval.

Both Al Zahrani and Dhay are wonderful performers; Al Zahrani makes Maryam a force of nature when she gets a head of steam going, although early on in the film she is fairly subservient. Dhay, though, is a remarkable burst of fresh air, so joyful and supportive that you’ll want to be her sister too. g

At times, the story moves along at a snail’s pace and there is little in the way of dramatic tension, which you wouldn’t think for a movie with the kind of issues this one raises. It feels virtually sedentary, but perhaps that would have been too much to ask of a Saudi female filmmaker; I imagine she would have to tread fairly lightly if she wants to continue making movies in her own country (although she has established a career in the States as well by now). There are some delightful moments and others that are pedantic; they about even each other out. So, not the triumph that Wadjda was, but certainly not a failure either.

REASONS TO SEE: Al Zahrani is a formidable presence and Dhay injects much vitality into the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times it lacks dramatic tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some misogyny on display.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the official Saudi entry in the Best International Film category for the 92nd Academy Awards last spring.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saudi Women’s Driving School
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Uncle Peckerhead

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful


Newton’s Teutonic sensibility of beauty is both cold and sexy.

 (2020) Documentary (Kino LorberHelmut Newton, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, June Newton, Hanna Schygula, Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Schiffer, Sylvia Gobbel, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzoni, Nadja Auermann. Directed by Gero von Boehm

 

Helmut Newton is often described in terms of being a provocateur, an enfant terrible, the King of Kink, as Anna Wintour, the doyenne of Vogue magazine and one of his main employers, dubbed him. His photographs were often controversial, but always memorable.

He was born in Germany and grew up there during the age of the Weimar Republic, whose aesthetic influenced his work to a large extent. The rise of the Nazi party and their depiction of the human form (he admired Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Olympia although he bristles at the thought that she was an influence, seeing as he was Jewish and ended up fleeing Germany with his family). His was an essentially Teutonic aesthetic.

At the time he was working (he passed away in a car accident in Los Angeles in 2004 at the age of 83) he was recognized as an artist, an influence on how women were photographed (for better or for worse). Seen through the lens of 2020, perhaps we are less kind to him; often his pictures depicted women nude, and they were nearly always white (Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, was one of the few exceptions), blonde, tall and statuesque. Often, they were posed in bondage gear, or in demeaning poses – there was often an element of S&M to his oeuvre – and his models often glared defiantly at the camera, a cigarette dangling petulantly from lips heavily painted with lipstick, smoke wreathing the lower part of their jaw.

His work hasn’t aged well in the sense that we are a different culture now; even though his portraiture depicted women as being strong and in control in most  occasions (and many of his models interviewed here said that even posing butt naked they felt safe and strong when posing for him) but many consider him a misogynist; certainly feminist Susan Sontag, who appeared with him on a French talk show (shown here) pointedly made the accusation, which he denied. “I love women” he protests, to which she responds “That doesn’t impress me. Misogynists always say they love women. Executioners love their victims.”

I suppose I would agree with the criticisms, except that nobody seems to be criticizing Robert Mapplethorpe, a contemporary, for shooting men in the same manner. There is a double standard here, reversed. There are those who say that it’s about time; as my mother might say, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Von Boehm, a veteran of German television, chooses not to make this a biography; Newton himself jokes during one of his archival interviews that “photographers are boring…if you want to know all that (details about his life and influences), I’m saving that for someone who has a lot more money than you.” Like many artists, he prefers to let his work speak for itself.

We mostly hear from the women in his life – his wife June (mostly in audio clips), Wintour, gallery curator Carla Sozzoni and a host of women who posed for him over the years; Jones, actresses Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve and Hanna Schygula, models Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Auermann and Sylvia Gobbel, and singer Marianne Faithfull. Most of them praise the photographer, although Jones admits with her typical candor “He was a pervert. That’s good; so am I.”

