Friday, October 20, 2017

"Victoria and Abdul" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Victoria and Abdul" as well as DVDs "Cloud 9" and "Certain Women."  The Book of the Week is actress Katey Sagal's memoir "Grace Notes."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with "The Actress."]

Victoria and Abdul

This film tells the "mostly" true story of Queen Victoria's relationship with a young Indian.

Judi, Judi, Judi.  Why did I doubt you?  When I decided to see this film, I had this idea that you were going to camp this part up.  The trailers played up the humor so it's not entirely my fault but I should never have doubted you.  You are a Dame for a reason. You are Britain's national treasure and this role shows that you are not only deserving of being a Dame (the female equivalent of a knighthood), but it showcases an actress at the top of her game. 

Dame Judi Dench has aged like a fine wine and this is a role of a lifetime. She is known for winning an Oscar for one of the shortest screen times on record (Best Supporting Actress for "Shakespeare in Love" - 8 minutes) and now she may very well win a Best Actress Oscar for one of the longest (Dench is in practically every scene).  Where she could have gone for laughs or over the top in her impersonation of Victoria, instead Dench chose restraint, subtlety and nuance - facial expressions and that twinkle in her eyes - to create the character of Victoria. But that doesn't mean there is no humor here.  There are many humorous moments.  At every turn her choices are spot on and you can't take your eyes off of her.  A stunning performance.

"Victoria and Abdul" is the story of Queen Victoria who, entering her 80's and at that time the longest reigning monarch in the world, is declining and just basically bored with the pomp and circumstance of being a monarch.  Her beloved Prince Albert has been dead for over 30 years, her Mr. Brown is gone (there was a rumored romance between Mr. Brown, her groundskeeper, and Victoria during the early part of her widowhood - Dench also played Victoria in a movie about that relationship 20 years ago) and her nine children are a pain in her royal arse.  She is basically just going through the motions and waiting to die.

Then along comes Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Muslin sent from India to present Victoria with a commemorative coin from her Indian subjects in celebration of her Golden Jubilee.  Abdul is chosen for this honor because he is tall, and he is accompanied by another Indian, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), because he's, well, for the purposes of this film, funny. But he also represents a voice of those who hated the oppression of British rule. 

Abdul is told to present the coin to the Queen during a State dinner, but to not, under any circumstances, look at her. Naturally he does look at her and their eyes meet briefly.  Later, Victoria makes a comment about Abdul being handsome and requests his presence.  Abdul does not toady around the Queen as her household does, and she recognizes in him a source of companionship and joy.  He becomes her "munshi," a teacher.  She may be the Empress of India but she has never traveled there, forbidden to go because of a fatwah against her, so Abdul particularly piques her interest and she is eager to learn about India.  She gives Abdul royal household status, and he teaches her Urdu and about the Koran; they go on long walks together; and he is always by her side, her friend and confidant.  Victoria gets a new lease on life.

However, the royal household is not happy to have an Indian in their midst, especially one who is accorded status and especially an Indian who is not high born.  The royal household all work to discredit Abdul and turn Victoria against him which gives screenwriter Lee Hall, who adapted the book by Shrabani Basu, and director Stephen Frears the opportunity to explore the racism and class consciousness that abounded not only in the royal household but in Britain as a whole.  Queen Victoria might have been the Empress of India and the British may have ruled over India for almost 100 years, but that didn't mean the British had any understanding of those they ruled nor did they respect them.  There is a running joke early in the film where Abdul and Mohammad are called "The Hindus," when in fact they were Muslims, showing a lack of understanding by the British of the diversity that was, and is, India.

The British  really know how to make these historical films and director Stephen Frears in particular does a good job with royalty (he was nominated for Best Director for "The Queen" in 2007).  He also directed Dench in "Philomena" in 2013.

Besides Dench, other veteran British actors abound - Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, Simon Callow - as well as an almost unrecognizable Eddie Izzard as Victoria's errant son Bertie, the Prince of Wales, who can't wait for his mother to die so he can be King.

But newcomer Ali Fazal as Abdul holds his own among these British veterans.  His eyes twinkle as he charms Victoria and you are never sure if he really cares for her or has decided she is his ticket to a better life.  That dichotomy gives his character and the film some weight.  I look forward to seeing more of him.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Ring, ring.  Dame Judi, there's a phone call for you.  Oscar calling.  (Oh, and I cried at the end, and you know what that means)!


