Viceroy’s House

Viceroy's House (2017) on IMDb
Director: Gurinder Chadha. Stars Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gamdon, Om Puri, Lily Travers, Simon Williams.

The resplendent Viceroy’s House was the impressive residence of the Viceroy’s of India and is now known as the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence) and is the official home of the President of India. Overwhelmed at the 340-room house, Lady Edwina Mountbatten comments that “it makes Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”. As it is this grand structure is the only impressive aspect of this movie that follows the efforts of the last Viceroy of India to oversee a peaceful transition of British India to independence.

Rather than focus the film on the efforts of Lord Mountbatten, his wife Edwina and daughter Pamela to negotiate a peaceful settlement between irresolute factions of Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus director Chadha introduces a meaningless love triangle to expose differing beliefs and customs. While this works in providing a light-hearted distraction from the duplicitous negotiations underway the resolution to this love story turns what could have been an intelligent depiction of partition into farce. So unbelievable was this ending that it had me groaning into a bucket of popcorn.

The film’s only saving grace is three exemplary performances from Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten, an imperious yet compassionate Gillian Anderson as his wife Edwina and Michael Gamdon as the duplicitous General Hastings Ismay. Bonneville must be used to such roles having spent many years at Downton Abbey. He pulls off the role well even though his oval face and rotund frame bears little resemblance to the real Louis Mountbatten, who had a more angular, lithe appearance. Anderson fares better as Lady Edwina, again a role she is now used to having portrayed several upper-class ladies such as Lady Deadlock (Bleak House) and Lily Bart (The House of Mirth). What is interesting is that Edwina has more understanding of the political nuances of the situation that her husband who admits he is more a military man that politician. Even so, when Edwina questions her husband’s decisions and suggests other alternatives to the decisions being made she is quickly put in her place. Chadha would have done well to reveal more of the intricate power play between Mountbatten and his wife than dwell so much on the love affair between Jeet Kumar (Manish Dayal) and Aalia Noor (Huma Kureshi).

Visually cinematographer Ben Smithard captured the grandeur of Viceroy House and contrasts this nicely with scenes of poverty and deprivation as millions of Indian people are displaced through partition. The screenplay fails to imbue the narrative with any real emotion or character depth which is a shame, particularly as director Chadha’s grandmother was herself caught up in events, a fact noted at the end of the movie. This is a film that had so much potential but that lacks the drama and passion of India’s history.

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Patriot’s Day

Patriots Day (2016) on IMDb
Director: Peter Berg. Stars Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan. Cert. 15.  133 mins.

Patriot’s Day tells of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the aftermath that involved a city-wide shut down as the search for the terrorists responsible was underway. Peter Berg both directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer. The film is structured in 3 acts: the bombing, the investigation and the search for suspects. Berg, Cook and Zetumber utilise an effective plot devise in initially focusing on separate individuals going about their daily lives. This provides both focus and tension to the narrative, events of which most viewers will be aware from the blanket news coverage as events unfolded. This provides a hook to keep the audience engaged as we are aware that each person we see; the young couple, the rookie cop, the internet entrepreneur, will all be affected in some way.

A brilliant ensemble of acting talent work well together. If you want an outspoken, off the rails cop with a vulnerable side then call Mark Wahlberg as this man seems to enjoy slipping into uniform, so much so that I expect to hear someday that he moonlights as a cop when not acting! Wahlberg is the ideal person to portray hardened cop Tommy Saunders, totally believable he plays it effortlessly to perfection and is not afraid to lose the hard man image and show his softer side in the emotional scenes. In one very poignant scene over the body of a young child killed in the bombing Wahlberg manages to show the pain and emotion of a city in crisis. Yet this is a man who won’t let go. He questions his superiors and the decisions of the FBI in not releasing images of the suspects.

Director Berg puts much of the early focus on Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) arranging a date with a girl he likes and it is painful to watch as we just know he’s not going to come out of it well. Enter the Bacon as stiff, contemplative FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers. Bacon exudes an air of authority that fails to cover his indecision in what move to make. Both Bacon and John Goodman (as Commissioner Ed Davis) exemplify their craft in their depictions of their real life characters. It is difficult to understand why both actors have never been fully recognised for their talent throughout their careers.

Berg doesn’t hold back from giving insight into the bombers Tamerlan (Themo Melikidze) and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff) skewed ideology or that of Tamerlan’s wife, Katherine Russell, a convert to Islam who evades questioning and was fully aware of her husband’s actions. The casting team have done a remarkable job in selecting two actors who are so similar in appearance to the real-life perpetrators, evident from the directors’ use of actual archive footage of events.

