Movie Review (SEVEN LUCKY GODS)

Jamil Dehlavi’s SEVEN LUCKY GODS (2013) is anything but feel good. Rather, it is a slice of life film about survival, loneliness, lack of justice in the world, and other themes I imagine viewers will glean for themselves.

Filled with rage and anguish over his war-torn childhood and desolate adolescence in Kosovo, Mehmet (Nik Xhelilaj) has come illegally to London, England to survive and seek revenge. The Albanian Muslim uses his dark good looks, sexual allure, and calculated charm to obtain money, food, and shelter from others. He eases (more like worms) his way into the lives of three particular individuals. Two of these characters I found to be truly sympathetic, a physician named Marilyn (Kate Maravan) and one of her long-term patients, Meg (Alison Peebles), a lonely elderly woman with MS. Everyone else, specifically three other supporting characters along with Mehmet, are largely motivated in life by more selfish interests.

In fairness to Mehmet, as the screenplay unfolds, we the audience eventually find out about his horrific past and see him as more than just a grifter with sociopathic tendencies. He is a product of post-colonial oppression and cultural upheaval after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in his case persecution for being Muslim. It is no wonder he seeks retribution. There are many raging men like Mehmet in the world and this profile of an anti-hero of sorts helps to bring such suffering, harsh individuals more into public consciousness. Like it or not, this movie needed to be made.

The acting is excellent by everyone. Christopher Villiers believably plays Adrian, a stuffy English bureaucrat with personal secrets to keep from the public. Some interactions between he and Mehmet had me cringing inside. I felt a mix of sympathy and disgust for both of them. This did not make for easy watching, but was psychologically intriguing.

I was particularly moved and impressed by a reaction shot of Kate Maravan’s face in one scene. It is rare that I ever see cameras linger for a while on someone’s visage while he/she/they slowly express deep emotion. This lack of such a technique is particularly the case in mainstream American films, which so often rely on action scenes, colorful or high tech. settings, and special effects more than on intimate character development and interactions to move the story along. Non-U.S.-based filmmakers seem better at emphasizing the latter two elements, such as this well-made British production is.

SEVEN LUCKY GODS is brutal in places, at times downright cynical more than I personally am, but thought-provoking. Hence, this movie is a worthwhile watch for when you are in the right headspace to handle some realistic emotional abrasiveness. Good self care after seeing this will be important, including hugging a loved one.

Mini Movie Review (JUNGLE CRUISE)

JUNGLE CRUISE (2021), a silly Disney movie based on one of its amusement park rides, is often barely watchable. The three central characters are fun, however. Lovely and talented Emily Blunt pulls off being the story’s moral center (for what that’s worth, but somebody usually needs to fill that role) and, frequently, the leader. Jack Whitehead, who is new to me, is amusing and endearing as he evolves from hothouse flower, gay British dandy to someone with more grit and fortitude by the end. And Dwayne Johnson is simply a hunk of guilty pleasure for me. He’s the predictable testosterone for the show but kept in his place by the other two, particularly Ms. Blunt’s character. He and Emily have a playful chemistry throughout. Blunt and Whitehead especially demonstrate good comic timing and reactions.

I can’t remember the names of any of the dramatis personae, because the superficialness of them all renders such details irrelevant, forgettable. And I could have cared less about the cliché plot (an expedition into the jungle for some ancient, magical panacea), slapstick style action sequences, and ridiculous CGI. These special effects often felt like attempts to resurrect scenes from the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies. Nothing is original here. But, the enjoyable dynamics of the core triad and the occasional screen frame of actual, unadulterated (by CGI) lush vegetation redeem this absurdly high budget trashy movie into being periodically watchable. And I did like seeing Dwayne Johnson dressed in a fuchsia-magenta suit and hat at the very end. Cute, like many other moments in the movie, cute.

Movie Review (SUMMER OF 85)

SUMMER OF 85 (2020) is a poignant, often joyful French coming of age, gay summer romance film. French filmmakers seem to especially know how to make good movies about teenage love and angst. This one is set in Normandy in 1985, over most of the summer.