***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!


Cloud 9 (2008)

A 67-year-old woman who has been married for over 30 years enters into an affair with a 76-year-old man.

I know I talk about French films and their obsession with sex.  Well, I should throw German films into the mix too.  The French have nothing on the Germans when it comes to sex in movies, if this film is any indication.

This is one of those films where you not only have to suspend disbelief - but actually there isn't much to disbelieve here - but you will need to suspend your prejudices against body fat and old people having sex because there is a lot of both in this film.  I seem to be on a roll these days reviewing movies about people of a certain age falling in love, struggling to find love and engaging in sex: "The Lovers," "Our Souls at Night," "How to be a Latin Lover," and "In the Courtyard," are just some of the recent films I have reviewed. on those topics.  And why shouldn't we see films like this?  Young, old, fat, thin, beautiful, homely, everyone wants to love and be loved and to, yes, have sex.

Inge (Ursula Werner) is a seamstress married to Werner (Horst Rehberg).  She is seemingly happily married in her routine life with Werner.  However, when she goes to customer Karl's (Horst Westphal) apartment to give him some trousers she has tailored for him, he makes a move on her and she immediately reciprocates.  Now Inge is not unattractive, but she is a rather plain, overweight, middle-aged woman who needs to comb her hair.  Karl is even older.  I mean OLD, but that doesn't stop him from making a move on her and she doesn't seem to mind because they get it on right there in his apartment with little foreplay.  And let's just say that the sex is up close and personal - wrinkles, wobbly flesh and all, and to cap it off we get to see Karl in full frontal, so steel yourselves.  I think I said "Yikes" to myself a couple of times.

Inge has been married to Werner for 30 years and though she is not unhappily married, she is bored and I don't blame her.  Werner's idea of fun is to listen to records that play the sounds of various train engines and to go on train rides to no particular destination.  Inge on the other hand is a horny 67-year-old who washes her husband's hair, supervises his exercising and sings in a choir and clearly wants more out of life. She embarks on an affair with Karl, and of course, new love always seems better and the old love starts to tarnish, and lots of sex ensues.  I couldn't help but wonder, where does this woman's libido come from?

The affair continues and Inge confides in her daughter, Petra (Steffi Kuhnert), who tells her to enjoy herself but not to confess to Werner.  Unfortunately, Inge doesn't listen to Petra and tells Werner to tragic effect.

This film is probably not for everyone. If seeing old people naked scares you, you should probably stay away.  I call this "Old people soft porn."  But I couldn't help but think while watching this that if this film starred young attractive actors with tight bodies instead of white hair, wrinkles, flab and everyday looks we would have no problem. The film makes the point that old love can be just as exciting as young love, at least for the participants anyway.  You might not want to watch them do it, but know they are.

As Inge said, "What's my age got to do with it?  If I am 16 or 60 or 80?"

But no matter the age or how long the marriage, the film captures the pain that an affair can cause.

This film is so real I felt like a voyeur.  The actors hold nothing back so the film has a "fly on the wall" reality to it.  We see Inge looking at her naked self in the mirror (don't we all do that? You don't?); we see her having sex with both Werner and Karl (not both at the same time. Dirty mind!); talking on the phone to her daughter and going about her life while at the same time in the midst of a mid-life affair. 

Written by Andreas Dresen, Jorg Hauschild, Laila Stieler and Cooky Zeische and directed by Dresen, it's all very stark and matter-of-fact but surprisingly compelling. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...Is this story a new one?  No.  Have I ever seen anything like it before?  No.  Did it move me?  Yes.
(In German with English subtitles)

Certain Women (2016)

Three separate stories about four Montana women whose lives loosely intersect.

Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone are the "certain women."

The film opens with a train making its way across a long and empty plain setting the scene and giving the stark Montana landscape a starring role and then the camera pans to a nondescript town.

Laura Dern is Laura Wells, a lawyer, who is trying to help Mr. Fuller (Jared Harris), who has been injured on the job and who wants to sue the company he worked for.  Laura tries to tell him that he can't sue because he accepted a settlement from the company.  She is frustrated with Fuller because she can't seem to get rid of him and because he won't believe her.  It isn't until they both get a second opinion from a MALE lawyer that Fuller believes her. She is also frustrated because she is coming to the end of an affair. Later, Fuller becomes suicidal and threatens to kill a bunch of people and the next thing she knows he is in a standoff with the police and is holding a cop hostage.  Now Laura finds herself negotiating a hostage situation with Fuller.

