Mike at the Movies

Victoria and Abdul (PG-13) *****

This film earned its fifth star from me just by casting Judi Dench as Queen Victoria. The other masterstroke was casting Ali Fazal, famed Bollywood actor in India, as Abdul Karim, the man who became Victoria’s “munshi” or teacher. He, in fact, taught her Urdu and Hindi and fueled her interest in Indian history and people.

Much of the early film is very funny as Abdul and his short, overweight friend Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) go to London to present the queen with a specially cast medal. Victoria is quite taken with “the tall one,” Abdul, and almost adopts him. This infuriates the British aristocracy, led by Bertie (later Edward VII, played by Eddie Izzard) and Lord Salisbury (the late Tim Pigott-Smith). They do everything possible to discredit Abdul, including assembling a dossier on him.

In the meantime, an ailing Victoria finds new life in Abdul, even though he openly admits he is not Hindi but a Muslim. She sees this as a chance to learn even more about other cultures as she practices writing in her new languages.

The noble cabal accuses Abdul of “using his position for his own gain!” To which Victoria answers, “What are all of YOU doing?”

Bertie is clearly not in Victoria’s favor: “Bertie is an embarrassment,” she says. He spends most of the film deviously plotting against Abdul.

Meanwhile, the friendship between monarch and subject deepens. Diaries and other evidence provide proof that they were never intimate, as was possible with the Scotsman Brown, but she clearly felt strongly about him. There are some painfully awkward scenes, such as the one in which a terrible tenor Puccini sings an aria from his own opera, but that is balanced by the charming version of most of “Little Buttercup” by Gilbert and Sullivan, sung by Victoria and capped off by a waltz with Abdul.

Other terrific Dench scenes include a facedown of the entire staff by Victoria after being informed that they want to quit over proposed honors for Abdul, and Victoria’s death scene. In fact every moment Dench is acting is precious and totally believable.

The racism and prejudice based on station and nationality feel quite contemporary. This is yet another virtuoso performance by Dench, very late in her career.

Battle of the Sexes (R) *****

Anyone who doubts Emma Stone’s acting ability must see this amazing film. She is astounding as Billy Jean King, advancing toward a date with destiny as she agrees to a $100,000 match with male chauvinist and former US Open Men’s Champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). There are several stories winding through the film: King’s struggles with her sexuality; her first lesbian encounter with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough); her struggles with an understanding but helpless husband, Larry (Austin Stowell); the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) by King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman); and the ultimate struggle with hustler and self-promoter Bobby Riggs.

Most members of the audience will probably remember the match—three sets, all to King—but may have forgotten its predecessor: Riggs vs. Aussie Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Court was thoroughly unprepared for the match and was resoundingly thumped in two sets while the #1 player in women’s tennis. King, angered by Court’s loss and her supine position in women’s issues generally, faced down Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), who was even more of a chauvinist than Riggs, and eventually got him removed from the ABC color team covering the match (anchored by tennis illiterate Howard Cosell). Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) is a large part of the story as she is a staunch supporter of King and did the color commentary on the match alone when King refused to allow Kramer to join her.

The emerging lesbian identity of King is sensitively handled, the hustling of Riggs is almost pathetic and Carell’s performance is exquisite, and a surprise star emerges in Alan Cumming’s portrayal of gay designer Cuthbert “Ted” Tinling who became a close adviser to King when he sensed her sexual identity crisis. This is a movie, in other words, about people on various levels of self-identity crises. All those crises are beautifully portrayed in the movie.

Lots of people star in the film, but the battle of the sexes is between Stone and Carell, and they are both magnificent. The feminists win this battle, but the war goes on.

Wind River (R) ****

This is one violent, harsh, forbidding film. Jeremy Renner anchors the piece as Cory Lambert, Fish and Wildlife agent in Wind River, Wyoming. The time is winter and Lambert discovers the body of a young Indian woman, frozen to death in the woods. There is evidence of a rape of a violent nature, but Lambert is forced to call the FBI since the apparent murder is on federal land.