The pretty and talented Felix Lefebvre plays Alexis/Alex, a sixteen-year-old fascinated with death. (Such fascination is a recurring theme, I’ve observed, in a good share of French and other European movies.) While capsized in a small sailing boat during a thunderstorm, he is rescued by eighteen-year-old David (Benjamin Voisin). The older boy eventually seduces the younger, who falls passionately in love with David. The narrative weaves between flashbacks and less than two months later, with darling Alex proceeding to write about his intense time with the more wild, free-wheeling David. Both of the young men are sexy and adorable, with Alex being especially adorable of the two. He comes across as vibrantly youthful yet also a thoughtful old soul, making him unique, interesting, and compelling.

I cried in a few places and laughed in others, feeling satisfied and complete with the movie’s resolution. I would rate it as a distant second in quality to the far more panoramically filmed and sensual, but similarly themed gay summer romance CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017), which also takes place in the 1980s.

The soundtrack was delightful, with The Cure’s classic, plaintive song “In Between Days” particularly standing out for me.

I was just under one year older than David’s character when this little screen gem takes place. This lent an extra layer of sentimentality for me while watching SUMMER OF 85. Other gay, early Gen X‘ers will also particularly enjoy this sweet and thoughtful film, though I think the piece manages to be relevant for today and a wider audience.

This is a crisply done, emotionally moving, engrossing movie about love in its different forms— romantic, familial, friendship, and love of life.

Movie Review (DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS)

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is a fun romp. The concept of multiple parallel universes isn’t new. But, I’m enjoying how it’s being creatively played with more in movies and TV shows, including in this recent Marvel Cinematic Universe installment. Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange and Elizabeth Olsen as an anguished, out of control Wanda the Scarlet Witch effectively carry this often goofy thrill ride of a show as they travel and battle their way through universes.

The over-the-top storyline and imagery had me laughing at times, though not in a disdainful way. For example, Dr. Strange magically astral travels, or whatever it is, into a decaying dead version of himself from another parallel universe (one of an infinite number of such universes). Inhabiting and reanimating this corpse, he “dream walks” into a universe holding the mysterious mountain location where the grand finale will happen. Along the way, he harnesses several screeching damned souls to assist him. Mr. Cumberbatch skillfully balances a tongue in cheek tone with sincerity throughout this CGI cinema circus. I wondered how often he burst out laughing while delivering his lines.

As a great counterbalance to Dr. Strange, Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch conveys pathos and anger beautifully. One cannot help but feel for her as she goes about wreaking havoc in an effort to unite with the two children of one of her counterpart selves from another ‘verse. Such high stakes drama to become all powerful simply to secure close connection with a few others and stave off grief and loneliness. And this all fueled from Wanda having to kill her true love in order to save the world (in 2019’s AVENGERS: ENDGAME). I think I’d be out of my right/wise mind too. Very tragic. I was glad to see Elizabeth Olsen finally have a chance to show her acting chops in this movie series.

The ensemble cast bears a brief mention here. I was moved to see the return of assorted characters from other MCU storylines, such as Patrick Stewart reprising his role of Dr. Xavier of the X-Men and Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter transformed here into the shield wielding superheroine Captain Carter. With the wonders and flexibility of parallel universes, even deceased people can show up still alive somewhere and appease us fans who’ve been missing seeing certain folks up on screen.

I’m well aware that comic book superhero movies aren’t for everyone, but for those of us who enjoy them, this production is surprisingly good. The story is easy to follow, full of colorful, fantastical beings, settings, and action sequences, and good old-fashioned thrilling with its imaginative mix of humor and excitement.

Movie Review (FLOWER DRUM SONG)

I finally watched FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961) on dvd. I felt inspired to sing and dance right along with some of the songs in the first half to two thirds of the film; it was that fun and dynamic. I appreciated the brief bit of queer gender bending by Filipino actor Patrick Adiarte, who plays the adorable teenaged younger brother (Wang San) of the leading man Wang Ta (James Shigeta). This seemed very daring for a big Hollywood production in 1961.

There were some moments of cringe-worthy datedness that inevitably flawed the film. But, the sets were lushly colorful, the score lovely, and the dancing crisp and joyful.

