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Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne (2019)
Season 8, Episode 6
Romances in the series, all doomed to fail, but one
24 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This is not just about the grand finale episode "The Iron Throne" but rather covers the entire TV series (NOT the forever-to-be-finished book). Nor is it even a review as such. This is more a collection of my observations and thoughts, on a specific subject. There are, needless to say, a proliferation of possible subjects - death, betrayal, revenge, loyalty, heroism, friendship, family, etc etc. The one I am going to focus on is romance, with specific reference to the first- and second-tier characters. A general observation is that except for one, none of these romances end well.

I am going to start with the Starks.

The romance that I possibly like best in the entire series is Robert and Talisa Stark. A strong contender would be Ygritte and Jon Knower-of-nothing Snow but I'll come to that later. The two above-mentioned women are also my top favorite female characters. But alas, the Robert/Talisa romance which is perfect it is also short-lived. The beautiful couple is killed at the Red Wedding.

Next comes Sansa who, as we know, is arguably the character that has grown most over the 8 seasons. The adolescent girl's fantasy about romance is quickly and brutally annihilated. Towards the end, I actually hoped that Sansa and Tyrion will consummate their marriage and jointly rule the Seven Kingdoms. But that is not to be.

There was one brief moment when something may blossom between Bran Stark and Meera Reed. With the trajectory that is Bran's "story" (courtesy Tyrion) was taking, however, this is understandably nib in the bud.

In terms of basic personality Arya has not really changed as much as her sister. Arya just expanded. I do like her connecting with Gendry and there are advocates that they should jointly rule the Seven Kingdoms. But the romance, after all, is not totally convincing. More like a passing infatuation, when it seems that that world was going to end.

I think I'll include Jon Snow under the Starks. Frankly, I don't find the romance between Jon and Dany convincing. More like a plot device. I am sure that there are at least some who would agree with me that the romance between Jon and Ygritte is among the most touching in the series. It is not unlike a fateful Romeo and Juliette love affair (except that here we have an Amazon of a Juliette).

So, not happy endings in Stark romances. Let's move on to the Lannister.

Jamie and Brienne, after starting out on a rocky road, wound up having everybody rooting for them. Indeed, they are the nearest to being soulmates, not the least because of they both rank among the top fighters in Westeros. Those who remember may recall that the Flower Knight bested Jamie, and later Brienne beat the Flower Knight, even before we know the face behind the helmet belong to someone call Lady Brienne. Given that those two battles were tournaments and not real fighting, that still means something. It is sad to see that his destiny was not to spend the rest of his life growing old with her.

Tyrion, I mentioned in conjunction with Sansa, married but entirely unromantic. They do make a very good pair though and should be the best choice to rule the Seven Kingdoms. They each did quite well though, as queen of the independent north and hand of the king of the Six Kingdoms. Happy endings, although separately.

On the Baratheon, I mentioned Gendry in conjunction with Arya. Renly, probably the best of them, would make a best- looking pair with Margaery Tyrell, even when that was only for shows as he loved her brother instead, the Flower Knight. In any event he was murdered by witchcraft, starting Margaery's career as a professional Baratheon widow. From her second husband hideous monster Joffrey she was saved by angelic grandma Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns, via poisoning him. The third husband Tommen was a darling of a boy king, who did not make her a widow but instead killed himself after she died in his mother's hands, sort of a poetic justice revenge "You kill someone I love, and now I kill someone you love".

Is there any romance that ended happily? The obvious one is Sam and Gilly. And they were even blessed with their own offspring eventually. It was such sublime joy to watch how Sam, embarrassingly and apologetically, explained to Jon the reason why Gilly was pregnant was because after reading all the books, he still had plenty of time and nothing much to do in the Citadel.

Finally, I must mention one relationship that is so unique that defies description. Certainly not romance. He was on her to-kill list. She was his bounty-hunter's prize for a handsome ransom. Situations evolved. When they met again in the final season, he said "The last time we met, you left me to die". Her reply: "First, I robbed you". In the end, they were travel companions for one last time, both seeking death. In the very end, when The Hound went to meet his destiny at the "Clegane Bowl" he accomplished on final good deed: success in convincing Arya that she needed not, and should not die. Her parting three words to him "Sandor. (pause) Thank you" is the nearing thing in the entire 8 seasons to bringing me to tears.
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The most popular Japanese movie series for half-a-century
2 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Director Yoji Yamada, quite similar to Kurosawa in this respect, is an expert in portraying the common folks. His style, however, is always lovingly gentle. He does employ absurdity-flavoured humour, as in this Tora-san series, but that is always poking fun in a good-natured manner.

If you think "Rocky" has gone far enough, "Tora-san" boasts of 49 movies which you can call "episodes", but not to be confused with episodes in a TV series. "Tora-san" episodes are full-lengths movies shot for the cinema. "The Intellectual" is episode 16.

The protagonist Torajiro Kuruma is an endearing buffoon and the episodes all follow a fixed formula, on his failed romances. He is a travelling salesman who is usually on the road where the romances occur, always with an attractive love object, showing promises and invariably ending up in failure. One can get mildly philosophical about these things.

When he comes home, he stays with his uncle and aunt who run a small but popular eatery famous particularly for their fish balls. Not living there but always present is his sister Sakura, a personification of kindness and common sense, who works with the uncle and aunt on this family business. Sakura has a model family of a good husband and a lively boy, both of whom we see a lot. Just as for TV series, the audiences will soon grow to be very familiar with the characters, and watching an episode gives one the feeling of spending time with family and friends.

This episode, entitled appropriately "The intellectual", is slightly different in that it happens at home during one of his sojourning. The love objects here is a university lecturer (archelogy) who happens to be renting the family's second floor room. There are two other characters particularly for this episode. There is a teenage girl who have just lost her mother, coming to seek his unknown father believed to be our protagonist but in fact is not. There is also his love object's professor who, aside from of being erudite in his field of archelogy and his gruffy appearance, is like a teenager. Smitten with his student all these years, he never has courage to express his feelings to her.

I am going to finish with a confession. This is the very first Tora-san movie I have watched, although I am a big fan of some of director Yamada's other work, particularly "Twilight Samurai" which is among the best Japanese movies in my book. I'll definitely try more of the Tora-san movies.
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10/10
Thanks for the memories
25 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
For those who are not entirely familiar with the Marvel Universe as offered in The Avengers series, Phase 1 introduces some of the Avengers with their own separate movies, culminating in their first assignment together. Phase 2 continues the development, adds more members and moves on to their second assignment. Phase 3 starts with a twist seeing the members pitched against one another in two groups and, towards the end, brings up their most formidable opponent by far.

More specifically, Phase 1 comprises 6 movies starting with "Ironman" (2008), then introduces The Hulk (Edward Norton at the time), Thor and Captain America, culminating in "The Avengers" (2012) which shows these four teaming up with Black Widow and Hawkeye for the initial lineup.

Phase 2, commencing with "Iron Man 3" (2013), uses another 6 movies to trace the evolution of the Avengers. "Avengers: Age of Ultron" (2015) detailing their second assignment adds to the team two major players, Scarlet Witch and Vision. Another entirely different team is also introduced in "Guardians of the Galaxy" although their path has not yet converged with that of the original Avengers in this Phase. "Ant-man" (2015), with his own stand-alone movie, brings up the rear of this Phase.

Phases 3, with a total of 11 movies, starts with "Captain America: Civil War" (2016), which has been given the nicknamed "Avengers 2.5". The Avengers are divided into two groups, under Iron Man and Captain America, supporting and opposing, respectively, government supervision. While the Hulk and Thor are nowhere to be seen, newcomers brought in are Spider-man and Black Panther, plus a few others who have already appeared before (Ant-man, Falcon, War Machine, Winter Soldier). Then, more blanks are filled in. A new character, Dr. Strange, is introduced via his own stand-alone. Also in their own stand-alone movies are Spider-man and Black Panther, introduced belatedly. The whereabouts of Thor and the Hulk is revealed via another sequel of the former's franchise, in which another new character Valkyrie is introduced.

Then comes the long awaited "Avengers: Infinity War", #8 in Phase 3 (and #20 in the entire "Infinite Saga"). The ultimate villain Thanos, menacingly lurking behind hitherto, comes to the forefront. Everybody mentioned above in the Avengers community join force, including the convergence with Guardians of the Galaxy whose key character Gamora is Thanos's alienated adopted daughter. Well, almost everybody. Ant-man and Hawkeye are not there.

The devastating conclusion of Infinity War sees Thanos, at a snap of his finger, literally, kills off half the world's population, completely at random. That of course includes members of The Avengers, also entirely at random. Following that are two blank-filling movies. "Ant-man and the Wasp" explains why it was absent and introduces yet another new superhero The Wasp. Completing the assembly comes "Captain Marvel", hitherto unheard of, until the post-credit of Infinity War when Nick Fury, just before disintegration, sends her an S.O.S. message, as the court of last appeal.

In the trailer of "Avengers: Endgame", when one of the Avengers, not addressing anybody in particular, says "Why would it be different from before?" Without missing a beat Captain Marvel replies "Before, you didn't have me." You will see this within the opening minutes of Endgame.

So, where is my user review? There is so much to say. To non-fans, that wouldn't mean a lot. To hard-core fans who have watched each and every one of the 21 preceding movies starting from over a decade ago, it is quite unnecessary. I'll just sum everything up with three little words: down memory lane.
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Soap opera in the hands of a good director
17 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Soap opera material in the hands of a good director can be concocted into an engrossing film. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is just such a director. Don't expect "Everybody knows" to be at the same level as his Oscar Winning "A separation", but it is without a doubt a few notches above your average thriller-melodrama.

Two-hour long "Everybody knows" is in two distinct parts. The first half-hour, revolving around a wedding, looks like the introduction to a light-hearted sitcom, with only very faint foreshadowing of what is to come. The tone switches abruptly at the first quarter mark of the movie, with the remaining 90 minutes developing into a mystery thriller that at times might be paying tribute to Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Haneke.

The first 20 minutes breeze through introducing a proliferation of the players and it wasn't until the second viewing that I was able to have everything registered. The opening scene shows a drive from the airport to a picturesque village in Spain. The driver is Ana the bride-to-be, picking up from the airport her older sister Laura with teenage daughter Irene and young son Diego, just arriving from Argentina. Laura's husband Alejandro is not able to come to the wedding for business reasons.

A quick scene introduces a loving couple Paco and Bea, owners of a vineyard near the village, close family friends who will be attending the wedding. A quick cut shows the car arriving at the hotel managed by Fernando, Mariana and their daughter Cocio, again old friends of the wedding family. It would appear that everybody in the village have known everybody else since the beginning of time, looking at the way Laura greets everybody as their car cruises past them.