Assisting Lambert is Ben (Graham Greene), a Native American policeman and fantastic figure as the story unwinds. Jane Banner is the rookie FBI agent sent to the case (Elizabeth Olsen, youngest sister of the famous twins), and she immediately enlists the help of Lambert as she knows nothing about Wyoming, cold, Native Americans or pretty much everything she is faced with. (She is a glamorous native of Fort Lauderdale!)

The story starts as a conflict between whites and Native Americans with white corporate workers being the prime suspects in the rape of the girl. The conflict moves to one between the various agencies investigating the case: FBI, Fish and Wildlife, BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) officers, and the corporate occupiers of much of the land. While all of the conflicts are touched upon, none is satisfactorily triumphant.

One of the most chilling scenes in a rough movie is a standoff of all the various agencies holding each other at gunpoint until Banner stops the potential disaster. Lambert’s primary job is killing pumas that are decimating cattle and sheep populations. He is therefore a good shot and has a sniper rifle to use, which he uses in the ultimate gunfight to great and gory effect.

I found the film fascinating, but I quibble with the low soundtrack level (except when snowmobiles are racing by) and the use of hand-held cameras in some tense scenes that needed the intensity and single vision of a fixed camera. Sensitive actors delicately present the Native American case, and Renner’s Lambert is staunch and heroic. Asked how he got his job, he responds, “I had choices of who to fight for and I chose to fight the puma instead.” In another scene he sympathizes with a Native American friend, Martin (Gil Birmingham), whose daughter turns out to be the victim Renner discovered. He is sitting with Martin while he is in face paint. Asked what this means, Martin responds, “This is my death face, supposedly. There’s no one left to teach me.”

The size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Wind River is Wyoming’s only Native American reservation. Its 14,000 residents suffer daily the inhumanity portrayed in the film. It is part of the impact of this remarkable piece of cinema.

Mother! (R) ****

This, a virtuoso performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Mother, is also one of the most complex films in recent years. It is a horror flick of epic proportions but not a cheap one filled with thundering minor chords and unexplained explosions and gremlins of one sort or another. Bardem (Him) is a blocked author who claims as his muse, Lawrence. She is much younger than him—perhaps a generation—and working hard on rebuilding their ancient house while Bardem contemplates his bleak and wordless future.

With the arrival of Ed Harris as Man and Michelle Pfeiffer as Woman, things change. One by one more and more people arrive at the house and Him welcomes them all, telling Man: “Stay as long as you like.” Harris’s excuse for stopping by is, “They told me I could find a room here.” We learn later that he thought it was a B&B. Sure.

Meanwhile, Mother tells Him, “I want to make a Paradise.” Fat chance once the arrogant and bossy Pfeiffer shows up. She smokes (a no-no), spikes the lemonade and is generally unpleasant, but she is nothing compared with her sons, Brian Gleeson (Younger Brother) and Domhnail Gleeson (Oldest Son). Their disagreement is so severe that one of them kills the other. (Think: Cain and Abel.)

But it gets worse! Relatives and friends begin to show up at the house. Him has to block off his study after it is invaded and a precious crystal is broken. The crowd slowly grows. Mother says at one point, “I won’t interrupt. I’ll just get started on the Apocalypse.” Little does she know!

Christian lore is visited along with its symbols as the crowds grow bigger and the damage to the house greater. Lawrence is riveting as the puzzled, then panicked Mother who becomes pregnant. By the end of the film she is almost totally unrecognizable.

The horror in the film comes from her situation. There seems to be nothing she can do to stop the hordes from invading her home and she watches helplessly as they begin to destroy it and she goes into labor.

Lawrence gives the performance of a lifetime, Bardem is totally hateful, as Him and Harris and Pfeiffer set up the weirdness in fine fashion. The movie is intensely involving and turns many corners you don’t expect. Find it and talk about it.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (R) ***

In this hoot of a send-up of action films, Taron Edgerton returns as an older but not necessarily wiser Eggsy, Colin Firth as a damaged lepidopterist, and Mark Strong as Merlin, the computer geek who, with Halle Berry as Ginger, keeps the gang together. The gang includes Channing Tatum as Tequila, Jeff Bridges as Champ, and Pedro Pascal as Whiskey.

