Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Viceroy's House

While in the UK, I had to watch at least one film that won’t be released in North America for a while. The only qualifying film of interest was Viceroy’s House.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (she made Bend it Like Beckham), Viceroy’s House stars Hugh Bonneville as Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, cousin to King George VI, who was sent to India in 1947 as its last viceroy in order to negotiate India’s independence. Gillian Anderson plays Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina, who is a progressive woman determined to treat the Indian people with the kind of respect not afforded them under colonial rule. Mountbatten, known for his charm, tolerates his wife’s compassion but all their good will cannot prevent the incredible tension and violence that is to come as India is split into two countries (Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). 

Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), leader of the All-India Muslim League, has long wanted a separate country for India’s Muslims, despite Gandhi’s clear warnings that such a division will wreak havoc (Gandhi is played by Neeraj Kabi). Mountbatten supports Gandhi’s position, but doesn’t realize that powers greater than he have already determined India’s fate, for reasons that are anything but thoughtful or constructive (as Mountbatten would like to be).

This part of Viceroy House’s plot is well done and tells a vital story that needs to be told. However, Viceroy House has another story to tell and gives it almost as much weight. That story is the romantic relationship between Jeet (Manish Dayal), who is one of Mountbatten’s valets and a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi), a Muslim woman who works for Edwina. This relationship allows Chadha to come at the separation of religions from a different viewpoint and many viewers will no doubt be drawn to the story of the young couple. However, this story is much weaker than the other and weakens the entire film as a result by so sharply dividing its time. With a stronger focus, Viceroy’s House might have been a classic instead of an important but light entertainment.

I understand why Chadha made the film the way she did (having to do with the story of her own parents during that time), and her heart is certainly in the right place, which counts for much with me. But while much of the acting is very strong (especially that of veteran supporting actors like Simon Callow, Michael Gambon and Om Puri), too much of the dialogue and acting are not as strong as they could be and I can’t give Viceroy’s House more than somewhere between *** and ***+. Nevertheless, my mug is up and I recommend this film to everyone. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

I had a couple of hours free and I needed a warm place to sit, so while travelling in the UK, I stopped in to watch Kong: Skull Island. It was one of those rare times when I watched a film before checking how it was rated b y my favourite critics. Had I checked, I may have passed on this chance to waste my time on this poor excuse of an adventure film.

Kong: Skull island has a lot of things going for it, like the interesting premise of a lost island in the Pacific, which is almost unreachable due to perpetual storm clouds. Then there’s the fascinating group of actors, like John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Hiddleston. These actors almost made the film worth watching, but some of their lines were so cringe-worthy that the operative word remains ‘almost’. And Kong himself was the best thing about the film, rendered very believably and given a unique blend of characteristics and history (better than any of the human actors). And the cinematography was occasionally breathtaking. 

But all the good stuff went to waste as we watch one character after another get killed off by the various ‘monsters’ on Skull Island (sorry for the spoiler, but I’m doing you a favour here). There’s almost nothing original in how the story plays out, making that story not worth telling and not worth watching, especially with all the silly action, which often made so little sense you just want to scream at the characters for their unbelievable stupidity (like: “let’s go rescue a possible survivor even though we don’t know if he’s alive and even though we certainly know that many of us will die if we try it!”). Jackson’s character alone is worth skipping the film.

So Kong: Skull island gets **+ for all those good things, but my mug is down. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a sucker for romantic action adventure films (the way I’m a sucker for musicals).

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Young Karl Marx

I’m on the road these days, and thus my lack of reviews. Yesterday, James and I were in Heidelberg, where we watched The Young Karl Marx, which chronicles the lives of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the seven years (1841-1848) prior to the publication of their most important work, The Communist Manifesto

The Young Karl Marx is a French/German co-production directed by Raoul Peck. It takes place in four countries (Germany, France, England and Belgium) and its characters speak three languages (German, French and English). Unfortunately for us, the version we watched had all the French and English dubbed into German. This was, for me, the film’s biggest flaw, as some of the German dubbing just didn’t work (voices sounding too alike and often sounding ‘dubbed’ (understandably), which is, for me, a criminal offence in the world of filmmaking). I can’t really blame the filmmakers for this flaw, however, because presumably there will be a DVD which will allow me to hear all the words in their spoken languages (with subtitles) and that film will be much better than the one we watched.

Dubbing aside, I found The Young Karl Marx mysteriously compelling. I say ‘mysteriously’ because the way the story is written and presented would suggest that the film is lost between trying to present the ideas of Marx and Engels and trying to present an entertaining drama. In other words, it should be boring, but it’s not (at least not to me). I was riveted from start to finish, not least because the film deals with ideas that have not lost their freshness or relevancy even after 170 years (a depressing indictment, in my view, of those wasted 170 years, in which the capitalist experiment continues unabated and the world is run, more than ever, by the corporate elites, at the expense of the working classes). I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of the history, but I found the mix of drama and ideas to be just about right.

Another reason I found The Young Karl Marx compelling was the casting of August Diehl in the lead role. I found his performance convincing and sympathetic. Stefan Kornaske was solid as Engels, and Vicky Krieps and Hannah Steele were excellent as Jenny von Westphalen and Mary Burns, the women who played key roles in the lives of Marx and Engels, not only as their spouses (Marx didn’t actually marry Jenny until 1850, but they lived together) but also in the development of their thought. As James just pointed out, one of the highlights of the film was the way the relationship between Marx and Engels was portrayed, something that works because of the performances.

The cinematography and score were also excellent. I don’t know when The Young Karl Marx will come to North America, but if you are at all interested in the lives of these profound and essential thinkers, don’t miss it. ***+ (*** for the dubbed version). My mug is up.