Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Victoria and Abdul

Victoria and Abdul Review by FilmZ

When it first showed up on the horizon, Victoria and Abdul seemed to be a plug and play Academy Awards contender: historical drama extolling racial diversity, directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, Dangerous Liaisons), starring seven-time Oscar nominee (and once-winner) Dame Judy Dench, and backed by a distinguished award-winning cast and crew.  As blatant Oscar-grabs go, only Steven Spielberg's The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks surpasses among 2017 releases.  And yet, although a dish may have the finest ingredients and arrive at the table with a beautiful presentation and rich aroma, the meal itself turns out good but not great.

Victoria and Abdul begins with scenes juxtaposing late-19th Century British pageantry and Indian subcontinent squalor.  In London, the Empire is in full flourish, but inside the Royal House, we find an aging Queen Victoria (Dench) has lost the will to live.  She is jaded, bored, and her children are disappointments, particularly heir-apparent Bertie (Eddie Izzard).  Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon in a cameo) is concerned, as is Victoria's staff, headed by Sir Henry Ponsonby (the late Tim Pigott-Smith).  Fate intervenes when word gets back to India that the Queen was highly complimentary of several carpets gifted to her.  In response, India decides to mint a special coin commemorating her Jubilee, and they choose Abdul (Ali Fazal) and Mohammed (Akeel Akhtar) to present it to her.  Under strict orders to refrain from eye contact with Her Majesty, Abdul can't help himself, and when Victoria returns the glance and takes in the tall, handsome stranger, her will to live is rekindled.  She bids Abdul and Mohammed stay as her personal footmen throughout the Jubilee, but soon Abdul's gentle nature and exotic stories win her heart and she orders the assignment to become permanent.  Abdul's sweet innocence charms the Queen (think Rasputin if he were beneficent and servile).  The more influence (and prestige and power) the Queen grants him, the more indignant and scandalized the Royal household becomes, the more obstinately loyal the Queen becomes to Abdul, the more the household plots to bring Abdul down.  From that point, the story shifts from Masterpiece to Lifetime.  In service to the plot, most are reduced to caricatures: Victoria is regally quirky, Abdul is pureness and light, the household members bring a variety of racist aristocrats.

The quality of Victoria and Abdul comes from its first-rate cast and its production values.  Judy Dench brings her expected A-game, as does Tim Pigott-Smith, sadly, in his last role.  More surprising are Ali Fazal's enchanting turn and Eddie Izzard's surprising invisibility beneath the mustache and bluster of Bertie.  Akhtar provides one of the most powerful scenes in the film, standing defiantly against a Royal attempt to wheedle and then intimidate.  The rest of the supporting cast deserves recognition, as well: Paul Higgins as the flummoxed Dr. Reid, Olivia Williams as the snobbish Lady Churchill, Fenella Woolgar as a skittish Miss Phipps.  Alan MacDonald's production design, Sara Finlay's Art Direction, and Consolata Boyle's costume design bring sumptuous verisimilitude to both turn-of-the-20th-Century Britain and India.  We were unaware of the source material, so it is difficult to tell whether Shrabani Basu's book or Lee Hall's screen adaptation is responsible for the one-dimensional cultural stereotypes that wear threadbare by the film's final act.  Given all of the style, it's unfortunate that the substance didn't measure up because, in the end, it's about the story.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale (averaging my 7.0 and Filmzarina's 8.0)
7.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale -- Judy Dench has stiff competition for Best Actress, Tim Pigott-Smith possible for BSA, better chances for Production, Art, and Costume Design awards.

American Made

American Made -- a Review

[Forenote (feel free to ignore):  A bare quorum of our group made it to American Made: Guy S. Malone, Researcher, who is required to attend all films he recommends; Don Swedanya, so traumatized by our recent string of dramatic fare that his acid reflux registers on a seismograph; and Serfing Dude, who has been tenaciously loyal in attending our offerings (perhaps it is his hope that mind-altering herbal remedies might accompany our journeys.]

The good news is that everyone in our group enjoyed and can recommend American Made.  Whatever anyone may think of Tom Cruise personally, the guy makes exciting films, and he gives it all he has in the process.  In his newest film, American Made, the star is still charismatic, and while he is no Brando, he does get into his inch-deep characters.  Most of the time, that means some variation of the All-American boy, but his most interesting films are when he plays against that type.  A personal favorite is Collateral, where his silver-haired sociopathic hit-man Vincent nearly wins over the cab driver (Jamie Foxx) he draws into hauling him from kill to kill.  In Edge of Tomorrow, his first collaboration with director Doug Liman, Cruise leaves the badassery to Emily Blunt as he plays a reluctant (very reluctant) hero.

American Made gives Cruise another shade, a biographical treatment of anti-hero Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who turns in his commercial wings for a private gig after amiable CIA agent Monty "Schafer" (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers his aptitude for both risk-taking and smuggling while flashing an innocent 68-tooth grin.  Monty offers Barry a hot spy plane and sends him off to take aerial photography of the burgeoning Communist guerrilla operations in Central America. Of course, Barry is sworn to secrecy, and his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), a former fast-food worker, worries at first about the loss of benefits and their plan for a family.  But Barry is so talented that the ever-inventive Monty expands his job description to include gun-smuggling with Barry's side of drug-running.  The money rolls in, Barry's operation builds--as does the danger--and before we know it, Barry is up to his neck in helping build what was to become the Medellin drug cartel and the Iran-Contra affair that almost brought down the Reagan Administration.

Barry Seal's story has been told before, most notably in the 1991 Dennis Hopper TV movie drama Doublecrossed, but despite the political weight and dire consequences inherent, American Made goes for a lighter touch.  While Gary Spinelli's screenplay gets a bit cute and convoluted at times, action film artist Doug Liman (Bourne trilogy, Edge of Tomorrow) directs it with high pace and panache, giving nods to the light-hearted larceny of American Hustle (down to the quote, "Some of this actually happened") and the amusing explanatory tangents of The Big Short.  Although American Made doesn't quite reach the level of those two films, it definitely belongs in their company as a satire of modern American Machiavellian political fiascos.

Domhnall Gleeson nearly steals the show as Monty, the amiable CIA agent who invents and operationalizes Wile E. Coyote schemes.  Also notable are Sarah Wright, whose Lucy gives willful ignorance a seductive touch; Caleb Landry Jones as JB, Lucy's vindictive loser of a brother, who is sure to rattle Barry's house of cards; and Jessie Plemons as Sheriff Downing, who balks at investigating the many shady dealings because of the riches being showered in his small town.  American Made makes an entertaining appetizer leading into the awards season buffet.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
5.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale
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