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

Advertisements

Florence Foster Jenkins


Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

Singing is less a delight and more of an ordeal where Florence Foster Jenkins is concerned.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Kavanagh, Pat Starr, Maggie Steed, Thelma Barlow, Liza Ross, Paola Dionisotti, Rhoda Lewis, Aida Ganfullina. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

We are trained as a society to admire the talented. Those who try and fail fall much further down on our list of those to admire; that’s just the way we’re wired. We worship success; noble failures, not so much.

And then there are the ignoble failures. Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a matron of the arts in the New York City in the 1940s. She loves music with a passion that is unmatched. She even (modestly bows her head) sings a little, for which perhaps those around her should be grateful. Her voice is, shall we say, unmatched as well. It sounds a little bit of a combination of a cat whose tail has been stomped on, and Margaret Dumont with a bad head cold, neither of whom are on key or in tempo.

Mostly however she only inflicts her singing on her friends who are either too polite to point out that she really has a horrible singing voice, or on those who are depending on her largesse so they won’t risk offending her and that’s all right with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant), a failed actor who nonetheless has a very strong love for his wife, despite the fact that they never have sex  due to her contracting syphilis on her wedding night with her first husband, the philandering Dr. Jenkins.

Bayfield satisfies his carnal needs with a mistress (Ferguson) who is beginning to get dissatisfied with the arrangement. In the meantime, Florence has got a yen to perform at Carnegie Hall with her pianist the opportunistic Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) which Bayfield realizes could be an utter catastrophe. He takes great care to exclude legitimate music critics who are suspicious of the whole event. McMoon who at first is exploiting Florence with an eye for a regular salary begins to realize that she is a lonely woman who just wants to make music, even though she is thoroughly incapable of it. And there’s no denying her generosity of spirit as well as of the heart, but despite Bayfield’s efforts the carefully constructed bubble around Florence is certain to burst.

I wasn’t sure about this movie; it got almost no push from Paramount whatsoever despite having heavyweights like Streep in the cast and Frears behind the camera. Somehow, it just simply escaped notice and not because it’s an inferior film either; it’s actually, surprisingly, a terrific movie. Not all of us are blessed with talent in the arts; some of us have talents that have to do with making things, or repairing things, or cooking food, or raising children. Not all of us can be artists, as much as we may yearn to be. Some may remember William Hung from American Idol a few years ago; I’ll bet you’ll look at him a lot differently after seeing this.

Streep does her own singing and Helberg his own piano playing which is amazing in and of itself; both are talented musicians as well as actors. Streep is simply put the most honored and acclaimed actress of her generation, and that didn’t happen accidentally. This is another example of why she is so good at her craft; she captures the essence of the character and makes her relatable even to people who shouldn’t be able to relate to her. So instead of making her a figure of ridicule or pathos, she instead makes Mrs. Jenkins a figure of respect which I never in a million years thought it would be possible to do, but reading contemporary accounts of the would-be diva and her generosity, I believe that is exactly what the real Florence Foster Jenkins was.

Hugh Grant has never been better than he is here. He’s essentially retired from acting after a stellar career, but the stammering romantic lead is pretty much behind him now. He has matured as an actor and as a love interest. It’s certainly a different kind of role for him and he handles it with the kind of aplomb you’d expect from Britain’s handsomest man.

Frears isn’t too slavish about recreating the post-war Manhattan; there’s almost a Gilded Age feel to the piece which is about 50 years too early. Needless, he captures the essence of the story. We have a tendency to be a bit snobbish about music but the truth is that it should be for everybody. I don’t think I’d want to have a record collection full of Florence Foster Jenkins (the truth was that she made only one recording, which was more than enough – you can hear her actual voice during the closing credits) but I don’t think I’d want to laugh at her quite the way I did throughout the movie.

The truly odd thing is that yes, when we hear her sing initially about 30 minutes in, the immediate response is to break into howls of laughter but the more you hear her sing and the more of her story that is revealed, the less the audience laughs at her. Perhaps it’s because that you’ve become used to her tone-deaf phrasing, but I think in part is because you end up respecting her more than you do when you believe she’s a goofy dilettante who can’t sing a lick. Strangely enough, you begin to hear the love shining forth through her terrible technique and perhaps, you understand in that moment that music isn’t about perfect phrasing or even talent, although it is generally more pleasing to hear a musician that is talented than one that is not. What music is about is passion and love and if you have those things, well, you have something.