Next comes the groom Joan (yes, that's his name) bringing his parents who apparently have come from elsewhere to attend the wedding. We then see Ana and Laura's father Antonio who moves around on clutches but is otherwise still healthy. Quick cut to a scene when Irene is riding in a bicycle with a young man Felipe who turns out to be Paco's nephew. Another scene shows Laura with Cacio, apparently good friends since childhood, who has a cute toddler daughter but has unfortunately been abandoned by her irresponsible husband.

During the wedding ceremony in the church, the carefree (sometimes to the extent of recklessness) youngsters sneak away to ascend the nearby clock tower (which evokes "Vertigo"). Amidst familiar flirting, Felipe shows Irene a pair of markings on the wall, "L' and "P", and enlightens her to the fact that they are her mother and his uncle, inseparable teenage lovers. At Irene's amazement, Felipe says nonchalantly "Everybody knows". Excited by this new discovery, Irene swings on the bell rope, with the peeling rings disturbing the wedding right in its midst.

The wedding party is a whirlwind of merrymaking, with everything you expect to see in a wedding party. Felipe treats Irene to a few puffs of grass which soon sends her dizzily to bed (alone, no luck for him). As the party winds down, Laura finds that Irene is no longer in her room. While everybody is still hoping that nothing bad has happened, a ransom note arrives as a text message on Laura's cell phone.

While I said that from this point on, the movie transforms into a mystery thriller, it is not so much a whodunnit as a study of how actions in the past, thought to be forgotten, will eventually affect the lives of people. Still. I'll go just a tad into plot development to give some bearings. While there are red herrings aplenty, the kidnap looks quite real, with a painful struggle of the protagonist between going to the police and raising money for the ransom. There are soon doubt of whether the kidnap is in fact stages. Everybody becomes suspect.

Alejandro's arrival completes the quartet of the two couples whose lives are intricately entangled. In addition to the aforementioned teenage romance between Laura and Paco, there is the history of certain money matters that appear to put Paco in Laura's debt. As Alejandro who hitherto is thought to be affluent is in fact in financial ruins, Paco feels some obligation to raise the ransom money.

At the end of the day, if I can put it crudely, it's money and sex. But there are of course genuine emotions. Farhadi's direction makes the whole thing glister even if it's not gold. The performance of Javier Bardem (Paco) and Penelope Cruz (Laura) completes this compelling trio, making "Everybody know" a near must-watch. It's in Spanish and therefore the competence of the English subtitle is crucial.
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Galveston (2018)
Shows what cinema should do, and has done, to a story
8 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Those growing up in the early 70's will remember Glen Campbell's melancholy country ballad "Galveston". This movie with the same title is adapted from the novel "True detective" (which I haven't read), but I am not sure how much, if at all, the song is on the mind of the moviemakers. The background is not the same, as Galveston the song had an anti-war theme. But I can't help noticing that some of the lyrics could well have been written for the movie.

"Galveston, oh, Galveston. I still hear your seawinds blowing, I still see her dark eyes glowing"

"Galveston, oh, Galveston. I am so afraid of dying, Before I dry the tears she's crying".

Not the same background, but the same haunting images.

"Galveston" the movie makes you ponder life. More specifically, the lifelines of three people converge for a few days at a seaside motel called Emerald Shores, in Galveston: 40-ish world-weary hitman Roy (Ben Foster); young prostitute Rocky (Elle Fanning) who, at only 19, has already had a battered life; and 3-and-a-half sweet-as-an-angel Tiffany (played by twins Anniston and Tinsley Price).

Arguably, plotline is the least important thing for this movie which is all style and mood but then, unlike many others, also has substance. Very briefly, Roy is set up by his boss who for some reason wants him dead. Seeing this coming, he not only eliminates his assassins but also rescues Rocky who is held captive. Speeding away with Rocky beside him in the front seats, he tells her "I'll be straight with you, and you straight with me". "Deal" the girl replies crisply. Later, when they are safe (at least temporarily) and the tension reduced, she offers herself "free of charge". His reaction is somewhat unexpected. Bluntly turning her down, he simply says "You're disgusting". The reason, and I am surmising only, is that he believes that he will soon get back from a biopsy a diagnosis of terminal lung disease. Rocky is his last chance to do a good deed, to genuinely help another human being, a sort of redemption. Therefore, the platonic relationship must not be spoilt.

Just a little bit more and I am done with the plotline, lest I spoil your enjoyment in watching this movie. The word "enjoyment" needs elaboration. "Galveston" is not the usual escapism crime thriller. It is a rare gem of a noire that is often painful to watch, even though there are a few tender moments.

Roy offers to drop Rocky off at her home in Orange. After Rocky goes into the house, a gunshot is heard from inside. Before Roy can think, he has an additional passenger, Rocky's "baby sister" Tiffany. At this point, the movie reminds me of another trio: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders and Danika Yarosh in "Jack Reacher: Never go back". The obvious similarity is a pseudo family of 3 on the run. But then Yarosh's character is a teenager rather than a toddler. As well, the three people there are entirely unrelated.

At the aforementioned seaside motel Roy books two rooms for two weeks, as a safe house where they can lie low and figure out what to do next. In this mid-section we encounter a cast of support characters who have their respective roles to play. The key however is the relationship between Roy and Rocky.

As my "headline" (used to be called "summary line") suggests, "Galveston" excels in telling the story of Roy and Rocky. It uses a bit of the need-to-know approach. Information is disseminated efficiently as we go along, through camera work and dialogue. The dialogue is lean, as in Hemingway's prose, and brilliantly effective in not only handling the narrative but also in conveying the emotions. Director Melanie Laurent deserves a lot of credit. Those who have seen Laurent in Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterns" (2009) are unlikely to forget her performance as the young woman taking on the entire Nazi regime with a plan of blowing up Hitler in a cinema. "Galveston" amply demonstrates that the art of her deftly direction is just a beautiful as her screen appearance.

Ben Foster is among the most underrated character actors. It's really good to see him getting this role of a multi-dimensional, emotionally tortured character, which he nails. Elle Fanning, outshining her once fast rising elder sister Dakota, has been tackling a vast variety of different roles, such as matching sensuousness with Colin Farrell ("Beguiled", 2017) and head-on collision with Peter Dinklage ("I think we're not alone", 2018). Just like Foster, she has been given an opportunity to shine, and shine she did.
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Gender equality
4 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
I'll start with two interesting but not particularly serious observations. First, while the title is "On the basis of sex", one little anecdote in the movie relates how an alert typist persuades the protagonist to change the word "sex", which appears again and again in a document, to a less provocative "gender". The other observation has to do with IMDb user reviews. Glancing through the first score or so (rated by "helpfulness"), I am quite amused to find an unmistakable pattern of alternating 1/10 and 10/10. That, arguably, tells more about the reviewers than about the movie. In my 1,300+ user reviews, I never bothered to rate the movie, except for one case when I gave "Return of the King" a 10/10.

"On the basis of sex" is a biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and, within that, focuses on her successful ground-breaking case fighting for Charles Mortiz (Chris Mulkey), devoting to it the second half of the two-hour movie.

The movie opens with a series of cryptic scenes. We first see the Dean of the law school welcoming students to a new term with usual pep talks of "Harvard man". At home, we see RBG showing her husband Martin Ginsberg (Armie Hammer) two dresses, asking him which one in his opinion better represents a "Harvard man". Whether she is or not, she looks quite serious! At a private dinner honoring America women who have gone into law (a staggering grand total of 11), the host asks each lady around the dinner table to stand up and share with the guests why she has taken this path. One who starts talking about not wanting to become a housewife or a teacher is immediately cut short by the host "Not good enough". When her turn comes, RBG, as sweetly as she can manage, intimates that her husband is one year ahead of her in Harvard Law School, and her objective of following his footstep is "to become a more patient and understanding wife". Cheeky, yes. It would seem that she has scored a hit, but on which side of the ledger we are not quite sure.

Continuing with the lively-paced first half of the movie the narrative covers the early life of the devoted couple pursuing the same career while raising a baby, Jane. As this is true story, the audience would not be overconcerned with the obstacles in their way but would instead sit back and enjoy how they are overcome or brushed aside. A scene showing them toasting each other after putting on a record of the Marriage of Figaro Overture marks the end of this first phase.

The focus is now on fighting discrimination on basis of sex which at the time was, although hard to believe, legal and endorsed by the Supreme Court. By this time Jane Ginsburg is 15 (Cailee Spaeny, seen recently in "Bad times in the El Royale") and with a toddler brother. The more or less expected conflict between mother and teenage daughter is depicted in Jane quoting Gloria Steinem ("unlearn the status quo") in defiance of her mother's over-concern (in Jane's opinion) for her safety in attending Steinem's rally. A more humorous depiction is in Ruth venting to her husband "from where does she get this stubbornness?" and his without-batting-an-eyelash reply "Can't imagine".

Onwards to the main agenda of the movie: "topple the whole darned system of discrimination". Discussing a specific case, when asked "the judge is wrong?", RBG replies "the law is wrong".

Charlie Mortiz is an unmarried man who has a chronically-ill mother. For being a man, he is denied tax benefits that a woman under the same circumstances normally gets with no problem whatsoever. This offers RBG a long-awaited opportunity. While the party discriminated against is a man, the principle is no different - discrimination based on sex. RBG seeks out Charlie who has been frustrated after talking to several discouraging lawyers, and convinces him not to give up. Charlie, who understands the big picture, knows that he is doing this not just for himself.

In watching the remainder of the movie, the audience would do well to follow RBG's example of putting aside emotions and concentrating on the logics of the arguments, on both sides. It is watching with this fame of mind that would render the movie most enjoyable. After various obstacles including the most supportive allies losing heart, even RBG is on the verge of giving up. The eventual hero is the humble man-next-door Charlie. He refuses to accept the offer which gives him in full the monetary settlement he is entitled to, unless the government officially acknowledges that the law is wrong. The government says no. The case finally goes to court.

At the end, the audience is afforded, and happy to have, a measure of uplifting dramatization, particularly in Jones's superb delivery of the final rebuttal which snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Stand up and cheer. It is allowed.

By coincidence, I recently re-watched "Rogue One". A very different character but the same dauntless defiance in pursuit of justice in Felicity Jones's portrayal. Two names in the credit roll bring to mind right away an excellent TV series "The leftovers" (2014-2017). Mimi Leder directed 10 out of the total of its 28 episodes. Perhaps not as brilliant as her work with "The book of Nora", the grand finale of that series, Leder is solidly competent with "On the basis of sex". Justin Theroux who delivered a remarkable portrayal of an emotionally tortured character Kevin in that series, plays a character with a very different persona in "On the basis of sex" with a Gable-ish moustache, RBG's somewhat flamboyant ally Mel Wulf. With a regrettably short appearance, Kathy Bates is the pioneer of the fight against sexual discrimination Dorothy Kenyon.

