JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Victoria & Abdul | Molly's Game | Okja | Hostiles (Directors: Stephen Frears, Aaron Sorkin, Bong Joon-ho , Scott Cooper) - December 31, 2017

Victoria & Abdul | Molly's Game | Okja | Hostiles

4.5 4.5

Reviewed for the 2018 edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Three hits and a miss

Victoria & Abdul
Stephen Frears
111 mins, 2017
Four stars

An Indian Muslim in Queen Victoria’s Court

Not surprisingly, Judi Dench steals the entire movie in her magnificent (in all senses of the word) portrayal of the end-of-reign Queen Victoria. Director Stephen Frears brings the costume drama (with mostly comedy fuelling the action) to brilliant, engaging life thanks to his own sense of vision and style being coupled with superb production design (Alan MacDonald) finely detailed art direction (Sarah Finlay, Adam Squires) and immaculate costuming (Consolata Boyle).

In many ways, the storyline (book by Shrabani Basu; screenplay by Lee Hall) doesn’t really matter—except for the global resonance on both sides of the colonial divide and the role/place of Muslims in Western society.

As the leading (at times purposely misleading man), Ali Fazal as Abdul, proves a worthy foil to his sovereign. The supporting cast plays well off the principal pair in a seamless manner that belies the below-the-surface resentment that any self-respecting court would produce when their view of themselves and place in Her Majesty’s hierarchy is at risk due to the unwelcome acceptance of the foreigner who has the audacity not to know his rightful place. JWR

Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin
140 mins, 2017
Four stars.

All of life is a gamble

Sorkin has done a masterful job as director/screenplay writer (based on Molly Bloom’s book), employing his self-described mastery of “people talking in rooms” and using a musical cadence that makes his dialogue sing.

Those who get a rush from playing cards for high stakes will fuel their addiction with this production; those who have never/seldom gone beyond machines in casinos will probably learn more than they want to.

Jessica Chastain turns in a fantastic portrayal of the former near-Olympic medalist cum game runner; Idris Elba knocks it out of the park as her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey; veteran Graham Greene marvellously steals his scene when the judgement comes down on a wonderful ode to Wall Street greed).

I’ll give 5 to 1 odds that Oscar finds something here you could bet the house on. JWR

Bong Joon-Ho
120 mins, 2017
Three and one half stars

For the love of pig

Director, co-writer (along with Jon Ronson) Joon-Ho has crafted an inventive cautionary tale about the corporate greed of producing genetically modified food only to be somewhat thwarted by a 14-year-old girl (An Seo Huon demonstrates skills and insights beyond her years) whose pet pig, Okja, came to large life via the test tube rather than the womb.

At various times leading the profit-driven Miranda Corporation is Tilda Swinton having an obvious hoot playing sisters Lucy and Nancy who have no love lost between them. The public face of the double-talking enterprise comes in the over-the-top host Animal Magic, Dr. Johnny Wilcox—donning sport pants and hogging the camera whenever he can, Jake Gyllenhaal comes across as too broad by half to fully develop the comic relief character.

Taking up the plight of the destined-for-slaughter genetic creations is the “stop the bastards but don’t hurt them” Animal Liberation Front (wonderfully shortened to ALF!). Leading the fray is Jay, brought to sincere and determined life by Paul Dano; Lily Collins eagerly pushes the mission forward to save Okja and expose the bad guys as Red, while Steven Yuen adds a fine lie to the plot and later redeems himself with a tattoo that slips into the land of saccharine. Rounding out the gang who can’t really drive straight are the very colourful Daniel Henshall as Blond and Devon Bostick as Silver, whose touching embraces add a welcome hint of lavender into the mix.

But it’s really the army of designers, artists and special-visual effects wizards that are the stars of this production, bringing the ever-lovable animals to cinematic life, which makes this film highly recommended for an, er, serving.

Probably a good idea to go vegan for a least one meal following a viewing. JWR

Scott Cooper
135 mins, 2017
Two stars

Credibility pushed to the limit

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.  It has never yet melted.

- D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

Seeing this particular quote on the screen as the “prologue” to Scott Cooper’s tale of the very wild West, was, initially, intriguing. But by the time the initial scalp had been taken (during the first horrific scene of terror, death and mayhem) an uneasy feeling arose that delivering a balanced production on the struggle between the U.S. Army and we-were-here-first Indigenous peoples was not in the cards.

The three principal characters more co-existed with each other in their roles than intertwined to dramatic effect. Christian Bale as the uncaring (about Indians), brutal Captain Joseph Blocker, lost all credibility as his character caved far too easily into his last assignment from hell: escorting cancer-ridden Chief Yellow Hawk from New Mexico to Montana so that he could be buried with his ancestors. Wes Studi brought calm dignity to the wise, canny Indian but came across as everyone’s favourite Grandpa more than a consummate warrior and leader of men. Losing her entire family to horse-stealing savages, Rosalie Quaid knew firsthand what Hell on Earth felt like. Rosamund Pike excelled when living/enduring the horrors around her, but once again, the metamorphosis of her character to all-forgiving lacked the required nuance in the writing to make this change ring true.

If Cooper’s intent (screenwriter as well—based on Donald Stewart’s manuscript) was to “melt” a couple of Americans to refute Lawrence’s claim, then he shot himself in the dramatic foot by employing too much black and white where grey was needed.

And, given recent history both at home and abroad, is Lawrence’s assertion any less true today than in 1923? JWR

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