Michelle Williams is Gina Lewis who is building a house out in the country, building a new house being an interesting metaphor in light of her crumbling marriage.  You see, we recognize that guy that Laura Wells is having an affair with - it's Gina's husband.

Lily Gladstone plays a lonely Native American ranch hand.  One night she drives her truck into town and sees people going into the school so she follows them into a classroom where Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) is teaching a class on school law.  She is a young lawyer who has taken on teaching a class in a town two hours from her town.  When she agreed to teach the class she thought the town was closer and is now bummed because she has to drive four hours twice a week to teach the class and has to work the next day. 

The young ranch hand sits in on the class and is clearly taken with Elizabeth and after class they go to a diner together.  This becomes a ritual.  The rancher shows up at the class even though she has not signed up for it. Elizabeth teaches the class and then the two go to the diner.  There is a touching scene where the young ranch hand picks Elizabeth up on her horse and they ride the horse together to the diner.  But then one night when the rancher shows up for class, Elizabeth is no longer there, having found a replacement to relieve herself of that long and tedious drive.  The rancher travels to Elizabeth's town to find her and discovers that their encounters did not mean as much to Elizabeth as they did to her.

Written and directed by Kelly Reichart (based on stories by Maile Meloy - Coincidentally, I reviewed Meloy's latest novel "Do Not Become Alarmed" last July), this film is actually three short films within a film. You keep watching to see how these three disparate stories are related.  Each segment is a character study, and the film as a whole is partly successful, the story of the rancher being the most compelling and the Michelle Williams' piece less so.  But when you have really good actors with really good faces, the actors could read the phone book and you would be captivated. 

This film isn't like reading the phone book, but it's leisurely paced and saved by very real performances and the formidable, barren, unforgiving beauty of Montana which also plays a big role highlighting the themes of loneliness, our inability to connect and emotional isolation - an isolated unforgiving land as backdrop to an unforgiving isolated world that many of us live in.  No matter where we live, no matter how small our world, we all have our stories.

Gladstone is the heart of this film.  Her face tells her character's whole story. She and Stewart are a good team.  Since the "Twilight" films, Stewart seems to be more interested in smaller projects like this and such films as "Personal Shopper," "American Ultra" and "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" which in my opinion haven't done much to further her career.  But somehow I don't think she cares. Dern and Williams are also good as we have come to expect.  All of the actresses in the film are skilled at their craft and can carry a quiet, thoughtful film like this.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a reminder that no matter where we live, no matter how small our worlds, we all have our stories.  If you like quiet, female-driven character studies brought to life by wonderful actors, you will enjoy this film.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

165 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

The Actress (1991)
(Original title: "Yuen Ling-yuk" or "Ruan Lingyu")

NOTE:  This film is variously titled.  It is listed as "The Actress" in "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" with the Chinese title "Yuen Ling-yuk."  However, in IMDB, the film is listed under "Center Stage," original title Ruan Lingyu."  I also purchased the title under the name "Center Stage."

Biopic of famous Chinese actress Ruan Ling-Yu.

Maggie Cheung plays Ruan and herself in this two-and-a-half hour epic that explores the life of silent film star Ruan Ling-Yu, who was the most famous Chinese actress of the 1930's. She was known as the Garbo of Chinese cinema starring in twenty-nine films by the time she was 25.  She was also dead by the age of 25, having tragically killed herself supposedly because of the malicious treatment of her by the tabloids for her affair with a married man.

The film has a documentary feel combining documentary footage with re-creations of Ruan's life and film roles. Cheung, her co-star Tony Leung, and director Stanley Kwan (and others) playing themselves talk about Ruan's life and her influence on Chinese film.

Ruan had a love affair with Chang, an immature rich kid who liked to gamble. Much was made of the fact that Ruan's mother was a maid for the Chang family and that's how Ruan and Chang met.  However, he loses his fortune and when her interests turn elsewhere he sues her for alimony. Then she gets involved with Tang, a married man, and scandal surrounds her.  How is it that famous, powerful women always seem to get saddled with losers and users?

