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

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Jupiter Ascending


Star-crossed lovers...literally.

Star-crossed lovers…literally.

(2015) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Hogg, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D’Arcy, Jeremy Swift, Vanessa Kirby. Directed by the Wachowskis

The vastness of space seems to lend itself to stories that are epic. After all, a character study seems to lose focus when confronted with the vast nature of the cosmos. That doesn’t mean, however, that science fiction doesn’t have room for well-developed characters.

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is living a life that she probably wouldn’t have chosen for herself. A house cleaner with relatives on her mother’s (Kennedy) side, she was born in mid-Atlantic after her mother fled Russia on the occasion of the murder of her husband (D’Arcy) – an astronomer studying in Russia – by Russian criminals.

She wakes up before dawn and spends most of her time wondering if this is all there is. When a particularly enterprising cousin urges her to sell her eggs for the money she needs to buy a telescope, something that would be a precious legacy from her ad, she goes for it. But for some strange reason, the surgical team wants to kill her. And they would have, too, if not for the intervention of Caine Wise (Tatum).

Wise, a genetically spliced humanoid of both human and canine genes, is a bred warrior who wears gravity boots that allow him to soar in an approximation of flight, although he has to move like a demented speed skater in order to use them properly. He takes Jupiter to the home of Stinger (Bean), likewise a spliced warrior sort and there Jupiter learns the truth; her genes are an exact match for the matriarch of an enormously wealthy and powerful family. They own whole planets that have been seeded with humanoids, using the genetic material once harvested to extend the lives of the very wealthy (like themselves). Three of the matriarch’s children – eldest son Balem (Redmayne) who owns the Earth and seems slightly psychotic, middle son Titus (Booth) who is something of a playboy, and youngest daughter Kalique (Middleton) who is ambitious, are all plotting to gain control of Jupiter with Balem wanting to kill her altogether because she, as the genetic duplicate of his mother, would receive the rights to all of the children’s fortunes.

This is all a bit much for Jupiter and if she feels like a pawn in an enormous game, well, that’s just because she is. However, Jupiter isn’t the frightened weakling the Abrasax family seems to think she is and before long, with Caine by her side and the support of the galactic police force, she may yet see this through. However, the Abrasax heirs with the stakes so high won’t play by any particular set of rules.

The Wachowskis who made their reputation on creating a world familiar and yet not in the Matrix trilogy, have attempted to create a detailed and lush environment on a gigantic planet, with a budget said to be in the $165 million range. There is a whole lot of that on the screen, because the special effects here are as good as any you’ll see this year and likely to get a nomination for next year’s Oscars although they’ll have to compete with the new Star Wars episode in that category. Bummer.

The problem here is that the story is so complicated and there is so much back stabbing and about facing going on that it’s hard to follow along. While you’re attempting to follow along you’re also treated to visuals that are so incredible and detailed that it’s really hard to take it in. This is a movie that’s built for repeated viewings.

The performances run the gamut. Tatum, who has matured into a pretty decent actor with a great deal of potential ahead after being somewhat wooden at the beginning of his career, helps make this film enjoyable. Caine is often mystified by the behavior of others and while he is quick with the “your majesty” and deference, he also is quite willing to take a chunk out of an entitled jerkwad if the occasion calls for it. Kunis is also quite the capable actress but here she’s a bit frustrating. She is definitely a damsel in distress here, not projecting much strength or wisdom on her own; she has these incredible genes that apparently the galaxy has been searching for but no genetic gifts. While I understand she was raised in the working class as a housekeeper (and why doesn’t she have a Russian accent like the rest of her family?) there should be something else there, don’t you think? This is where the character development thing comes in handy.

Redmayne, who is in the running for an Oscar this weekend, plays this role like he won the part in a reality show. It’s truly mystifying because we’re all aware what a terrific actor he can be, but he speaks in such a murmur it’s often difficult to make out what he’s saying, before erupting into Pacino-like shouts whenever his character gets frustrated. If it’s meant to convey that Belem is psychotic, well, yeah but psychotic in an “I eat spiders” kind of way rather than as a devious, dangerous villain. More like a petulant child. “The Earth is mine,” he says at one point and I half expected him to stomp his feet and shriek “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

Enormous space craft cruise majestically through space and there is that epic quality to the movie that I think is intentional, but there is also kind of a glacial quality that I think is not. Yes, there are some pretty good action sequences (including a chase sequence near the beginning of the film set in Chicago) but the kinetics of those sequences don’t continue throughout the movie; the momentum that is built up by the action just falls to the floor like a dead fish.

I really wanted to like this film. Heck, I really wanted to love this film – I respect the Wachowskis as film makers and have admired their films from the beginning of their career back in Bound and even including Cloud Atlas which didn’t receive a lot of love from critics and audience alike but I thought was one of the top movies of 2012 although in the interest of full disclosure, I was much more a fan of the sequences directed by Tom Tykwer than I was of those directed by the Wachowskis.

This will not make my list of top films this year, although it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s just an intimidating one, full of sound and fury but I’m not quite sure what was signified here. It’s not nothing, though. That I can tell you for sure.

