Tag Archives: Historical

Side by Side

[4 stars]

It is the rare documentary that manages to keep me utterly intrigued. And Side by Side, while not the most perfect docu, pulls together such a wealth of top voices in the industry to discuss the advent of digital film vs. celluloid emulsion that it held my attention throughout. OK, it did drag a bit on the wrap up, but it was still fascinating.

Christopher Kenneally put this film together over a couple years, releasing it in 2012 and then extended versions of it a couple years later. He chose as his narrator Keanu Reeves (Replicas). One amusing effect of the time span is watching Reeves’s hair and beard change from scene to scene. Where most docus these days avoid having the interviewer present or visible on screen to help focus purely on the subject, Reeves is very much a part of the conversation.

While digital film has improved in the intervening years, the arguments haven’t really changed. However, the trends they interviewees have spun out are all coming to roost in pretty much the way they all agreed it would happen, with one unforseen notable exception: COVID-19. In a world currently locked down by a pandemic, cinemas closed everywhere, and 8K TVs already available on shelves, timing has changed. Not only will this event help accelerate digital filming, but it is changing the intended and predominant delivery venue from large screen to small. Dozens of major releases shifted to stream early or stream-only in the last few weeks and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The greatest governor to the advent of digital film has been quality on the big screen… and while that gap has narrowed, the issue is much less noticeable on the small screen.

In many ways, this movie is like a Nova episode on steroids. There is some very basic science and history surrounded by luminaries discussing their views and the implications. But it is the very quality of those views, put forth by those who have set the bar for decades, as well as the floor for the next generation of filmmakers, that makes it so interesting. Even if you’re not a fanatic about cinema, this is an engaging and intriguing conversation to listen in on for 90 or so minutes. Make the time for it.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Four Staples Enter New Cycles

Tis the killing season again. And by that I mean the return of four mystery series who continue to prove it is almost impossible to depopulate small English villages (or even cities or small islands) no matter how many people you kill off.

Back for their latest runs are:
Endeavour (series 7)
Vera (series 10)
Grantchester (series 5)
Death in Paradise (series 9)

What they all have in common this year, despite being spread across different decades (70s, 2020, 60s, and 2020 respectively), is that they are all shaking up their formulae to bring a fresh energy and potentially purpose into their series.

Endeavour is moving in earnest to close the gap to Morse.  Continuing to build on the previous round, they literally have him building the home we got to know Morse in, while also finally turning the corner on his personality. Endeavour is starting to show that Morse cockiness and total lack of self-awareness when it comes to women…which they’ve played with, but we are finally meeting the woman that broke Morse permanently. DS Strange has taken a step forward toward the character we know from his future, as well. Neither leap is completely clean…it feels like we missed some steps…but the shift is a necessary one if not a fluid one. This is also a much shorter season than previous, with a single arc pulling together three episodes. The cost of the show and the age of the bridging actors is making that a necessity…and with only a few years to go before Morse would abutt the stories, you can see the acceleration in their plan.

Vera remains at four episodes, but our dear Brenda Blethyn is getting crankier and more brittle this year. Not that she was ever a total teddy bear, but there is an edge and weariness starting to creep into Vera and I’m feeling like they’re headed toward wrapping her up or handing off the show in the not too distant future. In the meantime, the mysteries continue to be nicely complex and full of human foible and foolishness.

Grantchester has moved fully into its new phase with its new priest. A number of the original struggles remain, but with Tom Brittney owning the whole season for the first time, they have a different foundation. And while he has his own personal demons and challenges, there is something a bit less soapy about it all. That aspect has been load-balanced onto the rest of the cast in some interesting ways. By the end of the series, we’ve entered into yet another new phase for the characters and the show. Grantchester is one of those rare series that has managed to weather a complete shift in the driving core of the show while hardly changing at all. It really is a remarkable thing to examine as a writer. As a viewer it simply keeps it all familiar and yet still fresh.

And, finally, Death in Paradise is the odd outlier here in format. Primarily a cozy with a lot of comedy, it still has plenty of murder and mayhem on St. Marie. And while evolution has been part of its bones from the beginning, with a series of detectives and police staffing, it has approached the rhythm of this series differently than previously. More importantly it’s starting to shift the focus onto the St. Marie police force from the English interlopers…at least in part. Of the shows discussed here, Death in Paradise is by far the lightest fare, but it is definitely trying to stretch its muscles into some new areas and breadth of action.

Vera Endeavour Grantchester Death in Paradise

Red Joan

[3.5 stars]

Movies of political intrigue are often entertaining but, because they tend to concentrate on the action and suspense and lose the humanity, they are not typically great movies. Red Joan is all about the humanity, with enough suspense and intrigue (though no real action) to keep it riveting. Based on a true story, and a timely one in many ways, it’s a wonderful depiction of living with a moral ambiguity in a world that wants all things to be simple.

