Movie: The United Kingdom

 

The United Kingdom

United Kingdom is a good but not a great movie and along the way will give you some interesting history of Botswana that I suspect many people are unaware of.  David Oyelowo stars as Seretse Khama, a prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) who is studying in England in 1947 when he is called upon to return to his homeland to be King.  Unfortunately, he has met a white woman, Ruth Williams, played by Rosamund Pike and the two quickly fall in love.  Khama proposes to her and the British government gets wind of it and together with his uncle (who seems be the interim ruler) work their hardest to keep the couple from marrying.  Neither believe that a mixed marriage will advance their respective agendas in Bechuanaland.

They are unsuccessful and Khama and Ruth go to Africa as a married couple not supported by either the Brits, who do not come off well in this story, or the tribe.  Khama is subsequently exiled by somewhat nefarious means and Ruth stays behind so she too can’t be exiled.  There isn’t much doubt as to what the outcome will be yet Oyelowo and Pike are quite good and have a quiet chemistry.  Oyelowo gets the great speeches but Pike is fine as the suffering wife.  Together they are believable.  United Kingdom is a film you’ll certainly find enjoyable and historically interesting but it won’t win any Oscars.  The father we get from awards season, the less we seem to have good choices at the theater so this film is perfectly good way to spend an afternoon or evening.

TV: The Young Pope, Legion, Planet Earth II, Bates Motel

I have been remiss in my TV updates but there have been a few interesting finales and premiers over the last couple of weeks with even more coming over March and April as spring TV ramps up.

Season Finales:

The Young Pope (HBO)

I watched the entire mini-series of the young pope and I’m not sure I could explain it to anyone.  Jude Law was fantastic; the costumes magnificent and I loved it every time Dianne Keaton opened her mouth (and even when she was speechless).  Law, plays Lenny Belardo who becomes Pope Pius XIII under questionable circumstances, begins his reign as a smug, condescending outsider who spies on his enemies and generates a high level of arrogance (remind you of anyone?).  Along the line, he questions his belief in God and has multiple strange visions.  Almost every day is spent trying to come to terms with the parents who abandoned him as a child and wondering about their whereabouts.

We wind our way through the season there are probably more bad moments than good but even the bad ones are so weirdly strange and beautifully shot that I was reeled in.  We don’t know what Lenny’s actual beliefs are as they change constantly while becoming one of the world’s greatest tyrants.  The biggest issue I had with the show is that there was a real lack of character development that prevented us from understanding anyone’s motivations.  If there is a second season, I’ll give it a try as Law is mesmerizing. 

Series Premier

Legion (FX)

Legion recently premiered as the latest in a series of Marvel comics coming to life on the small screen.  Apparently, this character (David Haller) is a very minor character in the Marvel world and he is clearly disturbed, teetering between schizophrenia and some type of specialized mental power.  The premier was 1 ½ hours and most of it was like a 1960s-acid trip.  The weirdest thing I have ever seen.

The second episode was not quite so trippy but a lot is happening.   Dan Stevens (Downton Abby) plays David Haller, a diagnosed schizophrenic since he was a child.  The government thinks that he is perhaps the most powerful mutant ever so interrogates him until he is rescued by a couple of women that were in the psych hospital (“Clockworks” don’t you love it) with him.  They bring David to Dr. Bird (Jean Smart) who tries to make him healthy and happy again so that he can be used in the war against the government.  In the interim, there are lots of flashbacks, evil stuff, powers moving from one person to the next and general craziness but if you like the Marvel Universe, this kind of pulls you in.  I’ll try to stick with it until I’m so confused I must give up which is what usually happens with my forays into the Marvel universe.

Planet Earth II (BBC America)

What is not to love about this magnificent look at Nature with the inspiring new score by Hans Zimmer and perfect narration by the marvelous David Attenborough.  I have seen Mountains and Islands and can’t wait for more.  Spectacularly done with the most amazing technical advances that put the series in a difference orbit than even the original Planet Earth, you can only wonder if this is the last we will see of many of the species shown.  With only a handful (7) of episodes there is absolutely no excuse not to see this and anyone who doesn’t believe that man is destroying this world should watch the show.  It is extraordinary.

