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Posts Tagged ‘Judi Dench’

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“CATS” My rating:  C+

110  minutes | MPAA rating: PG

It’s taken the musical “Cats” nearly 40 years to make its way from the stage to the big screen. Now we know why.

Just as there are some novels that defy dramatization, so there are stage productions that derive their power from the interaction of audience and performer, that work precisely because the viewer realizes that all the magic unfolding in front of him/her is being created by real people in real time.

Tom Hooper’s movie version, on the other hand, has been so digitally diddled with that we can’t be sure that anything we’re seeing — from the settings to the performers’ faces — is even remotely real. Characters do impossible flips in the air,  cockroaches march in formation…it’s all so artificial that the film might as well have been done as pure animation (actually that was the plan, back in the ’90s).

That said, the movie “Cats” isn’t a total wipeout. The score (the tunes are by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the lyrics derived from T.S. Eliot’s book of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) remains humworthy and at least a couple of the performers manage to transcend their hairy makeup (all too often they look like werewolves from a ’60s Hammer film) and establish an emotional connection with the audience.

A big problem is that “Cats” lacks a real story.  On stage this wasn’t a deal breaker…the show was a musical revue with different “cats” taking center stage to sing and dance their signature numbers.  What plot there was dealt with the approaching Jellicle Ball where one lucky feline will be chosen by the ancient Deuteronomy to be reincarnated into a new life (cats get nine of them, after all).

The screenplay by Lee Hall and Hooper  centers on Victoria (ballerina Francesca Hayward, who seems capable of expressing only a quizzical attitude), abandoned by her owner in a dirty alley and adopted into the Jellicle tribe.  Her guide and guardian is Munkstrap (Robbie Fairchild), who introduces her to various other characters and the rundown corner of London they call home.

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Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench

“ALL IS TRUE” My rating: B

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Aside from what’s to be gleaned from his plays and poems, we know next to nothing about William Shakespeare.

Kenneth Branagh’s “All Is True” attempts to rectify that by imagining the great writer’s final days.

The screenplay by Ben Elton informs us up front that in 1613 at the premiere in London of “Henry VIII” a prop cannon started a fire that destroyed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  At that point the bard vanished from public life; he is not known to have written another play.

According to “All Is True,” Shakespeare (Branagh, almost unrecognizable with receding hairline, beard and prosthetic nose) retired to his native Stratford on Avon to be reunited with the wife and children he had kept at arm’s length for decades.

It’s not a joyous homecoming. His arrival is met with indifference by wife Anne (Judi Dench), who has more or less been a widow to her husband’s literary and theatrical career. (“To us you’re a guest.”)

Nor are Shakespeare’s two grown daughters all that thrilled to have Daddy back in the bosom of their family.

Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is married to a joyless Puritan physician (Phil Dunster) who regards his father-in-law’s profession as inherently sinful. Desperate to produce a grandson who will inherit Shakespeare’s comfortable estate (her husband may be firing blanks), Judith is having an affair with a local merchant. She may also have contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

Younger daughter Susannah (Lydia Wilson) is unmarried and carries a huge chip on her shoulder. She knows that her father still mourns the death of his only son, 11-year-old Hamnet, 20 years before. She’ll always be an also-ran in his affections.

Apparently Hamnet inherited his father’s writing talent (“wit and mischief in every line”) and Shakespeare, still grief stricken all these years later, decides to honor his dead offspring by creating a garden outside the family home.

The Shakespeare women are resentful of this male-centric obsession. (“It’s not Hamnet you mourn. It’s yourself.”)

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Judi Dench

“RED JOAN” My rating: B

104 minutes | MPAA rating: R

History is rarely kind to traitors. But even a Benedict Arnold has his reasons.

“Red Joan” is a heavily fictionalized version of the real-life story of the late Melita Norwood, who in the post-war years passed on Britain’s nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

Written by Lindsay Shapero and directed by Trevor Nunn (yes, the world-famous stager of such massive theatrical hits as “Cats” and “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”), the film stars Dame Judi Dench as Joan Stanley, a seemingly innocuous grandmother who one day finds counterintelligence agents on her doorstep.

Interrogators present the old lady (she acts befuddled, but isn’t) with proof that a half century earlier she betrayed her country to the Russkies. The bulk of the film consists of flashbacks to Joan’s early years. In these scenes she is portrayed by Sophie Cookson, an actress who at first seems bland but ends up delivering a slow-boil performance that gets under your skin.

Naivete is young Joan’s biggest handicap.  She’s studying engineering and doing well in a mostly-male environment, but she’s also a bit backward socially. Which makes her an ideal target for a glamorous classmate, Sonya (Tereza Skrbova), a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, who cannily sucks Joan into her world of anti-authority partying.

Sonya introduces Joan to her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), an outspoken lefty who becomes the girl’s first lover. She is at first amused by his rabble-rousing oratory, but his favorable view of the Soviet Union begins to rub off on her.

Later, when Joan becomes part of the team developing an atomic bomb, Leo will wheedle and coax until Joan begins surreptitiously photographing top secret documents and passing them on to a Soviet agent.

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The Dames: Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench

“TEA WITH THE DAMES” My rating: B- 

84 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Tea With the Dames” is a slapdash affair, less a well-crafted documentary than a fly-on-the-wall peek at a reunion of four great English actresses.

Theatre geeks will be captivated. Others perhaps not so much.

The “dames” of the title are Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins, all of whom have received that honorary title from Queen Elizabeth for their contributions to English arts.

The youngest is 83, the oldest 88; one of them is blind; two are widows; the other two apparently are divorced (although their present marital status is never addressed).