The movie closes with Jones portraying Ruth Bader Ginsberg at various stages of her career walking up the steps leading to the entrance of the Supreme Court (a scene you would be only too familiar with if you follow TV series such as "For the people", "Bull" etc). The last portrayal features the real RBG in person!
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Siblings
24 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
With the playful title, my summary line seems redundant. It is indeed a movie about siblings, as well as a western in the good old tradition except that there is no John Wayne type of hero. The brothers are sort of celebrities in the rugged landscape of Oregon in the 1850s, so much so that success in killing them would be a sure way to "prestige", in their own words.

In the very opening scene, we see them in action. Well, maybe "see" is a bad chose of words in the literal sense. Their presence is introduced as gunfire flashes on a pitch-dark screen. When the dust has settled, they emerge from a burning house in the middle of nowhere and cross-check the body-count, about 6 or 7. Then one of them exclaims "We fxxx up real good". We never find out what that was all about.

We do find out what the brothers do for a living - hit-man for "The Commodore", a name that strike fear in every heart. The brothers however have different view of their boss. Or is that just "splitting hair" semantics, as they argue? The word "victim" used by Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) does not exactly meet older brother Eli's (John C. Reilly) approval. This in fact starts off the series of small touches here and there throughout the movie depicting the characters of each of them, as well as their relationship since childhood.

Charlie, as the story unfolds, is shown as the reckless, impulsive, I-don't-give-a-damn type. Eli is reserved, thoughtful (no-blinking killer notwithstanding) and constantly watching his younger brother's back. Through a wide variety of scenes, these two brothers are etched into our heart. They bicker and fight like children. In the rough world where they grew up (something to do with the father) and live in (something to do with their boss), the feelings they have for each other is rarely shown but often palpable. When, during dinner in a hotel lounge, Eli intimates that he is thinking of calling it quits and opening a store instead, Charlie flies off the handle. They come very close to trading blows. The following morning, it is Charlie who seeks reconciliation with sullen Eli. In another scene, a shootout with plenty of killing, the brothers emerge to see a gathering of frightened and befuddled townspeople. Charlie bids Eli say something to them. Thanks to the brilliant comic DNA of Reilly, the brief "speech" delivered by Eli is among the funniest things I've seen in a movie.

I have not said anything about plot. While the movie is character- rather then plot-driven, there is plot. In a parallel narration, similarly fun-filled, we see involving grim, taciturn bounder-hunter Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracking good natured, philosophical Hermann Kemit Warm (Riz Ahmed). The journey of the two pairs across Oregon soon converge. It turns out that both Morris and the Sisters Brothers are working on the same assignment for the The Commodore. Warm, it is soon revealed, is in possession of an alchemistic (figuratively speaking) formula. Morris is to secure the man, meet up with the Sisters Brothers and turn him over for torturing, if necessary, to extract the formula. In a twist you can see coming miles away, the two pairs join force against common enemies. A few "soft" scenes featuring the four of them at a camp fire are the most chewable ones in the movie.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable movie offering good old western action, tons of fun, as well as some touching moments. In the end, it is heart-warming and can use another title which, however, has been taken up by Spidey, the latest version.

Jellenhaal and Ahmed give absolutely solid support. But it's Reilly and Phoenix that earn the love of TIFF last year.
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Not your usual loot
20 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
First, on my summary line. Yes, it is the usual loot, initially, millions of dollars in hard cash, bag after bag. But there is a twist towards the end. No spoilers! I know

Next, the title. "Triple frontier' is a geographic reference to an area where three countries meet: Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. While on that, worth mentioning that to some, the breathtaking landscape alone, beautifully filmed, almost worth the price of the ticket to the cinema.

Now to business. There is an axiom-like note delivered right at the start, in a military training lecture, to the effect that "extreme violence, biological and physiological", is nothing more than business to get the mission on hand accomplished. Rest assured that graphic depiction of violence is not what this movie is about. It takes a more philosophical approach, dangling, particularly during the second half of the movie, moral questions and debates.

The somewhat unusual heist carried out by a quintet of top-notched military veterans starts with the idea of Santiago "Pope" Garcia's and his girlfriend Yovanna (Adria Arjona) who is an insider (albeit an insignificant member) of drug kingpin Lorea. Garcia calls up four trusted ex-comrades, for initially a "consultancy" job which offers a handsome weekly salary purely for reconnaissance reports. He is confident, however, that when he reveals his grand scheme, they will be lured into it.

Things unfold exactly as planned. Tom "Redfly" (Ben Afflect) Davis, who has been having a hard time financially after retiring from the military career, is sold. William "Ironhead" Miller (Charlie Hunnam), who makes a living from delivering the abovementioned lectures, is all for it providing that Davis is in. The other two are prize fighter Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund), the only one with no nickname, and pilot Francisco "Catfish" Morales who has just lost his license (for drug trafficking), not that it matters an iota.

The heist goes according to plan, and doesn't. After a minor twist, they get their loot easily. But instead of killing only Lorea, they end up with a carnage of his body guards. That is just half way through the movie. The second half of the movie I have basically covered, to the extent possible without spoilers.
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Colette (I) (2018)
Artsy biopic that would interest genre fans
14 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This biopics, set at the turn of the last century, about acclaimed French author Sidonie-Gabriella Colette does not have larger-than-life melodramatic moments. But it is in no way devoid of interest. And then, for fans of Lerner and Loewe, Colette is the original author of "Gigi".

Somewhat artsy overall, "Colette" has a lively pace, losing no time at all in tracing the early trajectory within the first twenty minutes of the movie. The opening scene shows popular French writer and prospective suiter Willy (Dominic West) visiting the country home Colette (Keira Knightley). As the conversation subjects with the family wanders to the theatre, typical wise quips are thrown around, such as "unlike books or art galleries that you can throw away or walk away from, bad theatre is like dentistry from which there is no escape".

The immediately ensuing scene shows the pair in a barn for amorous activities (Colette sneaking out of the house with the pretext of going for a walk). Still in her late teen, Colette clearly understanding how much of a libertine Willy is in Paris. Rather than feeling uncomfortable, this simple country girl is pleased with herself for getting his devotion. "I must have something", she says.

Next comes a scene set at a high society party in Paris. The pair has just been married. Willy is mouthing off enlightening remarks to the gathered group of friends about his displeasure with the Eiffel Tower, "a giant erection in the heart of our capital". Later, in the carriage, Colette complains to her newly-wed husband that bunch at the party is "shallow and pretentious".

The narrative moves briskly to ripples in the marriage. Tipped off by a written note received, she catches him at a brothel. He pleads "this is what men do - we are the weaker sex", and she forgives. She in turn tells him "I want to be part of everything' and "not like a little wife at home".

After the above series of brisk background establishing scenes, we come to the main course. Willy, in addition to being a person, is also a "brand name". He does not write himself, but uses a collection of ghost writers, who are becoming more and more expensive. Call it an inspiration, Willy thinks that school-girl stories Colette has been telling him could yield rich fodder. She writes a semi-autobiographic story "Claudine" for him, which becomes an instant success. With the advance for the book, he buys a suburban country house for her, "lest Paris should drive you mad". His motive however is not entirely altruistic. He wants her to have a place to concentrate on the second story "Claudine in Paris". He even goes to the extent of locking her in the writing room for several hours to make sure she delivers. It is tempting to conclude here with "and the rest is history". But this is just a little over a quarter of the movie.

The remainder is a somewhat artsy depiction of the life of Colette (and, to a less extent, Willy) on two fronts, literary life and love life, not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily together. First comes voluptuous Georgie (Eleanor Thomlinson) who is shared by both, until her jealous husband threatens to challenge Willy to a duel. Then, there is young and ambitious Polaire (Ayisha Hart), more symbolic than a real love interest, who becomes the star of Claudine when the stories are adapted for the stage. Then Collette and Willy go separate ways. She finds Missy (Denise Gough), a woman with a man's heart inside, who becomes her lover, soulmate, as well as artistic partner on stage. He finds Meg (Shannon Tarbet), at youngish 23, who worships him.

On the literary front, the movie ends with Collette coming into her own. Willy selling the rights of "Claudine" to the publisher becomes the last straw. At the encouragement of her mother Sido (Fiona Shaw) she breaks with him completely, never talking to him again, and starts writing and publishing in her own name. Now, I can say "and the rest is history".

It wouldn't be difficult at all to depict Willy as a villain. The moviemakers however choose to go lenient on him. This is not such a bad route to go, in being consistent with the breezy light tone of the movie. West has done a good job in trying to convince you that, despite Colette's final outburst, Willy does have some genuine affections for her. He has good screen chemistry with Knightley who is at her charismatic best.
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Fits well into the MC-Avengers universe
8 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Finally, after the hint given by the S.O.S. message sent by disintegrating Nick Fury at the gloomy conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War", Captain Marvel joins the MCU family with her own stand-alone introduction, which can arguably be considered the prequel to the Avengers series.

Purely from the perspective of the cinema (that is, not the original MCU and DC comics), comparison of the two ground-breaking woman superhero is inevitable. "Wonder Woman" has set a challenging high bar for "Captain Marvel". One similarity that jumps out right away is the "Stranger in a strange land" syndrome (talking about Robert A. Heinlein's immortal science fiction novel written in 1961). This is about someone arriving in an entirely alien culture (as a result of either space or time displacement) often giving rise to levity aplenty. One other good example is Thor on Earth. In our comparison, while Diane Prince delights in the fashion of London in the early 20th century, Carol Danver finds the "technology" of the 1990s in L.A. laughably primitive. Both movies have the good sense of not overusing this material beyond generating some light-hearted fun.

The difference, on the other hand, is significant - romance, and the absence of which. In "Wonder Woman", romance plays an important part to both plot and character development. This element is absent in "Captain Marvel". As a partial substitute is an "odd couple" sort of subplot. This works marvelously in generating mirthful entertainment, thanks to the excellent chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson (and the miracle-like computer graphics that make a 70-year-old man look like 30). But that is not enough to put "Captain Marvel" in the same class of groundbreakers as "Wonder Woman" or "Black Panther" (if you wish compare within the Marvel universe).



Without spoilers, not much further can be said about "Captain Marvel" and its plot twists. What can perhaps be said is that this movie answers quite a few questions, especially for that segment of audience that are familiar with the "Avengers" movies but not the source comics: the origin of the Tesseract cube, how Nick Fury became one-eyed, why of all people he sent his S.O.S. to Captain Marvel and, even the origin of the name "Avengers".

A very brief mention of the basic plotline may be in order for people who are not MCU comic book fans, such as myself. In the war between the alien worlds Skrull and Kree, Vers (Brie Larson) is a well-trained warrior of the latter, although her own original identity is not known, even to herself, as she has somehow lost her memory. Eager to put her excellent training into use, she finally convinces mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to take her on a mission. Captured by the Skrull, she is put through a memory-searching device by Talos (Ben Menselsohn) who tries to find a particular piece of information. Through this, the audience gets to see fragment from her early childhood, as a normal but exceptionally strong-willed little girl called Carol Danvers. Then, we see her as a U.S. fighter pilot. Through a well-crafted set-piece (one of the many in the movie) she escapes and finds herself landing in L.A., literally, a crash landing through the roof of a video store (one of the most prolific establishments in the 90s). Carol meets Nick (digitally rejuvenated Samuel L. Jackson), which yields the best part of the movie, delightful bantering with sparkling chemistry mentioned. Their mission, which for a little while plays out like a road movie, is to look for a brilliant scientist and also Carol Danvers's mentor (played by Annette Bening) at the air force six years ago. This is about as far as I will go. It is cliché to say that things may not be as what they seem and this already constitutes a spoiler of sorts.

