THERE’LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND SEQUEL: Movie reviews of Queen and Country and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Howard Casner

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queen and countryQueen and Country, the new semi-autobiographical film from writer/director John Boorman (the semi part) is a sequel to Boorman’s earlier film Hope and Glory, an episodic comedy about a young lad’s picturesque adventures during World War II.

When we last saw the wee Bill, he had arrived at school to see it on fire from having been bombed during the Blitzkrieg, prompting him to yell out, “Thank you, Adolf”. It’s nearly a decade later now and Bill is an older teen and is conscripted into the army during the Korean War.

How you respond to Queen and Country will probably depend on how you respond to the way Bill is dramatized here. Personally, and to be ruthlessly honest, I found him a poor excuse for a human being who, first, has an amazing inability to fully comprehend just how lucky he is, and second, for someone whose future lies as a filmmaker, an amazing inability to understand, empathize or read the people he interacts with. Read the rest of this entry »

Moview Reviews of FROZEN and PHILOMENA by Howard Casner

Frozen is a fairy tale about a kingdom that is in, well, let us say, deep doo-doo. There is no one to rule it and it has been, well, frozen (hence the title) over. But since this is a story with two females at the center, the real focus of the story is on whether the younger one will find the right man for her life and the older one will learn to hide a power she has, a power that makes her one of the most powerful people in the world, a power that no one else has (there is actually something similar here to the television series, Bewitched, in which the wife, who is obviously the more talented of the two in her marriage, has to suppress her true abilities in order to be a normal woman—I guess we haven’t come a long way, baby).

I’m sorry, but I really don’t get it. I really don’t. Is this really the message we want to send our daughters (and I use daughters in a more catholic sense, I don’t have any myself)? I mean, this is a movie in which the rulers of a kingdom die, leaving their two daughters as heirs, but neither of the daughters are taught how to rule. In fact, one of the more ridiculous aspects of the film is that everyone talks about how important this port city, this Arendelle is, yet no one seems to be running the place. For years. And no one is grooming the next in lines to take over. It’s mind boggling.

But since both characters are future queens and/or potential mates for kings and princes, shouldn’t the story be about them learning how to become princesses and queens? Shouldn’t Elsa (voice by Broadway songstress Idina Menzel), the older sister with the power to freeze things, not be hidden away in solitary confinement, but taught how to control her power and/or how to use it for the good of the kingdom, even if she must hide it to some degree for fear of being thought a witch, since she will eventually take over the throne?

And shouldn’t Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), the younger sister, also be taught how to be to the manor born? Instead all Anna seems to learn how to do is become incredibly annoying (and I mean, incredibly; dude, she is like on of the most annoying characters I’ve seen on celluloid for some time now). I’m surprised the two ever learned how to read and write, the screenplay is so shoddy in this area. But no, the story is not about how women can learn to be effective rulers or groomed to take on power positions, but about how important it is to find a boyfriend and how important it is not to stick out as a strong female.

Even at the end when Elsa learns how to rein in the more dangerous aspects of her abilities, all she does with it is create a skating rink. No, really. I am not making this up. The ruler of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the area, and her main contribution as queen is…a skating rink. I mean, sure, it’s a pretty neat little rink, I grant you that, but, I mean…c’mon. Here the author (screenplay by Jennifer Lee from a story by Lee, Chris Buck and Shane Morris—Buck and Lee also directed) goes to all the trouble of giving her lead character this incredible power that at the end turns out to be rather worthless when it comes to her calling as a queen. So what’s the point?

Look at it this way. If the two central characters were male, do you really think the plot would work itself out remotely like this?

And since this is an animated tale and since this is Disney, it is also a musical. And I don’t know where to start here. The songs were written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and they all sound like rejects from Wicked, the style feels so similar (as do all the songs to each other). Now I love the songs from Wicked as much as the next person (well, based on the person sitting next to me, probably more), but that approach here actually never meshes with the style of the story (it should, since both are fantasies, but every song in Frozen just seems to belong in another film). And the lyrics are so simplistic, I wasn’t just agog, I was often mind numbingly agog. I realize the movie is meant for children, but, I mean, c’mon, so was The Lion King. What’s worse, they all seem to be anthems and give new meaning to the word “stop” in the phrase show stopping. And I swear, with Menzel voicing Elsa, I kept expecting her to start belting out Defying Gravity at any moment (or maybe I just so desperately wanted her to so we could have a decent tune).

