Tag Archives: biography

Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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The Dig

[3 stars]

There’s a lot going on in this quiet tale about an archeological dig taking place on the cusp of WWII. That aspect is both its charm and challenge. But even though the result is a bit of a muddle narratively, the characters and story of The Dig remain compelling.

Led by Ralph Fiennes (The White Crow) and Carrie Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), we explore passion, marriage, class, education, gender roles, and life achievements. And that’s just those two. Throw in Johnny Flynn (Emma.), Lily James (Yesterday), and Ben Chapman (1917) and you add in gender norms, sexuality, and the value of joy.

Moira Buffini’s (Byzantium) adaption of John Preston’s novel is sprawling in scope. And director Simon Stone took it on without insisting on a tighter focus. The challenge is that the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation is itself a wonderful tale on its own. Not necessarily an issue, but because that makes the dig both core story and metaphor to everything else going on, it all begins to become very scattered. If the excavation and the politics over it hadn’t been so towering in the tale, it could have become a quiet mirror to the rest of the subplots comfortably. Instead, the various stories fight for focus. In the end, it sort of unravels as a complete movie even while managing to be satisfying for any individual story.

The acting and production are all quite wonderful. From the bloviating to the quiet despair, the cast manages to deliver. While there is a sort of Merchant Ivory sensibility to it all, it maintains a better energy and sense of tension (well, to my mind anyway). The Dig is interesting history, and also a good set of character studies that make it all worth the effort.

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Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

[3 stars]

The better documentaries tell a story. Not just by showing the life and events of their subject, but also crafting a path through that information in a way that makes a point. Sometimes that point is solely the director’s, but when done well it sums up the subject’s experience. Eight Days a Week is a bit of both, by necessity.

There is so much to cover about the Beatles that director Ron Howard (Solo: A Star Wars Story ) chose to focus solely on the touring years. We see the band’s rise and the insanity of their tours, which were the largest ever conceived at that time, booking the first stadium tours in modern music history (I think, technically, the Greeks got there first long ago). Through photos, film, audio recordings, and lots of wonderful performances, we see what brings the Fab Four to their final touring stop: the roof of their studios in Jan 1969.

That well-known, semi-impromptu performance has been shown many times and in many ways. Through the frame of Howard’s edits, it becomes a happy and heart-breaking farewell without bringing in all the other stressors that history has happily posited and recorded. Howard doesn’t ignore the rest of the Beatles’ story, but there isn’t lots of background or discussion of the internal tensions that have been raked over many times before. But by framing the movie around the tours, their reaction to them, and those specific challenges, Howard does manage a slightly different view of the band than I’ve seen in other docus. It doesn’t present the whole picture, but it does illuminate some new corners of the band’s heyday.

If you have any interest in the band, their music, or the period, this is worth your time. But if you want a full picture of the story, you’ll have to watch additional documentaries and profiles to fill in the gaps and view all the facets.

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The Mauritanian

[4 stars]

Director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) is drawn to the harsher realities of life and making them accessible and understandable. The Mauritanian is the story Mohamedou Slahi previously popularized in his book, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi is one of the victims of the choices made after 9/11 and the establishing of the Guantanamo Bay facility and its ongoing embarrassment.

While the story is confusing and angering and disturbing, what is astounding is how Slahi made it through and stayed positive, even forgiving. Tahar Rahim brings Slahi to the screen with a raw energy and empathy that is magnetic.

What helps set this story apart is its lack of explicit lines. Almost no one is completely good or evil. They are all portrayed as driven and, to the extent they can be at any time, honest with themselves or the situation. Even Slahi’s champions, Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) and Shailene Woodley (Snowden), aren’t necessarily there for him at the start; they’re there to defend the law, as they see it. On the opposing side, Benedict Cumberbatch (1917) and Zachary Levi (Shazam!) are there in righteous anger, and with a sense of extreme duty. All these characters evolve in unexpected ways.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t devoid of positive aspects. It is a reminder of the fact that we still haven’t recovered from our tragedies and that many innocents got swept up in the wake of a country gone mad. It is also a reminder of why the rule of law is so important and not intended to be bent to the will of a single administration or person. Not to mention of a reminder that we still have a mess to clean up and apologies to make even 20 years later.

