Victoria and Abdul

Directed by Academy Award-nominated British filmmaker Stephen Frears who is best known for 2006’s The Queen also about a famous British female monarch, Victoria and Abdul is the fascinating untold true story of Queen Victoria’s unlikely relationship with an Indian servant. Clearly, the film’s greatest strength is the magnificent acting performance from Dame Judi Dench, already well-regarded for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown and her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Celebrating her golden jubilee commemorating 50 years on the throne in 1887, the Queen is sent two Indian servants as representatives of British-ruled India and begins a fond relationship with one of the men named Abdul Karim, played by Indian actor Ali Fazal. Eventually, he becomes a close confidant of the lonely Victoria who lost her husband Albert many years ago and invites Abdul to palace functions and is even taught his native Indian language. Abdul also is given a house on Royal property and is able to bring his Indian wife and mother-in-law to England. The film does an excellent job of realistically depicting what it must have been like at Queen Victoria’s residences, mostly because it was filmed at the real Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where much of the movie takes place. As Abdul becomes increasingly closer to Victoria, the Royal household and Victoria’s successor and son Prince Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard, continue to get fed up with her unorthodox friendship to a man that they believe is racially inferior and a simple-minded servant unworthy of her attention. Her real deep connection with Abdul forces her to fight back against her own family and royal duties and defends him until her death in 1901. Apparent by the story of Abdul not being uncovered until only recently, there was a actual animosity evidenced by Bertie ordering the destruction of all records pertaining to Abdul immediately after he takes the throne. Overall, I was particularly intrigued by the film’s plot and especially struck by Judi Dench’s terrific performance; however, it was too full of cliches to transcend the genre and was much more of a sad story than the promotional materials lead the viewer to believe.

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Dunkirk

Written and directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan who is best known for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2010’s Inception, Dunkirk is a top-notch war movie crafted by Nolan at his finest and joints the ranks of the greatest war films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 modern classic Saving Private Ryan. The remarkable true story chronicles one of the most pivotal moments of World War II: the British surrender and massive evacuation at Dunkirk, France beginning in late May and ending in early June of 1940. Up to 400,000 mostly British soldiers representing almost the entirety of the British military were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no real way of crossing the English Channel and reaching home even though it was within sight across the shore. With outstanding cinematography, greatly enhanced by the all-encompassing IMAX 70mm format, the film uses spectacular and often horrifying imagery to follow all the major aspects of the massive operation led by the British Commander Bolton, played by the Oscar-nominated actor Kenneth Branagh. The wide sweeping shots of the thousands upon thousands of war-weary soldiers waiting to be rescued while being constantly bombarded by the German air force reinforce the unbelievable scope of the evacuation. There are also mesmerizing dogfighting sequences between the strained British Royal Air Force, represented by a particularly heroic pilot played by Tom Hardy, and German warplanes and bombers targeting the vulnerable British troops. Further underscoring the horrors of war and the difficulty of evacuating so many men are the scenes showing jubilant soldiers finally getting on British Naval vessels after surviving the battle, only to be killed after many of their ships are torpedoed or bombed by the Germans. Throughout the film, Nolan is able to effectively recreate what it must have been like at Dunkirk and thereby engenders an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. The visceral reaction is not only created by the stunning visuals but also by the simple yet effectual soundtrack, which is mostly composed of what sounds like a ticking clock to heighten the nerve-wracking situations the characters are facing. Besides speaking to the hell that is war, the film also presents the hopeful and inspirational aspect of the evacuation of Dunkirk: the massive flotilla of ordinary Brits using their fishing and pleasure boats who journey to Dunkirk in the face of danger to help evacuate the many thousands of soldiers and bring them back home safely. To develop a personal connection with these unlikely heroes, the film also follows a father, played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, and son and a local teenager as they venture their way on their civilian boat to pick up survivors from Dunkirk. They themselves face the harsh reality of warfare when they rescue a severely shell-shocked soldier, played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is adamant that he must not return to Dunkirk. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing and emotionally powerful depictions of war and was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece from the auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His remarkable attention to detail and beautiful cinematography is probably the closest a filmgoer can get to experiencing war, both the horrific and inspirational qualities. The uplifting moments appeal to what many Brits still affectionately refer to as the Dunkirk spirit, the forces for good during times of adversity.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on the true story as recounted in Diane Ackerman’s 2007’s book of the same title, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells a fascinating mostly untold story about the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who were instrumental in saving many Jewish lives throughout World War II in the bombarded city of Warsaw, Poland. The movie begins showing the innocent goings-on of the zoo during the typical days before the Nazis invaded Poland and focuses mostly on Chastain’s character and her love of animals. Eventually, after it suffers catastrophic damage from German bombings in which many animals are killed, the zoo is shuttered by the new Nazi regime and becomes the testing grounds for Hitler’s so-called zoologist, played by the sinister Daniel Brühl, to breed a large extinct animal. Still living on the zoo’s property with their young son, the couple devise a plan to hide Jewish citizens from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto who would eventually be condemned to death in the extermination camps. Over the course of the war, over 300 men, women, and children are estimated to have been saved as a result of their heroic actions of sneaking Jews away from the ghetto and harboring them until they could be safely freed from German-occupied Poland. Like many Holocaust-themed films, at times it was very hard to watch, especially the scenes taking place within the inhumane Warsaw Ghetto and when the Nazis finally decided to liquidate all of its Jewish residents. What also struck me about the movie was the uncanny parallels between the zoo animals who were kept in cages yet very much loved by their zookeepers and the innocent Jewish victims who were deprived of their human rights and forced to live in cages of their own as if they were animals themselves. Overall, I found it to tell a very enlightening story that significantly contributes to the innumerable tales of horror and heroism during one of the darkest times in our history.

