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Apr 19/15

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Movie); Seymour: An Introduction (Documentary); My Old Lady (DVD) and Rosewater (DVD).

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Movie) written by Ol Parker; directed by John Madden; starring Dev Patel, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Diana Hardcastle, Tina Desai, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Greig, Richard Gere, Penelope Wilton, David Strathairn, Shazad Latif

When Robert Browning said that the thrush sang his song twice just in case you might think he couldn’t re-capture "the first fine careless rapture," the poet wasn’t necessarily thinking of Hollywood folk faced with the prospect of making a sequel to a hit movie. You might say, however, that skepticism about follow-ups could well apply to movie-making. How many sequels – especially when it comes to comedies – measure up to the original? Not very many, I’m guessing.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel cannot, alas, be cited as one of the exceptions to the rule. It’s still a pleasant look at the colour and vitality of life in India for those citizens of that country who are relatively well off, but the movie never takes flight, never quite engages our hopes and energies as viewers. I think one of the main problems is that we’ve lost the novelty value of finding these British oldsters in India. Even if we can accept the somewhat implausible premise that they’ve all started new lives there, we wait in vain for the slightest hint of an authentic note to any of the matters they’re involved in.

As in the original Best Exotic (reviewed on DD page dated May 27/12), each of these elderly Brits is caught up in his or her own little drama. The over-arching plot-line that holds the whole thing together is two-fold: 1) Sonny, the irrepressible owner of the hotel, is soon to get married but he’s upset about his fiance’s friendship with a sexier guy; 2) Sonny and his co-manager, Mrs Donnelly, are trying to get financing to expand their enterprise by the purchase of another hotel.

Most of the plots involving the other seniors have to do with romantic and/or sexual prospects. Some of them are so silly and pointless that it’s hard to get the sense of what’s going on. I’m thinking of one case where a woman is presumably fending off various suitors. Are we supposed to remember something from the previous movie regarding this woman’s propensities? In another very feeble premise, an old guy thinks he has inadvertently hired a hit man to take out his cheating girlfriend. Ultimately, the movie trumpets a message about going with the flow and letting life happen as it will, and yet every one of these affairs and plot lines ends according to the most predictable and comforting of Hollywood truisms.

A few aspects of the acting stood out for me. I was particularly struck by Penelope Wilton in the role of the ex-wife of Bill Nighy’s character. As in the earlier movie, this woman at first seems too obnoxious to be believable, but then comes an unexpected exchange with Judi Dench, in which Ms. Wilton’s character reveals a vulnerability that shows her in a more sympathetic light. Lillete Dubey, in the role of Sonny’s mother, has lots of opportunity here to show how attractive – and cagey – a mature woman can be. As for Dev Patel, in the role of Sonny, the charm of this character’s hyper-activity is beginning to wear off, making Mr. Patel's over-acting more grating. Richard Gere looks completely at sea as a supposed magnet for senior babes.

Not surprisingly, Maggie Smith, as Mrs. Donnelly, the co-manager of the hotel, cuts through all the treacle. And in so doing, she strikes some of the rare notes of genuine poignancy in the movie. The impact of the character is largely due to Ms. Smith’s laconic style, but it’s also a fact that the script gives her many of the best lines. When Sonny’s trying to fire her up with enthusiasm for his expansion plans, he chirps: "If not now, when? If not us, who?" After a beat, Ms. Smith mutters: "Later....someone else."

 

Seymour: An Introduction (Documentary) directed by Ethan Hawke; starring Seymour Bernstein

At a dinner party a few years ago, Ethan Hawke, the actor, met Seymour Bernstein, a concert pianist and piano teacher. Mr. Bernstein said something that struck Mr. Hawke as very significant in response to the actor’s question about looking for greater meaning in his work at this point in his life. Hence, this documentary.

Mr. Bernstein, in his mid-eighties when this film was made, withdrew from the concert circuit at the age of about fifty. He had decided that he had accomplished what he wanted on stage; he was able to perform at his peak. Not liking the commercial aspect of a concert pianist’s life, he decided to dedicate himself to passing on his insights and his musical wisdom to his students. We see him in private lessons, master classes and conversations with former students and other pianists.

This documentary is a treasure trove for anybody who likes classical music, especially as played on the piano. Mr. Bernstein conveys a wealth of fascinating tidbits about technique and the interpretation of the great masters. One of my favourite scenes is the one in the basement of the Steinway store in New York where he’s choosing a piano for a recital that Mr. Hawke has persuaded him to give. Mr. Bernstein goes from one piano to another, expressing varying degrees of horror or approbation. He finally arrives at one that sounded heavenly to me. Mr. Bernstein’s verdict: that’s the one for him too!

I didn’t, however, feel that the movie ultimately articulated any startling new truth about the place of music in the life of a human being. (Maybe it was unreasonable of me to hope for any such revelation. Could it be that it was the publicity for the movie that set up this expectation in my mind?) Mostly what I heard were familiar ideas verging almost on platitudes: things along the lines that music is the deepest form of communication, in that it expresses things that can’t be put into words....and so on. And I’m not sure that a convincing summation of Mr. Bernstein’s opinions on music – or on life, for that matter – ever emerged.

Maybe it was this lack of a strong conceptual message in the film that made me long for more personal detail about Mr. Bernstein, more about his private life and his daily routines. He says that he needs to live alone in order to sort out his thoughts. But doesn’t he have friends, former lovers or partners? We get some glimpses of the funky one-room New York apartment where he’s been living for 57 years; it looks like someplace your grandmother might have inhabited – lots of heavy drapery, velvety furniture and beautiful lamps. And we see him converting his bed back into a sofa, come morning. I would have liked to know more about how an artist of his age manages the minutiae of life on his own. As for his past, we learn just that he had a very generous patroness at one time and, as a soldier in the Korean war, he put on concerts for the troops. There’s some indication that he didn’t get on well with his father but the subject is not explored at any length.

