Thursday, April 9, 2015

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
March 2015

Birdman

If I hadn't read a critic's comments: “One of the best movies of 2014, this inventively filmed (no visible cutting-it seems like it's all one shot) show-business satire stars Michael Keaton as a former superhero film star, now in his 60s, who goes to Broadway in search of redemption and enters a maelstrom of tension and strife” I wouldn't have gone to that movie. I am sorry I went. Most people who went to see it also went only because it was an Academy nominee, otherwise it would only have been seen by the artsy crowd.

It was sad, dark, depressing, had elements of “magical realism” not explainable as just madness in the mind of the protagonist (he could actually fly) and I left the theatre wishing I had not gone. The best lines in the film were those of Shakespeare, recited by a failed actor living in the street. Alas.

Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I was forced to suspend my less than enchanted view of India to enjoy the first The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel film, which managed to entertain me. How could one not be entertained by a group of stellar British seniors braving the discomforts of Jaipur-Belly (I knew it as Tehran Tummy), unreliable electrical brownouts, nuisance potholes, insane traffic including water buffaloes, in exchange for the dreariness of British weather. And how charming to watch such pros as Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, and Judi Dench interact with other in a ramshackle Jaipur hotel redesigned to be a British retirement hotel run by a young, fiercely enthusiastic young Indian played by Dev Patel. The film worked, and the audiences flocked to see it and they were charmed.

Now the sequel arrived, and my friends and I, no spring chickens any of us, sat in a theater in which we may have been the youngest!  We, alas, were not charmed. The cast of this sequel seemed to be a showcase of the Downton Abbey, with the wonderful Maggie Smith appearing very old indeed, and very depressed throughout. I was particularly annoyed to find India portrayed as totally benign. Not a harsh word to say about anyone or anything. Not the India we see in the news every day. I certainly would warn any senior English pensioner against wandering around those streets without warning to guard life and limb.

There seemed little excuse for making this sequel, even with its ending with an Indian dance extravaganza taken directly out of a Bollywood movie.  Alas, not for us. A cheerful, but wasted afternoon.


Chappie

Science fiction movies always give a writer an opportunity to play with themes bigger than technology, and this film does, a theme no less than that of consciousness. Ever since the invention of robots, human beings have worried that somebody will invent a robot that will be able to think-and that it will be smarter than human beings. Artificial intelligence is a really frightening notion: one that was able to traumatize us in the film 2001, when the computer HAL refused to obey its human master and took over the space ship. Good grief!

In this South African film, the story takes us into the near future when the human police force have been replaced by robots who are much more effective and far less vulnerable to a well-armed and lethal criminal underworld. They are maintaining order and the company manufacturing the robots is doing very well indeed.

But one young engineer (Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel) has ambitions beyond using robots as mechanical weaponized police: he wants to create a thinking robot. Salvaging a robot whose battery is fused and cannot be replaced (after a gun battle) with only three days of power left, he succeeds in creating a chip that replicates a human brain that can think.

Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore, another engineer with a different ambition: he has created a very malevolent killing machine called the Moose that he is eager to deploy-but only for the purpose of getting rid of all the robotic police so that they can return to human policing. He and his machine are pure evil.

The film explores all levels of good and evil, and biblical “Genesis” is a theme that one does not usually see throughout such a science fiction film. Deon calls himself “the Maker” (God?) and Chappie, the thinking, child-like Robot is his creation, like the first human, capable of knowing right from wrong. And Chappie has a point when he asks his maker how could he put a conscious brain into a body destined to run out of battery in three days!  Indeed!

He has been kidnapped by a criminal gang led by Ninja and his mate, a tough, smart little cookie name Yolandi, who surprisingly turns maternal and begins to help Deon to program the childlike Chappie, teaching him language. In one of the most endearing scenes in the film, she reads to him from a childrens' book about the little black sheep, explaining the concept of the soul!

Ninja's gang, bad as it is, is less evil than the master criminal gang above it. Even evil has its levels, and it seems that Hugh Jackson's Moose is the most evil of all.

Will Chappie choose good or evil?  Will his maker survive all this chaos and violence?  Does Yolandi become the beginning of robotic religious worship? Tune in to think about it.

One word from your rational reviewer:  Nice as it is to think that our brains can be plugged into a computer chip to be transferred to a new body so that we can live forever, alas, dear friends, our brains and bodies are married to each other. Our thoughts and identities are both electronic and chemical and hormonal.


Cinderella

Why make another Cinderella? Because this time, Kenneth Branagh did it right and it was wonderful. This 17th century classic written by Charles Perrault has given hope and pleasure to children for centuries. How lovely to think that goodness can triumph in the face of injustice, something that does not usually happen in the real world.

