Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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Look at me – a fat silly lame impotent old woman.  Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a prison clerk in 1887 India, sent by some accident of position to bring a valuable coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her jubilee year. She is sick and tired of her situation and fawning household courtiers and takes a fancy to Abdul, elevating him to be her Munshi, a sort of spiritual guide and teacher of all things Indian. His travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is kept on as his servant. She thinks Abdul is Hindu but he’s actually a Moslem. When the Queen realises Abdul has a wife she sends for her and she arrives with her mother, both clad in veils. Everyone in the house resents his increasing influence and when Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) arrives home from his feckless life in Monte Carlo expecting his mother’s death any day soon, he sets the staff on a course of revenge … Dench is in fine fettle as a naughty old woman just dying to let rip rather than having to endure endless official engagements and report on her bowel movements to doctors concerned with her poor diet. Lee Hall adapted the book by Shrabani Basu and Stephen Frears lends the material his customary sceptic’s eye particularly in the early stages where the comedy is high and the culture clash constant. The relationship at the story’s core is wonderfully played. Very entertaining return to the role for Dench, with apt mention of John Brown (Mrs Brown was released 19 years ago!) in another tale of Victoria’s unusual friendships and curses aplenty hurled at awful Scotland.  Funny, humane and good-natured with the inevitable bad ending wrought by the dastardly Bertie, the man who should never have been King.

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Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

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History is written by the victors. The final Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) arrives with his wife Edwina (Gillian Anderson) and daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) in 1947 British India where he is tasked with overseeing the transition to independence, but meets with conflict as different sides clash in the face of monumental change. In this vast house, new valet Jeet (Manish Dayal) a former prison officer who left due to his political leanings meets beautiful Alia (Human Qureshi) whom he knew beforehand. She tries to ignore him because he is Hindu and she is Muslim and doesn’t wish to disappoint her invalided father Ali (Om Puri). While Mountbatten tries to balance the arguments about what to do regarding the various parties’ demands – hearing out Jinnah (Denzil Smith), Nehru (Tanveer Ghani) and Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi) – and Edwina causes consternation among the staff by insisting on diverse meal preparation, Mountbatten realises that Lord Ismay (Michael Gambon) has been carrying out covert work to use partition to create a buffer state between India and the Soviet Union … This was gutted by some commentators and you can see why:  a project that was years in development, culled from several books of differing provenance with a foot in both camps as it were – a heritage romance that deals sharp lessons in politicking culminating in the greatest human migration in history with a million casualties. There are two books credited as the basis for the screenplay and a few writers: the principal source was Narendra Singh Saril’s The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition which was based on secret documents discovered in the British Library;  Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and director Gurinder Chadha are credited as screenwriters. History does not look kindly on Louis Mountbatten, who was, as this film clarifies, something of a stooge for a plan that had been in the London Government’s works for some time. (Maybe). His intentions were good, his overlords’ were anything but, is the arc here. You divided India for oil. Nonetheless the (heavily beautified) portrait of the Mountbatten marriage (no hint of Edwina’s affair with Nehru) with all the attractions of soft power being exercised within and without the household plus the subplot of the below stairs romance which is the only kind of happy ending possible here, is meticulously made. It’s nicely performed, beautifully photographed by Ben Smithard, integrating some great newsreels (real and faux) and sympathetically scored by A.R. Rahman.  Chadha’s personal relationship with the material is clarified in the end credits. As you can see, there are no straight lines in India. MM #1600.

Shashi Kapoor 03/18/1938-12/04/2017

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The great Indian actor Shashi Kapoor has died aged 79. A renowned Bollywood and Hindi star and scion of the great Kapoor theatre and film dynasty, he was part of the Western cinema audience’s world through his association with Merchant-Ivory and his role as Siddartha. He was a true legend, a charismatic and prolific performer, an accomplished filmmaker and hero to many.

Happy Birthday Shashi Kapoor!

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The great actor Shashi Kapoor celebrates his 79th birthday today. I first discovered him in the wonderful Merchant Ivory production Shakespeare Wallah (with a very young Felicity Kendal) one Saturday night when I was a kid and the BBC was still showing an interest in international cinema. I was gobsmacked and sought out whatever films they made and whatever films he was in and I’ve a long way to go (he’s made 116 Hindi films alone…) but was fascinated to learn that Bombay Talkie co-starred his wife Jennifer Kendal, conjoining the famous Kapoor acting & filmmaking dynasty with the Kendals’ travelling Shakespeare family, who spent many years trundling around India with their repertoire (and daughters). Check out the amazing choreography on the giant typewriter! He started acting as a child for his father Prithvi’s theatrical troupe and after some screen roles playing the younger version of his brother Raj he worked as assistant director for Sunil Dutt and Ravindra Dave. It was in the Sixties that he became a Bollywood star and a great romantic hero as well as an international name. He turned to producing at the end of the Seventies and co-directed the film Ajooba, co-starring his regular acting colleague Amitabh Bachchan. He can rest on his laurels:  he is a true cinema legend. Happy birthday!

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

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Tamil Srinivasa Ramanujan is toiling away as a clerk in Madras, a maths prodigy who is entirely self-taught and with little future in his home country. His work leads Professor GH Hardy to bring him to Cambridge and a difficult career ensues throughout WW1. Adapted by writer/director Matthew Brown from the book by Robert Kanigel, this biographical drama is puzzling and touching in equal parts:  the beauty of mathematics is difficult to convey to a dimwit like myself but the relationships and overt racism on campus bring out the best in Dev Patel’s acting skills. The essence of his character is religious faith – he eventually confesses to the gruff and irascible atheist Hardy (Jeremy Irons) that he believes his God is speaking to him in his sleep. Hardy’s inspiration is less theological and his insistence on proofs leads Ramanujan to a period of self-doubt, depression and serious illness. Hardy becomes his friend very late in the day, following racist attacks, vicious rivalries within the University and a declining marriage: back home in India, Ramanujan’s mother has been hiding the letters his illiterate wife was writing to him and his wife doesn’t know and ultimately writes to inform him she is leaving him. This is a beautifully handled drama about a little known man whose work during the last year of his life has been used to understand black holes. What was that about infinity and beyond?! Ah, sweet mystery of life. Gimme dat ol time religion.

The Jungle Book (2016)

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I was indisposed to the idea that the classic Disney cartoon would get a revamp. Part of my problem with photo-real animation is that when things get dark they get very lifelike and sinister indeed, as we found with the beyond-creepy Spielberg takes on Tintin and The BFG (where the villainous giant seemed like a big ole murderous paedophile). So when man-cub Mowgli gets separated from his wolf family and taken away to his own people by black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) the shifts in tone from good nature (Baloo the bear, Bill Murray) to bad (Shere Khan the tiger, an almost incomprehensible Idris Elba) are very jarring. The musical interludes while entertaining seem like they’re dropped in from another movie. Overall however, it has to be admitted that it all works out in the end. Good stories are sometimes immune to strange interpretations. And how nice is it to hear Garry Shandling voicing the porcupine?  Written by Justin Marks, directed by Jon Favreau.

A Passage to India (1984)

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The last film of the magnificent British filmmaker, David Lean, whose epic dramas were actually intimate studies of men and women in crisis. He changed the text of Forster’s anti-colonial novel but it still works because it’s so horribly believable. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) is the naive bride to be who arrives in India and in the confusion of heat stroke and indecisiveness accuses an innocent Indian doctor of rape. There was criticism of Lean’s casting of Alec Guinness in a native role, and there are some notable alterations, but it’s so well cast and such a brilliant study of a woman so deludedly in love with the idea of seduction that you can overlook that and enjoy the entire text. Given his preoccupations, how fitting that Lean’s very last shot is of a woman’s face.

Eat Pray Love (2010)

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The zeitgeist sometimes throws up books that speak to a lot of people. This volume by Elizabeth Gilbert was one of them. It’s a given that 50% of the population (that is, the male half) will not get this. And a fair proportion of women who do not walk out on their toxic relationships will not get it either. (A friend in a dreadful marriage told me to ‘F… off and mind your own business’ when I gave her a copy of the book. Nice!) On a TV arts show I watched the women eviscerate this film:  it wasn’t ‘feminist’ or ’empowering’ and why would a good looking successful career woman with an idiot husband living off her need to leave him – like what’s she so UNHAPPY about?! … Etc.  And of those who do get this, some will remain sceptical about the benefits of handing over everything you own to a man just to be shot of him (he’s Billy Crudup but he’s a directionless tosser here, so that’s alright.) But when the next guy is James Franco, it’s slightly more understandable. But he’s not right either! Because life’s not all about sex with handsome empathetic actors into meditation! So Liz Gilbert got herself a book contract and took off with the proceeds of her travel journalism (and presumably some frequent flier miles) and decided to get back to basics – to permit herself to eat real food and not just lettuce leaves, to learn Italian and get some balance in her life. Julia Roberts is a skinny creature who will never gain the kind of weight we hear about here, Italy looks great and the men are delectable. Richard Jenkins is a kind of guru while Javier Bardem offers Liz the prospect of a marriage of equals in Bali. Okay – I understand that waiting for the right guy isn’t all of the answer but for some people … it’s some of it. Ryan Murphy is working from a screenplay he adapted with Jennifer Salt and you know, it’s pretty terrific.It was shot in sequence so that Roberts’ performance really achieves the gravity and grace she feels she needs to acquire to get through life easier. Sometimes you need to look at what a film is actually doing and saying as opposed to what it’s not attempting in the first place. Or something. What’s not to love? Eat? Pray?! Whatever! PS Speaking of the zeitgeist there’s a new book on the history of Chinese philosophy that totally discredits the mindless idea of mindfulness that seemingly intelligent people indulge right now – so get with the programme, eat pasta, learn Italian, dance! Cos the answer to life is not all inside – it’s outside! Enjoy yourself! Yeah!