I won’t get flowery and say that Florence Foster Jenkins is a muse for the mediocre, which one might be tempted to say but she absolutely is not; the titular character is more correctly viewed as a muse for those who have the passion but lack the talent. She tries her best and just because she doesn’t have the tools to work with that a Lily Pons might have doesn’t make her music any less meaningful. It is beautiful in its own way and maybe that’s what we need to understand about people in general and how often does a movie give us insights like that?

REASONS TO GO: Streep is absolutely charming and Grant has never been better. Champions the underdog in an unusual way.
REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly sentimental.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grant was semi-retired from acting but was convinced to return in front of the cameras for the opportunity to act opposite Streep.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/416: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marguerite
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Anthropoid

Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

Tamara Drewe


The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood, Susan Wooldridge, Amanda Lawrence, Zahra Ahmadi, Cheryl Campbell. Directed by Stephen Frears

Thomas Hardy famously wrote that “you can’t go home again.”  I have always taken that to mean that when you leave your home, your journey elsewhere changes you or time changes your home. Either way when you return the changes made to you, the place you call home or both leave it an entirely different experience altogether.

Tamara Drewe (Arterton) left the quiet Dorset village of Ewedown to seek her fortune as a journalist in London. She left an ugly duckling with a nose large enough to put off the village boys (except for one) from being friendly with her; she returns a beautiful swan, not only having found success in her career but a skilled plastic surgeon as well.

She’s returned to sell the home she grew up in after her mum passed away. But not only has Tamara changed, Ewedown has as well. It has become home to a writer’s colony, set up by bestselling crime author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) but mainly administered by his tolerant wife Beth (Greig). Nicholas is a bit too busy philandering to really take an interest in it.

Tamara’s arrival as far as Nicholas is concerned means one more pair of panties to get inside but to others in the village, it means a different thing altogether. For Andy (Evans), the boy we spoke of earlier who was the only one to be romantically drawn to Tamara, it means a second chance to be with the woman he loves (but it also means additional income as Tamara hires him to help get the house in order for the sale). For local teens Jody (Barden) and Casey (Christie) it means someone else to torment and another life to investigate. Jody in particular has it in for Tamara because she has been having an affair (after Nicholas has come and gone) with rock drummer Ben Sargeant (Cooper) whom Jody has a huge crush on. And for aspiring writer Glen McCreavy (Camp) who has come to Dorset from America to immerse himself in Hardy and perhaps find a muse, it is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Beth whom he slowly becomes infatuated with – it must be the scratch-baked pastries.

All in all, there will be meddling, secrets revealed, tragedy, comedy and frankly, a lot of people getting what they deserve. But what would Thomas Hardy think?

Frears is a marvelous director who often looks at the libidinous nature of life and finds humor in it. He directed one of my favorite all-time films in High Fidelity as well as some pretty high quality efforts in My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He shows a good sensibility for capturing the rhythms and quirks of English country life here, largely due to an intelligent and well-written script by Moira Buffini.

Arterton has been developing an impressive resume of both big-budget tentpole films and more intimate indies and dramas. Here she’s mostly required to be sexy, which she is amply qualified for. While she receives top billing, the movie really isn’t about Tamara. Tamara is more of a catalyst.

Frears has wisely cast a group of actors who don’t necessarily have a lot of name value (although Cooper and Evans are both building respectable careers) but are entirely capable. Greig in particular does extremely well in the sympathetic role of Beth who manages to be kind and supportive even though she is no fool and is perfectly aware that her husband is a rotten human being.

The film is high on charm albeit low on insight. This isn’t a movie to turn to when you want to learn something new about human nature, although if you lack experience in such you might sing a different tune. To be honest, there are definitely many films out there (including by Frears himself) that capture the foibles and quagmires of love more succinctly.

The one real misstep in the script is a fairly major one – the characters of Jody and Casey. While they do cause some of the major plot points to occur, in all honesty every time they take the screen as a kind of Greek chorus, they tend to summarize what’s going on with each of the characters that they are in the midst of investigating. The movie loses what momentum it has when this occurs and could have done better without them.

For me, this was a movie that while charming is ultimately full of empty calories. The pastries that Beth bake are from scratch, crafted with love and honest ingredients. The film however feels store-bought in a lot of ways. Me, I would rather enjoy something home baked than something out of a box.