American Swing

[2.75 stars]

While focused on the infamous rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, this docu is really about Larry Levenson, the man behind the bedsheet. Because of that, the historical and psychological aspects of the phenomenon end up ultimately getting sidebarred. The story is eventually overtaken by Levenson’s tale rather than truly examining the sex club’s impact on society in general and NYC in particular.

It’s unlikely you never heard of Plato’s if you’re over 30. But you may not know its history or even it’s reality, though the myths continue to circulate. What American Swing does is try to put a human face to it all. It isn’t entirely without judgement, but it tries to stay balanced within the framework it constructs. There are some interesting interviews, some by recognized names but also many just regular members. As a documentary, I’m not sure what story it has to tell. I get the impression that when Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman set out to expand on Hart’s article, they didn’t realize they had no more than a history report until part way through production. Than they shifted to a focus on Levenson to provide it an arc and some structure.

As a bit of history, American Swing is interesting. Not perfect and not particularly insightful, but it is a glimpse into a part of NYC’s past for those who were only vaguely aware of the club.

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One Night in Miami

[3.5 stars]

A boxer, a singer, a preacher, and a football player walk into a motel… It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in this case it not only really happened, but it was four towering figures of their time: Mohammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcom X, and Jim Brown. Four men who knew one another well, and all of whom were at inflection points for themselves and all those around them. The gathering was to celebrate the night Cassius Clay decked Sonny Liston and became the reigning world champion.

Kemp Powers imagined that conversation first as a stage play and then as this adaptation, which Regina King (Watchmen) directed as her first big-screen feature. And she did a bang up job choreographing the four men in a tiny room. Despite it being primarily a dialogue-heavy exchange, it never really flags in energy or interest. Kingsley Ben-Adir (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword),
Eli Goree (Riverdale), Aldis Hodge (What Men Want), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) keep everything moving and offer insight into these pivotal men. Ben-Adir, in particular, delivers a Malcom X near the end of his life full of fire and purpose, but more than equally full of compassion and care. Odom Jr’s chops are something to be reckoned with as well.

This is a surprisingly quiet film for the combination of people involved and the moment in history. It feels, quite literally, like being let into a secret and private party. We know the public-facing versions of these people, but what did they really think in private and what did they admit to each other? Cooke, in particular, has little on record about his private life. Many sides of issues are raised and the result leaves you feeling you understand not just these men, but the era and the ongoing issues more completely. I will say that I was surprised  that, with King at the helm, how little there was of the women in the lives of these men on screen. If I have any major criticism of the story, it’s that.

On a side note, writer Powers is about to have a hell of a year. After working on the initial season of Star Trek: Discovery he moved on to the play version of One Night in Miami. Both this movie and the much anticipated and lauded Soul (now only on Disney+) are hitting screens at the same time.

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Mank

[4 stars]

If this was just a movie about movies, I’d tell you to run the other way, unless that was your thing. Let’s face it, movies about movies can be very inside baseball and, well, boring to the rest of the world. Even La La Land left many feeling left out, despite its emotional throughline.

But Mank is about so much more than the movies. It’s about politics and the world the way it is today. It’s about integrity and passion. It’s about power and the powerless. It’s very much a warning and mirror to the last four years in particular. And it’s a shame it didn’t come out sooner, though I don’t expect it would have mattered much. The point is that once you see the bigger picture, it blossoms into something extraordinary (to mix a metaphor or two).

Director David Fincher (Gone Girl, Love, Death, and Robots) has created his best work in years with Mank. From the sound design that makes it all seem like you’re in a big, empty theater, to the black and white presentation and stylized camera angles, to the faux burn marks in the frames for switching reels, he transports you back to the era and Hollywood that was. Even the structure of his father’s script (Jack Fincher) echos the dramatized final product, Citizen Kane in its archness and self-possession. It may not be an Aaron Sorkin script, but it tries damned hard to be, and occasionally touches that goal post.

As the eponymous Mank, Gary Oldman (Hunter Killer) strides (or reclines) through every scene providing a bristling energy and a jaundiced eye on the events around him. He is the quintessential Hollywood intellectual rake, unafraid to express himself and confident in his invulnerability or, perhaps, profligate with his safety. Through the film we learn some of where this comes from and begin to admire rather the revile his actions.