I do have to admit that there was one part of the film that I did find myself laughing at and quite enjoying and that was the character of Olaf (Josh Gad), an anthropomorphized snowman who always looks on the bright side of things even when he can’t find the bottom part of his body or he’s stuck through by an icicle. It’s gimmicky, true. But it’s also one of the few things in this ice storm of a movie that was actually quite heart warming.

It should be noted, though, that at the screening I went to, the movie was preceded by a sorta, kinda new Mickey Mouse cartoon. It starts out with the Steamboat Willie Mickey of the early 30’s and has Minnie Mouse, a cow with lots of udders and a really bad, bad guy who wants Minnie. At one point, the animated characters start breaking through the 2D black and white and enter a movie theater, becoming fully colorized 3D characters (like in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo). The interplay between the two worlds is genius and the whole thing is hysterical fun. I highly recommend it. It almost makes the whole thing worth the price of admission.

The movie Philomena is definitely a story that deserves to be told. I’m not quite sure, though, it’s gotten the telling it really deserved. It’s written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (which is kind of an ironic name when it comes to the movie, but more of that later) and is directed by Stephen Frears (but a long way from The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette and The Grifters, I’m afraid; will we ever that side of Frears again?).

Steve Coogan also stars in the film, playing Martin Sixsmith, a disgraced journalist who is also one of those atheists with an unpleasant, offputting personality (you know, the Bill Maher type). In fact, he’s so unpleasant and offputting that whenever the screenplay turns to a debate on religion (and it does quite often because the character is unpleasant and offputting and that’s just the way it goes), the whole thing not only comes to a crashing halt, it comes to an embarrassing and clunky one as well. Judy Dench (the title character) plays one of those older women who gets laughs because she says things about sex we don’t think that women her age should know about, much less say (yes, that old warhorse is still employed for cheap giggles these days, I guess).

As a teen, Philomena got pregnant and was put into a convent run by an evil Abbess. How evil was she? She was so evil, that when Philomena had a breach birth which could have killed her baby, the Abbess refused to interfere (the baby was saved by a younger nun with a heart). The Abbess then forces Philomena to be an indentured servant for four years to pay back the cost of the birth while selling off all the babies born at the convent to American couples who are the only ones rich enough to afford the $1,000 cost (okay, so she’s not Hannibal Lechter evil, but still, she holds her own, I’d say, and I told you Pope’s name was ironic). The basic plotline is that Philomena and Martin join forces to try and find Philomena’s son and in the process all the familiar tropes and character arcs are employed (Martin becomes a kinder, gentler athiest and Philomena becomes more cynical about the church).

I’m making the movie sound terrible, and it’s not. It’s perfectly…okay. There’s nothing that special about it, but you do want to stick around long enough to find out how it all turns out and it does take a few surprising turns. Coogan and Dench work hard at their rolls, though Dench easily comes out the winner here. But the screenplay is uninspired and the movie is obvious, manipulative and cloying. This doesn’t mean that your throat doesn’t catch and your eyes never fight off those tears, but generally speaking that is not due to any of the actions of the behind the scenes people involved, but the story itself, which is often horrifying and moving in the historical details it provides.

Movie Review of SKYFALL by Howard Casner

I suppose it’s come to the point where, when talking about a new James Bond movie, one feels compelled to start with rankings.  Well, Skyfall is not as good as Casino Royale, but it’s far better than Quantum of Solace.


Now that that’s out of the way, whatever else Skyfall is, it’s very enjoyable and exciting, expertly acted  (with a sharp, little turn at the end by that old curmudgeon Albert Finney) and extremely well made.  You will be more than entertained.  At the same time, I also feel I should start out with a bit of deconstruction; so fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Obama may have been reelected POTUS, but Skyfall is definitely in the Romney camp.  It’s a movie that pits the old white guys against women and minorities.  Yes, I’m prepared for the ridicule and accusations of taking an escapist film a bit too seriously, but there was still for me a slight, uncomfortable tang of misogyny, homophobia and racism simmering somewhere slightly below the surface.  None of it on purpose, I’m sure, but I still maintain that it’s in the air, lingering around like an afterthought of perfume.