WHY RENT THIS: Superb performance by Greig. A great deal of charm. Captures rural English village life in the 21st century perfectly. Intelligently written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight. Jody and Casey tend to stop the film in its tracks when they are onscreen.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original graphic novel by Posy Simmonds was itself a collection of comic strips originally published in the UK newspaper The Guardian and was a modern re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy classic Far From the Madding Crowd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a discussion with Frears and Arterton on how the graphic novel was transformed into a film and some of the differences therein.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.9M on an unreported production budget; this was very likely a solidly profitable film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Great Gatsby (2013)

High Fidelity


High Fidelity

This is my movie and these are my people.

(2000) Romance (Touchstone) John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

John Cusack is one of those actors who is quirky, engaging, charming, occasionally irascible but always interesting to watch. In short, a young Jack Nicholson. From time to time, Cusack will produce small-budget films on his own that are generally paid for by his appearances in big-buck extravaganzas such as Con Air. Like Cusack himself, these less fiscally ambitious movies are nearly always quirky yet endearing and generally include his sister Joan in some capacity (see Grosse Pointe Blank).

In High Fidelity he plays Rob Gordon, who owns an eclectic record store in Chicago that actually sells records, and by that I mean vinyl. The store specializes in classic rock and soul and indie rock. Gordon has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), who left him to take up with a New Age ex-hippie named Ian (Robbins). While Gordon’s store employees – the loud, rude and opinionated Barry (Black) and the soft-spoken music nerd Dick (Louiso) – try to keep the store running (such as it does; the store is nearly broke), Gordon is busy trying to figure out why he keeps getting dumped.

A compulsive list-maker, Gordon seeks out the girlfriends responsible for his top five worst breakups in an effort to discover why they chose someone else over him.

Cusack imbues Gordon with complexity. He yearns for stability and contentment, but always sabotages himself with the wrong impulses just when those goals seem attainable. Moody, temperamental, a musical snob and more than a little bit of a jerk, Gordon is nonetheless sympathetic. He admires excellence (particularly in music) and champions the underdog without fail, which is why he sells vinyl, a sort of Don Quixote of music retail. He smokes compulsively, talks to the camera like it’s a confessional and plunges into all situations without fear. It may sound awful on paper, but Cusack is likable enough to pull it off.

To his advantage, Cusack surrounds himself with a great cast. Black and Louiso are hysterical as his employees. Sister Joan is her usual acerbic self as a mutual friend to the estranged couple. Robbins shows flair as the new boyfriend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is lustrous in an uncredited cameo as Charlie (one of Cusack’s top five)and indie film queen Taylor, as another one of Cusack’s list, lends cachet. Bruce Springsteen even cameos as himself, displaying a heretofore unrevealed knack for the craft.

This was pretty much Jack Black’s break-out performance. It was from here that he went on to get leading roles and it’s easy to see why. His on-screen charisma is simply astonishing here. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, culminating in a stunning performance of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” in the final reel. He’s manic, hysterically funny and infectious in this role which has to be considered one of the best performances of his career.

As a rock critic for an independent alternative weekly for six years, I can tell you that this is MY film and these are my people. Director Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears wisely lets Cusack take center stage, letting the rest of the performers play off him and build their performances off of him. Cusack takes up a ton of screen time – he’s in almost every scene – so if he’s not your cup of tea, you should probably pass on this one. Still, there are some great laughs herein (particularly the scene in which Cusack and Robbins meet face-to-face in the record store), a lot of insight into why we mess up our relationships, and an awesome soundtrack, much of which was selected for the film by Cusack himself.

The film began life as a novel by Nick Hornby (from whose pen also spawned About a Boy). That was set originally in Hornby’s native London but was transplanted to Chicago by Cusack who co-wrote the script. I think the shift works really well; the action seems germane to the Windy City setting and one gets a sense of life among Midwestern hipsters. Chicago has always been a center for musical trendsetting and separate from L.A. or New York is a far more grounded location, making for more down-to-earth kind of realism rather than a boatload of trendies struggling to be the first to the Next Big Thing.

High Fidelity didn’t do killer box office, but it shouldn’t be overlooked among the wave after wave of teen sex comedies, self-indulgent Oscar leftovers, event movies and niche films that populate the video store. It’s a well-written, enjoyable movie that will be on your mind long after you turn off the TV slash computer slash smart phone.