The film is hagiographic in that it really doesn’t address the criticisms – valid as they are – about his depiction of women. His wife describes him as a “naughty boy who grew up to be an anarchist” which is about as close to a description of who he was as you are likely to get. The filmmakers seem to be trying to allow the viewer to develop their own opinions about his work, but there isn’t enough of an opposing viewpoint to allow for an informed opinion. The images of Newton’s work are all that is offered, in the end, to consider and there is definitely an artistic vision at work here. Whether you believe it is art or misogyny is going to depend on you.

REASONS TO SEE: The images are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really biographical so much as an exhibition of his work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of nudity, some sexuality and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Newton’s ashes are interred three plots down from Marlene Dietrich in Berlin.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Times of Bill Cunningham
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Opus of an Angel

What Men Want


Touchdown!

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Taraji P. Henson, Aldis Hodge, Richard Roundtree, Tracy Morgan, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Josh Brener, Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson, Max Greenfield, Jason Jones, Pete Davidson, Brian Bosworth, Chris Witaske, Erykah Badu, Kellan Lutz, Kausar Mohammed, Paul B. Johnson, Auston Moore, Shane Paul McGhie, Lisa Leslie. Directed by Adam Shankman

In 2000, Mel Gibson had a hit rom-com with What Women Want, in which a bathtub electrocution gave him the power to hear the thoughts of women (but not men). In this gender-reversal update (and I use the term loosely), Henson stars as Ali Davis, a brash and ambitious sports agent working basically at a white boy’s club where she hopes to become partner. When she’s passed over, she demands to know why since she has an impressive list of Olympic athletes with an impressive list of endorsements; her smarmy boss replies “You just don’t connect with men.”

Well, that problem is about to be solved by singer-songwriter Erykah Badu who plays Sister, a wacky psychic who is hired by a bachelorette party that Ali is attending. She supplies Ali with a drug-laced tea and then for good measure, Ali gets knocked upside the head by an oversized dildo. When she comes to, voila! She can hear the thoughts of men (but not women). She hopes to use her new superpower to her own advantage rather than trying to stop Thanos in his evil mission…err., wrong film. In any case, she discovers it isn’t so much what men are thinking that’s important (and non-spoiler alert – I think most women have a pretty good clue what men are generally thinking) but what is inside her own head that really matters.

The movie is full of rom-com clichés and never really excites any sort of glee from the audience. Henson is a talented actress who I’ve been a great fan of for more than a decade, and she does do her best here, but she has to contend with Badu’s shameless overacting (although to be fair Badu is pretty much the most consistently funny in the cast), a script that does her no favors and patter that rather than being snappy falls about as flat as a remake of a comedy about misogyny in the era of #MeToo. Timing matters.

REASONS TO SEE: Henson is a little bit over-the-top but still always watchable.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and sexual content, along with some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first R-rated film to be directed by Shankman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What Women Want
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Relic

Lords of Chaos


Welcome to my nightmare.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Gunpowder & SkyRory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Wilson Gonzalez, Lucian Charles Collier, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwyn, Gustaf Hammarsten, Jon Ølgarden, Arion Csihar, Jason Arnopp, Tom van Hoesch, Dzsenifer Bagi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

In the mid-90s, black metal rose out of Norway as a reaction to what the practitioners viewed as the trendiness of death metal. The group Mayhem essentially defined the genre, then became enmeshed in it, finally being destroyed by it, even though the band continues to perform even to this day.

Disaffected Norwegian Euronymous (Culkin) forms the band as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with Norway’s Christian society and to take death metal further than it seemed likely to go. When Swedish lead singer Dead (Cohen) commits suicide, Euronymous – who discovered the body – seems to grow callous towards the grisly end of his friend, even handing out necklaces that contained bone fragments from his bandmate’s skull to the remaining members of Mayhem as well as to musicians that he liked.