Silence

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese as a passion project 25 years in the making, Silence is an often difficult to watch film that as the title suggests is full of silent moments reflecting the characters’ religious introspection and how God could exist in such a cruel world. Set in 17th century Japan when the country was closed to Westerners and Christians were violently oppressed, the film follows the Portuguese Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garupe, played by Adam Driver. Both eagerly religious men are snuck into forbidden Japan on a mission to find the missing Father Ferreira, portrayed by Liam Neeson, who may have apostatized, or renounced Christianity. When the men first arrive in the Nagasaki region, they are greeted enthusiastically by downtrodden farmers who have had to hide their Catholic faith. The priests live out of sight during the day to avoid the draconian Japanese inquisitors but return to the villagers at night to give Mass, Communion, confession, and baptism, strictly forbidden rituals not given by clergy in several years. Through the eyes of Garfield’s and Driver’s characters, we witness the horrifying torture and gruesome killings of those suspected to be Christians by the Japanese authorities. For instance, men are tied to crucifixes on the shore where rising tides eventually drown them, and innocent bystanders are executed if one person does not apostatize. The major tactic used by the Japanese to discover who is a Christian is to force individuals to trample, or step, on a stone inscribed with the image of Jesus or other Christian iconography. Eventually, Father Rodrigues is detained by brutal Japanese officials who insist that he immediately apostatize while being told that Father Ferreira has renounced his faith and now lives as a Buddhist with a Japanese wife. Scorsese does a brilliant job of underscoring the priests and Japanese Christians torturously grappling with their inner personal faith as they suffer unimaginably simply for being Christians. Mirroring often tedious spiritual exploration that takes time and quiet reflection, the movie is almost three hours long with very little action and has extended stretches of no dialogue. Furthermore, the film heavily relies on nature for storytelling by filling the soundtrack with insect and other wild noises instead of a more conventional musical score. The sweepingly beautiful yet rough landscape of rural Japan is also perfectly captured by the powerfully nuanced cinematography. Overall, I found it to be a spiritually moving cinematic experience about what it means to follow a religion and how even the most dire circumstances can be overcome with deep personal convictions. Although it definitely is not for everyone or the faint of heart, the movie presents yet another terrific case why Martin Scorsese is one of the most talented filmmakers today.