Nancy Kwan, who deservedly has top billing, was fabulously beautiful in every way, playing an Americanized young Chinese night club singer and dancer. She seemed to have the most fun in the movie, with her single song (“I Enjoy Being a Girl”) and dance number in front of three full length mirrors being the biggest highlight of the show, and there were a handful of highlights. She was also terrific in a dance scene more towards the end of the movie, where she does something particularly creative with folding fans over her breasts. I thought, “You go, girl!” I could relate to her in these particular moments of fabulosity. Celebrating oneself is good to do.

I found leading man James Shigeta dashing and charismatic. I did not believe in his romantic choice, however, which came across as undeveloped and pat. For me, there was a seemingly better fit between he and another woman in the story which went nowhere, sadly. I would have liked some better closure for her character.

I watched all five or so of the “extras” commentary segments, which were informative and interesting. However, people interviewed in them repeatedly, inaccurately referred to the movie’s “all Asian” cast. Well, all Asian except for a pretty important supporting member, Juanita Hall, who was African American but playing a Chinese woman. She was wonderful, but I can only imagine her being cast contributed to the controversy about the non-Chinese casting choices, which mainly centered on having Japanese actors play some of the parts. The commentators did not discuss this controversy, other than in a sweeping, positive way, emphasizing how the movie was such a great opportunity for Asian performers, which it was, yes, but limiting and still not enough, of course, to sufficiently help erode racism in Hollywood, let alone America. Understandably, Chinese, Japanese, and Black people do not appreciate being conflated or seen as interchangeable. In the voiceover movie commentary, Nancy Kwan, herself half Chinese and half British, did not discuss this issue either and she glossed over Ms. Hall’s being cast as a Chinese person.

In 2002, there was a very much updated Broadway revival of this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, written by the Tony winning, Chinese American playwright David Henry Hwang. I wonder if a video recording of it exists to view? I take some comfort in knowing that this production was revamped for the early 21st century, with an intention, I imagine, of being reclaimed by the very community the show is meant to represent.

Mini Movie Review (KILL YOUR DARLINGS)

I had been meaning to watch KILL YOUR DARLINGS (2013) for a long time. What a psychologically interesting drama, based on a true story about some of the main Beatnik writers in 1940s New York City. One of them (Lucien Carr, compellingly played here by Dane DeHaan) brutally kills his older, long-time lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall of DEXTER fame), from out of a place of self hatred/internalized homophobia.

I thought everyone was well cast except for Jack Huston, who plays Jack Kerouac but doesn’t sufficiently look the part. Nonetheless, I was drawn in by the good script writing, intimate camera work, and powerful acting.

Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg (who I saw perform in late 1975 or early 1976 and then again in 1985) was the poignant moral center of this movie. I have a deeper respect for him as an actor now.

This is a must-see film about a piece of American history and ongoing cultural and human tensions. I imagine many would say it’s also about other assorted deep themes and the struggles of being human. I feel a bit enriched inside for seeing this excellent screenplay.

Mini Movie Review (FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE)

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE was so-so. Most of the time, the actors seemed to sleep walk through the movie, their emotional expressions competent but shallow. I think this was largely due to a mostly tedious, vapid script. The CGI effects (including interesting make believe animals) were fun and imaginative. And some moments elicited a chuckle from me. But, I largely didn’t care much about the characters or the good witches and wizards vs. evil witches and wizards storyline. The villain was clearly a Trump-like character, trying to cheat his way into having absolute power. What else is new?

I hope this series is done, but the end of this movie left open the possibility of yet another sequel. Enough already.

Mini Movie Review (DORIAN GRAY)

The 2009 movie adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY was very good. Simply titled DORIAN GRAY, the production diverges from the book in places but the overall essence of Wilde’s story is retained. Ben Barnes superbly portrays the hedonistic Dorian Gray. Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton seems to believably savor the role of Dorian’s cynical, bad influence mentor. The entire British cast is, not surprisingly, excellent.

The beautiful cinematography, period piece costumes, haunting lighting and camera filtering made me feel like I was entering a different world and time. Well-thought-out and crafted films, such as this, have such an intended effect.

I appreciated the overt homoeroticism in places. This probably at least somewhat reflects the more recently published, unexpurgated version of Wilde’s 1890 masterpiece. I have yet to read this more complete one the author had originally written and now very much want to. Despite the somewhat needlessly heavy-handed, clunky climax, overall, I was emotionally moved at times and effectively low-grade creeped out by this generally enthralling work of cinema.