“ Red Joan”

Well-paced and well-acted, “Red Joan” causes time to fly and a tale of global patriotism to shine. A spy for love and peace, Judi Dench and Sophie Cooksen bring the real Melita Norwood to light. Based on the Jennifer Rooney novel ” Red Joan”, this film by the same name, tells the true story of a Cambridge physics whiz of the 1930’s who spied for the Russians for all the right reasons: love and peace.

A period piece with lovely music by George Fenton keeps us intrigued through two lovers, a suspicious death, a blackmail of a friend and fellow spy, a marriage, and a MI5 arrest of a elderly woman, some fifty years after her crime. Throw in the formation of the Atomic bomb and the politics of the time and a chain reaction is ready to explode on the screen. The fact that it doesn’t is part of the story. No country is torpedoed after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The premise is with Russia and the U.S. both having the bomb, the balance of power will keep us all safer.

No real spy gadgets are utilized except for a series of saintly medals like St. Albert and Saint Christopher that have the ability to undetectibly kill when a pin is pricked in one’s forearm’s fold. A santitary towel, or feminine hygiene product, hides a hidden camera to be easily tossed into a canal before MI5 agents discover it.

The past and the present is interwoven in Lindsay Sharpero’s screenplay. Sophie Cookson is the young Joan, idealistic, and primed to be deflowered and politicized by her first lover, Leo ( Tom Hughes), who calls her ” my little comrade” and “Jojo” in turns. And there are many turns. Their secret haunts and embankment picnics may still rebuild the world in a whole new way.

When Joan discovers Leo’s relationship with her friend, Sonya ( Czech actress Teresa Srbova ), heartache ensues, but a Communist sympathizer she remains. Joan’s second lover becomes her boss on the atomic bomb project and ultimately her forgiving husband, Prof. Max Davis ( Stephen Campbell Moore). A member of their Cambridge group, now in a high British office, is personally blackmailed by Joan. Personal relationships and spy life don’t mix well, but this allows for a normal life in Australia, or ultimately in Bexleyheath, South East London.

In a sentimental turn, Joan’s barrister son Nick, played by Ben Miles, represents her in front of the media as she is dubbed “The Granny Spy”. She was not prosecuted due to her age. Her fictional son ( she had only one daughter) never learned of his father’s arrest for his Russian sympathies in lieu of his mother.Joan believed she was fighting for all humanity, and Max believed and loved her. She tells Max that she was fighting for the living.”I love my country.” She could have added,”I love our world”. When Nick asks his mother how much his dad knew, she simply says, “Enough”.

Director Trevor Nunn begins with Judi Dench pruning her English garden. She has pruned her conscience in the same way. Signing a contract to absolute secrecy was erased for a higher good. A KGB recruit she may be, but the Russians were our allies and scientific research needs to be shared. The balance of power is at stake. This film balances heart and intellect but in 1930 style. Those looking for “The Enemy Within” will be annoyed at the lack of physical action. I liked this film more than most reviewers.

“Sunset” ( The Hungarian film “ Napszallta” )

Hungarian film director Nemes Laszlo has been called unconventional. I reviewed his award-winning “ Son Of Saul” ( Nov. 14th, 2015 ) where he enlightened us by forcing viewers to live horrific pieces of the Holocaust. I am familiar with his use of fire and fireworks, his focus on one main character, and his hellish view of humankind, but none of this prepared me for “Sunset”.

I was befuddled throughout. At one point I thought I may have been seeing two vampire tribes vying for power. The fall of an empire never crossed my mind. A corrupt monarchy came later, but by then I was just sidetracked by the perplexing gender freedom of a twentyish, orphan-raised female protagonist allowed to walk anywhere in 1913 Bucharest. And this is mostly what she does~ walk, though there is the occasional carriage, tram and train, and rowboat.

The camera rarely leaves Irisz Leiter’s face. Hungarian actress Juli Jakab plays Irisz, and she resembles the American actress Kristen Stewart with her ferret-like directness. She is looking to meet a brother she did not know she had. She is warned that he is a monster, but she is not to be deterred.

