Tag Archives: Historical

The White Crow

[3 stars]

Dance biopics are often disappointing because the actors playing the subject of the film can’t…well, dance. That is not a gap here. Is Oleg Ivenko as good as Rudolf Nureyev? No, and the movie even highlights that in the credits. However, he is credible and you never watch thinking “a shame the guy can’t dance.”  The guy, and the company, can dance.

With that first challenge successfully won, you can watch the story. And the story is interesting. I do have to admit that the great David Hare’s (Collateral) script wasn’t quite up to his usual quality. The story meanders and isn’t particularly focused. What drives Nureyev both in dance and in life is left quite a bit to the imagination. Perhaps that’s fair. But there were subjects Hare danced around (no pun intended), and others he poured out in exposition. I’m not sure I ever really understood Nureyev or many of the people around him. By the time we get to the pivotal moment near the end, I can’t say, other than the obvious, why he or Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) act quite as they do.

While Ralph Fiennes (The Lego Batman Movie) directed, not to mention acted, competently, he wasn’t able to expose the subtleties of the character as cleanly for me as I’d have liked. Perhaps that was my own problem and density, but it was all a little muddled. More concerning was Fiennes handling of the timeline, which bounces through three periods trying to build out Nureyev’s character motivations. Finnes didn’t negotiate those boundaries as cleanly as he could have. It was easy to lose track of which period you were in and where it was in his life even with some cinematic clues helping.

My concerns aside, it is a story worth seeing. It’s one of the most believable portrayals of a dance giant as well as peek back at a period of history that’s worth remembering as its spectre reasserts today. Finnes likes tackling tough subjects and, as his directing chops grow, I look forward to seeing more of what he can accomplish.

The Current War: Director’s Cut

[2.5 stars]

After a long, torturous road to screen, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) image of this story finally made it to theaters. Unfortunately, what arrived was a soulless outline of a story, however well acted and filmed, due to first time feature writer Michael Mitnick’s (Vinyl) script. But I’ll come back to that.

The cast is loaded with recognizable talent. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Child in Time) and Matthew Macfadyen (Ripper Street) work with what they have reasonably well, though with little payoff. They are also both rather sanitized from their infamous and documented personalities. Nicholas Hoult (Tolkien) is a great, but wasted, Tesla (you get a more interesting and complete picture of Tesla from The Prestige). Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Far From Home) isn’t particularly good, but he isn’t bad…he’s just a bit too young to sell his role. The women (all two of them), Tuppence Middleton (MI-5) and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), are actually both intriguing, but are tiny parts of the tale. Only Michael Shannon (What They Had) has a character with any real depth to it, allowing him to take over the center of the story….but who was going to come out to a movie about George Westinghouse?

What this movie needed was Aaron Sorkin on script to bring the past to life or Baz Lurhman to transform it into a modern fantasy as a dark mirror for our times. And that was the real brass ring it could have aimed for, but it missed its mark, in making the story applicable to today. The story of Edison v Tesla v Westinghouse v Morgan is a wonderful parallel for the current battle between Amazon, Google, and Facebook to control the internet and information. But that layer is completely lost, though enough of a whiff of it remains to make you long for it.

Current War should have been a timely story of the fight for the American future and soul at a time when industrialists got to control that fight unchecked. It looks eerily familar to the now times. So, assuming you can connect the dots for yourself, take this as entertainment or as object lesson. But do it at your leisure, this isn’t really worth your time to run out and see it despite Chung-hoon Chung‘s gorgeous cinematography.

Apollo 11

[3 stars]

This is less a documentary and more a sort of clear-eyed nostalgia trip. There are no revelations, except perhaps for seeing the dark side footage and the instrumenation alerts during the final lunar descent (more on that if you’re curious and from one of the programmers). However, the clarity of the images, both the remastered and the newly discovered 65mm fim from archives, makes it all immediate in a way that a blurry black & white TV couldn’t in 1969.

By using only archvied, and often concurrent, audio to create the story, director Todd Douglas Miller brings you along the 9 days  in a fascinating 90 minute moving picturebook. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is well constructed to acheive its goals: to relive the event. I imagine it works best for those that grew up watching the Apollo missions rather than those who were weaned on the space shuttle or, more sadly, in the gap that followed the 2011 Atlantis mission. But for anyone who is intrigued by space flight, it is a visual journal of historic proportions worth making time for.

Tolkien

[3 stars]

Where Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each used fantasy as a way to tell their realities, Tolkien went the other route: it uses reality to tell the fantasy. Well, about the fantasy, at any rate. The movie is a bit of a confused mess, but it does eventually come together to its point.

Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) is really quite good at negotiating both the complex emotional challenge and the age challenge of his role as the story unfolds. Lily Collins (Okja), likewise, gets to work a lot of levels, not all of which are comfortable. The rest of the cast is servicable, with folks like Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds) probably standing out the most. But, frankly, no one really matters outside the main couple.

The main challenge with this film is that it isn’t very focused. It jumps back and forth in time attempting to show the connections in Tolkien’s life that led him to author his stories. But the narrative is a little forced as we follow him through the trenches while his febrile brain keeps triggering memories. It wasn’t sustainable for the whole movie, so the approach ends about two thirds of the way through. A more chronological telling may have been more effective for the majority of the story; or, perhaps, a more complete commitment to the flashback. The mix and unbalance of the two leaves the rhythm of the film uneven and confused.

Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) certainly took care with his portrayal. And writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) were likewise sympathetic. It doesn’t feel like a real biography or look at the man, but rather an homage to him and the work he left behind. And perhaps that is the better way to view the movie: as a biography of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring rather than of Tolkien himself. On that level it succeeds quite a bit more than as an historical recounting.

Mary Shelley

[3 stars]

Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.

Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.

Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.

Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.

This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.

Hustlers

[4 stars]

Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.

Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.

Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.

Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.

 

The Aftermath

[3 stars]

Most war stories focus on the lead up to conflict or the battles themselves. Very few look at what comes immediately after and how it affects people. Mind you, the “aftermath” in this film is a layered statement rather than simply the months after VE day in bombed-out Hamburg.

The story revolves around three survivors of the conflict, each damaged in different, but overlapping, ways. Keira Knightley (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Alexander Skarsgård (Little Drummer Girl), and Jason Clarke (Serenity) keep the story taut and interesting, even when the events are a little forced at times and obvious at others. Both issues are more due to the adaptation rather than the acting. In compressing the story to fit into a movie, some important moments of change are rushed.

Director James Kent (Inside Men) keeps the story moving and helps the main cast navigate their paths. He also recreated the era and Hamburg with incredible and effective detail. From the opening moments he gives you a sense of the era, the horror, and the desperation. Most of the side characters, however, are a little cliche; there for convenience but without a lot of flesh. Martin Compston (Line of Duty), in particular, is hurt by this, though his screen-wife, Kate Phillips (The Little Stranger), manages to provide depth within the limited script she’s provided.

Even with the few weaknesses in execution, there is enough in the main performances and story to make this worth your time. Watching them attempt to heal their wounds is an affecting and honest tale.

Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries

[3 stars]

This expansion of the Miss Fisher mysteries by Acorn TV isn’t awful, but it isn’t the Miss Fisher we knew and loved. It is simply a fun set of mysteries and characters.

The core issue is the title character. Geraldine Hakewill is fine, but she doesn’t have even a small portion of the energy and charisma that Essie Davis brought to the original character. And though surrounded by a fun group of well-executed characters, she just doesn’t dominate the stories the way she needs to for this role.

Basically, much like The ABC Murders, Acorn is trying to capitalize on a property without being able to deliver the same quality. It is a shame as the story and characters are entertaining…they’re just not what you want or hope for even though it is substantially the same production crew from the original.

Geraldine Hakewill in Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries (2019)

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Amazing Grace

[3 stars]

Aretha! What more do you need to know?

Come to this for the joy of the music and the significance of the moment (not to mention some of the people captured on screen).

OK, to be fair, this is more a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most famous gospel albums of all time than a full documentary.

What you get is a peek at Aretha working, as opposed to just purely performing. You get to see her roots, some of the depth of her beliefs, and a little of her family and background.

Recorded live with an audience, Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors, Eyes Wide Shut) tried to capture the event and energy. This is not Pollack’s Stop Making Sense. It doesn’t create a story, it is unable to really capture the feeling of live gospel, and the quality of the visuals is pretty grainy (though the sound is restored nicely). There are reasons for all this, not the least that it is from 1972 and many technical issues plagued the shooting and post-production. Aretha herself never wanted this movie released, even after they solved many of the sound problems; no one in public knows what her objections were.

But it is released now and it is a gift to her public. It isn’t her best performance. The music isn’t the most exciting, nor is it organized in a way to pull you along or take you on an emotional journey. It simply is. It is a visual album that is a balm to the nerves and delight to your heart, even if it isn’t your type of music or even your religion (for the record, it is neither to me). But it is worth your time.