However, this is not just a film of what happened on that fateful day, April 15 2013. The strength of Berg’s film is that it manages to get across the resilience of the human spirit in the way communities, affected by such atrocity, come together and how, in the face of adversity, survivors rebuild their lives and do not allow themselves to be victims. The film is an homage not only to the city of Boston and its victims, but to all those around the world affected by terrorism.

Quite possibly Berg’s best film to date, Patriot’s Day boasts a great ensemble cast, skilled editing and cinematography and, in contrast to its subject, is heart-warming and inspiring.

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures (2016) on IMDb
Director: Theodore Melfi. Stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Glen Powell. Cert. PG. 127 mins.

This is a gem of a movie that not only entertains but is also informative. Now call me dumb but it was only when I saw the trailer for this movie that I was aware that african/american woman were employed at NASA in the 1950’s. In fact I didn’t realise women worked there at all. Let’s face it, all the images and news reports of the time displayed a male dominated environment – women as a whole were hidden figures. But, as this film highlights, even amongst the female workers there was a hierarchy as NASA, along with the State, discriminated against people of colour.

This discrimination and segregation is evident in all aspects of life, with black only seating on transport, a separate section in the library and separate washrooms for coloured citizens. At NASA the pool of african/american women are stripped of their gender identity and simply referred to as “Coloured Computers”, a title Katherine’s supervisor, Paul Stafford readily adopts when, after she adds her name to a report he tells her  that “computers do not author reports”.

This is not simply a film about coloured workers seeking equality. Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) were exceptionally intelligent women, far moreso that their male or female counterparts. In telling their true story the focus is primarily on Katherine whose analytical ability far exceeded IBM’s computing ability. Katherine is called on to work alongside white, male colleagues, checking their figures and trajectories to enable the United States to launch a man into space. Russia has already achieved this and there is now a race to achieve dominance. On her first day Katharine helps herself to coffee from the communal coffee pot, much to the irritation of her co-workers. The next day she finds an old, empty kettle on the table labeled “Coloured”. This is not the only segregation she faces. While female workers have rest rooms in the office block, the only designated rest room for coloured women is half a mile away, forcing her to take 40 minute breaks to relieve herself. It is only the head of department, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who appears to realise the value of Katherine’s work. Harrison, while in a position of authority, fails to use his power adequately. His own inherent racism keeps him from utilising the talent he has at his disposal. Katharine, despairing of the constant updates behind closed doors, has to remind Harrison that he is the boss and has the authority to allow her to attend NASA briefings to expedite the process.

Katharine’s supervisor, Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) constantly denigrates her, his obvious distaste to working alongside not only a coloured person but a woman, clearly apparent. Parsons plays this role well being both hostile and callous – a role far removed from his portrayal of Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.

Katharine’s compatriots, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are seeking equanimity in their own right. Mary is determined to be an engineer and seeks the courts permission to attend College to get her degree that will enable her to work in this field. Mary clearly doesn’t need a piece of paper to prove she had the ability. When asked by a white, male colleague if she were a man would she want to be an engineer, her response is simply ‘if I were a man I would be an engineer’. While Katherine and Mary excel in their individual fields of expertise, it is Dorothy’s foresight and intelligence that enable her to gauge the move from manual to electronic computing and in doing so she empowers her fellow workers to follow her lead. The installation of IBM computers drives Dorothy to assimilate computer scripting through personal study and gain the ability to program the vast array of IBM units. Also she instinctively understands the value of her knowledge and is able to ensure that her fellow workers remain employed to operate the new computers.

It is through Dorothy that we understand the injustice faced with regards to promotion. When she questions her supervisor, Vivien Mitchell (an acerbic Kirsten Dunst), on the progress of appointing a supervisor for the coloured computers, a job Dorothy has been covering for almost a year without recognition, Vivien looks down on her and tells her no decision has been made. Vivien’s animosity to Dorothy is all too clear and, while it is not openly stated, it is evident that much of Vivien’s attitude emanates from her inferiority when faced with the intelligence and ability of coloured women whom she thinks she should have dominance over.

Director Theodore Melfi has succeeded in bringing the story of three exceptional women to the screen in a feelgood, uplifting movie that has audiences whooping. These unsung heroes deserve recognition of their brilliance and their fight for equality. Only remember when watching this movie, the fight was not as bright and breezy as depicted and that millions of hidden african/american men and women were themselves fighting to end segregation and the right to equality. Given that the ‘hidden figures’ depicted in this movie are female this is the perfect film to mark today as International Women’s Day.

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The Great Wall

The Great Wall (2016) on IMDb
Director: Yimou Zhang. Stars Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Tian Jing, Eddie Peng, Willem Dafoe, Pilou Asbæk. Cert. 12A. 103 mins.