The path taken by "Captain Marvel" is not unlike that of "Thor Ragnarok", although maybe not to that extent. Rather than aiming for the grandiose, to the extent a "popular movie" (the on-and-off-again new Oscar category) can, the moviemakers tried for a funny superhero movie, and have succeeded, thanks to Larson and Jackson. As a superhero, Captain Marvel is too powerful, making her to MCU something Superman is to DC. This, I do realize, may be crucial to "Avengers" End Game", which has a foe as powerful as Thanos.

As a girl with a rebellious spirit, Carol Danvers provides the human story. In addition to the Larson & Johnson show, I find something else I really like, a mother-and-daughter pair, Maria (Lashana Lynch) and Monica (11-years-old Akira Akbar). Maria is Carol's fellow pilot and truest friends. The sincerity Lynch brings to this character is quite moving. Akbar is such a joy to watch portraying how Monica worships and at the same time inspires her idol and role model "auntie Carol". And the, it has just been declared a criminal offense to post a review of "Captain Marvel" that omits mentioning Goose, the orange cat.

The one lump-in-throat moment belongs to Stan Lee, in his signature cameo (in commuter train this time). He will be missed.
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Brexit (2019 TV Movie)
"The story continues to unfold" (the concluding caption of movie)
6 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
First off, it is not necessary to be familiar with that part of British "history" to enjoy this made-for-TV movie. I offer an alternative title "How the Brexit referendum was won with Internet", which pretty well tells all. Nor would you need to know any of the proliferation of characters appearing in the movie. At their first appearance, that are labelled with their names and background. There is also a handful of fictional characters such as the team of consultants at both camps.

Through a series of historical montages starting from Churchill at the end of WWII (with Beethoven's 9th as background music), we are brought to "Autumn 2015". Needing an "attack dog" to lead the "Vote Leave" campaign, the proponents seek out acclaimed strategist Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is initially reluctant to have anything to do with this "fxxxing nightmare". But once persuaded, he is supercharged with charismatic energy. After checking out and then occupying the premises for new campaign office, the game is afoot (apologies for this somewhat inappropriate usage, but with Cumberbatch in the lead, this is rather irresistible).

The essence of the strategy is confidently mapped out. "Take control" is chosen for the upbeat, action-oriented slogan. Then, with a flash of inspiration, one word is added to it, "take back control", one little word that makes a world of difference. Think about it.

What Cummings bring to the campaign is the electronic tool: "build a digital system". "Tap into the little wells of resentment" he explains, of which immigration is a key item. The scientific truth cannot be explained better than his simple statement "We need 50% of the voting population plus one". That is all there is to it. With the electronic social media, they can reach "3 million votes that the other side doesn't know exist", Cummings further enlightens.

It is not easy sailing though, as this is "an insurgence against establishment", "not right against left, but old against new". Against a board of old guards who neither believe nor understand what he is doing, Cummings is unflinchingly defiant, as brilliantly portrayed by Cumberbatch. There is also just one brief scene on the non-public side of Cummings, tenderly patting the bulging abdomen of his loving wife and lamenting how people dislike him.

Most of the characters in this movie are politicians that tend to be stereotyped, except for Boris Johnson who is immune to stereotyped (and the actor portraying him did a good job, uncanny physical resemblance aside). There is also a scene that deserves special mention: a focus group organized by the "Remain" camp. Here, we see a representative cross-section of potential voters. This is a scene that may stir up emotions of viewers, especially if they have been themselves voters in the referendum.

To viewers who are somewhat removed from the referendum (you cannot be totally unaffected unless you live on Gilligan's Island), this movie can be enjoyed as a study of how to get more votes than you opponent in the second decade of the 21st century. And, of course, there is Cumberbatch.
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Not as good as "New York", "Berlin" is still worth watching
4 March 2019
Warning: Spoilers
While I have seen both "Paris, je t'aime" and "New York, I love you", it's the latter that is particularly remembered. The first time I saw "New York, I love you", at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was categorized as a "work-in-process", with non-spoiler requests to the audience. Consequently, I held my IMDb user review for a year, until the movie was released in its final form, with the stories slightly rearranged and one completely dropped. I loved the movie at first sight, and the finished product was even better. But I digress.

"Berlin, I love you" reminds me, interestingly, of "Picture at an exhibition" (original piano piece by Mussorgsky and orchestration by Ravel), in which a recurring theme serves as interludes between the various "pictures" depicted by the music. The "promenade" theme depicts the exhibition visitors, roaming around admiring various picture at the exhibition. "Berlin, I love you" is similar, yet different. The recurring piece "Transitions" is very much a story in its own right, albeit told in small parcels serving as interlude to the other 9 stories, as well as stringing them together.

Although the movie-markers hadn't plan it that way, the 10 stories in "Berlin" can be grouped into 5 pairs by similarity of themes to various degrees. The brief descriptions of the movies below therefore do not follow the order of their appearance. They are in fact not in any particular order. I am not going to mention the cast's names unless they are generally well known.

Let's start with the pair that are closest to romance. Starting from the beginning, it is "Transitions", with two street performers Sara the singer and Damiel the mime artists, in a classic meet cute situation when they each try to perform, standing within ten feet of each other. We see them again and again, as interludes between other stories: she paying for a coffee that he does not seem to have money for, he driving her around showing him Berlin (she is from Israel), he letting her spend a night at his place (sleeping solo), another encounter at an old house where her grandmother (a Holocaust survivor) once lived, she attending his jaw-dropping, elaborated gig where they finally connect sexually, aroused by the excitement, and the climactic closure of the entire movie at an open-air auditorium. The other romance story, "Lucinda in Berlin", shows Burke, a world-weary Hollywood producer who considers himself "at the end of his life" wandering into an open-air children puppet show starring Lucinda the Ostrich. The artist, one gently assertive and philosophically endearing Katarina insists that her show is "theatre". Burke rediscovers the purpose of life.

For the next two groups, sex and violence, I have taken exaggerated liberty with these two words. The first of the stories is not so much with the act of sex itself, but with the issue of sexual harassments, as the title "Me Three" easily gives away. The entire story happens in a laundromat where the owner and her staff's quiet evening is brightened up by the arrival of somewhat bizzare customers, one after another. The other one "Drag Queen" is about sexuality, depicting a chance encounter at a riverside of the title character, a cross-dressed man with a curiosity-filled youth on his 16th birthday, the legal drinking age in Berlin.

The word violence which I used to describe the next pair of stories is also much exaggerated. In "Hidden", a refugee who thinks he in self-defense might have killed one of his vicious attackers finds transient shelter with a kindly prostitute. "Embassy" is an intriguing story of espionage that starts quite innocently as Turkish-German taxi driver Yasil starts her working day. She is played by Sibel Kekili who may not be a household name. But to fans of Game of Thrones, even in her near unisex taxi-driver attire, she will be recognized as Shea, the alluring woman that changes the life of Tyrion Lannister. As Yasil, Kekili brings to the screen a would-be journalist who is currently driving a taxi. Yasil's cheerful, lively, talkative persona strikes a remarkable contrast with the customer she picks up, Greg, taciturn and nervous. But even he cannot resist Yasil's natural charm and starts talking. Soon the story shifts into the realm of spy thriller, complete with a mandatory car chasing scene.

For want of a better word, I'll use "family" to denote the next pair, with due spoiler warning for one of them, although the twist, to quote one critic "can be seen a million miles away". Offering maximum star power is "Under your feet", with Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley playing mother and daughter, Margaret and Jane. In addition to the familiar theme of generation gap, there is also the grandiose question of what is the purpose of life: idealism vs pragmatism. The mild confrontation, rooted in love, is started when the daughter who works in caring for refugees brings home a young Arab child whose mother is temporarily away. Margaret's reaction is pretty well sum up in "Jane, I just want you to grow up". The other story in this grouping, "Love is in the air", starts out as a hotel bar pickup that follows through to the man's room. Inimitable Mickey Rourke plays a typical somewhat elderly man called Jim approaching an attractive young business woman Heather, played by German actress Toni Garrn. This segment is well written and Rourke is at his best. Garrn, little known to Hollywood, capably holds her own.

My last grouping is "Surreal". The shortest of the ten is "Berlin dance". With no more than 20 seconds of dialogue, the story's entire trajectory is a solo woman tourist looking for direction finding herself at an extravagant dance, culminating in her transformation into a participant. "Berlin ride" stars dashingly handsome Jim Sturgess playing Jared who comes to Berlin "to die" after being dumped by a girl who is going to marry his brother. He takes a room in a boarding house, buys a smart-looking car which he plans to drive into the river. Ultimately, he is saved by Vanessa, the A.I. car he bought which ends up taking him through the wonderful sight and sounds of Berlin, restoring his zest for life as well as romance (no, not with Vanessa).

The grand finale renders beautiful closure. Sara and Damiel meet again at the aforementioned large open-air auditorium. In front of a full house audience, Sara sings her favorite song, courtesy of the sound equipment of another performer. Alongside with the joyous music, characters from each of the previous segments wander into the auditorium. As the camera closes up on to each individual or group, the name of the segment appears, together with names of director and cast.

While "New York" does not have a weak link, "Berlin" is less balanced. Visually appealing as it is, "Berlin Dance" comes across as rather hollow. "Me three" starts out fine but soon becomes too outlandishly chaotic. The three I like best are "Transitions", "Berlin ride" and "Embassy".
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A pair of queens turns out to be a winning combination
25 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Some history first, not England in the 16th century but Oscar last year. Both Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie got Oscar nominations but Frances McDormand was all but unstoppable in ANY award race for best actress. Sorry, no Oscar, young ladies. Both also got nominations for just about every other award worth mentioning, and ended up in sort of a draw. For Golden Globe, both were in the "Musical and Comedy" category, thus avoiding the "McDormand massacre". Ronan pulled this one off. Again, they were both Critics Choice contenders, alas, against McDormand. Here, Robbie pulled off a near miracle, not in defeating McDormand but became a co-winner with her.

This year, it was a delight to watch these two talented young actresses facing off, head-to-head, in "Mary, Queen of Scots", a movie which, unfortunately, is not quite Oscar caliber. Initially, there were some noises but it ended up with Oscar nominations for only two minor categories: makeup and costume. Still, it is a joy to watch the performance of Ronan and Robbie, as Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I respectively, separately for most of the movie until at the very end with a riveting sparring (not literally, of course) scene that you will remember for a long time.