Bates Motel (A&E)

I love this series and particularly the acting.  It stars Vera Fermiga and Freddie Highmore and is a prequel to Pschyo.  Last year’s finale found Norman murdering his mother and finally, we have him in full “psycho” mode.  I wasn’t sure how Vera Fermiga would be able to continue in this final season that recently started but Carleton Cuse and the Bates team have brought her back to life in a creative way.  It is harder to integrate Norman’s brother (Dylan) and Olivia Cooke into the story as they moved away and have no relationship with Norman but the writers are trying.  While one part of me wants them back in the action, the other part knows that this would be a very bad thing for their survival and after all they have been through, I don’t want them killed by Mr. Psycho.  Also back is Norma’s sexual predator brother who comes back to town.  Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is in jail and again, trying to keep him connected to Norman is difficult but I love every scene he is in.

I’m enjoying every minute of the last season of Bates Motel and wish Fermiga and Hightower would get the Emmy recognition they deserve for this little gem of a show.

When We Rise (ABC miniseries)

When We Rise is the history of the Gay Rights movement and teams together again the powerful combination of Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black who respectively directed and wrote Milk.  It follows several real-life people (particularly Cleve Jones who also was an important figure in the movement and has a major role in the movie Milk) who converged on San Francisco in the 1970s and continued the Gay Rights movement up through DOMA.  The series is playing all this week and while the last few hours might not be that interesting to people, I find that the first couple of episodes covering the 1970s and 80s are particularly good.

 

Books: The Tumbling Turner Sisters” and “The Aftermath”

 

The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

I listened to this book on CDs in the car.  When I do audio books while driving, I’m not looking for anything “heavy” and the Tumbling Sisters was certainly light enough as to not distract me from the crazies on the road.  It is the story of several sisters who form an acrobatic troop in the 1920s and start out on the East Coast Vaudeville circuit.  They are forced to do this because of their father injures his hand in a brawl and is no longer able to work.  The family is always one paycheck from eviction in upstate NY so their mother decides to have the girls learn to tumble in order to try and make money.  We have Nell, a widow with a small boy, Gert, an independent soul who wants to be out on her own, Winnie, a nurse’s aid who loves science and wants to go to college and Kit, the youngest (her character is never flushed out in the book).

The plot is predictable as the chapters alternate between Winnie and Gert and their perspectives on life.   Slowly but surely, the Turners climb the rungs of Vaudeville moving from small towns to larger ones with bigger venues and greater purses.  Of course, the older girls find love, one in an interracial relationship, and their mother flirts her way through the many towns they travel through.  Along the way, there are historical references including “Blackface” acts; the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; Boston’s Great Molasses Flood; Woman’s suffrage and the Seven Sister’s colleges.  The novel’s last big scene involves the Seattle Lincoln Hotel Fire.  While these references are interesting, there is not enough depth to them or Vaudeville for my liking.

This is a straight forward novel and the ending won’t be a surprise to readers.  It is a relatively fast paced and reasonably interesting story.  You won’t be any worse off for reading it, will learn a little about life in Vaudeville and if you are looking for this type of fiction, you should enjoy the book.  If you would like some more depth for your novels, look elsewhere.

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

The Aftermath provides a glimpse into life in Germany, specifically Hamburg, in the period immediately after WWII.  The author is British as are the main characters (a British colonel and his family) who are assigned to the British zone in the war’s “aftermath”.  The author’s own grandfather was the British governor of the Hamburg district so he knows of what he writes.  Like the character in the book, Brook’s grandfather allowed the German family in whose house he resided to stay.

I found the book predictable in terms of the various romances although the ending was a bit disjointed.  The author seemed to do slightly better with the male character development than the female.  I never thought the female lead, Rachel Morgan, the Colonel’s wife, acted in a way that made sense given what we knew about her.  I also thought that a third major plotline about the orphan boys who roamed Hamburg trying to survive using black market cigarettes was not as well integrated into the story as it could have been.  The author apparently wrote the book with a movie in mind and it shows in the writing.

The Aftermath is a good introduction (or reminder) of life in post-war Germany in an area that not many readers are probably aware of.  The book cried out for a prologue that could have explained more of the background so that when the reader embarks on the 1946 “aftermath”, they have some knowledge of what led to the destruction of the city.  Hamburg was bombed in 1943 in a raid which caused the loss of 40,000 lives and the displacement of over one million people.  It was often referred to as the “Hiroshima” of the West.  I ‘m glad I read the book and I’m looking forward to the seeing the movie which stars Keira Knightly as Rachel Morgan and Alexandar Skarsgard as the German architect and owner of the home the Morgans are staying in.

