Tag Archives: Historical

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

The Great Upload on Avenue 5

Here are a few more streamers. Two worth your time and one that is entirely up to your sense of humor. Then again, I suppose they all depend on your sense of humor, but let’s just say I found the first two to have more of an easy entry and wider appeal, but that may just be me…

The Great (Hulu)
If The Favourite had spawned a series, in style and concept, this would have been the result. I know it is actually based on different IP (a play) but you can’t help but see the parallels, especially with Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) in one of the leads.

But this is really Elle Fanning’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) moment, her chance to take the reins and reign as an adult. Watching her navigate her world, and the absurd situations, is a riot and, at times, terrifying. Helping her along in her conspiracy to bring sanity to Russia are Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Pheobe Fox (Eye in the Sky). And Belinda Bromilow (Doctor, Doctor) and Sebastian De Souza (Medici) add a wonderful counterpoint and humor to it all. Even Charity Wakefield (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Adam Godley (Umbrella Academy) add a sort of caustic and clever nastiness. Honestly, there are too many good performances to call them all out. If you’re up for some (sort of) period comedy, this one is worth the effort.

The Great

Upload (Prime)
A little bit science fiction, a little bit rock-n-roll… ok, more a little bit Sleeper with a huge dash of Her, though both with backflipping twists on the approach. Robbie Amell (ARQ) and Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3) drive this show wonderfully. Allo, in particular, skips through emotional changes like a quick-change artist. Creator Greg Daniels brought his Parks and Rec comedy chops, but with a bit more restraint, to sell this entertaining satire that also comes with a nice mystery embedded. The first series is a solid start, but while it gets to a pause-point, it definitely ends on some serious cliffhangers. Fortunately, it is already renewed, so you won’t be left hanging forever.

Upload

Avenue 5 (HBO)
Yeah, I’m sorry, I just don’t get the appeal of this one. And it’s not because Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) isn’t great fun. Nor is it that Lenora Crichlow (Collision) doesn’t manage to balance out the craziness. It’s that the writing and, particularly, Josh Gad (Little Monsters) just don’t know how to set limits that keep it all fun.

What could have been the black humor counterpart to Aniara, turns into a broad comedy mess without much to say for itself.

Avenue 5

The Impossible

[3 stars]

In every disaster there are stories that are worthy of telling and that beggar imagination. In fact, in many cases, had the tales been written as fiction, they’d have been dismissed as absurd and forced. But the truth is that survivors of massive events, like the Holocaust, 9/11, or in this case, the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, only live due to a collection of unlikely and random events.

J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) directed this story, reteaming with his The Orphanage writer Sergio G. Sánchez, to bring us the experience of one family. The result was highly awarded for its primary performances by Naomi Watts (Luce) and, in his first major role, Tom Holland (Onward). And, really, this is Holland’s story and film, which is not what you expect when it kicks off. Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey), as the father, also has some great moments, but his role is very much supporting.

This film puts the power, danger, and horror of the event and the aftermath on screen well. If you didn’t know it was made years later, you’d have thought Bayona had a crew there the day of and through the days that followed. But, as compelling as individual moments were, and as taut as the moments leading to the end were directed, I can’t say I found the movie overly suspenseful because I knew the result. And it wasn’t that I knew the story going in, but there was something obvious about it that left me without doubts. It also barely looked outside the boundaries of the family, which was good for focus, but limited in its perspective. Whether any of that is a fair critique or not doesn’t really matter as it was my experience.

As a window into tsunami and its initial impact this is a fascinating story. As an opportunity to catch Holland at the launch of his career, it is eye opening. As a movie, it will keep your attention but I’m not entirely sure it will fully satisfy everyone, but it’s well executed if you need a tale of survival.

The Impossible

Lambert & Stamp

[3.5 stars]

This is another odd documentary that isn’t exactly focused on what you expect. Lambert and Stamp were the guys behind The Who. They didn’t pull together the band, but they were the guiding force, for good and ill, behind their rise, direction, and, ultimately in many ways, their demise. But The Who are merely the foil to discuss the men and their work. At least that is the intent (and the title backs that up).

But, let’s face it, we’re talking about The Who… Townshend and Daltrey figure heavily in the present-day interviews, and there is a ton of performance footage. Of course the band and the men draw focus despite all efforts by the first-time-feature director, James D. Cooper.

What really sets this movie apart is that Lambert and Stamp had always intended a movie of their efforts managing the band. Mind you, they thought that would be a couple years before the band (whichever band they picked) would flame out and they could then focus on their purported first love: film. But as fate would have it, they ended up with The Who, one of the longer lasting forces in modern rock, which has ended up outlasting even them. But that plan and intent means is that there is a lot of high-quality footage and interviews from the very beginning of The Who’s journey with their producers/managers rather than the type of  “found footage” you’re stuck with 40 years down the pike looking back.

Cooper did an amazing job sifting all these years of archival footage and new interviews to pull together a story. It may not have been the story Lambert and Stamp had envisioned when they started their efforts, but it is still a fascinating one. And, with The Who as the backdrop for it all, it tends to be interesting generally.

Circus of Books

[4 stars]

Rachel Mason’s (The Lives of Hamilton Fish) documentary of her family’s infamous bookstore is a wonderful journey of discovery. What begins as a purported history and examination of the store and its place in the culture, shifts to become a tale of family. Much like Stories We Tell, Mason was feeling her way along a story she hadn’t defined, but which slowly revealed itself as she did her interviews and sifted her footage.