The film is slow to get going and a bit difficult to follow as it jumps around in time and much is left unexplained, but the film is buoyed by the performances, and I was pulled in by the moodiness and the lush beauty of the film itself.  The recreations of Ruan's famous movie scenes are fascinating as well as Cheung talking about playing the role of Ruan and is asked to compare herself to Ruan. 

Ruan was haunted by the attacks in the press and would ask her friends "Am I considered good?" 

"What can I do except to only fear is malicious gossip." 

It is speculated that Ruan killed herself because of the scandalous tabloid reports, but there are no easy answers here as to why she did it.

Cheung won a Best Actress prize at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival for her performance as Ruan.  She was the first Chinese actor to win a major European acting award and that was a turning point in her career.

Why it's a Must See: "Stanley Kwan's 1992 masterpiece is quite possibly the greatest Hong Kong film ever; perhaps only some of the works of Wong Kar-wai such as Days of Being Wild (1991) and In the Mood for Love (2000) are as comparable in depth and intensity."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

I wouldn't go so far as to say this is as good as "In the Mood for Love (which Cheung also starred in)," but this film has the same moody feel. The set design and costumes are beautiful with an abstract motif that reminded me of Picasso's Cubist period. 

Unfortunately, if you want to see this film, it does not appear to be readily available, though you might find it at your local library.  I had to order it from a company in China via Amazon.

Rosy the Reviewer says...despite some issues I had with this film, I am a sucker for biopics about actors and fell under the spell of Maggie Cheung's performance.
(In Mandarin with English subtitles)

***Book of the Week***

Grace Notes: My Recollections by Katey Sagal (2017)

The real life Peg Bundy reflects on her life.

Who can forget Peg Bundy of "Married... With Children" fame?  

Katey Sagal starred as Peg Bundy, and she and the show took TV by storm in the 1980's and helped make a name for the fledgling Fox Network.  However, Sagal probably wouldn't like my mentioning Peg Bundy at the beginning of this review because she makes it clear in her memoir that her role as Peg Bundy was her blessing and her curse.  You know, that whole type-casting thing.  People thought she really was Peg Bundy but she makes it clear that she was anything but.

Sagal was born into a wealthy but tortured family.  Her father was a well-known and successful TV show director and her mother was a smart, talented woman until her health issues took over.  Both of Sagal's parents died when she was a young woman so she made her way in the world pretty much on her own. 

Sagal never planned to be an actress. Sagal's gift was singing and that's what she planned to do - become a rock star.  She had success with that but her father urged her to try acting so she tried to do both but her real love was always the music.

However, when TV came knocking she took the opportunity and created the role of Peg Bundy on the fledgling TV show "Married... With Children" on the then very new Fox Network.  When that ended, she struggled  to rid herself of Peg until scoring the role of John Ritter's wife in "8 Simple Rules" in 2002 and then eventually a recurring role in "Sons of Anarchy," a TV show that ran from 2008-2014.  She was married three times and had two children with husband #2 - musician Jack White - and a daughter via surrogate with her current husband, Kurt Sutter, who was also the creator of "Sons of Anarchy." 

In what is really a series of vignettes rather than a linear tale of her life, Sagal shares the deaths of her parents, her struggle with alcohol and drugs and successful sobriety, her three marriages, the stillborn birth of one of her children and the highs and lows of her acting career (after many Emmy nominations for her role in "Married... with Children" she finally won an Emmy for "Sons of Anarchy). 

In the second half of the book, Sagal talks about each of her children, she shares her child-rearing philosophy and waxes about life.  When she talks about her early life and career in the first half of the book, especially her trying to make it as a woman in the Los Angeles music scene, the book is interesting but less so when she talks about her personal feelings about mothering, her kids and her husband.

However, to give her some slack, Sagal forewarns the reader early on that this book is more about putting down her thoughts about her life so it's there for her kids. Unfortunately, as the book wore on, that's what it felt like.

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you are a fan of juicy celebrity gossip type memoirs with lots of name-dropping, this isn't for you, but if you are interested in Sagal, this is a candid memoir and there are some surprises here about her life.


Thanks for reading!
See you next Friday 

for my review of  

"Blade Runner 2049"  


The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)

 and the latest on

"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project."


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Check your local library for DVDs and books mentioned.
Next time you are wondering whether or not to watch a particular film, check out my reviews on IMDB (The International Movie Database). 

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