Amanda Seyfried (The Last Word) and Lily Collins (Inheritance) give Oldman focus and a sounding board as he navigates the world and writing the seminal script, respectively. And several smaller roles by Charles Dance (Godzilla: King of Monsters), Tom Pelphrey (Iron Fist), and Tom Burke (C. B Strike) provide bumpers and nets for Oldman to react with and against. Though, frankly, there are too many good performances to list everyone that deserves it.

This is a film that slowly absorbs you into its world.  Yes, it’s in black and white, the sound is somewhat distorted, and the language and speed of dialogue are very old-time Hollywood, which is to say not naturalistic but highly crafted, rapid-fire diatribes…but all of that only enhances the experience. The film begins by exposing the world of the studios and ends by exposing the world. It is also very much based on facts. 30 years in the making, Fincher’s manifesting of his journalist father’s first and only script is a masterpiece of filmmaking. Though I suspect it will get snubbed at the awards, as Irishman was last year, you shouldn’t snub it at  home. Let the rush of dialogue and action sweep you away and trust that the waters calm and the shore becomes distinct as you travel further with the tide that is Mank.

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Shirley

[3 stars]

We’ve seen many portrayals of horror writers like Mary Shelley in the throws of their creative epiphanies. The night that birthed Frankenstein is especially well travelled. And certainly, the life of female writers has been explored, be it Austin, Collete, or Plath. But, till now, I don’t think I’d seen a story covering Shirley Jackson. Who, by all accounts, struggled in life with a bad marriage and with crushing depression even as she produced seminal works of horror like The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, she produced 200 short stories and six novels and left an indelible mark on American literature.

However, this movie does little to make any of Jackson’s opus tangible as it is only very loosely based on the facts both in timing and her situation. Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) was rather creative with Sarah Gubbins’ (I Love Dick) script bringing it to life, but that script was rather…creative with the facts. The story, in truth, comes off more Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Salome’s Last Dance, or a weird American mirror to the lives of Gertrude Stein and Jean Paul Satre than it does a real biopic.

The result is more a four person play with the women at the center. Elisabeth Moss (The Kitchen) and Michael Stuhlbarg (The Post) as Jackson and her vile husband Hyman are the chaotic energy that fuels the story. Moss is an almost perfect replica of Jackson, while Stuhlbarg comes off as Mandy Patinkin’s evil twin. These two insinuate themselves as transformative energy into the lives of a  young couple: Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) and Logan Lerman (Indignation). Frankly, Lerman, for all his efforts and earnestness, is lost in this story. He’s incidental but not essential. It is Young’s journey as the opposite loci of the weird ellipse that is formed with Moss that drive the movie.

In the end, the story itself is meant to become a Jackson tale. However, it is neither fully satisfying, viscerally horrific, nor focused enough to work. By bouncing between the two women, one of whom is not the title character, it never quite finds its center and purpose. We want to learn about Jackson, but we end up with something quite different and not fully defined.

Moss’s and Young’s performances are really quite good. If you want to watch just for that and, to a lesser degree, Decker’s orchestration of the story, it isn’t wasted time. If, however, you wanted a fully satisfying experience or inciteful tale of Jackson’s life, you probably want to go elsewhere.

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Ammonite

[3.5 stars]

With her latest film, Francis Lee delivers the second part of a diptych with his previous  God’s Own Country. That is certainly an over-simplification, and nearly a false equivalency, but the comparison is unavoidable when you look at the plots and issues. In both stories, the characters are confronted with their own desires and sense of self when a stranger comes into their lives.

Also, as with his previous film, Lee never lets you forget that movies are a visual medium, where the camera can become simply an observer. He creates a deeply emotional film that is more moments of quietly intense reaction than dialogue, much like the recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Kate Winslet (The Mountain Between Us) and Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) are a beautifully paired set of actors, each  intense in different ways and neither afraid of silences or contemplation. Every moment is full of tension.

From the sidelines, Gemma Jones (Rocketman) and Fiona Shaw (Enola Holmes) fill in the gaps and catalyse the story. Lee’s script isn’t perfect, but her ebb and flow of the evolution of the characters is inexorable and she isn’t afraid to leave them on a precipice up to the very end.

Definitely see this movie. In part to see Lee’s efforts and growth, in part to see some truly wonderful performances, but also to see what film can be when you trust the medium.

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What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

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