National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (2011) starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Jonny Lee Miller

[1] Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has lasted because of the profound themes in her story – the morality of science, parental responsibilities, man’s vanity, the removal of the divine from creation etc. Nick Dear’s writing takes these all on, keeping the story’s political punch alive. 

[2] …great comic timing in his depiction of the more playful parts of the Creature’s growing pains, and real tendresse and anxiety as the Creature battles his own internal conflict between love and revenge.

-Victoria Sadler (Huffington Post, 10/29/13)

Frankenstein (adapted by Nick Dear from Mary Shelley’s novel) returned to movie screens this past week (10/22 & 10/29) just in time for Halloween. I almost forgot that this was on (until I looked up my local movie listings this afternoon)! In my audience, I saw several older couples (as I’d expect to see at live theater), along w/ two young ladies (Japanese), and a few other women in their 20s and 30s. Filmed in 2011 at the National Theatre in London, this (sold-out) production has been seen by about 500,000 worldwide. Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, Frankenstein features Cumberbatch and Miller (who seem to be good friends; both have played Sherlock) alternating between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. FYI: I saw the version where Cumberbatch (long before he was a household name in either the UK or US) was the Creature.

[1] …it’s rather like seeing The Tempest rewritten from Caliban’s point of view.

[2] Cumberbatch’s Creature is unforgettable. “Tall as a pine tree,” as the text insists, he has humour as well as pathos… But there is also an epic grandeur about Cumberbatch. As he quotes Paradise Lost, his voice savours every syllable of Milton’s words…

-Michael Billington (The Guardian, 2/23/11)

Wherever the Creature goes, people scream in fear and/or beat him, until he comes upon the hut of a blind man, De Lacey (veteran actor Karl Johnson). This is a poor former professor (w/ a lot of old books) who lives w/ his farmer son, Klaus, and daughter-in-law, Agatha. De Lacey is kind and gentle w/ the Creature, teaching him in secret for about a year. The Creature clears away rocks (so the couple can till the soil) and fetches wood for making fire. The old man even tells the Creature that if he “is a good man,” then someday he’ll have someone to love. One day, De Lacey insists upon introducing him to the family. It goes wrong- quickly and like the “emperors and heroes in the stories” he’s read, the Creature vows “revenge.”

I should be Adam. God was proud of Adam. But Satan’s the one I sympathise with. For I was cast out, like Satan, though I did no wrong. And when I see others content, I feel the bile rise in my throat, and it tastes like Satan’s bile! -The Creature explains to Victor 

The central question of this story: Who is the real monster- the Creature or Frankenstein himself? The young scholar Frankenstein rejects his creation, cursing it and throwing it out into the streets (along w/ a notebook of experiments). While Victor has been engaged to Elizabeth (a pretty, strong-willed, yet empathetic Naomie Harris), he barely speaks w/ her or shows any kind of affection. The outcast/lonely Creature desperately wants someone to love, asking Victor to make “a mate” for him. At first, Victor is repulsed by the notion, but quickly becomes intrigued at the thought of “the perfect woman.” They shake hands (strike a bargain) and Victor goes off to England, then Scotland, to do his work. From here, the play gets even darker in tone! (Now I’m curious about the original book.)

[1] Using the first 30 minutes to display the creature gradually “building” his own personality, Dear places the “voice” and troubled psychological aspect of the creature right at the centre of the adaptation, with Dear smartly showing Frankenstein and the towns people’s interactions from the outcast point of view of the creature. Whilst the screenplay does show that Frankenstein and the towns people turn the creature into “the monster” that they fear, due to being focused on the permanently damaged exterior and not the welcoming, and repairable interior of the creature.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an unexpectedly subtle, vulnerable performance, with the opening of the film solely focusing on the creature rising from the dead, allowing Cumberbatch to place the viewer deep inside the skin of the character, thanks to Cuberbatch slowly showing the creature transform from being speechless and native, to using human skills such as lying to his deadly advantage.

[2] An intense, must-see thrilling performance from both Cumberbatch and Miller. The dialogues filled with static chemistry, a beautiful and perfect mix between beauty and horror, a destabilized yet animated stage that shows all facets of life and death. A hypnotizing and cutting-edge play, a real work of art that is absolutely not to be missed.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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Hostiles (2017) starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, & Wes Studi

The quietest moments of his [writer/director Scott Cooper’s] movie are often the best. Wow, Majors, what a find! He had the ability to command the screen w/o showboating. -Grace Randolph (Beyond the Trailer)

It has everything I want in my modern revisionist westerns. It’s slow-paced and quiet, beautifully filmed, uses realistic graphic violence and is extremely sad from the opening scene to the end credits. -Kellen Quigly (YouTube)

This is a movie is about PTSD in the Old West. It’s about the harshness of war. Captain Joe Blocker is introduced as a man who represses any feeling that isn’t hatred, guilt, grief or wrath. War has tortured his soul and landed him in a pit, and for a long time, instead climbing out, he just continued to dig the hole deeper and deeper… -Mark Mirabella (YouTube)

Synopsis: In 1892, after almost 20 yrs of fighting the Cheyenne, Apache, and Comanche natives, US Cavalry Captain, Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), is ordered by his superior, Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang), to escort an elderly/ailing Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi)- the man he MOST despises- and his family from New Mexico to the chief’s ancestral home in Montana (Valley of the Bears). Joseph’s unwelcome assignment is complicated when a grieving widow, Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), joins his band of soldiers and travelers. Then, an aggressive pack of Comanches attack and other dangerous events occur. On a path filled w/ hostiles, can this soldier complete his final duty w/ his life (and mind) intact? 