In  some ways that approach makes this film a little oddly structured. You can feel the focus shift as it goes along, but it leaves the first quarter of the story feeling a little uneven until the real tale starts to become obvious. But, while getting there, Mason’s overview of the politics, period, and people is still worthwhile and interesting. And, to be honest, it plays in and against the story she does end up telling.

The story of Circus of Books is filled with humor, heart, and revelation…and one I do highly recommend.

Saint Laurent

[1.5 stars]

When you watch a biopic, you come to it with two main objectives. First, you hope to learn a bit about the subject themself, their life and personal drives, successes, and demons. You also want to know more about how they impacted the world and people around them.  Bertrand Bonello’s painful Saint Laurent focuses very much on the first, but neglects just about everything else.

To begin with, you have to care about fashion to even approach this movie. Why else would you care? I’ve seen many such biopics on the fashion industry and was tangentially involved in it for many years as well. But even with my more-than-average knowledge I had trouble following the plot and points Bonello wanted to make. He structured the film using multiple time frames, always jumping ahead to an inflection point in Yves’s life and then rewinding to show us how he got there, and then setting the next point and doing it all over again through to his death…sort of.

The point is that we just don’t care about the man. We don’t really see anything positive from his actions, only his debauched and depressing spiral trying to find himself while somewhere offscreen, somehow, he builds a fashion empire. We have no sense what he really contributes to that empire, other than his name, nor what made it so important to world fashion. I can’t even tell if Bonello did it from love or loathing.

Honestly, this is a movie to avoid regardless of your interest, unless it is entirely puerile for either the main actor Gaspard Ulliel, who does a lot with what he was given to work with, or for the gay clubbing world of Paris fashion in the 70s-90s. Ulliel is backed up onscreen by Jérémie Renier (Frankie), Léa Seydoux (The Lobster), and Aymeline Valade (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), not to mention the suitably weird and creepy Louis Garrel (The Dreamers). Well “backed up” is a little of an overstatement. They provide some local color and framework, but very little substance.

In the end, Bonello does bring it to a point/comment: regardless of Laurent’s life, it didn’t affect his art and impact on women’s fashion. In other words, love the art not the man or, perhaps, an artist’s personal life shouldn’t be part of the equation. Either is a legitimate point to argue, but it didn’t require 2.5 hours of descent into disaster (if it is to be fully believed) that was his life.

Te Ata

[3 stars]

One of the great joys of a good historical drama is that you learn something new. I knew nothing of Te Ata, the woman. And even if I had, I don’t think my opinion of her would have been as positive as it was after this biopic. Q’orianka Kilcher (Color Out of Space) brings this Chickasaw legend to life in surprising ways, without remaking her for modern tastes.

There is just about no story about Native Americans that isn’t going to twist your gut at some moment or another, but this story manages to be relatively honest while focusing on the positive. And Te Ata made that life for herself by being both driven to find it and determined enough to keep trying.

The movie itself is competently written and directed. It isn’t groundbreaking in any way movie-wise. But it boasts a solid cast and some surprises. Gil Birmingham (Wind River) and Graham Greene (Molly’s Game) and Brigid Brannagh (Runaways) as Kilcher’s family each have a moment or two worth seeing. And Mackenzie Astin (The Magicians) brings in something nice for the final third.

As I implied, this movie isn’t going to remake your life, but it will provide some perspective and, even, inspire you a bit by the end.

Cantinflas

[3 stars]

Cantinflas: if you grew up in the States, probably the most famous and well-paid actor you never heard of. This biopic attempts to correct that blind spot. Unfortunately, though each of the parts are there, the story, like Mario Moreno’s (aka Cantinflas) comedy, didn’t translate well in Edui Tijerina and Sebastian del Amo’s script. But neither had a lot of experience on their cv’s at the time to help them. And, adding to the challenge, del Amo also directed.

The story is told across two timelines, primarily in English and Spanish, that eventually converge. One tracks Moreno’s origins and rise and the other the efforts by Mike Todd, played solidly by Michael Imperioli (The Scribbler), to produce and direct Around the World in 80 Days. Spoiler: the movie does get made, Moreno (as Cantinflas) plays Passepartout, and both make huge box office history and win several prestigious awards. Why give that away? First, it’s history and you’ll likely start to look it up during the movie just to find out how true it is. Second, without that knowledge the movie is empty to those who don’t know or care about Moreno’s story going in.

That isn’t the fault of Óscar Jaenada (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote), who is wonderfully cast as Cantinflas. He captures the man’s Chaplin-esque comedy and movements. He comes across as both shrewd and capable. But the movie doesn’t provide him a clear story and progression. We get a series of vignettes that hit important moments which never quite all come together as a triumph in the industry or his life. Amusingly, this movie won more awards than Around the World, but none of those were in the majors–however it speaks to the appetite for the insights into Moreno’s life.

It also has to be noted that, other than Jaenada and Imperioli, the casting in the film is awful. No one looks like their historical counterparts, which is a problem when you’re dealing with icons like Brando, Brynner, and others (though I will admit that Bárbara Mori comes passably close to Taylor).

As a bit of historical context and some interesting insights into the waning years of United Artists, when the studios were crushing the independents (though never quite successfully), this is an intriguing film. As a story itself that stands on its own, it’s far less successful. This will appeal to those that know Cantinflas and to cinefiles who’s knowledge contains gaps about international stars.

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.