He takes under his wing teenage Varg Vikernes (Cohen) who has the zeal of a convert. Varg takes to burning churches, some of them centuries old and Norwegian cultural treasures. Euronymous heartily approves of this behavior, even though he is more of an observer than a participant. Things begin to get dicey between the two as Varg brags – anonymously – about the deeds, even boasting that he had killed someone – to the press. Euronymous is horrified, understanding that this could get them all arrested but Varg feels that they need to be feared, to make a statement that this is not just posing but who they really are. As the two men grow more paranoid, it leads to a fracture within the band – and a shocking crime.

Åkerlund has plenty of insight into the scene; as a young man he played drums for the Swedish band Bathory which was an inspiration to the real Mayhem but strangely enough, we don’t get much. The motivations for these people to do genuinely evil acts seems to be a kind of macho one-upsmanship and a fear of being labeled a poseur. Although the film takes place in Norway, the film is in English with the character of Euronymous providing narration. Cohen sounds a bit like Christian Slater which also is somewhat disconcerting.

Surprisingly little black metal is used on the soundtrack; in fact, the lead-up to the climax utilizes Dead Can Dance – decidedly not a metal band – effectively as the background score. The suicide is graphic as is the final scene and sensitive sorts should definitely steer clear; that final scene is particularly brutal and realistic. The movie is interesting as a character study, but at the end of the day we get the distinct impression that who these guys really were was a bunch of asshats.

REASONS TO SEE: Disturbing in an interesting way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems to glorify knuckle-dragging behavior.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s chock full of profanity; there’s also nudity, sex, graphic bloody violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Euronymous is portrayed here smoking regularly and drinking heavily but in reality he rarely drank anything stronger than Coca-Cola and did not smoke.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Until the Light Takes Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beyond Skiing Everest

Outlaws (2017)


Ba da bing.

(2017) Crime Drama (A24) Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Noble, Aaron Pedersen, Sam Parsonson, Eddie Baroo, Aaron Fa’aoso, Jacqui Williams, Adam T. Perkins, Soa Pelelei, Daniel Pantovic, Moodi Dennaoui, Alex Arco, Gary Owens, George Houvardas, Gemma Sharpe. Directed by Stephen McCallum

 

Outlaws is the debut feature from Aussie Stephen McCallum, and it is equal parts Sons of Anarchy and grindhouse biker flick from the 60s and 70s. It features the Copperhead Motorcycle Club, whose president Knuck (Noble) has just been released from prison. His right-hand man Paddo (Corr) has been running things in his absence, and doing a good job of it as well; in fact, Paddo’s girl Katrina (Lee) would like to see the temporary in charge situation made permanent.

But Knuck’s wife Hayley (Kessell) doesn’t trust Paddo to step down quietly, and with the two women pushing their men towards it, conflict is inevitable. And with Paddo’s mentally and emotionally challenged brother Skink (McConville) providing the catalyst, things are just about to blow.

There’s plenty of violence and loud rock and roll, which is to be expected in a movie like this. While the acting is merely adequate, I suspect that the fundamental problem here is the script, which is a bit vapid and at times, riddled by logical holes. It also feels like we’ve seen all this before (we have, but on TV in the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy which is a much better viewing choice). While there are elements of Lady Macbeth in the two biker chicks and the plot is vaguely Shakespearean, the characters are mostly various degrees of deplorable and don’t inspire a whole lot of audience identification, unless beating up other people is your thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice pacing and fine tension level maintained.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is not very original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matt Noble, who plays Knuck, wrote the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews, Metacritic: 24/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Animal Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Awhile

Lionheart (2018)


Genevieve Nnaji keeps a wary eye out for whatever could be standing in her way.