The plot is stupid: Poppy (Julianne Moore) watches as the world starts to rot from “Blue Vein” disease, contracted by use of drugs. She is the only one with the antidote, of course. The boys go on the hunt for her, impeded by the robotic-armed Charlie (Edward Holcroft) and assorted storm troopers. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is a cameo by Elton John as himself that turns into a major role in the movie, played deliciously by Elton.

The film tries hard to out-Bond Bond. It almost succeeds in the opening exhausting and funny car chase, but sometimes the writers’ reach far exceeds their grasp and stunts go on too long or are too predictable.

This is made for laughs, played for laughs, and it earns a lot of them so forget the inane plotting end enjoy this one for the end of summer. The “R” is for rough language, not violence, though a couple of characters end up in the same meat grinder at different times, albeit served with a touch of ground onion for garnish.

American Assassin (R) ***

A new adventure hero is born and, unfortunately, stuck in an old plot. The Russians are about to launch a nuclear missile, and by the end Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) and the CIA have 20 minutes to find the missile and render it useless. Here we go again.

Rapp is aided by his mentor, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Along for the ride and some timely shooting is CIA agent Annika (Shiva Negar), but this is Mitch’s movie. Stan warns him, “Never, ever let it get personal,” as he trains to be a CIA assassin. That’s difficult for Mitch since he witnessed the brutal machine-gunning of his fiancée at a beach on holiday. Mitch, of course, lets it get personal and that leads to mistakes but this is a Vince Flynn-based movie so no screw-ups redound to the hero’s blame.

Almost before we realize it, a clock appears, starts a 20-minute countdown and we are back in the familiar territory of spy thrillers. Before a predictable ending, there is one sensational, almost comical fight aboard a speedboat going full speed in high seas. As the combatants are about to nail each other with hooks or uppercuts or whatever, the boat hits a wave and they both go flying about the interior. Unfortunately, the fight is too short and we have to get back to the countdown clock.

This one lost me with the clock, and the suspense never mounted. Your teenage son may enjoy it, as he might enjoy most action flicks or violent video games. The rest of you can play Parcheesi!

American Made (R) **

Here’s another director who thinks it’s cool to shoot with a handheld camera in tight close-ups constantly. It ruins what could be a decent film starring Tom Cruise.

The story is a true one: Barry Seal, TWA pilot, is recruited by the CIA to track down the Medellin drug cartel after running drugs to South America and paying off such luminaries as Manuel Noriega. He becomes known as the “gringo who delivers,” and that reputation keeps him alive for longer than one would have thought possible.

Upon joining the CIA, he starts delivering weapons to the Contras and bringing them to the US for “training.” Unfortunately for the CIA, Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, over half the Contras jump training and are absorbed into the US. Seal eventually has his own single-engine air force working for him, and between the government money for the shipment of arms, money laundering for the CIA and drugs, he amasses a huge fortune and a lavish lifestyle—all in cash. All of this ironically surrounds real footage of Nancy Reagan’s famous “Just Say No” speech.

Shortly afterward, a convention of agents from every imaginable law enforcement agency shuts Seal down and his sentence is an astounding 1000 days of community service! The film winds down quickly from the sentencing as we calculate the days he will live until the cartel catches up with him. A note at the end tells us that the CIA agent who set Seal up and wrecked everything for him, Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), got a promotion. By this time I was out of patience with the photography and nursing a severe headache from watching it. View at your own risk.

Friend Request (R)**

More metallic sound explosions, spooky faces that mean nothing, ignorant college students, a friendship gone sour and every reason your mother told you to stay off the Internet are the features of this scream-exploiter. Alycia Debhan-Carey of Australia fortunately has another career as a percussionist to fall back on as she shows no great talent as an actress in her performance as Laura, who tries to be nice and befriend the Goth Marina (Liesl Ahlers of South Africa). It might be the good fortune of both female leads to have a mother country to which to flee once this film gets out. It is a procession of murders caused by Marina and blamed on Laura. Both should try to avoid responsibility.

The script is mostly the aforementioned metallic explosions of synthesizers and slow walks down dark corridors. Lest you think this review sexist, the males are just as bad. The script sometimes becomes ludicrous. A cop, confronted by a mangled corpse, looks on and says, “Really?”

Please pass this one by. There are far better things for you to see this fall, like yellow leaves, perhaps.