Still on history, but still not yet the 16th century, is that Hollywood has through the years told this story of the two woman many times. In most cases, Elizabeth is the star and Mary is sometimes even reduced to a just footnote, as in "Elizabeth: the golden age" (2007) starring Cate Blanchett as the protagonist, with talented but less known Samantha Morton as Mary. And then, when in "Mary, Queen of Scots" (1971) Mary had the limelight, Vanessa Redgrave had to share it with Glenda Jackson, who played a formidable Elizabeth. The current rendition may be the first one that leans more heavily on Mary. May be.

Now to the 16th century history, which I understand from some critics has been reflected reasonably accurately. This movie opens with Mary's execution scene and then flashes back to the point chosen to start the narrative, Mary landing on the shore of Scotland, a widow after losing her husband the King of France. The movie loses no time in depicting vividly a resilient spirit of Mary: one moment dragged out of the water nearly drowned (maybe the landing boat capsized?) and the next riding triumphantly, galloping along the beach.

A series of cryptically cut scenes back and forth paint the historical backdrop. The initial reaction of Elizabeth and her advisers to the threat is to "kill her hopes" (not her, by the way) and she will return to France on her own. In a letter of goodwill, Mary offers friendship and alliance against ambition of "men lesser than ourselves". Mary's liberal approach of allowing worshipping freedom to both Catholics and Protestants does not go well with cleric John Knox, ending in a heated argument culminating in his departure with the parting words "I pray for you, madam".

Without going into the intricate details, let me just say that the plot development involves essentially the effect of religion and marriage (actual or proposed) on royal inheritance rights. High drama is inherent in situations of both the queen and her husband captivated by the same man, erosion of love by "more important things" like power struggle, endeavor to conceive an heir with a husband who seems more interested in man than in woman, betrayal heaped on betrayal, treachery on treachery.

At a safe distance, the two queens play a deadly chess game of sorts to out-maneuver each other. "I will be the woman that she is not" is Mary verdict on Elizabeth, who takes the view that "marriage is dangerous". But in the end, both are in fact pawns of the men around them. Elizabeth, always working behind the scene "funds a rebellion" but Mary come out victorious, riding alongside her marching soldiers, motivating them. Tt the height of her fortune, she beams "I am a Stuart, heir to Scotland and heir to England".

Fast forward to the final confrontation. After a succession of convoluted turn of events, Mary finds herself alone, separated from her toddler son James (who has been taken away for protection), and desperately fighting for her life, deserted by all the men around her. Her final court of appeal is Elizabeth, who is sympathetic with such empathy that nobody else would feel. Not wanting to be seen supporting a Catholic queen, she sets up a secret meeting.

Those who love attentively crafted artsy scenes would love this one. There is a lingering foreplay of hid-and-seek in a maze of mesmerizing fabrics when the two women try to get a feel of each other through their voices (as well as "accent', with Ronan's faintly Scottish). Mary addresses Elizabeth initially as "cousin", which soon upgrades to "sister". Gradually, they open their hearts, albeit perhaps just a little. Mary "I am utterly alone". Elizabeth "As am I, alone". She then intimates that she is jealous of Mary "You surpass me in every way, but your gift is your downfall". She seems genuinely sympathetic but has bigger fish to fry. The best she can do is guarantee Mary's safety in England. Mary's undauntable pride takes over, announcing in no uncertain terms that Elizabeth is "her inferior" and that as a Stuart, she herself has stronger claim to the English throne. Her dream of ruling a united England and Scotland, sadly, was realized only through her son James, several decades later.
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Disappointing
21 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
To those who have seen "The league of gentlemen" (1960), the poster of "King of thieves" looks almost like déjà vu. Unfortunately, Michael Caine and company fail to revive the magic of Jack Hawkins and company. The fault is not in the actors. The disappointment has two causes, one innate, the other an inadequacy. In the first instance, KoT is hidebound by the true story on which it is based, the 2015 Hatton Garden jewel robbery in London. In this case, contrary to popular belief, truth is not stranger than fiction. And then, the script is below par.

The story starts with two very brief sketches of an old couple obviously still deeply in love. Lynne (Francesca Annis) and Brian (Michael Caine) Reader carry on with their intimate dinner and river side stroll as if their blissful sunset years will go on forever, until she suddenly dies (seems like a heart attack). Superbly delivered, Michael Caine brings home Brian's grief with a single line "I can't believe that she will never walk through that door again". Young protégé Basil (Charlie Cox) is sympathetic but there is little he can do to help.

Then, some of his old cronies in crime (literally) finally succeed in persuade him that the vacuum can be filled with reliving the glory of another brief shining moment (albeit not exactly Camelot) by robbing Hatton Garden. "If you don't have a go, somebody else will" proves yet again to be a winning argument. Brian's perspective reflects how much of a proud professional he is. "If you enjoy doing this fxxxing job you a not doing it properly" he lectures young Basil. But then, he adds a different perspective for himself, "I am allowed to enjoy; it gives purpose".

The three old cronies lined up for the job are superficially deceptively sheepish but deepdown cunning Kenny (Tom Courtenay), youngish (at 60) muscle man Danny (Ray Winstone) and downright devious Terry (Jim Broadbent, cast against type). Added to this distinguished assemblage is fencer "Billy the fish" (Michael Gambon). With this dream team, the audience cannot be blamed for their high expectations. That is where the disappointment lies.

Even this "British acting royalty" cannot salvage the lame script. They are a delight to watch and there are some funny moments but not enough to make this movie worth recommending.
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Hunter Killer (2018)
Pure entertainment
14 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Gerard Butler rescuing a president is not a novelty. Here in "Hunter Killer", the twist is that this is a Russian president. Nor is this your average submarine movie, discriminating against viewers with claustrophobia. "Hunter Killer" is three-dimensional with, in addition to thrilling underwater sequences, SEAL action in the air and on the ground.

The plot is not convoluted, just a little busy. Let me see if I can simplify it.

In USS Arkansas, Captain Glass (Butler) sets out on a mission to the Arctic waters to investigate a missing U.S. submarine. In parallel, but initially unrelated, a small Navy SEAL team under Commander Beaman (Toby Stephens) is sent to a Russia Navy base on a reconnaissance mission. Needless to say, the two will eventually converge.

On board the Arkansas, Glass over the intercom gives his self-introduction address, emphasizing that he has been "underwater all my life" and worked in just about any post you find in a submarine. "Therefore, I know you better than any other commander would". He also drops some hint that he is not the sort of commander that blindly follows the rules.

Action time. Upon arrival at the scene, they have little time to prepare for a torpedo attack from a hidden Russian sub. Cutting edge technology saves the day, in the form of cute looking torpedo evaders (reminds me of R2D2) they sent out. To demonstrate their appreciation of the warm welcome, Captain Glass orders launching of their own torpedo which the Russian are not so successful in evading. "Did we just start a war?", Glass's subordinates panic. "No, but we might have sailed into one", replies the distinguished captain, who adds that he has no intention of following the playbook from this point on.

In the parallel plotline, Beaman and company, from a safe distance via high power binoculars cum camcorders, observe some rough manhandling of a man forced onto a yacht, a man who looks like the Russian president. He is immediately confirmed to be, by high officials back in Washington sharing the visuals they are sending back. What the SEAL team cannot see, but the movie audiences can, it something that happened just a little earlier, a coup in which Russian Defense Minister Durov (Michael Gor) takes the president prisoner. "It is my duty to defend my country against threats, from outside and also inside, such as a weak leader".

Without getting to too much detail (thus avoiding stumbling into potential plot holes), it suffices to say that Durov the chief villain masterminds a conspiracy that aims to start a war with the U.S. In Washington in the center of power, sensible John Fisk (Common) and Jayne Norquist (lovely Linda Cardellini, seen most recently in "Green Book" as the protagonist's wonderful wife) advise caution while hawkish Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman in an almost-cameo "paycheck" role) yells "When someone makes a move on a chessboard, you respond, Madam President". No Claire Underwood here, the president sides with caution, authorizing an eyebrow-raising scheme for an American SEAL team to attempt to rescue a Russian president.

Do not question why all the three necessary parties happen to be on site at a time when they are needed. They're just there, period! The third party is a stranded Russian captain rescued by USS Arkansas, a heaven-sent navigator without whose help USS Arkansas will have no hope of getting to the Russian naval base in one piece.

With the somewhat labored plot comes the most entertaining part of the movie. Following a cliffhanger of the passage through the treacherous icy underwater maze is an escalation to a confrontation that reminds me of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral". The interaction of the strong-willed captains, American and Russian, is also very watchable.

"Hunter Killer" is one hell of an entertainment. If there were a category of "pure entertainmentb award" in Oscar, it would be an unquestioned contender.
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A Private War (2018)
Rosamund Pike's tour de force portrayal of dedicated war correspondent Marie Colvin
6 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The story of Marie Colvin demands to be told. The same can be said about the story she literally dies to tell. Biopic "A private war" accomplishes both, with a compelling performance from Rosamund Pike that is Oscar-worthy.

Two cinematic techniques run through the entire movie. One is a VO which is in fact extracts from an interview of the protagonist, a rare occasion when she is at the interviewee side of the table. Just before the closing credits, we see a very brief clip Marie Colvin in person during the interview. The other is something similar to chapter titles, onscreen texts showing countdown to Homs. An alternative title to this movie could have been "10 years to Homs", tracing the events, both public and private, culminating in Colvin's death in 2012 in the process of telling the true story of the war in Syria to the world.

The opening scene shows Colvin just past 35, still in love with her ex-husband, even toying with the idea of re-marrying. Next, we see her at work in Sri Lanka where she loses an eye, narrowly escaping death under heavy artillery fire. Afterwards, sitting with a group of close friends around the dinner table, she is undaunted, joking about the proposition of wearing an eye-patch (inspired by Moshe Dayan). "I'm not going to be a fxxxing pirate", she quips. Taking time to adjust and adapt to having only one eye, she continues to be light-hearted. Facing the challenge of trying to gauge distance, she says "I didn't know the left eye is so important".

The next sequence is significant - the mission to uncover a mass grave in Iraq, the evidence of a murder of some 600 civilians. By chance she meets seasoned photographer Tom Conroy (Jamie Dornan) whom she recruits. He continues to be by her side all the way to her death in Homs. Their relationship is depicted as entirely platonic.

While there are expected tensions in this Iraq assignment, there is also a lighter side. In running the gauntlet of an intimidating guard post, they try to pass themselves off as medical personnel, with the local driver doubling as interpreter. In mild desperation, Colvin pulls out a photo identification card, telling the interpreter to show the word "health" on the card to the guards. That much at least is truth, as she is showing them her gym card!

