Friday, March 17, 2017

"A United Kingdom" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "A United Kingdom" as well as DVDs "Keeping Up With the Joneses" and "Almost Christmas."  The Book of the Week is "Always," a romantic novel.  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with John Cassavetes' first directorial effort "Shadows."]

A United Kingdom

A dramatization of the then shocking 1948 marriage of Seretse Khama, a tribal prince from the British Protectorate, Bechuanaland, to a white British woman, Ruth Williams, and the international scandal their union caused.

Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), the heir apparent to the African kingdom of Bechuanaland, a protectorate of the United Kingdom, had just completed his schooling in the United Kingdom and was called home by his uncle, the Regent (Vusi Kunene), to take over his role as king of his tribe.  But then, through a love of jazz and dancing, he met Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a British office worker, and they fell in love. 

So where's the drama in that? 

Well, it was the 1940's and she was a white woman, and not only was racism rampant - Ruth's parents were horrified - but Seretse's uncle also didn't approve of a white woman becoming an African queen.  And the British Government wasn't happy either. 

You see, Bechuanaland was adjacent to mineral rich South Africa, where the UK had massive investments, and South Africa had also just instituted Apartheid, so no way did they want a country near them with a black king and a white queen. And no way did the British Government want to upset South Africa because of their investments there and the possibility that if South Africa got upset with the UK they would seek independence from Great Britain. 

But Ruth and Seretse married anyway and a giant international scandal erupted.

So with Seretse's uncle agitating on one side and telling Seretse to divorce Ruth or give up his throne, and South Africa and the English Government on the other working to get Seretse out of the country by saying that his marriage was dividing his country, his and Ruth's future together in Bechuanaland looked bleak.  His refusal to divorce Ruth or to give up his throne led to his banishment from the country, but it became an international cause celebre.  Seretse never gave up on getting back to his country and taking his rightful position, and, when diamonds were discovered there, he worked to make sure the country maintained the mineral rights the country deserved to bring it out of impoverishment. 

Seretse did what he had to do to create a united kingdom in his country, while the United Kingdom was doing everything it could to divide him and Ruth, who were their own united kingdom.  Cool, huh?  I thought of that myself!

Since this is an historical film the record shows what happened.  I don't need to worry about spoilers, but when I went to this film, I was thinking that I was just going to see one of those Masterpiece Theatre, very, very earnest films, but what I got instead was a depiction of a little known bit of history done in a very interesting and compelling way thanks to the direction and the actors who brought this to life.

David Oyelowo has proven himself a wonderful actor when he portrayed Martin Luther King in "Selma."  In fact he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award.  However, when playing a figure like Martin Luther King, there is often so much reverence shown and so much oratory that the actor doesn't get to show the whole man. Here we see a more nuanced performance from Oyelowo. Yes, he is still skilled at oratory, but I liked him better in the scene where Seretse proposes to Ruth on a bridge over the River Thames. Oyelowo shows the vulnerability of a man who knows he is not only offering himself to his future wife but he is also offering her a life that will be difficult for her.

Likewise, if you are expecting the Rosamund Pike you saw in "Gone Girl," you will be disappointed.  The revenge-filled woman of that film is replaced by a quiet, loving woman with a steel backbone who will do what she needs to do to help and protect her man.  There is a very sweet scene where she is looking at pictures of Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, waving to her devotees.  She practices the Princess's wave in the mirror almost ironically, but when she finally goes to the local grocery store on her own and encounters the local women, she is so flummoxed about how to act that she briefly tries her queenly wave, only to realize what a strange little dream that was.  She is not that kind of queen and she may in fact never be queen.

Likewise, in another scene, Ruth, who had also faced opposition on all sides, was able to show the native women that she was serious about her husband and serious about her commitment to their country. You see, racism existed on both sides. But she kept trying to win the hearts of the Bechuanaland people. Despite having just given birth, when she took her newborn baby and went to help the local women build a well, they realized her commitment and showed they accepted her by going to her home and singing a song in her honor, a very moving scene that acted as a turning point for Ruth, giving her the strength she needed to continue fighting.

While watching, I couldn't help but see the link between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, another scandalous love story that took place not too far before this and Edward had to give up his throne and leave the UK to be with "the woman I love."  However, the difference here was that no matter what was thrown at Seretse, he refused to give up his country and fought the highest level of British Government for the woman he loved.