WHY RENT THIS: Killer soundtrack. Fine script and excellent performances by Black, Louiso, Hjejle and both Cusacks. Some laugh-out-loud moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Cusack you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexuality and a lot of four-letter words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The location of Rob’s store Championship Vinyl used to be a Wax Trax record store, the retail outlet for the influential Chicago-based Industrial and Punk label.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Wanderlust

The Queen


The Queen

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip feel the love.

(2006) Drama  (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory, Roger Allam, Tim McMullan, Douglas Reith, Robin Soans, Mark Bazeley, Earl Cameron, John McGlyn, Lola Peploe, Pat Laffan. Directed by Stephen Frears

Queen Elizabeth II of England is one of the most public figures of the last half-century, but how little we know her. For most of us, she is this cold, unemotional creature more or a figure than a real person. Few have been allowed inside the inner sanctum of her heart.

One of the most emotional weeks in recent British history was the week following the untimely death of Diana, the former Princess of Wales in 1997. Tony Blair (Sheen) had just been elected Prime Minister and had met, along with his bemused wife Cherie (McCrory),  with Queen Elizabeth (Mirren) just prior for the royal family’s departure to their summer estate at Balmoral in Scotland. It was there that they were given the awful news of the car accident in Paris and anxiously watched the BBC through the night like the rest of us until the final word was received. 

Elizabeth’s first thought was to Diana’s sons, Harry and William, who were understandably devastated. She had been trained to treat the tragedy as a private matter for the family, with dignity and public stoicism befitting the monarch of the realm, a decision supported by her husband Prince Phillip (Cromwell) and the Queen Mother (Syms). However, Blair, who was the first to publicly speak about the tragedy, was disturbed to find that there was increasing sentiment that the British people wanted – needed – to hear their monarch speak on the issue, whereas the Royal family were loathe to do so, resisting more the harder he pushed. Prince Charles (Jennings), the ex-husband of Diana, was somewhat weak but still understood what was happening politically. Nonetheless, the family stayed in Balmoral in seclusion until Blair had to demand that the Queen return to London to be with her subjects. There she would at last be forced to address the issue and allow her subjects to publically grieve with her, one of the most extraordinary turn of events in recent British history. 

There are some terrific performances here, particularly Mirren who once again turns in an Oscar-caliber performance as Elizabeth. She’s been nominated twice for a Supporting Actress (in 1995 and again in 2002) but this would be the movie that finally got her the statuette. She portrays Elizabeth as a stoic, highly private person who is slow to realize that the world has changed and her role as monarch needed to change with it. She captures the queen’s mannerisms nicely, and breathes life into a personage that is somewhat two-dimensional, at least here in America. In the end, she adapts to her new role with admirable graciousness which seems to be in character with the woman Mirren was portraying. 

Cromwell does a terrific job as Phillip, playing him as a cantankerous and stuffy aristocrat whose belief in the rightness of his cause blinds him to the damage he is doing to his own position. In many ways his portrayal is exactly the way most Americans see the aristocracy of Europe as somewhat prissy, arrogant and bone-headed, refusing to enter the 21st century even as time has passed their sort by. Whether or not this is accurate is subject to debate; however, many Americans share this view which has been reinforced often in films and television.

Sheen is sympathetic as Blair, who is at first in awe of the Royals, then grows frustrated by them and at last comes to admire them. Blair – who would have his own fall from grace later in his career – was then the fair-haired boy of British politics (the Hugh Grant character in Love Actually was modeled on him somewhat) and his actions during the crisis of Diana’s death cemented him in the hearts of the British people for years. Sheen captures Blair’s political savvy and his somewhat awkward self-consciousness in the presence of the Royals. Much of the movie is seen through his eyes, and quite frankly it’s an effective way of acting as an audience surrogate.

Frears gives us what feels like a real glimpse into the royal household, albeit one that is largely conjecture. For example, there is a sequence involving Elizabeth’s encounter with a magnificent buck in the countryside at Balmoral which follows her most emotional scene of the movie. It is lit in almost a heavenly manner, and one gets the feeling that there is more to it than meets the eye. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if anything of the sort ever happened, and if it did, well, the Queen isn’t talking. Then again, perhaps this movie is talking for her. Mirren’s performance elevates it from what could have been movie-of-the-week territory to something more splendid.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare glimpse into the Royal household, even if much of it is conjecture. An Oscar-winning career-defining performance by Mirren, as well as solid performances by Cromwell and Sheen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit on the slow side, pacing-wise.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of strong language and a disturbing image of a dead buck.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mirren had so inhabited the role of the Queen that by the end of the shoot, slouching crew members would often stand at attention and hold their hands respectfully behind their backs when addressing Mirren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: While commentary tracks are standard with nearly every DVD and Blu-Ray these days, there is one here by monarchy expert and British historian Robert Lacey that provides a great deal of illumination not only to the traditions of the royal family but also to what happened during tht week in particular.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $123.4M on an unreported production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Source Code

Cheri


Cheri

A transcendent moment of idyllic loveliness; Ah, La Belle Epoque!