Then, the tone of the movie gets darker. From conversation with Tom as well as with her editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander), we get in-depth glimpses of this apparently fearless war reporter. There is a lot bottled up underneath, not the least of which PTSD that she claims pertains only to soldiers, until someone points out that she sees more disturbing war scenes than an average soldier. But she is drawn to the war zones like "moth to bloody flame". She also intimates feelings that ordinary folks like us can more easily empathize with: she fears growing old, but also dying young. Ultimately, what defines Maria Colvin is her commitment to the mission of seeking out and telling the world truths in the war zone. She is definitely not without fear, but she is even more worried that "you're not going to get anywhere if you acknowledge fear".

Needless to say, it is impossible for a two-hour movie to cover even a small fraction of the war zones Colvin reported from. Still, the depiction is graphic, but in a matter-of-course way. To balance this, there are "interlude" type of scenes of the social life (perhaps reluctant) Colvin has in opulent London. During these interludes, she sometimes uses alcohol and sex to combat the haunting images that she just cannot drive away. One such interlude is with affluent, stylish Tony Shaw (Stanley Tucci), a pleasant, mature, soothing relationship.

The final 20 minutes is where we feel the surging power of this movie. Aleppo may be better known for Syrian War atrocities but Homs wasn't any better, or perhaps even worse. To reveal to the world the atrocities of tens of thousands of helpless civilian slaughtered, Maria Colvin and Tom Conroy risk their lives going deep into the worst war zone, culminating in Colvin's live voice broadcast simultaneous to several TV stations, right in the middle of pounding assaults. Rosamund Pikes performance in that scene, passionate human emotions contain within impeccable professionalism, deserves any acting award.
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Widows (2018)
Superb ensemble cast
5 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The trailer and other material of "Widows" give an impression of a heist undertaken by four widows whose husbands died together in a job went wrong. The actual plotline differs slightly from this simplistic setup. Only three of the four widows are involved. The fourth, with a 4-month old baby, declines to join. There is a fourth woman though, recruited in the last minute when the intended driver, a man, becomes indisposed.

Most heist yarns, including the first women heist, "Ocean's Eight" if I am not mistaken, are light, breezy affairs. Not so "Widows". The motivation here is not greed. The loot of 5 million dollars, minus 2 million, is relatively small. It is driven, first and foremost, by need. The "minus 2 million" is to pay back the gangsters from whom the four husbands stole. While need is the pragmatic motivation, there are strong under currents of anger and self-esteem. "Widows", in addition to providing entertainment (which it does), has something to say. I'll come back to that later.

With crisp editing of back-and-forth cutting, the movie wastes no time in showing the failed robbery that ends up in a huge explosion with flames engulfing the perpetrators. Also introduced are the wives, with Veronica (Viola Davis) clearly in the leading role and husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a loving couple. The other three (I'll skip detailing the husbands) are less fortunate. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), ethnic Polish, is beaten regularly by her husband. Her mother (Jackie Weaver) is not much better, pressuring her into taking up the world's second oldest profession after her husband's death. Linda's (Michelle Rodriguez) husband is not as bad but the business they run together is in financial trouble making it difficult for a family with two little kids. Amanda's (Carrie Coon) situation appears most normal but she has her hands full with a 4-month old baby.

There are mildly sprawling plotlines that the audience need not lose too much sleep over. In a nutshell, there is a political (local election) cum gangland faceoff between two power groups, old power Caucasian father-and-son Tom (Robert Duvall) and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), against rising Black power brothers Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya). The key thing to remember is just that it's Jamal's 2 million that is burned up in the explosion and he now wants repayment from Veronica. She has no choice but to pick up her husband's next job planned and try to recruit the other widows. The story carries on from there, with plot twists, violence (but with no visually-graphic scenes) and other ingredients of crime stories. Those I'll not divulge. Suffices to say that as a crime thriller, "Widows" is entertaining, although not in a light-hearted way.

I mentioned that this movie has something to say. It does not swing a big hammer but you feel the messages everywhere: social injustice, corruption, an absurd system that rewards the rich and penalizes the poor, discrimination of minorities. Spike Lee uses sarcastic humor. Steve McQueen does that only very occasionally. When assigned the task of buying guns for the job, Alice seems lost "From where"? Is reply, Veronica just stares and quips "It's America!".

The messages, however, are usually brought across in "Widows" in a much darker way. In an earlier scene, Veronica and Harry, an apparently affectionate couple, are thankful that their mixed marriage has worked well. But when reminded of their deceased son Marcus, things turn sour as Harry appears to be bitter over his belief that Marcus would not have died had this not been a mixed marriage. Much later in the movie, this is explained in Veronica's mental flashback, in which she called Marcus to bring back something she left in the car. Marcus, we see, takes after Veronica, looking Black rather than Caucasian. In making an illegal U-turn, he was stopped by the Caucasian police and shot.

"Widows" has a large ensemble cast, with quite a few more characters in addition to the many already mentioned. But as the title suggests, it is the women who carry the movie. In particular, it is Viola Davis, who gets a BAFTA best lead nomination. If won, it will keep good company with her recent best supporting Oscar. Her screen presence dominates whenever she appears in a scene.

Elizabeth Debicki followed up her impressive appearance as Jordan Baker in "The Great Gatsby" (2013) with the lead role in the acclaimed TV series "The night manager" (2016). In "Widows", she shines with the transformation of Alice from a mousy, battered wife to the most resourceful and self-confident member of the heist gang. Watch for the scene where she tries to buy guns in a fair where 99.9% of the attendees are men.

All the others in the proliferation of acting talents and experience are good. I just wish to specially mention Carrie Coon who plays the wife who declines joining. Those who have seen her in the superb TV series "The leftovers" (2014-2017) know how good she is. She has only two scenes in "Widows" but her performance is a pleasure to watch. "Avenger" fans may wish to know that she in Proxima Midnight, although you are unlikely to recognize her there.
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Bird Box (2018)
Allegory of motherhood embedded in well-acted sci-fi/fantasy thriller with an excellent ensemble cast
30 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Released a year right after "A quiet place" (for which Emily Blunt just won Best Supporting Actress from Screen Actors Guild), "Bird box" inevitably attracted ample comparisons with that movie. But there are plenty of other movies that warrant comparison.

While I am not sure if Bird Box fits into a more specific genre than Sci-fi in general, it has several characteristics in common with other movies:

An after-apocalypse world Quest in search of a safe haven A mysterious threat, supernatural or otherwise Mass suicide A group of strangers caught in a "situation" together, getting killed one after another Survivors in an essentially dead town going from house to house to savage food and provision

I am not going to match these characteristics to the movies listed below, but will rather leave the fun to the readers:

"28 days later" (2002) "I am legend" (2007) "The happening" (2008) "Resident evil" (2002) and it's umpteen sequels "Ten little Indians" (1965, 1974, 1989) "I think we're alone now" (2018)

"Bird Box" runs in two parallel, cross-cutting sequences: the "present" and 5 years ago. Without understanding what has been going on in the last 5 years, there is not much to talk about the "present" sequence, which shows a woman and two small children, all blindfolded, journeying in a row boat along a river through forests of towering trees. After each flashback (which follow a simple linear trajectory), the present journey becomes a bit more meaningful. Therefore, let's concentrate on the flashback.

The narrative starts with a visibly pregnant Malorie (Sandra Bullock) visiting her obstetrician, accompanied by her sister Jessica (Sarah Paulson). TV newscasts report apocalypse-scale disasters such as mass suicides in far-away places like Russia. Some comments point to biological warfare, just conjectures.

Then abruptly all hell break loose, as the world around them is plunged into similar chaos in which Jessica dies (throwing Paulson fans like myself into absolute dismay, as this award-winning character-actor simply goes into oblivion in this movie).

Barely surviving a mad stampede of human beings turned mad, Malorie escapes into a house and finds herself among a group of strangers, fellow survivors finding temporary protection from whatever that is killing people en masse outside. Someone calls these killers "demons" and "spiritual creatures", instrumental to the "end game". At this point, what the audience can observe is people (such as Jessica) looking suddenly blank, as if their souls are snatched from them instantaneously. They stare at something which is only visible to themselves. Then, the commit suicide, in whatever horrendous way.

Later in the movie, more about these mysterious, lethal threats are revealed. They are equally deadly when "seen" (but never shown to the audience) on a computer monitor via survey cameras mounted in front of the house. An even more terrifying revelation is that they do not make lunatics suicidal but instead turn them into murderers. These converted lunatics, with religious zeal proclaiming that they have seen something "beautiful", will force others to come out and see this divine sight, and kill them if they refuse.

Disclosing too many details would take much away from the enjoyment of the movie. From one angle, it shows a group of people stuck together in a desperate situation, how they interact, how they trust, and distrust, each other. As the story is told in flashback, we already know right from the start that the woman and two kids are most likely the only survivors from the group. Very shortly into the story, when another pregnant woman arrives to seek refuge, we also know where the two children come from.

One more thing that requires mentioning is the destination of the river journey: a safe haven advertised over a walkie-talkie type broadcasting. Initially, another survivor is to take part in this quest but he is killed, leaving the trio to face the hazardous journey by themselves.

One of the key attractions of this movie is an excellent ensemble cast, led by Bullock, that includes John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Jackie Weaver, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rey Howery, Tom Holland, BD Wong and the aforementioned, lamentably brief appearance of Sarah Paulson.
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An enjoyable ride
27 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This is my favorite genre - a group of strangers get stuck in a claustrophobic setting (not necessarily physically, but certainly psychologically), getting killed one after another. The iconic classic is Agatha Christie's "And then there were none". To fully enjoy "El Royale", however, the thing to remember is that it is not a whodunnit or even a suspense thriller with convoluted twists.

"El Royale" spins several back stories, all through flashbacks at different junctures of the movie. Among these, there are two main plotlines, both quite familiar. One involves loots from a robbery, hidden in a room at the title resort motel. The other is a reel of film showing a certain unsuspecting celebrity, secretly shot through a one-way-mirror. These two unrelated plotlines, together with a couple of others, get entangled through seven protagonists. Before going to them, the star first.

The El Royale appears to be a high society resort, but looks run down and deserted by the time we get to our story, in 1970. The unique thing is a red line running from the entrance to the registration counter, in effect dividing the motel into two halves. This is the states border between California and Nevada. Rooms at the California side cost a little bit more. As mentioned, the mirrors in each room are transparent one way, allowing the owner to see and hear everything inside the room. Well, ALMOST everything, and this is important.

Now to the players, and those who play them, in the order they are listed in IMDb.

Jeff Bridges, who needs no introduction, is Father Flynn, who is in fact not a priest. First of the four hotel guests to appear, he is the key player in one of the plotlines.

Cynthia Erivo, English born and educated, and a Tony winner, plays casino singer Darlene, which allows her to showcase her voice and vocal talent. This is the only character that is entirely "clean".

Dakoda Johnson, with "Fifty shades" fame, plays Emily, a femme fatale type motel guest. "Don't mess with me" is written all over her face.

Jon Hamm, who in "Baby Driver" (2017) makes you break out in a cold sweat every time he speaks, plays Sullivan. Presenting himself as a travelling salesman, he is an undercover cop investigating a case.