(2018) Comedy (Netflix) Genevieve Nnaji, Nkem Owoh, Pete Edochie Onyeka Onwenu, Kanayo O. Kanayo, Ngozi Ezeonu, Kalu Ikeagwu, Chibuzo “Phyno” Azubuike, Jemma Osunde, Sani MU’AZU, Yakubu Mohammed, Peter Okoye, Chika Okpala, Oramulu Peter, Clemson Agbogidi, Chudi Nwafo, Stan K. Amadi, Obi Jane Nkechi, Uzodinma Umeh, Okwesileze, Steve Eboh. Directed by Genevieve Nnaji

 

Africa is a diverse and beautiful continent. There is veldt and jungle, mountains and deserts, modern urban metropolises and dirt-poor villages. There is no pigeonholing a continent, and the more glimpses we get into the daily life in various African nations, the more we come to realize that we have a lot in common with them.

Nigeria has a film industry known as “Nollywood” that has made some headway under some pretty tough obstacles. Their economic struggles in the Eighties led to nearly every movie theater in the country being closed down. Their movies are largely distributed on tape and disc, and while streaming services are beginning to make headway there, the infrastructure makes Internet availability spotty particularly in the more rural areas of the country.

One of that country’s brightest stars is Genevieve Nnaji. She not only stars in the first Nigerian film to be distributed on Netflix, but she also directs and co-wrote the script. She plays Adaeze, a smart, ambitious woman working in her father’s (Edochie) transportation company. Even though she’s more able than most men, she is often met with derision and hostility; her ideas are often rejected out of hand and from time to time men in the male-dominated industry expect sexual favors from her in exchange for their cooperation. When her father takes ill, rather than pass on the leadership reins to his infinitely qualified daughter, he instead passes it on to his eccentric brother (Owoh) who has some interesting ideas about leadership.

Adaeze’s frustration further grows when she discovers that the company is in a precarious financial position. Her father, perhaps unwisely, took out several loans which the bank has called. They have 30 days to pay it back before they lose everything. She will have to figure out a way to team up with her uncle if they are able to save the company from predators both from without – and within.

Nnaji is an almost regal presence in the same way Angela Bassett is. Beautiful and elegant, she has a screen presence most American actresses would envy. She has a knack for the light comedy of the movie, and while she is no Kate McKinnon, she nonetheless knows what she’s doing in a comedic role. Owoh is definitely the comic presence here, however. Nnaji is essentially his “straight man.” The humor isn’t outrageous or over the top, but more a gentle ribbing of the foibles of life – a very African viewpoint, in other words.

The family dynamics of the Obiagu family are what make the movie really worthwhile. There is a good deal of bickering but there is also a good deal of love – in other words, just like families everywhere. Of course, it’s not exactly headline news that people are people everywhere you go, but it’s nice to see the people of a different culture share their similarities as well as the things that make their culture unique.

REASONS TO SEE: A glimpse at urban African life.
REASONS TO AVOID: A somewhat pedantic plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasionally rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was the official submission by Nigeria for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Academy Awards but ended up being disqualified since it was determined that the bulk of the film was in English.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gods Must Be Crazy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Escape Room

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)


Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

(2018) Biographical Drama (FocusSaoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, Maria Dragus, Eileen O’Higgins, Ian Hallard, Kandiff Kirwan, Adam Bond, Angela Bain, Izuka Hoyle, Liah O’Prey, Katherine O’Donnelly. Directed by Josie Rourke

 

You would think that history is immutable, written in stone; this event happened to these people on this date. History is, however, very much subject to interpretation and particularly to revision. If we don’t like what we know about history, we extrapolate what we don’t know; in trying to give context we often rob history of its own truth.

The rivalry between Elizabeth Tudor (Robbie), Queen of England, and Mary Stuart (Ronan), Queen of Scotland, was largely a political one, made personal because the two were cousins. In this revisionist version of that rivalry, both queens are manipulated by the venal and fragile egos of the men at court as well as by the tides of religious fervor that was sweeping both nations. Mary was a devout Catholic and was despised by the largely Protestant population of her country, the most outspoken of whom was John Knox (Tenant), founder of the Presbyterian Church. Also whereas Elizabeth chose to forego marriage and children and concentrate on ruling her country, Mary chose to strengthen her grip on the thrown through marriage leading to a series of romances that may have done more to harm her standing than help.