(2009) Drama (Miramax) Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathy Bates, Rupert Friend, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Iben Hjejle, Stephen Frears (voice). Directed by Stephen Frears

It is not unusual for Hollywood to portray May-December romances. It’s just usually that May is the woman and December the man.

In the waning days of La Belle Epoch (the early 20th century in France), retired courtesan Lea de Lonval (Pfeiffer) has taken herself a lover. That lover is the son of her close friend (and fellow retired courtesan) Madame Peloux (Bates), christened as Fred but known to all as Cheri (Friend), which is the French word for “darling.”

Cheri is a bit of a project, somewhat indolent, occasionally cruel in the thoughtless way of youth, desperate for a firm, guiding hand. Perfect for the role would be Lea, 25 years his senior and someone whom he has known and adored all his life. With his mother’s tacit approval, they embark on an affair that lasts six years.

After that, Cheri announces that his mother has arranged a marriage for him with the comely but terminally naïve Edmee (Jones). Lea is devastated. The affair had been a languid one of beauty and sunlight, something that she has come to need much more than she thought she might. As for Cheri, it’s just the end of a chapter as far as he’s concerned. Like many young men, he doesn’t recognize what a rare and precious gem is in his possession until it’s already fallen down the drainpipe.

Director Frears has experience with lush period pieces in Dangerous Liaisons (which co-starred Pfeiffer) and Mrs. Henderson Presents but also more recently-set classics like The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette and my personal favorite High Fidelity. This is right in his comfort zone, with a witty script, gorgeous cinematography and a fine cast.

His best move was hiring Pfeiffer for the role. Pfeiffer is playing her age here and while she looks much younger, her eyes tell a different story. She is still regally beautiful, but from time to time you catch a hint of doubt and sadness in those eyes, a knowledge that a beautiful epoch is coming to an end, and her own beauty will soon betray her. It’s marvelous work and re-affirms that Pfeiffer is perhaps the most underrated actress of her era.

The movie is based on a novel by the iconic French author Colette which in turn is loosely based on her own affair with her stepson. The novel extolled the virtues of Lea’s strength and pointed out rather vividly Cheri’s weaknesses. Unfortunately I only managed to plough through the first third of the book – she’s not my literary cup of tea, although I can say that she is a tremendous writer, one who should be better known on these shores except that she flouted the morality of her times and was quite scandalous (she was bisexual in an age when that simply wasn’t tolerated).

My issue with the movie – and the book as well – is that Cheri is so venal, so whiny and unlikable that it is impossible to see Lea falling for him the way she does. Yes, he’s handsome in a boyish way, and has all the youthful vigor that goes with it, but in the end I kept asking myself if someone as obviously cultured, intelligent and self-possessed as Lea de Lonval would find such a strong emotional bond for someone so obviously childish and wantonly cruel? I know a lot of women who have the same qualities as Lea and I can say with great certainty that they are generally not attracted to immaturity regardless of how pretty a package it comes wrapped up in. Then again, I’ve known some very smart, capable and beautiful women to make some incredibly dumb choices when it comes to romance.

Despite its flaws, the movie is still worth seeing if for no other reason for Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance and the lovely expression of an age long gone by. Like a shaft of sunlight on a late autumn afternoon with the threat of dark winter in the wind, it is a golden moment of glorious loveliness that is there so briefly before going the way of all things so fragile.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous period photography and a clever script make this a feast for eyes and ears. Pfeiffer is magnificent as always in her role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheri is just so damned insufferable that you wonder how anyone, particularly as intelligent and cultured as Lea de Lonval, could fall for him.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality and a bit of drug use; not suitable for most young family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Lea de Lonval was originally meant for Jessica Lange when this project first started development back in the 1990s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.3M on a production budget of $23M; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Young Victoria