“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”–For the Elderly and Beautiful

Adapted from a novel, These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a finely nuanced film portraying seven British retirees:  a  widow (Judi Dench) whose late husband drove her into debt, a bigoted nanny/bookkeeper who is resigned to get a discounted hip replacement in India (Maggie Smith), retired judge (Tom Wilkinson) looking for his long lost lover, a sex fiend  bachelor Norman (Ronald Pickup),  a Blanche Dubois-type femme fatale (Celia Imrie), and a married couple who do not want to live in reduced circumstances in “senior living” (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton).

The hotel in Jaipur, India is owned and managed by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire”) who longs to disguise the decrepit hotel’s faulty plumbing and broken phones with an optimism designed to soothe these seven Brits whose families have “outsourced” them. “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, it is not the end,” he reassures his guests who have high expectations for living their golden years in India.  The hotel will be the new home for “people from countries that don’t care about their old people”–for the elderly and beautiful.

Adjustments need to be made–not only to the exotic environment of India but also to the equally unexplored terrain of aging.  Instead of a maudlin discourse on loss and life’s passing, the film is increasingly appealing and buoyant.  The marvel revealed is the resilience of the human spirit, the openness to new experiences and the risk taken to dive into the unknown.   At times this sweet, often hilarious, movie hovers on being sentimental since everyone is trying to figure out what to do with the years remaining in life. To assume defeat from what every one of us as individuals wants suggests we’re not asking the right questions.  In the end “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a shout-out to chasing your dreams, regardless of age.

Younger people might not appreciate this film as much as someone closer to retirement but the hopeful message is it’s never too late to make things happen.  Wish fulfillment is in short supply and the target audience for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” will remember the sweetness and folly of these six Brits for a very long time.

“The Borgias”–Bonfire of the Vanities

In the Season 2 finale of “The Borgias”, there is adultery happily engaged in by the beautiful Lucrezia, the fratricide of the favorite son of Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons), the torture and death of the charismatic but delusional Savonarola (who spearheaded the original bonfire of the vanities), and the successful poisoning of the pope by his archrival’s deputy.

The ecclesiastical greed and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church drives the adrenaline of the Borgia family, an Italian/Spanish dynasty, to continue the campaign of corruption and murder in order to retain their position as the greatest force–religious or secular–in the entire Western world of the 15th century.  And how unashamed the Borgias are of their venal lives while most of Italy endures horrific poverty.

The series is rather closely based on history: the cunning of Pope Alexander VI and two (of three) sons and daughter by his beautiful but now middle-aged mistress.  A womanizing and vain man, Pope Alexander VI is determined to have his family remain unified in appearance if not in intention, all the while perpetrating lies, deception, and murder.

Like “The Tudors” which preceded “The Borgias”, the villains and antiheroes in this TV mini-series are obsessed with power at all cost, in the guise of religious devotion.  With Jeremy Irons as the sinister Alexander VI, Colm Fore as his archrival Cardinal della Rovere, and newcomers playing his sons and daughter, the series is outrageous when you least expect it (for example, Catherine Sforza’s exposure to the troops).   There is some poignant and moving dialogue as well.  In the powerful interchange between the pope and his older son Cesare, his son asks why his father always favored Juan yet was blind to his cruelty.  The distinctions, which are played out between what constitutes good intentions and bad, would yield a philosophical treatise on the nature of good and evil.  You will be thinking of scenes from this series long after the program has ended.  Another season is planned for 2013, so at least I can postpone my disappointment for now when the entertaining and provocative “Borgias” finally comes to an end!

“Memory of a Killer”–Losing One’s Mind

Memory of a Killer  (De Zaak Alzheimer) is a 2003 film that defies description– about an elderly hired assassin, Angelo Ledda (the wonderful Belgian actor Jan Decleir), who is recruited for one last assignment: to kill a twelve-year-old girl.  The story moves in almost black-and-white footage through the sunless streets of Antwerp where whores, wives suffering from their husbands’ infidelities, slutty widows and worn out city detectives share the territory of corruption, heartlessness, and the murderous misuse of power.

Two cops (Verstuyft and Vincke) are assigned to random murders that occur throughout the city.   Soon the trail of murders leads to a connection with Ledda who is slowly descending into an Alzheimer’s fog.

This intelligent, distinctive nail-biter, with a fresh take on the revenge drama, surprisingly transforms the hired assassin into a kind of moral hero: an aging killer with a conscience.  Ledda’s skills and sense of justice remain intact, while simultaneously lapsing into forgetfulness in an ever increasingly disorienting haze. With an electrifying visual, almost palpable energy, “Memory of a Killer” is a highly original and disturbing thriller rendered unforgettable by Jan Decleir, who quite simply owns this role. With so many “law and order” movies and television programs proliferating across our screens, it is truly a testimony to the screenwriter and director of “Memory of a Killer” that this movie brilliantly fools us even when we know what has to happen.  The twists are subtle at times, but no less unforgettable and brilliant.   Rent it on Netflix!


“12”– Revisiting “12 Angry Men”

Academy Award nominee for best foreign film in 2008, “12″ is a Russian interpretation of “12 Angry Men” (1957) starring Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb.

If “Twelve Angry Men” argued for the right to a fair trial in the time of McCarthyism, “12” dramatizes anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, class warfare, and hatred for Chechens. The majority of the jurors are grim middle-aged men who carry the scars of the turbulent history of the Soviet Union. In Moscow, twelve jurors weigh the fate of a Chechen teenager accused of murdering his stepfather, who was a Russian officer.  An all-male jury will decide the teenager’s fate but also their own, as either men of moral principle or not.   They represent a cross-section of today’s Russia with six jurors’ monologues becoming pivotal to the final decision: a wealthy television producer, a cemetery owner, a bigoted cab driver, a wealthy entrepreneur in cell phone technology, an elderly Holocaust survivor, and a wealthy surgeon. It is assumed that the young man charged with murder is guilty. A hasty vote shows 11 for convicting, one against. The jurors are anxious to agree on a resolution and be done with it.

Inside the jury room, as in the streets, the battle for tolerance and reason plays out–the Russian version of “12 Angry Men” becomes a political allegory for persuading the one dissenting juror to follow the others.  What results in the divisiveness is the realization that persuading anyone to change his opinion is virtually impossible.

Six monologues by six different jurors are the cornerstone of the allegory, slowly revealing their secret lives as well as their racism, fear, survival, compassion,  nationalism, and/or nostalgia for the “old Russia” before immigrants moved in. Each juror is riveting, changing the dynamics of the “guilty-or-not-guilty” decision process, as he tries to persuade the other jurors to change their views. By the film’s midpoint, the jurors have become murderously intense.

One of my few criticisms of this superb film is the interjection into the narrative of disturbing, violent flashbacks of war-ravaged Chechnya as well as repeated scenes of the accused teenager pacing back and forth in his cell, awaiting the verdict.  After a few flashbacks, the continuous repetition proves monotonous and adds unnecessarily to the length of this film.  Nonetheless, the actors are unflinching in their portrayal of the psychology of prejudice and overconfidence in the truth of one’s beliefs. The film’s kinetic rhythm of what innocence and guilt entails is, at times, horrific.  Truly a brilliant film worth two hours of anyone’s time!