Director Scott Cooper, who was at the helm of 2009’s Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaalseems VERY comfortable w/ the Western genre. This film (which I missed seeing in theaters late last Fall) contains MANY beautiful wide shots of landscapes. Cooper’s characters are much more complicated than what you’d find in a typical (think John Ford/John Wayne) Western. Though it’s well-made, it can seem slow and (according to some critics)- a BIT self-indulgent. I feel that about 10-15 mins could’ve been edited out. The themes here are quite dark, so if you’re looking for an escape, this is NOT the film for you! From the first scene of Hostiles, viewers know that things are going to get real. 

The performances of the ensemble of actors is the main reason to see this film, along w/ its dialogue (some of which is quite deep and unexpected). Rosalee, though she suffered so much and is racked w/ grief, still held to her faith in God (as she explains to Blocker in a quietly effective scene). I thought Pike (as usual) did VERY well w/ her role; Rosalee  grew and changed over the month-long journey. Traveling w/ the Indians, she came to see them as real people, NOT merely savages to be feared. I was pleasantly surprised by how well a bearded Rory Cochrane (Blocker’s oldest friend- Master Sgt. Thomas Mertz) portrayed a depressed soldier. He often drinks heavily, suffers from PTSD (as does Blocker), and feels that life is NOT worth living anymore. A grad from West Point, played by up-and-comer Jesse Plemons (Lt. Rudy Kidder), is articulate, capable, BUT maybe too kind-hearted for his own good. There are a few light moments involving Timothee Chalamet (Philippe DeJardin, a French immigrant turned Army private); his role is VERY minor. The standout soldier (and actor) is newcomer Jonathan Majors (Corp. Henry Woodson- a strong/loyal/religious African-American who has served yrs under Blocker). Majors has that X factor; the viewer’s eye is drawn to him even when he’s NOT saying anything. He gets to have one of the best scenes in the 3rd (final) act opposite Bale.

On this journey, we also meet Ben Foster (disgraced soldier/murderer Philip Wills); he and Blocker served together yrs ago. Wills (wearing chains and stripped of his rank) ran away from his post and brutally killed several innocent people. At a small town, Lt. Col. McCowan (Peter Mullan) asks Blocker to escort Wills to a fort for his punishment (hanging), and Blocker quickly agrees. It’s obvious that Blocker feels contempt for Wills, BUT the prisoner is quick to point out that they’re BOTH killers, and the roles could be easily reversed. Foster (a quite gifted actor) should’ve gotten some more to do. There is a volatility and sense of unease which he creates w/ Wills,

The native actors, incl. Canadian Adam Beach (who has appeared on many films/TV shows) and Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World- also co-starring Bale), don’t have a LOT of dialogue, BUT are portrayed in a realistic/sympathetic manner. Studi (who is a film/TV vet) has a kind of solemnity, strength, and can also be vulnerable. He has come a long way from the villainous/warrior Magua viewers loved to hate (The Last of the Mohicans). This tale is (mainly) about the personal journey of one white man- Blocker- who comes to see the natives as fellow humans.

The film rests on Bale’s (always capable) broad shoulders, and he doesn’t disappoint. He even learned some of the Cheyenne language, which he speaks w/Studi (who I wished had been a BIT more developed). MANY of us have watched Bale grow-up onscreen; he has evolved from a slim/fresh-faced/wide-eyed teen to a muscular/middle-aged/powerhouse actor. For his portrayal of Blocker, Bale has tapped into his dark side; there is anger, resentment, hate, worry, and (in time) empathy and kindness on his face. Rosalee (w/ whom he forms a connection) is a catalyst for change in his life, as is the suicide of Mertz. I thought that Blocker’s change of heart was TOO abrupt, BUT this film is worth a watch. 

BlacKkKlansman (2018) starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, & Topher Grace

NOTE: This post contains MILD SPOILERS for the film (now playing widely in theaters).

It’s relevant. It’s not a relic of the past. This is happening today. -Spike Lee re: the racism shown in his latest film

No film has channeled the hateful pulse of our moment… -Variety magazine (@Variety)

I thought it was one of Spike Lee’s most cogent films. I also thought it was the film with the most white gaze ever, and that’s not a complaint. -Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet)

There’s a moment… where Ron Stallworth, the protagonist, says we could never have a President like David Duke. It hits you like a ton of bricks because we now have something even worse: a President who thinks like Duke, only he camouflages it more effectively. -Adam Best (@adamcbest)

I’m a pretty big fan of Spike Lee; he has made some of my favorite (and also arguably, most socially relevant) films of the past three decades. As fans/critics have noted, his films ignore or minimize the “white gaze,” meaning characters behave as themselves, not responding only to “mainstream” American society. Since this is a based-on-real-events movie, his style is more subdued (though there are interesting touches that we’ve come to expect). The music (composed by Terence Blanchard) is very well-suited to the events and tone of the film. It deals w/ quite serious topics, yet has pops of (dark) humor that my audience really enjoyed. 