In this film, Lily James (last seen as the frivolous Lady Rose in Downton Abbey) plays Ella, Richard Madden (Jamie in Game of Thrones) as Prince Charming, Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine (the wicked stepmother), and Helena Bonham Carter as The Fairy Godmother, among other well known British stars. This was stellar drama done well.

We see Ella living with doting parents in a beautiful estate where her family has lived for many generations. They are wealthy merchants, country gentry. Her mother believes in magic and is kind to animals, particularly mice. Life is perfect until her mother becomes ill and dies. Before her death, she gives her code of honor to her daughter: Have Courage and Be Kind.

Her father, years later, marries again, and brings home a new wife, a widow with two daughters, Widow Tremaine (Blanchette). Ella welcomes them with kindness. On a business journey, her father dies and her stepmother shows her  true colors. She dismisses all the servants and turns Ella into the sole servant, Cinderella, much abused, hopeless.

One day in despair, Ella leaps on her horse and rides into the forest where she encounters a royal hunting party and a frightened stag. She warns the stag off, and meets a young hunter whom she chastises for hunting an animal who had done him no harm. Neither knows whom the other is. They like each other. It is the Prince, who calls himself Kit, his father's pet name for him, and says he is an apprentice in the palace. She says nothing about herself.

The rest of the story we know. Even in her misery, Ella feeds the ugly old hag some milk and bread. The old hag is her fairy godmother, of course. And the magic is the splendid work of this very godmother, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who turns all the familiar things: the pumpkin, mice, lizards, frogs, and dress into the most glorious coach and works of imagination possible!  There was never such a ball! And never was there such a turning back into their original components. This was truly the magic of modern cinema.

Now, for some social commentary about the nonsense of the supposed democracy about the Prince marrying a simple country girl.  Nonsense! Ella was NEVER Cinderella, despite all the malevolent efforts of her stepmother and her stepsisters!

She had been reared in luxury by loving parents who taught her gently. She had been taught to dance. She spoke French (as we saw in this movie)! She was accomplished and beautiful.  She could ride a horse astride (this at a time that even having a horse was something only nobility could manage. She had a code of honor taught by her parents (noblesse oblige) “Have courage and be kind.” And she had something that was exclusive only to later than 16th century western values: forgiveness. She forgave her horrible stepmother!

Her prince was not marrying a simple country girl. Nor was she marrying a boring Prince Charming. He was worthy of her.

Queen and Country

John Boorman's Hope And Glory 1987 film was nominated for five Academy Awards, telling the story of a nine-year-old boy, Bill Rohan (perhaps Boorman himself) whose school was destroyed by a wandering Luftwaffe bomb during World War II. The children, of course, were delighted. This film became a cult favorite, and told what it was like for ordinary British children growing up in that dramatic era.

Queen and Country takes up Bill's story ten years later when he is drafted into the Korean War, along with his best friend, Percy, an incorrigible prankster. The two of them never get sent into combat (fortunately for them) but are assigned to teach typing and have their first exposure to sex and love (young nurses).

The film seemed to me much longer than its two hours, skipping around between its MASH-like humor of the two young men trying to get even playing tricks on their stuffy commanding officers, the shabbiness of 1950s postwar Britain bereft of its empire, the sadness of the death of King George and the coronation of the young Queen, and the obvious lack of direction of the younger generation of the British, not able to take positions on anything. It didn't work for me.

The film made me feel somehow sad.

Two TV Programs That Deserve Better

Two network programs, The Americans and Dig deserve better! I have been watching them because the ideas behind them are so good, but they should never have been submitted as programs interrupted by commercials, stretched out as they are, and teasing audiences for weeks at a time. They would have been wonderful as movies or as PBS series.

The Americans is a program about Russian moles, a couple planted in Washington during the Cold War, who live like Americans, have two children who know nothing of whom their parents really are, nor do their neighbors in their rural suburb. This is so well written, and the moral issues so fascinating, not only theirs, but also those of the FBI family living across the street from them. How long can they keep from getting caught?  How long can they keep from realizing that they are being used by an extremely bad system? How long before their children catch on? How long before they themselves fall in love with the country they are supposed to be betraying?

The other program is a new one:  Dig. It is so good, so complex, that it is maddening to have it cut up by commercials!  It is about a conspiracy by really wacko people who want to bring about Armageddon in Israel based on an apocalyptic myth: a red heifer, the return of the messiah, and the breastplate of the last high priest of the destroyed temple in Jerusalem. There is an FBI agent, an Ultra-Orthodox group, a sinister cult in New Mexico, criminals, an American consul-general, and all sorts of very unsavory players. And what better venue can you have than old city Jerusalem at night?

This deserves better.

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