Together, Oyelowo and Pike portray the human side of these two people whose great love story played a big role in African history, and artfully depicted what it must have been like for the real Seretse and Ruth to take their rightful places in Bechuanaland.  I believed every bit of it.

The other actors are also good.  You will recognize Laura Carmichael who played Edith on "Downton Abbey" as Ruth's sister and Jack Davenport from the TV show "Smash" as Sir Alistair Canning, Siretse's British nemesis. 

Director Amma Asante's direction and the script by Guy Hibbert don't go overboard with the earnestness or righteousness of Seretse nor the goodness of Ruth.  It's a real life marriage that just happened to start an international incident.

So what happened?

Well, you will have to see for yourself, but let me say that this whole story resulted in Bechuanaland gaining its independence from the UK and becoming the Republic of Botswana, and Seretse was it's first President.

But it's not just about what happened in the end.  It's the journey that you need to see.

Rosy the Reviewer says...this film shines a light on a part of history that most of us never knew about and I'm glad it did! 

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


Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney's (Isla Fisher) lives have become boring and sexless...until their beautiful, mysterious neighbors, the Joneses, move into the cul de sac, that is.

As I am known to lament, comedies that are actually funny are few and far between these days, and clever romantic comedies?  Forgetaboutit!  Comedies these days either stoop to scatological humor or expect pratfalls to get a laugh, neither of which I find funny.

Here is a comedy with a funny premise and the trailer promised some good fun.  However, you know how trailers can be.  Sometimes the best bits are in the trailer and it's funnier than the movie.  That is somewhat the case here, but I will say, though, that at least the trailer didn't give away the twist...and there is one.

The film starts with a cold opening.  A house in a suburban cul de sac explodes and then we flashback to two weeks earlier.

Jeff and Karen Gaffney are ordinary suburbanites with lives where nothing much happens. If Kinkos is busy it's a crazy day. 

Jeff works in HR at CBI, a company that handles top secret information. So top secret, in fact, that none of the employees up on the top floors can have the Internet on their computers.  But HR is on the first floor and not subject to a high level of security, so the employees from the top floors all come downstairs to use Jeff's computer to check Facebook and watch porn.  They are doing other stuff on Jeff's computer, too, but that comes later.

Karen is an interior designer who works at home, so when their new neighbors, Tim (Jon Hamm)  and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot), move in next door, she has a birds eye view.  Tim and Natalie are two beautiful and accomplished people.  It seems they can do and have done everything.  I mean, c'mon.  Natalie works with Sri Lankan orphans and writes a cooking blog.  She wears beautiful clothes and, of course, she brings a fancy dish to the local festival. The local ladies are all envious. Tim is a travel writer and a bit of a raconteur, and it's not long before he has charmed all of the neighbors, especially Jeff and Karen who are eager to be friends and add a little excitement to their lives.

When Jeff and Karen invite Tim and Natalie over to get acquainted, Tim gives them a glass sculpture that he made himself.  You see, Tim also is into glass blowing in his spare time. Is there nothing this guy can't do? He tells Jeff that he wants it to sit right there on the coffee table in the middle of their living room.


It doesn't take long before Karen's snooping on her neighbors and their interest in Jeff's company make her suspicious.  However, Jeff is clueless. One day Karen follows Natalie and observes her surreptitiously passing a book to a man in a coffee shop and right away she believes that Natalie and Tim are spies, and she sets out to find out for sure.

Jeff and Karen want a little excitement? Little do they know the kind of excitement they are going to be embroiled in.

Directed by Greg Mottola with a script by Michael LeSieur, this is a typical slapstick comedy where the guy is the clueless one and the woman is the smart one, but hey, that's just like life, right?  Lots of physical humor for Galafianakis to goof around with and, yes, we learn early on that the Joneses are spies, but there is a twist that is fun, but not really enough fun to make this movie funny.

However, for Jeff and Karen, there is nothing like a little international espionage to spice up a marriage.

Gal Gadot is indeed a beautiful woman and it's no surprise she is going to play Wonder Woman. Zach has built his career around playing dufuses ever since the first "Hangover" movie, and, actually if you have ever seen his talk show, his humor is really out there.  I want to like his character here but there is something about Zach that screams smart ass and this is very off putting to me. I also think he has played this kind of character a million times and he was funnier when he was fat.  John Hamm is his usual suave handsome self (he makes a great spy), but it's Isla Fisher who steals the show. She is very funny.  I guess if you are married to Borat, I mean, Sacha Baron Cohen, you have to be.