“We have to support Denzel’s son,” I emailed to my gal pal (a few days before we went to see this movie on opening weekend). John David (who plays Ron Stallworth, the first black policeman in Colorado Springs) speaks and moves like Denzel, yet has the face of  his mother, Pauletta. J.D. (as he is known) is 33 y.o. and a former NFL player who appeared on HBO’s Ballers. There is something fresh, wide-eyed (naive), yet also confident in his performance. He gets some really cool outfits as his “street clothes;” it’s the late ’70s after all. 

Adam Driver (now 35 y.o.) can be a polarizing figure, but after this role- I’m a fan! The lanky former Marine gives a very strong, yet subtle performance as Flip (Ron’s more experienced/skeptical undercover partner). In time, Flip comes to terms w/ his identity. I need to watch more of Driver’s indie films on Netflix. No offense to Star Wars fans, BUT franchises don’t give actors much room to stretch.

Topher Grace, who plays a young David Duke, wasn’t my favorite part of the film. He said that he had a tough time getting into the mindset of such a hateful man. The important thing to remember re: Duke is that he sought to change the image of the KKK- make it more mainstream. He was polite, well-spoken, usually wore suits and- eventually- reached a high level of politics. The other members of “The Organization” were a mixed bag, ranging from a low IQ hillbilly to gun nut, and a relaxed/friendly guy (who wants to grow local membership). One man’s wife yearns to play a bigger role to support the cause, so white women aren’t solely victims in this movie.

Corey Hawkins, an up and coming actor from this (DC) area, has a great speech near the start of the film. I’m excited also to see what he does next! Ron’s love interest, President of the Black Student Union at a local university, Patrice (Laura Harrier), also did a fine job. Some critics of Lee have (rightly) commented on his not-so-fully developed women characters in the past. He has addressed the (touchy, yet serious) topic, explaining how having matured (nearly 30 yrs in film-making)  and becoming a husband and father have helped w/ this issue. 

Fans of TV cop dramas will be in for an extra treat. Robert John Burke (Law & Order: SVU) plays the head of the Intelligence Division. Frederick Weller (In Plain Sight) plays a patrolman. Nicholas Turturro (NYPD Blue) has a brief, yet crucial role; his older brother (John) is a mainstay in many Spike Lee films. There are more surprises in this film- don’t want to give too much away.

Sorry to Bother You (2018) starring Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, & Danny Glover

NOTE: This post contains MILD SPOILERS for the film (now playing in select theaters).

If you liked Get Out (where Lakeith Stanfield had a small, yet crucial role), then I highly recommend this movie. If you love to laugh (yet don’t want to shut off your brain), check it out. My friend and I got tickets to an early screening w/ Q&A by director Boots Riley and actor Danny Glover (who was a surprise guest; he was in DC for an education conference). As w/ Blindspotting (currently in theaters), Sorry to Bother You was filmed in the quickly gentrifying city of Oakland, CA. While Blindspotting is a realistic slice of life film, Sorry (written/directed by first timer Riley) is a social satire w/ fantasy/sci-fi elements. That’s NOT something you see everyday! 

Cassius Green (Stanfield) is a broke 20-ish man in need of a job to pay rent on his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage-turned-apt he shares w/ long-time girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson from Dear White People), a struggling artist who hold up signs (her day job). After some bluffing, he lands a job at a telemarketing firm where employees get paid on commission. An older co-worker, Langston (veteran actor Danny Glover; he grew up w/ Riley’s father), advises him to “use his white voice” in order to land more sales. Though skeptical, Cash gives it a try- it works! He gets Detroit and his best friend- Sal (Jermaine Fowler)- jobs as telemarketers. Along w/ new friend/co-worker, Squeeze (Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead), they plan to organize fellow employees, so everyone can get paid a fair wage w/ health benefits. Cash gets promoted to “power caller” (upstairs)- that’s when his problems really begin. 

It dabbles in commentary on media, society, race and working-class issues-so many poignant messages, some more successfully delivered than others.

I walked into this movie at an advance screening expecting something unique, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of this satirical masterwork. Hilarious from beginning to end while also subversive…

The film brings an interesting and unique take on the world minorities live as they are forced within a socioeconomic ladder. Cassius Green, played by Keith Stanfield, is faced with selling out and abandoning his friends. Through this the audience sees he is drastically changed as his success transforms him to the very thing he resented.

This movie is strange and extremely fast paced. The directing style is unlike any movie I have ever seen, and it moves just fast enough to keep you on your toes while not moving too fast for you to comprehend. There are so many themes within this movie, and all of them are shown within either a comedic context, a darker context, or both. All in all this is a movie about capitalism and how companies are driven to make money rather than care about the well-being of their workers. This is shown through more extreme absurdist examples as the movie goes on… 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself.