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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Granger at the Movies: ‘Victoria & Abdul,’ ‘American Made,’ ‘Flatliners’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Undiscovered until 2010, the revelatory historical footnote known as “Victoria & Abdul” chronicles an improbable friendship that enhanced the elderly British monarch’s final years.

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Bookended by a prologue and conclusion set in India, the period dramedy begins with a vivid depiction of how widowed, 81-year-old Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) was not only weary but also utterly bored by her perpetual royal duties.

Until one evening at a dinner, she spots Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a tall, turbaned Muslim servant recently dispatched to London from Agra, along with a companion, Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), to present her royal highness with a ceremonial coin for her 1887 golden jubilee.

Ignoring protocol, guileless Abdul makes not only makes eye contact with the queen but also kisses her shoe. The next day, she imperiously demands that he and Mohammed remain at court.

Before long, Abdul becomes HRH’s “munshi” (teacher/spiritual adviser) and constant companion, piquing her curiosity about the Urdu language and the tenets of Islam. “We are here for a greater purpose,” he tells her.

As empress of India, she wants to know more about that country and culture, which increasingly appalls her bigoted, jealous courtiers, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Tim Pigott-Smith), and repressive, resentful son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Prince of Wales, who subsequently became King Edward VII.

Inevitably, complications arise, revolving around Abdul’s marital status and health, but they remain close friends for 14 years — until Victoria’s death in 1901.

Freely adapted from a book by Shrabani Basu, Queen Victoria’s handwritten journals in Urdu and Abdul Karim’s private notebooks, it’s somewhat superficially scripted by Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”), who fails to flesh out Abdul’s character, discreetly skirting the obvious racial and colonial aspects.

But by coupling Judi Dench with Bollywood’s Ali Fazal, director Stephen Frears ignites an irresistible chemistry. And Dame Judi, who played a younger version of Queen Victoria in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), commands every scene she’s in.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Victoria & Abdul” is a sublimely subtle, ravishing 7 — aimed specifically at an older audience.

As “American Made” unfolds, it’s obviously “based on a true lie,” meaning that the facts have been embellished but several things are clear.

Back in the 1980s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) was a hotshot TWA pilot from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who sneaked Cuban cigars in his luggage and relieved his in-flight boredom by careening around the wild blue, as the resulting turbulence abruptly awakened sleeping passengers.

His antics caught the attention of shady CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who gave Seal his own Cessna and offered a monetary deal he couldn’t refuse.

According to glib Schafer, legitimacy was not a worry, including Seal’s initially surreptitiously snapping surveillance photographs and covertly smuggling cocaine and AK-47s into Central America.

Working as a double agent, he consorted with Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Majia) of Colombia’s Medellin cartel, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (Alberto Ospino) and the Nicaraguan Contras.

Collaborating with Doug Liman, who launched the “Bourne” franchise and scored with Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow,” proves a perfect match between director and star, interweaving authentic news footage and touching on real life corruption and a scandal that allegedly involved Lt. Col. Oliver North and the National Security Council, along with President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan.

Flashing his ingratiating smile, Cruise, as Seal, had no trouble convincing his at-first skeptical wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) that she shouldn’t have a problem with all the cash coming in — so much, in fact, that all the closets in their house were stuffed, plus numerous duffels hidden in underground crypts.

The only fly in the ointment turns out to be Lucy’s rotten hillbilly brother (Caleb Landry Jones), who catches the attention of their local sheriff (Jesse Plemons).

FYI: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Cross Creek Pictures decided to cut a scene showing Seal with then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton, who was receiving a lap dance at a strip club, reportedly because they didn’t want the film to be overly political.

On the Granger Gauge, “American Made” is an edgy, engaging, adrenaline-charged 8, proving once again America is the land of opportunity.

Hollywood has suffered a disastrous summer because the major studios have raided the franchise larder too many times — and the unnecessary remake of “Flatliners” is one of the worst.

Back in 1990, Joel Schumacher’s psychological horror/thriller picture was not only Oscar-nominated but made the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts and Kevin Bacon, it had a provocative premise which is repeated this time ‘round.

Riddled by guilt over her role in the drowning death of her sister, medical student Courtney Holmes (Ellen Page) is morbidly curious about the afterlife. Determined to use an MRI to map brain activity after ‘death,’ she initiates an experiment in which her heart is stopped, she “dies” and is then revived.

Afterward, Courtney discovers that her consciousness has been expanded and her abilities amplified. Naturally, her colleagues — insecure Sophia (Kiersey Clemons), cocky Jamie (James Norton) and driven Marlo (Nina Dobrev) — are determined to have their turn in the chair in the hospital’s sublevel C “lab.” Only reluctant, ex-fireman Ray (Diego Luna) tenaciously abstains.

Inevitably, there’s a traumatic price to be paid for dabbling in this ethical/moral/legal dilemma — and it’s horrifyingly high. 

Working from Ben Ripley’s shallow, utterly predictable, rebooted script, Danish director Niels Arden Oplev lumbers the contrived, repetitive narrative along at a slow pace, delivering only banal imagery and minimal, generic scares. In homage to his role of Nelson Wright, Kiefer Sutherland makes a brief appearance as the authoritative, gray-haired dean of the medical school. 
                 
On the Granger Gauge, “Flatliners” is a tepid 3. Why bother?


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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Posted 10/10/17 at 12:39 PM  Permalink



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