Movies: I am not Your Negro and 50 Shades Darker

 

I recognize that one couldn’t have two more opposite films than the Award winning and Oscar nominated “I am Not Your Negro” and the potentially Razzie Award -sweeping “50 Shades Darker” but that’s what I saw this week.  My only excuse is that I like variety in my film viewing and these two films couldn’t be more different!

I am Not Your Negro

“I am not Your Negro” is an Oscar nominated documentary that is based on a thirty-page unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin which focuses on his relationships with Medgar Evans, Martin Luther King and Malcom X.  The documentary, directed by Raoul Peck, explores not only Baldwin’s view of the world at the time in his written word (read eloquently by Samuel L. Jackson) but as articulated by the author in an interview on the Dick Cavett Show. Not only does Peck capture Baldwin’s views but he intersperses historical footage from the sixties with that of modern day Ferguson and the Black Lives Matters movement to provide a chronology of how American history has created the racial divisions so fundamental to our everyday existence.

Personally, I found the footage of Dick Cavett to be fascinating.  For those of us who remember the show, Cavett was the intellectual liberal of the talk show circuit at the time.  He invited many authors and scholars to dialog with him and to hear him asking Baldwin about “the Negro” was disturbing.  For those who are unfamiliar with Baldwin, he was a brilliant author and paragon of the Civil Rights movement in the sixties.  I read several of his works in high school along with many of the authors referenced in the film.  He was also gay as mentioned briefly by J. Edgar Hoover in the segment where we realized that the FBI was building quite a file on Baldwin.  While “I am not Your Negro” provides a short glimpse into his life, this film made me wish for a more comprehensive biography.

As American navigate through the serious racial divides in this country, “I am Not Your Negro” reinforces why despite Civil Rights gains and an African American President, the history of Black enslavement, suppression and racism can’t be forgotten nor minimized in the Black psyche.  The scenes of segregation and violence towards African Americans in this film won’t allow the viewer to think that it can. The film won’t let whites be oblivious to the history and focus only on their perceptions of racism in today’s world.  This history defines we are and every white American should watch it to help  understand the current environment.  It is timely and important.

50 Shades Darker

The original “50 Shades of Grey” wasn’t horrible.  It had a female Director (Sam Taylor-Johnson), a professional screenwriter who could work around the book’s dreadful dialogue and the emergence of a fresh new face (Dakota Johnson) who gave the lead character some unexpected gumption.  The end result, while dominating the Razzies, was that the film did well at the box office and maintained its credibility with book fans.  This occurred despite a distinct lack of chemistry between the two leads and one-sided nudity (all Johnson) and no orgasms which in a sex movie was more than peculiar.

None of that occurred with 50 Shades Darker.  The female Director was replaced with a male with an undistinguished set of credits.  The professional screen writer was replaced with author E.L. James’s real- life husband (not a professional screen writer) and Jamie Dornan was still in the film. Let’s talk a minute about Dornan.  In the first film, his Christian Grey was pretty much the same serial killer that he played in the TV show the Fall (which by the way, I thought he was really good in).  There was no chemistry between the two leads and Dornan, although boring, probably played Grey relatively closely to the book description.  In the 2nd film, Grey is smiling all the time, has day old facial hair and  seems totally relaxed.  This is in stark contrast with the character in the books who remains incredibly intense, dominating and would never laugh and smile let alone not shave in Book 2.

Bottom line, the movie is missing the only redeeming qualities of its predecessor and is boring with a weak script that goes nowhere in the middle of the film.  The leads continue to lack chemistry despite being clearly more at ease with each other and Dornan again has sex with most of his clothes on although this time with a ripped torso.   It is hard to believe a movie could win more Razzies than the original 50 Shades but this movie certainly deserves to.  Even for the most ardent book lovers, the film is going to be a disappointment.  Don’t think the third movie will be any better as it was filmed at the same time as this film with the same Director, Screenwriter and actors.  Run don’t walk away from this film that is running about 8% on Rotten Tomatoes.