The film opens with mercenaries William and Tovar being chased through a barren landscape. Both men are in search of the mysterious black powder which they will then sell for a profit. Director Zhang maintains a low-key palette of dust-infused muted browns and greys throughout this opening sequence that is unlike the directors usual visual style. It is only when this pursuit reaches the great wall that the screen explodes with a sumptuous expanse of colour as thousands of troops prepare for battle along the wall.  Each regiment is colour coded in gleaming metal armour: archers in red, women combatants in blue and the General and commanders in steely grey. This is Zhang’s trademark style that has been evident in his films ever since Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). These early movies established Zhang as a director who often explored the darker side of rural chinese communities and the resilience of their inhabitants facing hardship and adversity. Raise the Red Lantern was nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at the 1992 Academy Awards and garnered Zhang international recognition but it was to be his martial arts epic Hero (2002) that was a huge international hit and one of the few international films to debut at No. 1 in the US box office.

Zhang continued the martial arts theme in House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), reuniting with leading lady Gong Li. As with The Great Wall these films found their inspiration in old chinese fables and mythology. Zhang constructed intricate narrative twists in House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower focused around illicit love triangles and assassination plots. This imbued each film with drama and intrigue, both of which are sadly absent from his latest film The Great Wall.

While, as mentioned above, The Great Wall is beautiful to look at with its amazing costumes and cinematography, this narrative fantasy fails to engage. It’s not just one brick missing from this wall but a complete section! The myth behind the movie is that every sixty years marauding beasts are spewed from the earth to attach the wall and devour as much human flesh as possible. The attacks are numerous and, after a while, become repetitive. The numbers of the beasts is far greater than the humans protecting the wall and there is an unbelievable mismatch between adversaries.

Casting Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe gives the film a bilingual aspect in that dialogue is mixed between english and subtitled chinese. While casting these actors provides universal appeal it does little to enhance the movie. Damon and Pascal as William and Tovar spar comically throughout, as if to provide some humour and light relief. The relationship between William and Lin Mae fails to engage and almost seems as an afterthought. Damon tries valiantly to give some depth to the movie but a sly smile here and there has little effect. If you are expecting Bourne in Beijing forget it.

The Great Wall is visually stunning but lacks momentum and has no real depth. Given his earlier movies I expected more from the director who would have done better not to allow Damon and Pascal to engage in this flight of fantasy.

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Gold (2016) on IMDb
Director: Stephen Gaghan. Stars Matthew McConaugheyEdgar RamírezBryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson. Cert. 15. 120 mins.

Without doubt, Matthew McConaughey is one of Hollywood’s most attractive leading men and this may be why, rather than trade on his good looks, the actor prefers his talent to shine through and selects his roles carefully. In Free State of Jones (2016) he is almost

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Denial (2016) on IMDb

Director: Mick Jackson; stars Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Karen Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss.  Cert. 12A.  109 mins.

As the film begins Deborah Lipstadt asks a group of students what proof is there that the holocaust happened? Sitting in the audience is holocaust denier David Irving, whose work and reputation Lipstadt has constantly challenged. Irving challenges Lipstadt to debate the

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Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) on IMDb
Directed by Mel Gibson. Stars Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, Nathaniel Buzolic, Vince Vaughn. 139 mins.

Hacksaw Ridge is the inspirational story of Desmond Doss, an army medic who fought for the right to go into battle without a single weapon to protect himself. In the heat of conflict Doss single-handedly saved 75 comrades without firing a single shot and was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor.

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Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea (2016) on IMDb

Written & Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Oscar Wahlberg, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov. 137 mins.

Finally I have managed to see Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea and what a rewarding experience it is. I must admit to two reasons I initially dismissed this film as

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La La Land

Directed by Damien Chazelle; stars Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemary DeWitt, JK Simmons, Callie Hernandez. 128 mins.

Musicals have tap-danced their way into moviegoers hearts ever since Al Jolson crooned ‘Mammie’ in Warner’s The Jazz Singer (1927). The genre has fallen in and out of fashion ever since, with its heyday being the 1950’s and 60’s. The most recent resurgence began with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001), closely followed by the movie adaptations of Chicago (2002), DreamGirls (2006) and Mamma Mia (2008) – all adapted from their successful stage shows.

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Coming Soon: 2017 Preview

Given the plethora of superhero movies dominating cinema schedules over the next few months, one person not heading to his nearest multiplex is director Ridley Scott. Scott recently complained about the excess of such movies saying he “can’t believe in the thin, gossamer tightrope of the non-reality of the situation of the superhero.” Already underway is the assault on cinema screens by all kinds of superheroes and vigilantes.

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