Skyfall is about a crisis at MI6, which at this point is run by M, played by stalwart Judy Dench.  She is the cold, distant mother who works outside the home and considers her job more important than her children.  In fact, she’s willing to sacrifice them Medea like to achieve her goals.  As a result, one (a tres amusing Javier Bardem, in equally tres amusing blond tresses that first made me think of Donald Trump and then wonder if the carpet matched the drapes) turns out to be gay and can’t handle the situation so he does what all gay men do when their mother turns against them—go mentally unstable and vow revenge (the Norman Bates route), while her other son (Daniel Craig, as stoically handsome and damned sexy as ever), grows up straight to do what every good hetero son does when caught in the same situation, bury his emotions deep within himself until he can’t create a meaningful relationship with anyone of the female persuasion (or as he’s more commonly known, James Bond).


Now the old white guys want to take MI6 back.  And M can find little support.  Even the token female on the inquiry board into M’s performance is a bitch and is more unforgiving of M than the men, with M’s only support coming from a condescending old white guy (Ralph Feinnes, not given a lot to do emotionally except for one scene where he finds himself rising to the occasion of a gun battle; but hey, it’s a paycheck).  But will the OWG’s win?  That’s the real question—not whether Craig will defeat Bardem, a conflict which is only there to distract the audience from the real apocalyptic issues facing the survival of the nation.


Okay, now that I’ve had my fun and left all my friends rolling their eyes at me, I do reiterate that Skyfall is enjoyable and exciting.  Sam Mendes, perhaps a long ways from American Beauty here, does a very commendable job as director, keeping all the various elements together, by hook and by crook if he has to.  The film opens with a riveting chase and fight scene choreographed to within an inch of Bob Fosse’s life, followed by a title sequence that would put Saul Bass to shame.


After this, though it never gets boring, the story does slow a bit.  This is mainly for two reasons.  The first is that the writers, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, keep bringing up some claptrap about the real crisis at MI6 being that the intelligence agency is stuck in the past and that the old must make way for the new (these scenes always felt forced and were never that convincing, especially since one can hardly imagine a more up to date and with the times organization than the computerized MI6 presented here).


And this emphasis seems a bit misplaced.  Much more interesting are the psychological make ups of Bardem and Craig’s characters, each of them given a traumatic past that is suppose to have made them what they are today.  But so little time is devoted to these much more complex aspects of the story, that these through lines don’t really have the emotional resonance one wished they would have had.


The second reason for a slight tediousness here is that the story, at least at the beginning, feels a bit made up as it goes along.  The action sequences and look of the film tend to overpower character and clarity of plot, so that even if the set pieces are pretty neat, a little energy seeps out when one scene doesn’t clearly lead to the other.  In fact, one almost gets the idea that the writers were given a group of locations (wonderful, amazing, startling to the eye and other senses locations—a skyscraper overpowered by electronic billboards; an isolated pagoda styled casino that feels like it’s floating in air and is lit by a million candles; an abandoned building on a deserted island with an Ozymandias statue in its courtyard; Winston Churchill’s bunker sans cigars), and told to create a story around it.   One has to give them credit for doing as well as they did (though one could wish for a bit more wit) and as the story goes along and once Bardem’s fey villain is introduced, the story gets tighter and tighter and marking time is replaced by true excitement.


The ending is a bit of a mixed message.  The old ways of hunting rifles and primitive knives win the day over the more modern weaponry of hand grenades and choppers (both of the flying and shooting kind).   But the symbol of Britain’s past, a huge, decaying monstrosity of a mansion in the middle of nowhere (or the English countryside as it’s more commonly known), is reduced to rubble.   So out with the old and in with the…old?


Because the final scenes say it all.  The gay man dies; the women are removed from their places of greatest skill (an expert female marksman is reduced to being a, wait for it…secretary—but, hey, even if she can’t type, at least she has a great figure for the men to ogle over); all racial minorities have been put in their place; and a typical father figure, as reserved, white and straight as 007 himself, takes over…all as the Founding Fathers intended, if the Founding Fathers had founded England, which they didn’t, but the principle’s the same.


Let the eye rolling commence.