 

 

 

 

Movies: 2017 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

2017 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

In many cities, including mine, audiences can see the 2017 Oscar nominated shorts (live action, documentary and animated).  In the time it normally takes to see a regular movie, you can see the 5 nominated films back to back.  It’s a great way to see these films.  I usually watch the Live Action Shorts and skip the others although I might try to get to the documentaries this year.  I found the Live Action Shorts to be more upbeat this go around than in previous years where it seemed like the first movie was like Manchester by the Sea and then got progressively more depressing!  I was pleasantly surprised by the 2017 group.  This year’s films:

Enemis Interieurs (French)

This film is very relevant to what is happening around the world right now.  A Muslim man (Hassam Ghancy) born in Algiers and raised in France is attempting to get French Citizenship.  He is in a dimly light immigration room which almost looks like an interrogation room.  His “interviewer” is at times aggressive, hostile and calm and watching the interplay between these two men as the conversation goes from cordial to hostile with the introduction of religion and terrorism into the discussion.

Despite the fact that both men are French and have spent their entire lives in that country (Algiers was a French Colony at the time of Ghancy’s birth), history and politics have created a gulf between them and one is now in control of the other’s fate.  You can’t help but watch this film and think about how there are likely similar interviews going on across America every hour of every day.  It is a sobering 30 minutes.

Sing (Hungary)

Sing is about a young girl coming to a new school that has a famous children’s choir.  The shy Zsofi loves to sing and joins the choir.  She also makes friends with another girl in the choir (Liza) who is extremely popular.  The film explores the themes of power and corruption in the apparently uber competitive world of elementary school choirs.  Sing has a nice twist at the end as the children deal with the choir’s dark secret of success in an innovative and creative way making the audience smile.  It is a story of the little guy standing up to oppression and the power of the underdog.  Along the way, there is some great singing and the two young girls who star in it are mesmerizing.

Silent Nights (Denmark)

Silent Nights explores another very relevant aspect of the immigration issue as Kwame, an immigrant from Ghana to Denmark tries to make a living in a land far removed from his home.  He has a family back in Ghana and struggles to get money to send home to them.  He meets a young woman at a homeless shelter where she volunteers and they begin a relationship that gets quite complicated very quickly.

Kwame is a complex character and he lies, steals and commits adultery with this young, naïve Danish woman.  I never bought their relationship.  I understand what the film maker was trying to achieve by asking the audience to have compassion for someone in a difficult situation.  The film might have potentially been able to achieve its goals had it been a full-length feature film where the characters could have been much better developed.  As it was, I just didn’t buy it and thought the ending was contrite even though the actors were quite good.

Timecode (Spain)

This is a very short (15 minute) film that captures two parking lot attendants at work.  One has the day shift and the other,  the night shift.  The two just give each other a cursory acknowledgement as they change shifts every twelve hours.  With cameras, everywhere and an immensely boring job monitoring them, the two workers begin communicating through dance videos done while on the job.  The story of two individuals performing rote jobs quickly turns into a romantic comedy and it is all contained in 15 minutes.  The Director is able to accomplish everything he needs to in this short amount of time.  The dancing is great, the idea cute and the movie ends on a bit of a high note which is always appreciated.

La Femme et la TGV (Switzerland)

Every day, Elise a widowed baker, opens her window and waves the Swiss flag to the TGV train as it passes by her home which sits a few feet from the train tracks.  One day, the Train Conductor, Bruno, drops a note to her out of appreciation and the two of them correspond each day until one day, the train does not come.  The route was changed for the train. Elise, clearly already a depressed individual who does not interact with anyone in the town shuts herself off even more until she finds that Bruno stopped by her home and left a good-bye note.  She enlists the help of a young man to drive her to Munich where Bruno is about to take a train home and catches up with him.  I won’t spoil the ending but it is bitter sweet and the actress playing the lead role is excellent.