For this doc director Roger Michell assembled the four at Plowright’s lovely country home (the one she shared with the late Sir Laurence Olivier) and over the course of a long weekend filmed them talking and sipping the occasional cordial.  The conversations are illustrated with clips and photos from the women’s illustrious careers.

Over the course of the film the ladies discuss their careers, their craft, their private lives (within limits). Occasionally director Michell attempts to steer the conversation, not that anyone pays him much attention. (“Let’s talk about aging,” suggests his off-camera voice. “Fuck you, Roger,” one of the dames shoots back.)

“Tea…” has no format, really.  The girls talk about what they damn well want to talk about.

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” My rating: C  

114 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The year’s strongest cast wrestles inertia to a standstill in “Murder on the Orient Express,” the latest addition to the pantheon of unnecessary remakes.

We already have Sidney Lumet’s perfectly delightful 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s great  railway mystery. But as with Shakespeare, Dame Agatha’s yarns are worthy of retelling for each new generation.  Problem is, this retelling is stillborn.

It’s always difficult to know exactly why a movie goes wrong, but in this case it may very well lie with the decision to have Kenneth Branagh both direct and star as eccentric Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

The character dominates virtually every scene, which means the acting weight alone was exhausting. To then also ride herd on a huge cast of heavy hitting thespians was too much to ask of anyone.

As it now stands, Branagh disappoints in both capacities. His features masked by absurd facial hair as obviously fake as the computer-generated backgrounds, he makes a mess of Poirot, who goes from crowd-teasing cutup to moody depressive without much in between. Lines that should evoke a laugh barely generate a tentative smile.

As for the directing end of things…well, what can you say when you have this much talent on hand and still end up with a dull yarn weighted down by blah characterizations?

Set aboard a snowbound luxury train on the Istanbul-Paris run, Michael Green’s screenplay clings to the basics of Christie’s tale (the “who” in the “whodunnit” makes for a one of the better revelations in all detective fiction) while dabbling with some of the particulars, largely in an effort to make the project more attractive to today’s mass audience.

Thus the screenplay finds time for one karate fight, a chase down a railroad trestle and a shooting — none of which are to be found in the novel or the earlier film.

While a few of the characters have undergone some tweaking (a physician aboard the train is now a Negro played by Leslie Odom Jr., providing the opportunity to dabble in some racial issues), most cling to Christie’s parameters. (more…)

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Judi Dench, Ali Fazal

“VICTORIA AND ABDUL”  My rating: B-  

112 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Dame Judi Dench — who won an Academy Award for portraying one British monarch (Elizabeth I in “Shakespeare in Love”) and was nominated for playing another (Victoria in “Mrs. Brown”) — now goes for the trifecta with “Victoria and Abdul.”

Stephen Frear’s comic costume drama finds Dench once again in the glum mourning clothes of Queen Victoria, this time late in the monarch’s reign.

As you’d expect, this great actress eats up the screen, in the process compensating for a screenplay that isn’t exactly sure what it wants  to say.

This Victoria remains the isolated, lonely widow who in “Mrs. Brown” found companionship (and perhaps chaste romance) with her Scottish gamekeeper.  But now, several years down the road, she’s  getting a bit dotty. Dozing off at state dinners is  standard operating procedure. And she’s a voraciously fast diner, posing a problem for others who are expected to stop chewing when she does.

Victoria’s advisers and hangers on (played by a Who’s Who of Brit thesps like Michael Gambon, Tim Piggot-Smith and Olivia Williams)  are running the show in her intellectual absence. The  Queen’s influence is  limited to picking menus.

Based on a little-known historical incident,“Victoria and Abdul” centers on the arrival in court of Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of the Queen’s Indian subjects who prior to this has been a humble clerk in a prison.

Abdul is tapped to represent India at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee not because of his standing but because of his, er, standing — he’s a lanky fellow and clueless British officials reason that a tall man will look better presenting Her Majesty with a rare and precious gold coin from the subcontinent.

What nobody counts on is that the old gal will look into Abdul’s Omar-Sharif eyes and strike up a remarkable friendship, one that revitalizes Victoria’s mental faculties, sharpens her interest in affairs of state and threatens the status quo of the royal household.

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The usual suspects reunite

The usual suspects reunite

“THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL”  My rating: C-

122 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Ideally, a sequel gets made because there’s more to explore in the story or characters.

Most often, though, the sole motive is money.

And you can hear the spare change clanking incessantly beneath the dialogue of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

The first film was a sleeper hit, thanks to its stellar British cast (Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Judi Dench), the exotic Indian setting and its amusing blend of expatriate adventure and cheeky septuagenarian sexuality.

It never added up to much, but it went down easily, especially with the gray-haired crowd that rarely gets to see itself portrayed with any sort of dignity on the big screen.

But though this follow-up was made by the same people — director John Madden, screenwriter Ol Parker and the returning players — all the charm seems to have evaporated. It’s a paint-by-numbers effort.

The screenplay gives each of the retiree residents of the Marigold Hotel [added:] in Jaipur a crisis to overcome — usually a romantic one. Contrasting against those late-life liaisons are the impending nuptials of young hotel operator Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and his beloved Sunaina (Tina Desai).

Fortune hunter Madge (Celia Imrie) has two well-heeled Indian gentlemen on tap but can’t decide which one to marry. Nighy’s Douglas is smitten with Dench’s Evelyn, but he’s too shy to jump and she won’t commit.

Bon vivant Norman (Ronald Pickup) fears that he has inadvertently put out a mob hit on his girlfriend, Carol (Diana Hardcastle).

Muriel (Maggie Smith) grumpily lectures Americans on how to make tea and quietly nurses her concerns when a medical checkup doesn’t go as planned.

These subplots circle a larger story.

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