Rosy the Reviewer says...the jokes are obvious and you can see them coming a mile away, but there are a few laughs to be had, and I mean a few.  If you must see it, see it for Isla Fisher.  She's the best thing in it.

Almost Christmas (2016)

A family gathers in Birmingham, Alabama for their first Christmas since their Mom died and the last Christmas in the family home.

I know Christmas time has passed, but it's always time for a good comedy and you know I am always looking for one.

The films opens to the song "No Woman Like the One I Got" playing over a brilliant montage showing the evolution of Walter Meyers' 44 year marriage, setting the stage for the fact that now Walter is old and his wife has died. Walter (Danny Glover) is living alone in the house where he and his wife raised their four kids.  He has called all of the adult children together for Christmas to tell them that he is selling the family home. 

The "kids" are Cheryl (Kimberly Elise), a doctor, and her ex-basketball player husband, Lonnie (J.B. Smoove); Christian (Romany Malco), the politician; Rachel (Gabrielle Union), the divorced law school student; Evan (Jessie T. Usher), the injured athlete. who likes his pain meds a bit too much; and Aunt May, the sister-in-law (Mo'Nique), who, of course, gets all the best zinger lines.

This is the first family gathering since their mother's death and Walter is trying to make this last Christmas special, doing all of the things that his wife would have done, the common thread: the sweet potato pie that Walter just can't seen to master. 

There is also a side plot: Walter has been a volunteer at a homeless shelter over the years, a shelter that is in danger of being closed down.  Christian is trying to help save the shelter, but his campaign manager is urging him to tear it down.  However, we later learn that the shelter had real meaning for the family and it stands as a symbol and a message in the film:  that the prime purpose in life is to help others, not hurt them.

As the family gathers together, the film counts down the days until Christmas, and like most families, there is drama as the family members all deal with their issues.

Sisters Rachel and Cheryl have a strained relationship and make no bones about their antipathy toward each other. There is also a philandering husband, some drug issues, an overworked Congressman who struggles to find time with his family, all of your usual family dramas that are all resolved by film's end over a perfect sweet potato pie.

The film ends on a very high note of sentimentality, but hey, it's a Christmas movie and it works.

Written and directed by David E. Talbert, this kind of "family gathering for Christmas" story has been done a million times, and it actually seems like a black version of "Love The Coopers," except this film is good and that one wasn't.  It's also the story of a husband who can't cope without the woman who took care of him for all of those years, something else that we women will know is no surprise.  

There is the usual slapstick that sometimes substitutes for comedy and romantic clichés abound, but what sets this apart from "Love The Coopers" and other dysfunctional family Christmas comedies is the inherent sweetness of the film.  It's a sentimental journey that is an homage to mothers and the love of family and the character of Walter reminded me what a good actor Danny Glover is.  Here he portrayed a steady presence that held the film together, but I also was reminded that he can do action films, drama as well as comedy. I hope I see more of him.

The film also reminds us that color does not define us. No matter our color, we all face the same human foibles and family issues -  sibling rivalry, grief, disappointment in our kids, deception and more. Whether the actors are black or white, family issues are family issues no matter what color you are and we can all relate on a human level to each other.

Rosy the Reviewer says...sometimes sweetness is enough to make an enjoyable comedy. It's a Christmas movie with a year round message.

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

210 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

Shadows (1959)

An exploration of interracial relationships and The Beat Generation in New York City in the 1950's.

Leilia (Lelia Goldoni) lives with her two brothers, Ben (Ben Carruthers) and Hugh (Hugh Hurd), in New York City.  Hugh is a nightclub singer and is visibly black, but Ben and Lelia are light-skinned enough to pass for white. Lelia falls for Tony (Anthony Ray), a white man, and they embark on a relationship.  They have sex and she confides in Tony that having sex makes her feel this is the real thing, that having sex has now bonded them together. Things between them seem fine until Tony meets Hugh and he realizes that Lelia is black.  Tony is a liberal in words but not action and when he realizes that Lelia is black, he dumps her.  Tony is actually a bit of a sleaze, so good riddance.  The film is a slice of life film, also showing the lives of Lelia's brothers and their friends living their hip Beat Generation lives in NYC.