Chris Hemsworth, better known as Thor, plays Billy Lee. Don't be deceived by the ordinary name or the appealing face and physique. This is the devil incarnate. He appears in a brief flashback in the middle of the movie, then finally shows up near the end.

Cailee Spaeny, who in "Vice" (2018) plays the teen version of Lynne Cheney (played by Amy Adams who is holding an Oscar nomination for that movie), is Rose, little sister of Emily. She is not a hotel guest, but a kidnap victim of her own sister.

Completing the ensemble cast is Lewis Pullman, who had a brief appearance in "Battle of the sexes" (2017), playing Miles the motel operator, with his own dark past.

As mentioned, this is not a suspense thriller although it feels a little bit like one. That is because facts are revealed very gradually throughout the movie, through flashbacks. The script is not remarkably clever but things fit together without too many flaws. Throughout the movie, people knock people down, people tie people up, people shoot people dead, or not dead. At the end, there is really only one question unanswered - who is the person in the reel of film. While the answer is not particularly important for the enjoyment of this movie, some critics do try suggestions, the most obvious one being a member of a prominent political family with a base in Hyannis Port, Cape Cod.
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After three decades, there is still fire in Spike Lee
24 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Spike Lee's "Blackkklansman", a contender in last year's Cannes Festival, just became one of the nominees for Best Picture in Oscar this year, expectedly. "Do the right thing" (1989) was probably the movie that established Lee as an auteur director, in both artistic flare and moral conviction. Take away the racial politics element, however, "Blackkklansman" is very much an entertaining police undercover yarn, with more accent on the comic than on the thriller flavor. The humor, however, is double-edged. It is probably even more effective than graphic violence as a vehicle for condemning bigotry. The ridicule and absurdity get the message through, in "Do the right thing", and again in "Blackkklansman". But make no mistake about it. In "Blackkklansman", Lee is not pulling any punches. The hammering comes at the end, after the main body of the movie.

For those (probably very few) who noticed, the movie actually started on a quiet, pensive note - a few bars from Stephen Foster's languid Negro folk song Swanee River (Old Folks at Home). What comes next wakes you up. In a sort of prologue, Alec Baldwin in the form of a character called Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a white supremist, delivers an infuriating propaganda speech that make you feel completely disgusted. That is exactly the intention. The effect of this fictional opening is surpassed only by the real-life closing. But first, the main body of the story.

Based on true events in the 1970s, the narration starts with Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Spring Police Department, reporting to work on his first day. He soon gets bored with duties at the record library which is customarily assigned to rookies, irrespective of ethnic background. A bright young man brimming with self-confidence, he soon asks for a transfer to undercover assignments that are more challenging. "I'll shave and even take out the natural if I have to", the latter referring to his beautiful Afro hairstyle. It does not take too long for him to get his wish. Ron is teamed up with Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi), two worthy partners, for undercover assignments.

The fun starts when with a flash of inspiration upon noticing a add from an "organization" which he immediately recognizes as the Ku Klux Klan, he calls to seek membership. "Fluent in both Queen's English and jive" (the first one I interpret as meaning upper class American English, as real English hadn't been spoken in America for years, according to professor Higgins, "My Fair Lady"), Ron spills out over the phone a run of insults a white supremist would hurl at a Black man. The hilarity from watching this on screen is predictable but still irresistible. The KKK member on the other end of the line is completely sold and invites Ron to an interview.

Doubling the hilarity now is having two Ron Stallworths, one in the voice of the real guy, the other in the body of Flip, who manages to achieve a good resemblance of the voice and manner of speaking, after some hard practice. He is white alright, but also a Jew! Imagine the danger he puts himself into in trying to infiltrate the KKK. But Flip, first and foremost, is a true professional.

There's more: the infiltration has a parallel. Ron goes to a black activist meeting, where he meets pretty student union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). The ensuing mutual romantic interest is also predictable.

As mentioned, the narrative moves forward very much in the vein of a mainstream undercover yarn. The thriller portion is contained, culminating in an anticlimax of a bomb threat and an assassination attempt. The levity portion is well managed, with the barbs on bigotry working very much like those in "Do the right thing". There is even crowd-pleasing poetic justice in seeing a racist policeman trapped and getting his due.

Toward the end, however, comes a powerful montage of two parallel running, intercutting sequences. In one meeting, Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounts, first-hand, the atrocities done to his handicapped friend Jesse years ago. In another meeting chaired by David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK "grand wizard", Flip gets "baptized".

The movie closes with ample live footage from the 2017 events in Charlottesville, include Donald Trump's comments. That completes the left-right combo knockout punch.

Washington's confident, measured performance does credit to his father Denzel. Driver get a well-deserved Supporting nomination in Oscar.
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The Favourite (2018)
An artsy treatment of a small ripple in history
14 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
First, some background. This movie is based on a piece of mildly interesting English history. There is no sibling murder, no violent beheading, no earth-shaking war (just brief mention of one on the peripheral). Critics like to compare this movie to "All about Eve", with some justification as it is indeed about a new-comer, an initially harmless-looking young woman, usurping the place of a well-established diva of sorts. But that is where the comparison ends. In "All about Eve" there is no queen who is the focus of this vying to be the favourite.

The story is told by auteur-in-the-making, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, in neat little chapters with titles taken from the dialogue in the chapter ("A minor hitch", "I dreamed I stabbed you in the eye" etc etc). The narrative comes in crisp, short scenes creating a pacing that compensates somewhat for the lacking in real excitement (the aforementioned absence of true violence and death).

The artsy direction is right away clearly noticeable: generous use of fisheye lens shots, contrasting light and shadow, heavy use of sustained powerful strings and rhythmic piano. There are also cross-cutting montages such as the one accentuating the queen's excruciating pain from gout with the enterprising newcomer's venture into the woods to look for a cure. A dialogue between the two competing women has them filmed as silhouettes against a large, bright opaque window. A very slow-zoom closeup to the queen's face finally leads to her outburst of a yelled: stop! Everywhere you look, throughout the movie.

The duration of the movie covers a bit less than a decade of Queen Anne's (Olivia Colman) reign up to three years before her death in 1714. It starts by showing Duchess Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), childhood friend of Anne, now in formidable control of state affairs through her intimacy with Anne whose psychological age is probably that of a young teen. Furthermore, Anne is plagued by poor health, particularly painful gout. The newcomer is Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), an ex-aristocrat (circumstances omitted here) coming to seek help from cousin Sarah. Initially taken as a lowly servant, Abigail impresses Sarah with her initiative in finding a remedy for Anne. Seeing her as no more than a useful aid, Sarah makes Abigail a backup in the time-demanding task of tending to Anne. Abigail's superficial innocence is disarming. Although it does not take Sarah too long to see what is coming, it is a little too late. Let the game begin.

Abigail's scheming is depicted in scene after scene meticulously crafted. While she is taken out of the lowly servant's status, Abigail deliberately stays virtually invisible but at the same time observes and listens with utmost attention, as during a confrontation between Anne and Robert Harley (Nicolas Hoult) on whether to go to war (more on this later). However, she is quick and unwavering when an opportunity arises: when Sarah, extremely busy, sends her fill in for a couple of hours, Anne quite understandably is not particularly thrilled by having this near-stranger (albeit someone she recognizes). Unfazed upon being sent away, she recognizes a sure-fire path to Anne's heart, the 17 rabbits the Queen considers her offspring. But it is far from smooth sailing for Abigail. In this movie that is virtually devoid of real violence, those that are manufactured for artistic value have Abagail as target. Harley, in trying to recruit Abagail as his spy, pushes her down a low slope, in his "persuasion". When Sarah begins to suspect something, she nearly shoots Abagail "accidentally" during their game shooting. Abagail soon gets even, during another shooting session, when she fires so quickly that the blood of the fowl sprinkles on Sarah's face. At that very juncture, a servant arrives to announce the Queen's summon. At Sarah's short pause, still thinking of the blood on her face, the servant hesitatingly adds, pointing towards Abagail, "The Queen wants HER".

The main body of this movie is a satirical, sometimes sardonic expansion of the title - the story of how the two women compete to be Queen Anne's favourite, and hence power. I wouldn't go into details. The backdrop is simple. Together with her husband, a Lord and a Whig, Sarah pushes for war with France and heavy taxes on landowners. In fierce opposition is aforementioned Tory Harley who has recruited Abagail to spy for him.

I should be very surprised if the acting does to fetch a couple of BAFTA rewards. Oscar may be a different story as there are American nominees to be considered. While all three performance are riveting, the demand on the three roles vary. Weisz's Sarah is more straightforward - upper-class, coolly in control consistently. Stone portrays an evolving Abigail, growing in menace with every scene. The absolutely mesmerizing performances however comes from Colman. With measured precision, she delivers a Queen Anne inhibited with ailment, eccentricities and neuroses. At them same time, we also see an Anne with endearing, childlike simplicity. Furthermore, there are moments when in innate monarch surfaces when, more than once, we hear her deliver a steely: "I have spoken". The ultimate cruel irony is her inability to recognize herself as the victim of manipulation by the two women who are supposed to love her. As Golden Globe has two categories for best picture as well as lead, Colman and Glenn Close triumph separately in peaceful co-existence. I am willing to bet anything that BAFTA is Colman's. As to Oscar, well.....
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Vice (I) (2018)
Dual of makeup artists - Bale's vs Oldman's
10 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The entire movie is threaded with a recurring motif of river fishing which is open for allegorical interpretation. As well, there is a mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons). This is not a VO, as you see him clearly but just wonder who the hell he is. SPOILER here: when it gets to the revelation at the end, those who have see "21 grams" (2003) will undoubtedly be reminded of that movie.

Even before the title and opening credits are shown, there are montages aplenty: haunting images of 911, air strikes at Iran, a young Lynne Vincent (Amy Adams) goading Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) on with barbs like "I picked the wrong man", "Prove it!" etc. This pre-title sequence closed with, against a black screen, printed words from an anonymous quote "Beware of a quiet man" purportedly prophesising Chaney's life.

The early part of the movie is something like a concise history of recent American presidency. Cheney's destiny starts with an internship program run by Donald Rumsfeld (an unreservedly charismatic Steve Carell) who losses no time in emphasizing the requirement of absolute "loyalty". The fun starts with the resignation of Nixon (from news footage, as a few later historic events). Serving as chief of staff to Ford looks promising for Cheney. But just as he is having fun with developing the "Unitary Executive Theory", his political prospects come to an abrupt end when Ford losses to Carter. Back home hatching more schemes, the couple works hard, as exemplified in Lynne intimating in one of her speeches that while women in New York are burning their bras, in Wyoming here, "we wear them".

Opportunity knocks again when under the "revolution of the rich", Regan comes into power, vowing that "we'll make American great again" (sounds familiar? Copycats are a dime a dozen).