Judy Dench (All is True), who is far from a frail old woman, manages to crumble before us as Joan. She is clearly tired and, in her way, happy to finally have the truth come out rather than keeping all the secrets that have influenced the direction of her life. While Dench’s moments are powerful and essential, it is Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) as her younger self that carries the movie in the main. She does so as a woman in search of acceptance in a man’s world, though never giving into that aspect; she remains both strong and human throughout.

Tom Hughes (About Time), Ben Miles (Collateral), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Child in Time) fill out the critical roles around Joan. Each brings a particular element and challenge. And each has their own contribution to the resolution.

Trevor Nunn (Lear) directed Lindsay Shapero’s first feature script with an honest eye. There are few, if any, histrionics despite the tension and stakes; but they aren’t needed. The story carries itself in quiet moments that are stretched to breaking. But this isn’t a Le Carre tale like Little Drummer Girl, the tension is in the characters more than the risks. The personal story itself is enough, especially when delivered by such a solid cast.

Red Joan

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

[3 stars]

Before Jojo Rabbit, but after Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, Carole Lombard and Jack Benny took on Hitler and WWII in their own slightly-screwball comedy of Polish acting royalty battling the Nazi invasion in Warsaw. And they had help from a very young Robert Stack.

There is a lot to enjoy in this wartime, feel-good flick. Director Ernst Lubitsch helped the cast navigate the darker sides of war, leaning into it as a foil rather than sinking into it in despair. Given this was created and released less than a year after Pearl Harbor, that’s pretty amazing.

Admittedly, the rhythm of the comedy overall is a bit odd for today. Though Lombard’s fast, sharp wit, a la her previous Twentieth Century, is certainly one of highlights. Overall, there is more of a stage sensibility with the dialogue and odd pauses. But, despite the dated feel, it manages to entertain and surprise with a clever script and focus on the human in the danger. But it isn’t a satire or larger commentary, it is purely a romantic comedy with WWII trappings.

And I could be wrong, but To Be or Not To Be is also probably one of the last comedies about Hitler until Mel Brooks tackled him again in The Producers 25 years later. (Note: though I know Abbot and Costello made Hitler Ho!, I can’t find a year for it anywhere, let alone a copy). As WWII quickly progressed, humor about it was not what people were looking for.

For a silly escape with some historical significance, this is worth looking up at some point…and the Criterion restoration is crisp and beautiful.

To Be or Not to Be

Bless Me, Ulima

[3 stars]

How much has changed since 1944 New Mexico? Well, after watching Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the same named novel, I fear not much.  That isn’t Franklin’s point, but I’m watching this 9 years after its release and art is nothing if not contextually interpreted. Though, to be fair, some of those aspects (inequality, power, prejudice) were Franklin’s intent, they just resonate a bit differently in a world where we’re slamming shut our borders and separating families out of fear and greed.

While there is some nice storytelling through the eyes of a young boy which borders on magic realism, this isn’t a great adaptation. The use of voice over, in particular, is somewhat cheap and distracting. The plot also leaps along in some odd ways, and aspects of the world are a bit forced. Fortunately, the main message of being bonded to the world and each other, never really goes out of style. And Franklin found a unique time and family to deliver that idea. But for all the plot, it feels more like a slice of life than a deep tale worthy of feature film. An interesting slice at times, but incomplete. So, while this is a somewhat interesting film, I can’t strongly recommend it. However, as a brake from all the standard fare out there, it is certainly a different world and set of characters.

Bless Me, Ultima

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Sylvia

[2.5 stars]

Are famous people interesting because they’re famous or famous because they’re interesting? Which is to ask: why did Christine Jeffs (Sunshine Cleaning) decide to take on John Brownlow’s (The Miniaturist) weak attempt to dramatize Sylvia Plath’s tale? And I ask because, while there are some nice performances, the story is a vapid and male-filtered view of Plath’s struggles with writing and mental health, not to mention life in general. Not what you’d expect from a female director taking on this icon of poetry.

It’s important, I suppose, to note this movie is 16 years old at this point, well before #metoo, though still in a world that was self-aware enough to recognize the issues with the cleansed biography. While Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Iron Man, Sliding Doors) journey as Plath finds many levels and nuances, the presentation is not kind nor sympathetic to her (unlike Joker was for Phoenix) when portraying mental health issues.

Despite the point of view being clearly through Plath’s eyes, her story seems to be lensed through her husband’s experience, Daniel Craig (Knives Out) as Ted Hughes, and her friend, Jared Harris (Carnival Row). Michael Gambon (Judy) and Blythe Danner (Hello I Must Be Going) add some sympathy and insight to Plath’s portrayal and life, but not enough to overcome the inherent issues.

The story is neither honest enough nor gripping enough to excuse its nearly two hours on screen. The issues here are very much with the direction and script rather than the performances, so if you want to catch some earlier roles for the leads, particularly Craig before his breakout in Layer Cake, you can invest your time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Harriet

[3 stars]

Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.

The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.

While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)

Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.