REASONS TO GO: State-of-the-art eye candy. Tatum manages to perform well in a goofy role.
REASONS TO STAY: Head-scratching performance by Oscar-nominated Redmayne. Convoluted story.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence and space battle action, some sexually suggestive content and some partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally supposed to be released on June 20, 2014 but was delayed eight months so that the special effects could get more time and detail in post production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chronicles of Riddick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingsman: The Secret Service

The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog

For every princess, there must be a prince, frog or not.

(2009) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings, Bruno Campos, Randy Newman, Emeril Lagasse, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Michael-Leon Wooley. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Once upon a time, all animation was hand drawn in a painstaking process that took years for each feature to be completed. However, computers not only made the process faster, allowing for more animated features to be created every year, those who were more programmers than artists created an onslaught of computer animation that had little soul and nothing much to recommend them while still doing great box office. The days of hand-drawn animation seemingly at an end, Disney shut down its pen and ink division and decided to go full time to computer animation. When their own in-house efforts yielded less-than-stellar results, Disney wound up buying Pixar (whose films they had distributed from the get-go) and installing their chief, John Lassiter, in charge of Disney’s entire animated division, including Pixar.

But Lassiter did a funny thing for a computer guy; he re-instated the traditional animation department, hiring back many of the animators who had been let go. Their first effort is this take on “The Frog Prince” only with a distaff sensibility.

Tiana (Rose) is a young waitress in jazz-age New Orleans with a dream. She wants to open up her own restaurant where she can serve up her daddy’s gumbo recipe, with just a dash of hot sauce. Her daddy (Howard) died in the Great War, leaving her and her momma (Winfrey) to care for each other. Tiana’s ditzy best friend, Charlotte LaBouff (Cody) and her doting dad (Goodman) are out to get Charlotte a prince, and when one drops in her lap, she’s ecstatic.

That Prince is Naveen (Campos) from the impoverished country of Moldonia. He needs to wed a rich lady to help restore the empty coffers of the Moldonian treasury but quite frankly, Naveen is more interested in playing music and letting Le Bon Tomps Roullez in the French Quarter. He also attracts the attention of the evil and nefarious Dr. Facillier (David) a.k.a. the Shadow Man, who casts a voodoo spell on the Prince, turning him into a frog while his soul is transferred into the body of Naveen’s manservant/butler/attaché Lawrence (Bartlett) who would then hand over control of the money and Moldonia to the evil Doc.

In desperation, Naveen tries to find a princess to kiss him and restore him to his former shape, but mistakes Tiana, dressed up for the engagement party of her friend Charlotte, for a princess and the kiss only turns Tiana into a fellow amphibian. Chased by Dr. Facillier who needs the frog prince to refill his magical potion that keeps Lawrence in the form of Naveen, Tiana and Naveen head to the swamp where they meet up with allies of their own; the practical firefly Ray (Cummings), the trumpet-playing crocodile Louis (Wooley) and his buddies (Lagasse, Newman) as well as Mama Odie (Lewis), a voodoo priestess who perhaps alone can reverse the curse of Dr. Facillier.

Is this a return to the form that saw Disney create classic after classic in the 90s? Yes and no. While this doesn’t quite measure up to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it’s much better than recent attempts such as Home on the Range or Brother Bear. As a matter of fact, while it doesn’t hit the high notes that Pixar’s movies tend to, it’s still a pretty solid effort.

Rose makes for a feisty princess, the kind that Disney can easily market not only to young African American girls but to the legions of princess-happy tots whose parents deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into Disney’s coffers. The cast has a great deal of energy, particularly Cummings, Cody and Wooley, and the movie barrels along at a jolly pace.

The New Orleans locale is inspired, albeit this is something of a fantasy Big Easy, but it’s recognizable nonetheless. New Orleans is the kind of city that has enough mystery and romance that other cities can only hope for; only New York and San Francisco among American cities have the kind of cachet that the Crescent City possesses, and the jazz age New Orleans is something special again.

There are some passable musical numbers but oddly enough, many of them bring the movie to a grinding halt as the characters go into a song and dance routine that temporarily halts the story’s progression. Personally, I might have cut two or three of the numbers, but I might be in the minority on this one; certainly kids will love the brassy, jazzy music that has a touch of modern hip-hop, gospel and even rock and roll on the edge. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s Disney.

And yet, in a very real way, it is. This is very much the kind of movie that Disney was making ten years ago to great success and had it been released then, it might well be considered a classic on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid. Even so, it is better than most of the Disney releases before and after that incredible run in the last decade, and marks a welcome return of an art form that was certainly on the endangered list. For that accomplishment alone, regardless of the social implications of an African-American princess (which are certainly important in their own right), this movie deserves a respectful audience, who will be rewarded with a rollicking good time.

WHY RENT THIS: The first hand-drawn Disney animation in six years is worth celebrating; it is also a return to form for an artform that has widely lost its luster with the explosion of computer animation which Pixar helped usher in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Two many musical numbers stops the films momentum dead in its tracks from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences – c’mon, it’s DISNEY, you know.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is this the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess, it is the first to feature a left-handed princess (Rose is also left-handed and she requested that the animators make her character the same).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes featurettes on the history of Disney Princesses and how the newest one fits in. There is also an interactive game for the kids, as well as a music video of Ne-Yo’s “Never Knew I Needed You.” All in all, chock full of goodies as is the way Disney normally does things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $267M on a production budget of $105M; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Morning Glory