Irisz has come to to Bucharest initially to establish herself as a milliner in the fashion house that her parents once owned , Leiter House.  A conflagration of some type demolished their family. Whether the parents died or were eventually employed in a carnival-like freak show is unclear, like much of the film. Though Irisz lifts the black netted veil of her wide brimmed hat, we never really see her clearly. Like the Vaseline smeared over the camera lens, we get only the impression of a girl seeking the truth and her place in the world.

What is clear is how women are abused for the sexual pleasure of depraved royals. If this is an allegory about the Austrian-Hungary break-up and the Dual Monarchy, it is beyond me to explain in light of this film.  Foot fetishes and imperial weirdness take on a rapine violence and then we see our Irisz in the trenches of WWI. If anyone can explain this film, I would like to hear from you.

 

 

“ Hotel Mumbai”

The  most arresting thing about the film “Hotel Mumbai” is that the actual cell phone calls made by the terrorist mastermind are used verbatim. To hear the psychological ploys used in this kind of brainwashing enlightens us. We hear “ You feel strong. You feel calm. Paradise awaits you, ” and we are chilled. By the time we see twelve or more young zealots with backpacks jump from a small rowboat like vessel, we are ready for the enactment of true events. “ Remember your training. The whole world is watching”, echoes and appalls.

While it feels rather sacrilegious watching a true disaster enfold, the suspense/entertainment factor is quickly overridden by the Indian staff’s heroics in putting their guests’ lives first. The body count is documented at one-hundred and seventy-four souls. Over half are  staff members trying to shepherd their guests to safety.

One of the most harrowing scenes was of young security women at first ordered to call a room and lie that help was on the way. Once the  terrorists rapid fire could be heard, the guards refused to call another room; and they are sacrificed to the cause.

The terrorists are shown as pawns. Their cell phones are billeted with propaganda.” Look at what they have stolen from you, from your grandfathers. Remember your training.” Likewise, the hotel staff is humanized. Dev Patel is a Sikh waiter with an infant daughter and a pregnant wife, whose sister does not show up to babysit. Rushed to change plans, he forgets his polished shoes and is almost dismissed from his shift when he shows up in socks and sandals. Various other hotel staff members are introduced , and we begin to admire the leadership of the head chef, Hermant Oderoi. Anupam Kher of the medical television series “ New Amsterdam” plays Oderoi. Some actual footage of the 2008 terrorist attack is used.

The Hotel Mumbai guests are introduced like in most disaster films. Their major personality strengths and flaws are highlighted. Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are the married couple bringing their infant and amah to the luxury hotel. They are greeted with leis and invocations of “namaste” as they settle into perfectly regulated bath water temperatures and floating flower petals. The other world luxury of champagne and white gloves is juxtaposed against the young terrorists seeing a flush toilet for the first time. The disparity of creature comforts is starkly made.

The suspense is  relentless. Who will survive and who will die ? What would we do in similar circumstances ? One no-no everyone in the theatre would agree on would be the unpreparedness of the amah, or nanny. Tilda Cobham-Hervey plays Sally. She has no pacifier or bottle and never thinks just to open her blouse as a means of quieting a baby.

Anthony Maras is the debut director of this Australian-Indian-U.S. film. It is violent and has a video-game quality that is alarming. The random killing is loud and then punctuated by eerie silence.

All the while we are reminded that “ the guest is God”. Whip cream is piped on plates as we hear “none deserve Allah’ s mercy.” Over 1,000 guests and 500 staff members are trapped and under siege. The Indian Special Forces are all in New Delhi hours away. One jihadist calls  home to tell his father and sister that he loves them. A hostage recalls a saying to quash fear: “ Don’t be afraid to jump, you just may fly.”