Patriots Day

From Peter Berg who directed 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day is a well done procedural drama that follows the events of the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 and provides insight into the many men and women who were victims as well as those investigating and capturing the culprits. The events leading up to, during, and after the terrorist attack are shown from the perspective of the fictional Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders, portrayed by Boston native Mark Wahlberg. The movie captures the Boston Strong attitude when all of Boston came together during an especially trying time, and one way the filmmaker does this is by casting real Bostonians as extras. Much of the movie revolves around finding out what happened and how to pursue the bombers. The local officials, including the Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis portrayed by John Goodman, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, have initial investigative differences, typical of most Hollywood depictions, with the federal government represented by FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, played by Kevin Bacon. Underscoring patriotism and the desire to seek justice, the filmmaker shows many of these characters working together to arrest and capture the Tsarnaev brothers whose free reign terrorizes the entire city of Boston. Free of excessively gruesome imagery of the actual attacks, the film attempts to focus on the emotional aftermath and vividly retrace what happens over the course of the days that follow until those responsible are no longer a threat. The power of the movie is visualizing the events for the viewer even though most Americans already know many of the details. Overall, I found it to an effectively somber and emotional film that shines a light on terrorism and how authorities are able to tackle such a timely issue in a humane and thorough manner.

The Founder

Directed by John Lee Hancock who is best known for 2009’s The Blind Side, The Founder is an entertaining film that tells the fascinating true story of the great American icon known as McDonald’s. Oscar-nominated actor Michael Keaton gives a strong performance as Ray Kroc, a desperate businessman from Illinois who helped transform McDonald’s into a billion-dollar global corporation. We first meet Kroc in 1954 working as a traveling salesman for a milkshake maker manufacturer and hoping to break through in the business world while supporting his wife played by Laura Dern. Eventually, he ends up in San Bernardino, California where he discovers a small pioneering fast food restaurant owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, the older Mac played by John Carroll Lynch and the inventive Dick played by Nick Offerman. Ray Kroc will do anything to get a piece of the McDonald’s pie and will ultimately use questionable tactics to take advantage of the two hard-working brothers already satisfied with running a single successful restaurant. Providing a remarkably fast and efficient method never used before to serve hamburgers, the McDonald’s innovative fast food model inspires Kroc to convince the brothers to franchise the restaurant across the nation. Kroc becomes increasingly hostile to the largely naive founding brothers who are hesitant to give more control to their new partner. To get around the original contract and make more money, he devises a plan to purchase the real estate of each franchise and form a company exerting more control over McDonald’s. The movie effectively illustrates the corrupting influence of money by depicting Ray Kroc towards the end as a conniving character unsympathetic to the true founders of McDonald’s and even to his own wife who stood by his side. Through the alluring performance of Michael Keaton, the viewer is given a glimpse into the largely unseen side of such an iconic brand and a man who has become known as the founder of McDonald’s. Overall, I found it to be a highly compelling film about a complicated figure in the seemingly mundane fast food world and leaves the audience with a disillusioned view of the Golden Arches.

Hidden Figures

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is a well-crafted inspirational film about a group of women who contributed significantly to the early American space program despite facing intense discrimination. Set in 1961 as the nascent NASA attempts to send the first American into space, it follows three African-American female mathematicians working at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia tasked with computing the flight trajectories of manned spacecraft. Due to the discriminatory norms and laws of the time, they were forced to work in a segregated division where it was practically impossible to move up the career ladder. Eventually, the main protagonist Katherine Goble Johnson, a brilliant mathematician played by Taraji P. Henson, breaks the color barrier by being permitted to work at the Space Task Group led by the tough director Al Harrison portrayed by Kevin Costner. She was allowed access out of necessity in order to catch up with the rapidly advancing Soviets who were the first to send a satellite and human into space. At the same time, the movie shows the struggles of Mary Jackson, portrayed by Janelle Monáe, who fights for her education to become an engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who wants to be treated as an equal as a supervisor at NASA. Helping to round out the characters, the film also presents the women’s personal lives and how they cope with the immense pressures they experience at their stressful yet important jobs. Their vital contributions that ensure the safety of such astronauts as Alan Shepard and John Glenn seem to be readily dismissed simply because of their skin color and gender. Overall, I found it to be a must-see movie that provides an uplifting and historically relevant glimpse into the largely unknown role of African American women in such a quintessentially American success story as putting a man in space.