Elizabeth is portrayed here as sympathetic and admiring of her cousin Mary, but forced into a rivalry reluctantly, even though there’s absolutely no evidence in that regard; screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) even dreams up a face to face meeting between the two monarchs even though that never happened in actuality; I suppose it makes for good drama but then again, Hollywood has never been the place to go to for history lessons and generally, I have been okay with that unless the “dramatic license” becomes egregious.

Both actresses do very well with their roles, and why would they not; Ronan and Robbie are two of the most talented actresses in the business and they are given two compelling historical figures to work with. Sadly, both of the women here are portrayed as victims of their time rather than as shapers of it. Often, progressives have a tendency to passively denigrate that which they are trying to portray as worthy; the truth is that Elizabeth was one of the most politically savvy figures of her time or any other time, for that matter. If she was manipulated, it was no more so than any other male political figure including her father Henry VIII; chief of state manipulation has been a human tradition ever since we started putting people in charge.

The film has sumptuous production values with wonderful costumes (Elizabeth’s wigs alone are worth a gander) but I truly wish the film had portrayed both of these figures as the compelling characters that they are rather than using them to make a political point about an era that neither would have recognized or, likely, approved of.

REASONS TO SEE: Ronan and Robbie give wonderful performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Eschews historical accuracy for woke political messaging.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Tennant plays John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His father was the Moderator of the General Assembly for that church.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elizabeth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Grace

The Last Color


Being a woman in India is walking the tightrope between tradition and equality.

(2019) Drama (Saffron PenNeena Gupta, Aqsa Siddiqui, Budrani Chhetri, Rajeshwar Khanna, Aslam Sheikh. Directed by Vikas Khanna

 

India has an amazing culture with much to admire about it. One of the things that is an exception is in the way that women are treated, particularly widows and orphans. In many ways, Indian society is downright repressive to those who have few advocates.

Noor Saxena is one such advocate. A lawyer, she has wrangled a decision from India’s highest court that grants rights to widows that they have not had for centuries. In Indian tradition, widows only wear white. They live lives devoid of color – they are forbidden from taking part in the Holi festival that celebrates the oncoming of spring. You may know it as the one where people throw colored powders at one another in a frenzy of joyful fun. Widows don’t get to take part in that.

Chhoti (Siddiqui) is a street rat living in the slums of Benares, a Hindu holy city along the Ganges. She makes money by doing a tightrope act and selling flowers in the streets. She hopes one day to earn enough to go to school and rise above her station. She befriends 70-year-old Noor (Gupta), a widow living in an ashram for widows who live lives of colorless and passionless reflection. As with most widows, her life is expected to be over when her husband dies; her body is just walking around until she can join him.

Chhoti also hangs out with Chintu (R. Khanna), a fellow orphan who aids her in her high wire act. The two dodge police officers trying to make enough to survive. They are aided by transgender woman Anarkali (Chhetri) who supports herself as a sex worker, mainly catering to brutal men like Raja (Sheikh), an ill-tempered cop who sees himself as king of his little part of the world. He is doubly frustrated because his wife not only hasn’t given him a son (only daughters) but she refuses to bathe in a sacred pool which would guarantee the birth of a strapping young son. He passes through the world as kind of a rage junkie, always looking for a reason to cause pain.

Still, Chhoti never fails to stand up for herself and with Noor guiding her and pushing her to be better than her lot, she falls under the vengeful gaze of Raja, particularly after she witnesses the evil cop doing something particularly heinous, something that could get him thrown in jail. Will Noor defy tradition and stand with her friend?

The movie looks at cultural attitudes towards women in general and the more marginalized women – transgenders, widows and “untouchables” in particular – and the traditions that keep them down. First-time director Vikas Khanna has a wonderful eye for color; the movie is gorgeous to look at even in its occasional brutality and squalor.