Six hours of hide and seek, grenade throwing, fires and explosions, and media intrusions leave viewers exhausted. The final Muslim prayer said by the grief-stricken Zahara will stay with you, and so will the mastermind’s  “Be brave m my lions”. Not for the faint of heart.

“The Aftermath”

“The Aftermath” is a beautifully filmed post World War II drama set in Hamburg. Based on a novel by Rhidian Brook, this film beckons me to read the novel just to see how long it takes to feel any connection to the main character Rachel Morgan. Keira Knightley at first seems like a closed book of shallow needs and prejudiced failings. She has come from London to be with her husband Lewis, who has important work in the British Occupied Zone of Germany as Regional Governor . He is such a good man that actor Jason Clarke may find himself beatified by viewers. The Morgans seemed mismatched in empathy for broken spirits and fallen edifices.

The Elbe flows and we learn more. Both Rachel and Lewis are in the throes of grief. Their eight-year-old son had been killed in his bedroom in a blitz of German bombing. Lewis buries himself in work, never really asking for details in his son’s death. Subconsciously blaming his wife for not better protecting him, Lewis only in retrospect asks if he suffered. Rachel finds herself wondering about Lewis lack of display of feeling, and identifies with the subsuming grief of the architect whose manor house they inhabit. His wife, Claudine, was also killed in a British fire bombing. He is left with a daughter Freda to raise.

A love triangle develops with the architect, Stephen Lubert, played dashingly by Alexander Skarsgard, who in a lovely scene practices his English in front of a mirror, “ Welcome, please come inside. Let me show you the house.” Lewis has graciously allowed the father and daughter to remain on the estate. They move to the attic rather than to one of the many wings. This keeps them out of the refugee camps and into the daily life if the Morgans. Stephen re-centers vases on tables and takes pride in his home’s furnishings. He is lonely, appreciative, and physically attracted to Rachel, who seems to hate all Germans. She initially rejects his proffered hand shake. A challenge, physical need, and shared grief are motives for the lust to follow. There are foreshadowings of subdued desire with a female nude replacing a portrait if Hitler, a stain that can’t be removed was at first covered up with a lace curtain. Melodramatic coupling ensues after an aggressive kiss. Director James Kent keeps the sex scenes smoldering. The pairing of Knightley and Skarsgard sets up a loyalty and betrayal theme that is resolved at the film’s end.

The marriage of Lewis and Rachel is balanced nicely against the affair. They sleep together, talk of their honeymoon. Lewis is heavy with the compliments, and patient with Rachel’s primping and pouty demeanor. She is at first unhappy with her husband’s suggestion that the Lubert stay. “ I was looking forward to it just being us.” Rachel states, though one knows she would need the staff to carry on. Lewis tells her that “ none of this is as it was supposed to be”.  There is chaos out there, and no food. Meanwhile, Rachel complains to the maid that the plants are blocking the light and need to be moved. The staff roll their eyes and talk in metaphors, like “ maggots on bacon”.

The cinematography of Frank Lustig is what you come to see as the superlative in “ The Aftermath”. The blues and golden ochres stay with you, the soft and focused lighting is like poetry. Production designer Sonja Klaus deserves credit, too. My movie partner noticed the German china as a duplicate of her own brought back by her mother in the late forties. Rachel’s seamed stocking are perfectly straight, their son’s maroon sweater frayed just enough, and Rachel’s German so inexact that she calls the maid delicious rather than the meal. Velvet and pearls are Rachel’s regular garb. We wonder why she doesn’t help out in a soup kitchen.

Rachel tells Lewis that he is stifled under all that righteousness, when their bedtime is interrupted, she sarcastically tells him “ to go save Germany”. Privileged selfishness is hard to sanction, yet in the end we understand Rachel better, and it saves the film.

The violence in “ The Aftermath” is fast, yet suspenseful~ a hard combination. We know Lewis is right when he says that it is not war that makes us men. It may be love and forgiveness.