Then comes the real stuff. "Dubya", showing that he does have shrewd moments, seeks out Cheney as running mate. The wooing scene in George Bush's office is classic. Sam Rockwell, fresh from his Oscar win last year, displays virtuosity in his own interpretation of Bush that is quite different from Josh Brolin's in "W." (2008). Brolin went for melodrama and portrayed a Bubya that you could almost love. Rockwell goes for the pragmatic and gives us a Bush that has a lot of common sense. Neither succumb to the screen stereotype of an idiotic Bush. That is good. Apologies for getting carried away. This movie is about Cheney, not Bush. Incidentally, in "W.", Cheney is played by Richard Dreyfuss.

Anyway, back to the remainder of "Vice", which I could easily and lazily take care of as "and the rest is history". And so it is. The most familiar part is of course how the 911 attack gave Cheney an opportunity to strengthen his power and control over everything. One particularly symbolic scene occurs in a heated discussion with a group of seven or eight people. Strategically, Cheney moves to stand before the seated Bush, virtually shielding him from the sight of everybody else in the room, and utters through his teeth "You are the president". Needless to say, Bush takes the cue.

Not particularly a flash of genius but still very clever is using as background music for the ending credits "America" from "West Side Story". It remains to be seen if Bale can repeat Gary Oldman's feat with "The darkest hour" last year. If he does, considerable of credit goes to the makeup artist.
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Green Book (2018)
An amazing feel-good cum Christmas movie and, best of all, a true story
9 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
The ultimate beauty of a bio-pic is that it is a true story. Whether it is deeply touching, violently disturbing or hilariously amusing, the fact that this really happened makes all the difference. "Green Book" is one such.

The events took place in the era when the Kennedy Brothers tried to fully accomplish what Abraham Lincoln started. That was the time when, strange as it sounds, the use of the word "black" to denote an American with African ethnic origin was almost tabooed. The word "colored" was used, and not exactly in a complimentary way. "Green book" is a Negro travelling companion, detailing accommodations that a black traveler could safely check into, particularly in the deep south. It was, needless to say, useful when a black classical concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) embarked on a performance tour of his trio (with a cello and a double bass, both played by Caucasian musicians) that would take him deep down south. As chauffer and body guard de facto, he hired Italian New Yorker Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer temporarily unemployed when the club he worked for underwent a major renovation. The movie is essentially in the familiar genre of road movie featuring an "odd-couple".

Two establishing scenes introduce Tony on two fronts - throwing out trouble-makers from the club and enjoying a family life as a devoted husband and father. When it becomes apparent that winning $50 from a hog-dog eating head-to-head challenge would not be sufficient for the family budget during the four months during which he is unemployed, Tony answers to a reference for an interview.

There is an introduction scene to the odd-couple that is a joy to watch. In an elegant upscale waiting room, Tony meets his prospective employer who comes out "dressed like an African king", all cool and snobbish. Following up on his enquiries about Tony's resume, Dr. Don Shirley asks "In what capacity?" Seeing Tony's look of bewilderment, Don rephrases his question "What do you do there?" This deliciously sets the tone of the stereotype-revered odd couple. And, never forget, this is a true story.

The interview is not fruitful. Upon understanding that his job description includes being a "butler" (laundry handling, shoe shining etc) Tony turns down the offer, although they part civilly. Don, as well, is not prepared to meet the remuneration Tony seeks. However, reflecting on the high recommendation he received, and realizing that he really needs that caliber of a body guard for his tour, Don calls Tony's wonderful wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) to make the offer again. At the farewell scene, after a passionate kiss, Dolores says to her husband "You better be home for Christmas or not come home at all". A seasoned audience will right away recognize this leading to the planned closure.

A pleasure as it is to watch, this road movie does not have installed for you anything you would not expect. Nor does it have to. It is the natural narrative of the story that is so captivating. Tony and Don do not start with the right foot, so to speak. Every time Tony says something he does not like, Don snaps "Eyes on the wheel, Tony". They engage in a philosophical debate on the difference between "bullxxxx" and "lie". The first bonding comes when Tony is flabbergasted to learn that Don does not like music "of your people" (such as Chubby Checker). Such sentiments are only surpassed by learning Don's unbelievable ignorance of the joy of fried chicken. Against Don's vehement protest that he has no "plate and utensils" in the backseat, Tony finally succeeds in making the music genius discover the joy of fried chickens. In reciprocation, starting from a session on the park bench outside fast food chain, Dom starts coaching Tony in writing, more specifically, letters to Dolores.

On the real business of the trip, we are entertained by short scenes of the Don Shirley Trio's performance at various stops of the tour. While the program is essentially classical there are occasional de tours into popular tunes such as "Happy Talk" from the musical "South Pacific". The grand finale, insofar as music is concerned, is totally riveting. After walking away from the performance with an institution that reeks bigotry, Don and Tony go to a music bar where the latter is the only white patron. After some prompting, from locals and his pal alike, Don goes to the stage to join the jazz band, delivering a performance that immediately brings to mind "Treme", the marvelous TV series that is among the best I have watched.

The various unpleasant to outright dangerous experiences Dr. Shirley encounters throughout the tour are of course predictable. A little surprising is the way Tony handles these unpleasant situations. Yes, on some occasions he lets his fist do the talking, but not always. He can be resourceful and tactful as the need arises. This, matched by Don's impeccable dignity, makes the pair so exceptional. The movie ends with a heartwarming sequence, with the closure on the Christmas theme mentioned earlier.

Golden Globe results are in: best supporting actor, best screenplay and best picture (comedy or musical) for "Green Book". Ali has a bit of an edge because his role, arguably, is closer to a co-lead than a support. But either way, his top-notch performance is beyond dispute. Mortensen could have won too but, cliché as it is, there is a strong field. I like to pay special tribute to Cardellini whose performance makes Dolores (oh no, entirely unlike the namesake in "Westworld") so endearing. For those who may not recognize her, she has the role of another endearing wife, Laura Barton in "Avengers: Age of Ultron".
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Roma (2018)
Life goes on
2 January 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Even though nominations haven't yet been announced, "Roma" is currently ranking second, after "A star is born", in the betting odds for Oscar's Best Picture. And, yes, this is talking about Best Motion Picture, NOT Best Foreign Language Film.

"Roma", shot in heartbreakingly beautify black-and-white, is one of those rare gems that you may not register strong feeling about while watching. But subsequently, it grows on you until it feels almost like a personal experience.

The title "Roma" is just the name of the district where the story takes place, in Mexico City in the early 70s. The narrative is episodic, along the line of a-slice-in-life genre, covering one year in the protagonist's life. It is, mind you, not one of those "nothing happens at all" movies. The key events are familiar - unplanned pregnancy, infidelity, growing up, among other things. The somewhat ordinary everyday story is told against the macro backdrop of a country in political turmoil.

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is a young woman, on of a staff of three (the other two being the cook and the driver) serving an upper-middle-class family in a large two-story house. The Caucasian household of seven comprises the well-educated couple, a grandmother, and four children (three boys and a girl, ranging from post-toddler to early teen). Cleo's job description, if there was one, might have run several pages. What we notice right away is the affectionate relationship she has with the children. She is a servant, but also one that in many ways is treated like a member of the family. When she gets pregnant from a casual relationship (the cad simply vanishes upon hearing the news) and, trembling, asks if she is going to be fired, her kindly employer takes her to see a reputable doctor instead. While her problem is taken care of, it soon becomes apparent that the role-model family she has become so attached to has it own problems brewing.

The beauty of the story is in the telling. Quite often, busy/noisy backdrops are used to frame the central action. On the other hand, closeups are rarely used. The aggregate effect is a remarkably natural narration of a year in Cleo's life, with accent on being naturally realistic rather than melodramatic. Very gradually but surely, the audience's empathy is built, so that in a couple of emotional scenes towards the closing, it is ever so deeply felt.

To-date, 8 foreign language films have received nominations for Best Picture in Oscar but none has won. 9th may just be a lucky number.
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Nobody can pull this off like Anna Kendrick
25 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"A simple favor" starts as looking like a situation comedy and then drifts into suspense crime drama territory, with a psychological thriller flavor that grows with each scene.

The star of the show is a vlog, or video blog, cyber world's child that came upon us at the start of this century. While a lot of movies use first person VO throughout to facilitate the narrative, ASF uses the protagonist Stephanie Smothers' (Anna Kendrick) vlog. Appearing at regular intervals throughout the entire movie, this vlog targets an audience group of young mothers like Stephanie herself, sharing receipts among other things.

Stephanie is a single mother, a widow in fact, resulting from a tragic car crash that took both her husband and her half-brother (driver and passenger). Awkward and aggressive at the same time, she tries to be ultra- useful and helpful, making herself not exactly the most popular parent at her son's school. Then one day she meets Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the mother of the kid who happens to be the buddie of his son. As Emily is a high-flying marketing executive working in "the city" (New York) Stephanie seems to be heaven-sent for "emergency" baby-sitting (which happens often) - a simple favor. But Emily also seems to genuinely want to befriend Stephanie, who becomes a regular guest for a martini in her plush house - the "shxxhole" I am stuck in" laments Emily.

The polarization of their persona is best illustrated in Emily's consistent correcting Stephanie whenever she says "sorry", which is a tabooed word in Emily's vocabulary, a "fxxx-up female habit". Emily carries that to quite an extent. Upon hearing that Stephanie is a widow, instead of uttering the usual "I'm sorry", she simply continues the dialogue with "Mind if I ask how he died?" She also says to Stephanie's face "You are so nice that I can't figure out how you have survived for so long".

Stephanie gets to meet Emily's husband Sean (Henry Golding, recently better known as "Nick", the crazy rich Asian), a one-book-wonder writer, an easygoing chap who hasn't produced anything in the last decades except for a son. While the couple seems to be still like newlyweds, Sean and Stephanie, who majored in English literature, right away share a literary universe out-of-bounds to Emily. However, "wife's best friend" is just that, at least at this point.

Then, all of a sudden, Emily goes missing, and the police is called in. Even with their quickly developing friendship, Emily has remained an enigma to Stephanie. Sean has also intimated that even to him, his wife is sometime like "a beautiful ghost".

This is the place where I should wisely stop.

There are quite a few twists. Titles of classic mystery movies have been thrown around to make you wonder if plot elements have perhaps been borrowed from them: "Diabolique" (1955), "Gaslight" (1944). It really boils down to two things. First, it is a question of what is premeditated and what comes as an opportunity to take advantage of. Second, it is a question of who knows how much, and when. These two questions keep you thinking, guessing, and entertained.

Of the three main characters, those charmed by Golding in "Crazy Rich Asians" better prepare for a disappointment. The poor chap has been given a character that even the screenwriters don't seem to be interested in. Lively carries her character beautifully, in more ways than one. But in the end, it is Kendrick. I honestly cannot think of anyone who can, in a split-second, turn a scene from bone-chilling into side-splitting.

Here comes my big SPOILER! With regards to the main plot twist, I see through it right away not because I am clever, but because I have watched (and enjoyed) the TV series "Deception" (2018).
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