The film does touch on some important ideas about our society. One of the crucial ones, in my mind, is the drive for success and fame in today’s world. Mr. Bernstein cautions his students against that; he even goes so far as to say that he’s not sure that the life of a concert pianist is worth pursuing. The point is made that some great artists and performers have turned into monsters. But I think the movie comes down too hard on Glenn Gould as the one example of an artist who is shown to have been a complete mess as a human being.

While this may not be the most impressive documentary ever – it follows a fairly routine format – it does have some distinctive features. For instance, the beautiful still-life photography: lingering shots of teapots, teacups, glasses of water and such. And Mr. Hawke, who appears only two or three times, is to be commended for not showing himself as the glamorous movie star. He looks scrawny and almost geeky when posing his questions to the great man. Perhaps the strongest message of the movie comes when Mr. Hawke blurts out finally, about his search for more meaning, that maybe all he wants is to "play life more beautifully."

 

My Old Lady (Movie) written and directed by Israel Horovitz (based on his play); starring Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas; with Dominique Pinon, Nomie Lvovksy, Stphane De Groodt

At the outset, you can see how well this must have played on the stage (where it originated). A middle-aged American (Kevin Kline) arrives at a magnificent old Paris apartment that he has inherited from his estranged father. Finding the door open, he steps in and wanders around. To his astonishment, he stumbles on a very old lady (Maggie Smith) asleep in a chair. He learns that she has been a resident of the apartment for many years. According to an archaic French law that applied when his father bought the apartment, she, as the former owner of the apartment, is allowed to stay there until her death. But the American has pulled up stakes in New York; he is counting on the sale of this apartment to launch him in a new life. To make his situation even more difficult, the old lady’s daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas), also resident in the apartment, is extremely hostile to him.

This setup makes for a lot of clever dialogue. The exchanges between the wily old lady and the dumbfounded man shine with a well-polished sense of theatre. His encounters with the daughter snap and crackle. A few interpolated scenes (I’m assuming they weren’t included in the stage version) – such as meetings with a real estate agent – don’t have quite the same elan, but you accept that sort of thing in a filmed version of a stage play. You’re content to go along with these weaker elements for the sake of the central premise.

What makes the going less and less enjoyable is the introduction of melodrama. An enjoyable battle of wits turns into lugubrious soul-searching. We hear about alcoholism, lots of suicide attempts and other tragedies. What brings about this change of mood is a discovery that comes quite early, but to say any more than that would be to deprive the piece of any sense of mystery or suspense, given that all the other developments are pretty predictable. People lick their wounds and moan about old hurts and offences. The outpouring of resentment is fuelled by a tired old motif: the bottle brings out the truth. Some thought-provoking themes do emerge – about the responsibilities of parents to their kids, for instance – but they’re not pursued with any great panache. These people verbalize as if they think they’re Edward Albee characters but their creator, unfortunately, is not Edward Albee.

 

Rosewater (DVD) written and directed by Jon Stewart; based on the book by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy; starring Gael Garca Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Balginer, Shoreh Aghdashloo, Claire Foy

Never mind the subject matter, I think most movie-goers would be keen to see the first feature movie directed by such a celebrity as Jon Stewart, of the Daily Show.

Here, Mr. Stewart has chosen to tell the true story of Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist, who covered the controversial Iran election of 2009 for Newsweek. (The movie’s based on Mr. Bahari’s book.) Presumably because he filmed the rioting that burst out in protest to the announcement that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected, Mr. Bahari was picked up by the authorities, who accused him of being an American Zionist spy. He was kept in solitary confinement for 118 days.

In terms of politics and history, the movie’s very successful at enlightening us about what has been going on in certain parts of the world. It’s fascinating to see the way governments like that of Mr. Ahmadinejad try to demonize any protest against them by claiming that it’s fomented by foreign enemies. In this respect, the movie functions well as a kind of staged documentary.

It’s not so successful as a feature film. There’s some clunky expository dialogue along the lines of "How can you say that, Momma, with the election only a week away?" (not an exact quote) In the first part of the movie, there’s so much shifting of time and setting that constant subtitles and on-screen text are required to help us get our bearings. That gets in the way of telling the story, rather than helping, not least because many of the locations cited are unfamiliar to most of us, so naming them doesn’t help much. And, speaking of familiarity, the two prison honchos responsible for Mr. Bahari (Gael Garca Bernal) look so much alike – tall, stocky, balding, with greyish beards – that you go through a lot of mental acrobatics in trying to sort out which one you’re dealing with in successive scenes.

The bigger problem with the movie is the limited nature of the story. Given that it’s based on actual events, the movie is confined almost as much as Mr. Bahari in his cell. Once you’ve got this man behind bars, all that remains to show is how his interrogators try to break him down gradually. If their methods of grilling him were really gripping or unusual, that could make for great drama, as it does in some prison movies. But there’s nothing particularly intriguing about the way these goons deal with Mr. Bahari. Given that the movie’s based on his book about the experience, we have a pretty good idea where things are going. The wait until we get there turns out to be a trifle boring.

And, for a movie about a true situation, there’s a surprising lack of realistic detail, a lack of the feeling of the nitty-gritty of prison life. What about hygiene? What about bathroom functions? Mr. Bahari is incarcerated for four months but he always has exactly the same three-or-four-day stubble on his cheeks. How can that be? If he’s given access to shaving equipment now and then, shouldn’t we know about it? The failure to clue us in about such things makes the film feel like it’s suspended somewhere between imagination and reality.

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