The British opine that the Yanks got the view, the French got the wine, and they got the ruins. The tension sizzles as uprisings flair with hardline Nazis. Occupied zones have been dealt with in other post WWII films, and there are many stories to tell. “ The Aftermath” meshes the pain of war with the psychology of healing. I have trouble seeing Rachel as the best part of Lewis, but that is love for you.

 

 

 

“Diane”

“Diane” is more of a meditation then a film. Actress Mary Kay Place is a do-good volunteer whose “to do list” encompasses visiting the sick, serving meals at a shelter, listening to caregivers of ailing husbands, and taking care of the laundry and well-being of a druggy son ( Jake Lacy) . Pushing 68 never looked more depressing than exchanging casserole dishes or being cut off at the neighborhood bar.

The message seems to be “ you are not alone in your misery”.  Kent Jones is the writer and the director of “Diane”. He uses the winding roadways of western Massachusetts to show us how small town rural bonding helps connect us to each other’s pain while lessening the solitude of our own. Card playing, pot-luck dinners, small town gossip, canning escapades, and advice giving at County Buffets are all documented.

Everyone knows their neighbors intimate circumstances. Diane’s practical friend, Bobbie, ( Andrea Martin) knows of Diane’s son’s addiction and the extreme stress it heaves on her.  She also knows he bullies his mother. “You have to get some peace,” she berates her friend. Diane pushes back with, “Leave a baby on a mountaintop to die!” They needle, but support one another. The mundane is championed as core. There are clashes with a judgmental worker, who wants the rules on second helpings upheld. There are insights from a man Diane regularly serves named Tom. He notes that she is always apologetic, yet he feels “sanctified” by her giving him help.

I did not find the dream sequences effective, but the old age voice of “did I turn off the burner” is  a spark of humor that writer Kent is expert at displaying. In comparing this film to the twice made “Gloria” ( reviewed Feb. 8th, 2015) ,Diane would be the better woman and , assuredly, the better friend. Life, past and present goes fast. This film is a meditation to just that.

Sarcasm is everyday real, too. When a daughter is found  helping with her ailing father, Diane cuts with “ What a nice surprise!” The younger generation is slow to step up, but Diane is just as slow to forgive her past sins. Her cousin Donna ( Deirdre O’Connell ) is dying of cervical cancer. Donna has not forgotten that Diane took off with her boyfriend, leaving her to take care of the young Brian. Donna has forgiven Diane, but Diane has not forgiven herself. Diane writes in loopy handwriting in her journal of her big “sin”.

Manicures and evangelical church services keep Diane reflecting as she continues to journal. She finds solace in nature walks and writes knowing that “ I am left to be…” ~the existential journey for all of us.

“ The Mustang”

 

A little known Federal program is the theater for a beautiful film about wildness, poor impulse control, and redemption. The animal in us and the connection of elemental forces are intertwined majestically in superb acting, an original score, and in flowing cinematography. “ The Mustang” is not to be missed.

To begin  with, actor Matthias Schoenaerts is a smoldering inferno of anger: equally angry at himself, his circumstances, his kindred spirits. The Belgian actor plays Roman Coleman. He has violently pushed his wife in a domestic brawl. She falls and cracks her head against the kitchen sink. None of this do we see. His sorrow is apparent as he tries to reconnect with the daughter who was left to care for her brain-damaged mother.

This power house of a film includes one of the most effective group sessions captured on film. Much is due to good writing and to Connie Britton as a no-nonsense prison social worker. Finally, she gets a role of substance where intelligence and empathy does not need to be second fiddle to a Texas husband or to “ Friday Night Lights”. Britton shines in her own right. Her few scenes are electric, focused, and productive. As a talented clinician, she inspires us to want to help these prisoners, too. This master class on respect, could be used in MSW classrooms nationwide.

“The Mustang” begins with text information: 100,000 wild Mustang are culled by the government every year for population control. Then sounds of snorts, nuzzling, and thundering hooves bombard us. With the mountains as their only corral, the horses with manes flying dominate the screen. Isolation and freedom co-mingle. In a sharp editing switch, we see psychologist/ social worker Britton changing tact from reading multiple-choice answers to convincing prisoners that she is giving them some control by offering them entrance into a prison program taming wild horses.