Gupta also gives Noor a ton of dignity and gravitas, perhaps more than the movie deserves. It sometimes seems to move at a very deliberate pace which can be maddening; hammering us over the head with how widows and orphans are treated might get the point across but it also at times feels like we’re being talked down to. When you’re trying to deliver a message with your movie, that’s a pitfall you want to avoid.

Still, there is a lot here that is worth checking out. The movie had a brief Los Angeles run and may yet make some appearances elsewhere; there may even be a VOD slot in its future although nothing official has been announced as of yet. Either way, this is worth keeping an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful use of color throughout the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Rather slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, particularly of the domestic sort; also, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanna is best-known as a James Beard award-winning chef. The film is based on a novel that he wrote decrying the state of women’s rights in his home country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Klaus

Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil)


Girls on patrol.

(2018) War Drama (Cohen Media Group) Golshifteh Farahani, Emmanuelle Bercot, Zübeyde Bulut, Sinama Allevi, Mari Semidovi, Roza Mirzolani, Zinaida Gasolani, Maia Shamoevi, Nia Mirianashvili, Evin Ahmad, Ahmet Zirek, Erol Afsin, Nuka Asatiani, Behi Djanati Atal, Adik Bakoni, Tornike Alievi, Hamid Mirzolin, Farook Fadhil Hussein, Massoud Seydo, Kakha Kupatadze, Nino Osmanovi. Directed by Eva Husson

 

The Middle East has been ripped by conflict for decades now; the incursions of ISIS into Iraq and Syria only the recent chapter in a blood-soaked narrative. In 2015, news stories related the plight of women in Kurdistan who had been captured by ISIS, raped and sold into slavery; some of these escaped their captors and enlisted in the armed forces to fight back against their oppressors.

French journalist Mathilde (Bercot) is grieving for her husband who died in Libya months previously. She is not satisfied with her assignments, feeling they are not really telling the story of the atrocities going on. She hooks up with a platoon of women who have all survived capture by ISIS. They are led by the driven Bahar (Farahani), a former lawyer whose home town of Corduene is about to be the focus of an offensive by Kurdish forces.

Bahar and Mathilde bond as the French woman grows to admire the sisters of the battalion. Bahar is aware that her son (Alievi) remains in captivity in Corduene and looks to liberate him but is frustrated by an overly cautious commander (Zirek) who prefers to wait for the right time, unconcerned that time may be ticking away on the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Husson clearly is passionate about the plight of these women and at times that works against her; the dialogue (which she co-wrote) is often bombastic and ponderous, sounding like a Hemingway account of war if it had been ghost-written by Sidney Sheldon. The film could have used a lighter touch but rather hits the audience like a bludgeon, from the overwrought score to the flashbacks which are often confusing.

That aside, there’s plenty to like here. The cinematography is superb and the action sequences are satisfying. More importantly, Farahani proves herself to be an actress with serious potential. Her expressive face often communicates much more than the clunky dialogue does and Farahani displays an excess of screen presence. This might be looked back upon as the film in which Farahani shows star potential. Personally, I can’t wait to see her in more.

The story the film is trying to tell is an important one and a tragic one. It’s really hard to understand how any religion can justify the treatment of other human beings this way. I guess I’m just an ignorant infidel but certainly there are moments that will get any reasonably feeling audience member’s blood boiling. I wish that the story had been handled with a lot more finesse, however.

REASONS TO SEE: Farahani delivers a triumphant performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker comes on too strong with the portents of doom.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and some disturbing images, a bit of profanity and off-screen rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Husson became interested in the film after reading accounts of captive women escaping and taking up arms against ISIS. Because she had forged some strong relationships with Kurdish actors she’d toured with previously, the story resonated with her particularly.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Biggest Little Farm