Thursday, February 09, 2017

“A United Kingdom”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new biographical drama, “A United Kingdom”, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. 


When the King of Botswana marries a White woman from London, can both their marriage and the country survive the international uproar that ensues?


In 1947, Seretse Khama (Oyelowo), heir to the throne in Botswana, is far from home, studying law at a university in London.  During that time, he meets and marries Ruth Williams (Pike) – a fateful decision because not only is she from England, but also, she’s a Caucasian.  When Seretse is called home, a rift immediately develops between him and his uncle, who has been ruling in Seretse’s absence.  When introduced to Seretse’s family, Ruth is ostracized right away – they don’t want their Black King to have a White Queen.  This comes at a particularly dicey time in Africa’s history as apartheid is in its nascent stages. 

Further complicating matters is the fact that Botswana is under British protection and as such, is subject to their laws and regulations.  With the British serving this role, they are concerned about the country’s stability given that its newly-crowned king is having an internecine familial squabble with the potential to disrupt both Botswana and England.  When Seretse is summoned to London to meet with British officials over this issue, Ruth learns she is now pregnant with their first child.  Things take an unexpected turn when Seretse is informed that because his marriage could cause international political problems, he will be banned from his country for the next five years. 

Ruth gives birth to their daughter in Botswana while Seretse is still in exile trying to figure out how to work around his current situation.  Eventually, Seretse is granted permission by the British government to return to his country, but for only one week; during this time, they expect him to repair the relationship with his uncle.  While there, however, he becomes aware of an American mining company exploring the possibility of finding precious minerals or diamonds.  When Seretse learns he has been deceived by the British government, can he figure out a way to permanently return to both his wife and his country where he can assume his rightful position?


Despite valiant attempts by the cast, not even their severely overwrought performances can save the soap opera melodrama that is “A United Kingdom”.  Some might make an accusation of sexism if it were claimed this is something of a chick flick, but at this screening, it was clear the women in the audience were responding more to this film than the men.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when you consider that its emphasis is a romance and its historic content is de-emphasized; if that was the demographic the filmmakers were attempting to reach, then mission accomplished.  The sniffles and other audible reactions from the distaff viewers definitely suggested that there was more of a visceral connection from them.   

Pike and Oyelowo are both fine actors, but one gets the sense while watching this movie that they are playing down to the material.  After jitterbugging their way through a courtship, they marry early on in the story and find themselves expecting a baby shortly thereafter.  Yes, things progress quickly, mainly because their tale soon becomes more about their separation than anything else.  While there are some valuable historical tidbits included (e.g., Churchill, long portrayed in a positive light, comes off as something of a snake here), it’s basically a theme of white men are bad, until they aren’t. 

Since this is based on a true story, it’s somewhat puzzling how so many of the characters come across as artificial cardboard cut-outs.  Perhaps the screenplay is to blame here for not presenting these people with much in the way of authenticity.  The heroes are perfect and infallible and the villains are evil and inhumane.  There is no gray area here, which would certainly go a long way to making this feel more realistic; even heroes are flawed people and bad guys have reasonable (at least to them) justifications for the way they behave.  But “A United Kingdom” has no time for such nuance.  

A United Kingdom (2016) on IMDb

Friday, February 03, 2017

“The Comedian”– Movie Review




This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “The Comedian”, starring Robert De Niro.


When a veteran comic tries to revive his career, he becomes his own worst enemy – but when he has a chance meeting with a woman who is similarly disadvantaged, can the two help each other turn their life around?


Thirty years ago, Jackie Burke (De Niro) was at the height of his career, starring in a hit situation comedy on television.  Now, however, his career as a stand-up comedian has pretty much bottomed-out.  Not even his agent (Edie Falco) can offer very many words of encouragement in terms of job prospects.  At a gig in Long Island, Jackie gets into a fight with a heckler and winds up giving him a severe beating; as a result, Jackie winds up going to jail for a month and upon his release, is severely limited in terms of opportunities because he must perform community service.  

One bright spot about his situation is that Jackie gets to meet Harmony (Leslie Mann), who is also being forced into community service after a violent confrontation with her ex-boyfriend.  Harmony is sort of lost and, without much in the way of career direction, is being forced by her willful father (Harvey Keitel) to leave New York in order to work at his retirement community in Florida.   As Jackie and Harmony spend more time together, they find that they are hitting it off and are genuinely attracted to each other – either in spite of or because of the fact that her father doesn’t like Jackie. 

Eventually, Harmony relents and leaves New York City for Florida, taking the job working for her father.  While Jackie continues trying to resuscitate a career that by now is on life support, he still hasn’t completely written off Harmony – but she may not feel exactly the same way.  Despite Jackie’s many attempts to reach out to her, Harmony eventually stops responding.  Not believing she has lost interest, Jackie heads to Florida with the hopes of confronting her about their relationship.  But when she surprises him with the reason why she has been aloof, can Jackie win her back while simultaneously reinventing himself as a comedian?


Viewing “The Comedian” is both depressing and difficult.  Depressing because the collection of talent involved could not find a way to create a semblance of an entertaining movie.  Difficult to watch because the jokes aren’t funny (the laughter of the audiences in the film notwithstanding, of course).  There is nothing clever about the jokes, which is a bit surprising given that one of the screenplay’s credits goes to Jeff Ross, who is known for being a successful stand-up comedian, particularly known for his roasts (many of which have been televised).  

As far as De Niro’s performance is concerned, this will likely not be remembered as one of his best; he is without a doubt most unconvincing as a stand-up comedian.  Very often, it has been found that good comedians can become decent actors but the reverse is usually not true – actors usually can’t successfully portray comedians.  The starkly different skill sets are neither transferrable nor easily learned, no matter how much time one might spend observing stand-ups at comedy clubs or talking with them (both things that De Niro allegedly did in “researching” this role). 

It is by no means an exaggeration to say that no one in the audience at this screening laughed at any of the stand-up comedy scenes, De Niro’s in particular.  They sat stone-faced staring at the screen, apparently anticipating moments at which they could be able to laugh (not an unreasonable expectation, given the title of the movie).  Why they didn’t cast an actual comedian in this role is a mystery; much of the rest of the cast come across funnier than the film’s star.  As an actor, De Niro is among the best there is; as a comedian, De Niro is a great actor (but obviously not great enough to make you believe that he really is a comedian).   

The Comedian (2016) on IMDb