Discordant sounds and corralled horses remind us of what Roman is able to tell the psychiatrist: ” I am not good with people”. Both man and beast will first have to establish their direction. One of my favorite shots is of the Mustang and Roman both on their sides, faces on the dirt, staring in each other’s eyes. There is the proverbial storm brewing.

There are three-story arcs based on Roman’s relationships. One is with Myles ( Bruce Dern) who heads the training program where wild mustang will be readied for government auction. He is a former inmate with 42 years on the job. Myles values the horses and the men. He tells Roman that he will see that he spends ten years in a psyche ward if he ever hits another horse. His candor ultimately saves both man and horse.

Another relationship is with fellow prison wrangler, Henry Cooper ( Jason Mitchell ) . Henry urges Roman to name his horse, be patient, and remember “ears to the front” mean he is happy,” ears to the back” means he is mad. Penned in by razor wire mountains, Henry gets into stealing and selling the drug used to calm down the horses. He has competition with Roman’s roommate, and teasing banter is cut short.

Roman’s pregnant daughter visits him to get his signature. She needs him to release her grandmother’s home for sale. Actress Gideon Adlon plays daughter Martha. She carries just the right level of resentment and resistance to her father’s proclamations of love and regret. Her words, “ I’m listening” are heartfelt.

”The Mustang” is a Robert Redford production, and it is French director’s Laure de Clement-Tonnerre’s directional debut. I found the film powerful and positive. The original  score sublime. Kudos to Jed Kurzel and all.

 

 

 

“The Wedding Guest”

The worse movie of the year happens to be an Indian “Bonnie and Clyde”. Dev Patel’s character is still connected to a hotel, but don’t see this latest hook-up if you are looking for his warmth and charm.

The screenplay, if one can call it that, is horrendous. Michael Winterbottom as both script writer and director is to blame. His comedy/drama “ The Trip To Italy” ( 2014) was so much more satisfying with its sharp editing and with its characters, who were worth caring about. Winterbottom should stick to lighter fare. Noir is hard to do. Love of money is just too shallow as an impetus to fuel this duo. A back story may have helped, but as written, this story is an effort to watch.

Both Jay ( Dev Patel) and Samira ( Radhika Apte) are liars, and they are snake-like in their contortions to steal and kill for pure mercenary ends. There is no ideology here, just pathological self-interest in beating the game. There is some smarts needed to parlay four passports, plan for car exchanges, and border crossings; but, we have seen this kind of underground network many times before. International sim-cards and throw away cell phones have lost their cool.

Patel is good at giving orders: “ You stay here.” “ Put your hair up”.  A sub-theme may be stretched out to include women as their own agents, yet who wishes to be like this creepy, bold planning  male. Samira has her own plan to pocket her former fiance’s family gemstones. Patel’s character just wants a cut. He seems romantically inclined to a girl more despicable than he is. Her first boyfriend side kick is shot by Jay, and Samira helps drag the corpse off the road. She watches Jay torch the body without shedding a tear. Later,  Samira’s swim in a hotel pool is stupidly set to add something sexy to the screen. The soundtrack is cloying and poorly done.

If India is a perfect place to get lost in, the UK is not the place to educate the masses in morals. These are British educated, bad people who are impossible to  like. One scene that is particularly off-putting has Jay, who lies that his real name is Joseph, tries to scare Samira at a  hideaway beach house. He picks up a rock and jabs it toward her as if a live toad would scare her, or that juvenile antics could be equated with this character.  This one glimpse of silliness is the Dev Patel of previous better films, it does not jive with Jay, and is never seen again.

The ending has Jay calling Samira’s name after she has long escaped with half his money and half the jewels. His cell rings and she says that she will miss him. Viewers won’t miss either one.