This was actor/director John Cassavetes directorial debut and was the result of an improvisational workshop.  It cost $40,000 and starred mostly young unknown actors, though I recognized actor Tom Reese. This was his first film, and he went on to have a very successful TV career.  Cassavetes took on a taboo subject in the uptight 50's, and this film helped to launch America's independent cinema in the 1960's.

"A work of its time that honestly captures its time.  It is consequently a work of our time as well.  It has no hero, no villain, no linear plotline, no gerrymandered suspense, no practiced comedy, and only as much sex and violence as just about all of us have encountered. Like any honest work of art, Shadows shows that life's costumes, settings, and slang change, but human situations remain relentlessly constant."
---Gary Giddens

Actually, the film holds up well. The clothes and dialogue are not distracting, though you can tell the actors are amateurs or just starting out because the acting is spotty and stilted at times. However, I didn't realize people were so hip in the 1950's.  I must have watched too many Doris Day movies.

Goldoni is particularly impressive as Lelia.  Her face exudes poignancy and you feel what she feels as Tony rejects her.

Many early attempts by directors are pretentious and indulgent and in some ways this is no exception but the seeds of brilliance that would mark later Cassevettes films are clearly in evidence here.  For a 1959 film, it's clearly ahead of its time and the camera work shows the early signs of innovation and intimacy that later Cassavetes films would evoke.

Why it's a Must See: "Rarely has so much warmth, delicacy, subtlety, and raw feeling emerged so naturally and beautifully from performances in an American film...In its portrait of a now-vanished Manhattan during the beat period, it also serves as a poignant time capsule.  A wonderful jazz score by Charlie Mingus featuring alto saxophonist Shafi Hadi plays as essential as essential a role in the film's emotional pitch. It's conceivable that Cassavetes made great films but...[this film] is the one to cherish."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...a mesmerizing look into another time and the early work of a director who would become one of America's best.

***Book of the Week***

Always: A Novel by Sarah Jio (2017)

A happily engaged young woman anticipates her upcoming marriage until she unexpectedly encounters an old love, homeless and living on the streets.

Kailey Crain is engaged to Ryan and they are madly in love.  She is a journalist for a local Seattle newspaper and Ryan is a developer.  Ryan is also a boyfriend who seems too good to be true.  One evening as they are leaving a restaurant in downtown Seattle, Kailey sees a bearded homeless man on the sidewalk, and when she approaches him and their eyes meet, Kailey realizes it is Cade McAllister, an ex-lover who, ten years ago, was the love of her life.

Ten years ago, Cade was the owner of Element Records, a leading music company, and when Kailey and he met, the attraction was instant.  But one day, Cade was just gone, so seeing Cade again, and in this state, is a shock to Kailey.  He doesn't seem to recognize her, doesn't speak and is a shadow of his former self, but Kailey is determined to find out what has happened to Cade.  She embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of Cade's leaving her and his current existence, and this quest threatens to harm her relationship with Ryan.

Using alternating chapters that go back and forth from the past to the present, Jio slowly unfolds the past relationship between Kailey and Cade as Kailey tries to help Cade remember the past. 

Since this novel takes place in Seattle, Seattleites will particularly enjoy the many references to recognizable restaurants, bars, clubs and other sights, but you don't need to live in Seattle to enjoy this romantic story that asks the question, "What would you do if you encountered a long lost love homeless and living on the streets?"

This is a highly romantic book with some cheesy dialogue at times, but what sets it apart from the usual chick lit is Jio's exploration of the homeless problem, making it a particularly timely book as homelessness in general is an increasing problem and in particular, in Seattle, is a daily news topic.

Rosy the Reviewer says...this is an easy, dialogue heavy, romantic read with a message that would make a great movie.  I am already casting the leads in my head.

Thanks for reading!


I am back on Tuesday for a special new feature that I will post from time to time called:

"Rosy's Test Kitchen:
Cooking Successes and Cooking Conundrums."

It is aimed at the home cook, who loves to cook and who really, really wants to be a good cook, but for some reason doesn't always get it right!
I will share recipes that I have tested and what I learned.  It should be fun!

Hope to see you Tuesday!

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