Summary

I’d highly recommend seeing these films.  It’s hard to predict which one will win the Oscar  but several are worthy.  The critics seem to like the French interrogation film the best but the predictors think La Femme is probably the favorite.  I personally liked Sing the best followed by La Femme.  I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

Books: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World

 

Sisters in Law:  How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman

Sisters in Law is a bit of a misnomer as the reader discovers over the course of this book which chronicles how each woman achieves her respective Supreme Court seat.  The two women sat on the Supreme Court together and respected each other but weren’t particularly close. The author traces the history of each woman to the highest court in the land.  Sandra Day O’Conner graduated from law school to find that the only opportunity offered to her was a job as a legal secretary because no law firm believed that their clients would want a woman representing them.  She ultimately rose to become the first woman on the Supreme Court by being a master politician; first becoming a powerful state legislator and later a Federal judge.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a brilliant woman who faced a great deal of the same type of discrimination coming out of law school as O’Conner did.  She taught law at Rutgers and worked cases for the ACLU, making an impact on many gender discrimination cases slowly making her way up the legal hierarchy until she could obtain a judgeship and later became the second woman on the Supreme Court.  At every step along the way, both women faced discrimination in a male dominated profession.

For those who are interested in Supreme Court and/or modern American history, the book has a lot of fascinating legal cases and is certainly relevant given the current political environment. In fact, one of the cases talked about in detail (the Hobby Lobby case) is a case that the current Supreme Court nominee was involved with.   It must be said that Ms. Hirshman’s liberal political views transcend the pages and it is obvious she is a strong feminist and aligned with the judicial philosophy of Ginsberg.  She is not an advocate of most of O’Conner’s positions and gives almost begrudging support to the Justice.

Despite the author’s obvious biases, she is able to show how the two justices   respected and supported each other and when O’Conner retired, Ginsburg was lonely as the only female on the court.  Both women are depicted as strong individuals who broke one of the last great glass ceilings.  While the O’Connor’s and Ginsburg’s were not close friends outside of work, the Ginsburg’s and Scalia’s spent a great deal of time together – arguably the courts most liberal and conservative justices.  It would have been interesting for the author to explore why the bond with Scalia was so much stronger than with O’Conner.  If you are interested in these two female justices and their impact on history, you will likely enjoy this book despite some if it’s flaws.

 

Movies: 20th Century Women and The Salesman

 

20th Century Women

Annette Benning in 20th Century Women is fantastic and I am surprised she was shut out of an Oscar nomination.   The other actors, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann do a fine job as well.  Benning plays a single mother to 15-year-old Jamie (Zumann) and lives in an old Victorian house in 1979 Santa Barbara.  She has an eclectic array of boarders including Abbie (Gerwig) a young woman battling cervical cancer and William (Billy Crudup), a handyman who is working on restoring the dilapidated mansion.  Fanning plays Julie, a young woman who is Jamie’s best friend and the object of his affection.

Dorthea feels the once close relationship with her son slipping away so enlists the help of the others to help Jamie grow up and become a good man.  This only stresses the various relationships but in the end, this group of people is a family and they all take care of each other.  20th Century Women is a slow burn.  It consists primarily of dialogue and you may feel like you are in the theater for more than the 2 hours running time.   The acting is nuanced and the story very real and it will really appeal to those of us who love revisiting the 1970s.  This is a movie about family and relationships and the performances are raw and perfect.  20th Century Women is a very good film and well worth seeing.

The Salesman

Perhaps you have heard about this Iranian film nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Film and its Director Asghar Farhadi who would have been unable to attend the Oscars due to the Immigration Ban.   He has subsequently said he won’t come even if he receives an exemption.  Aside from the political controversy, this is an excellent film by Farhadi who received the 2012 Best Foreign Film Oscar for the movie “The Separation”.  Unfortunately, we will not be able to see another powerful acceptance speech by this Director due to the political issues.

To fully appreciate this film, it is helpful (but certainly not necessary) to have knowledge of Arthur Miller’s play “Death of a Salesman” as there are parallels in this story of an Iranian couple, Emad and Rana, (Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti) who have the lead roles in the play.  Some of the play’s themes are subtly  interwoven throughout the movie. Emad is a high school teacher and he and Rana are forced to find a new apartment when the building where they live collapses.  The former tenet of their new apartment was a hooker who had to leave under unknown circumstances.  One of her former clients comes to the apartment and attacks Rana who then struggles with how to keep on living.

Like in the movie “Elle”, the brutal attack is not reported to the police (again, for reasons unknown) but Emad goes on a mission to find the perpetrator.  The final third of the movie is as intense as anything you will see as he uncovers who was the attacker is and works through what should be done to avenge the violent act.  I won’t give away the ending but suffice it to say the suspenseful conclusion is brilliantly played out.  This film could well win the Oscar and I am totally on board with that happening! I will also go and check out “The Separation” which is supposed to be even more intense.