Tag Archives: Historical

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

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The Glass Castle

[3 stars]

Watching Glass Castle, I couldn’t help but view it as a dark reflection of Captain Fantastic. Both tackle similar kinds of family, but Glass Castle is less simple and more realistic, which shouldn’t be a surprise as it is based on Jeannette Wall’s real life.

Some excellent performances make this film solid. Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Brie Larson (Free Fire) and Ella Anderson (Mother’s Day), as Larson’s younger self, are the real standouts. Naomi Watts (3 Generations) has some moments, but her character is mutable and not easy to understand which diminished the performance for me.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) tackled the story as director and co-writer in a clever way. He used a lot of flashback; not because it was easy but because it removed a host of expectations about where the story would go. Told in order, you’d be expecting tragedy over and over. It isn’t an easy story of growing up, but if you believe the people telling the tale, tragedy isn’t the point nor the outcome. And that is the issue for me, performances and flimmaking aside.

The end implies a forgiveness I’m not sure the people earned, even though the post-film footage makes it clear that it is what occurred. So this is either a testament to the strength of people, and children in particular, or is suggestion that anything can be and should be forgiven. I don’t know if I can get behind that sentiment. You certainly need to get past aspects of life, but that doesn’t mean you forgive or stay involved with those that created the bad situation. To Cretton ‘s credit, you want to buy into that choice, making this a challenging tale from a good filmmaker. For that, and the performances, it is worth the time. And it is certainly a fascinating look into humanity and our own individual choices.

The Glass Castle

Black Narcissus

[2.5 stars]

While not your typical tale of Nuns, it is still the rather presentational and overwrought emotional approach to film from the 40’s. From near the beginning of the story you know where it has to go because of the scenery and the clumsy setup of Kathleen Byron’s Ruth, though Deborah Kerr’s (An Affair to Remember) Sister Superior wasn’t much better at the critical moments.

Attempting to balance the Nuns was the somewhat interesting portrayal by David Farrar, who had gone-native, as it were. The film is ethnocentric to a frightening degree, though it squirms a little trying unsuccessfully to break away from that. What was interesting to catch was a young Jean Simmons (in black make-up) and Sabu (Jungle Book) as a young adult. Again, neither were comfortable portrayals for a contemporary audience, but were interesting from a film buff point of view…or a sociological one.

The film did pick up a couple of Oscars for its cinematography and art direction (both are rather good), and a few critics awards. But, overall, it was rather ham-handed and didn’t really show the promise that long-time collaborators in writing and directing, Powell and Pressburger, would go on to achieve the next year with The Red Shoes.

See it, if you must, for its place and capturing of historical perspective, or other work by faces you know. The story itself, while paced out well, is now just an uncomfortable curio of Western culture and broad drama.

Black Narcissus

A Home at the End of the World

[4 stars]

This is a quirky but warm love story. Unusual in its choices but utterly devoted in its feeling. That honesty sets it apart from the kind of movie you think it is by that fact alone.

It may also be Colin Farrell’s (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) most normal and, possibly, even most effective role. He was incredibly natural and open in a way I’ve not seen in his other personas, which tend toward the quirky and frenetic. And Erik Smith (Squatters), as his younger self, is a scary, shrunken doppleganger of Farrell. Their rhythm and emotional core are astoundingly seamless across the scenes.  Director Michael Mayer (Smash) did a heck of a job in his first outing to get those performances.

Robin Wright (Blade Runner 2049) and Dallas Roberts (Dallas Buyers Club) play off each other and Farrell wonderfully, creating family, romance, and tension in a perfect balance. Absent that juggling game, the entire story would fall apart.

The final piece to this puzzle are two other influences. As the “trapped” but feisty housewife, Sissy Spacek (Carrie) has a blast. She has to walk a very fine line and manages it well. And it is always fun to see Matt Frewer (Orphan Black); though his screen time here is minimal, his role is important and has its moment.

There is something wonderful about this movie, and something rather unexpected. Yes, some of the action and outcomes are obvious, but they get there in ways you don’t quite expect, and with emotions that are far more accessible than they are histrionic. It is a reflection of life rather than art, which makes it all the more poignant.

A Home at the End of the World

The Magnificent Ambersons

[3 stars]

Going back to find classics you missed can be exciting and enlightening. Sometimes it is just surprising. Ambersons is truly an odd fish from Orson Wells. While based on Tarkington’s book of the same title, I think it would have been better expressed as The Comical Tragedy of the Ambersons, but perhaps the irony is built into the original title, it just wasn’t quite there for me.

This tale of the rise of Industrialized America crossed with the extreme universal tale of the spoiled child, is somehow weirdly timeless and utterly appropriate for today. And despite that, it is also dated and arch, making it as much a piece of fragile glass as a moving picture; the tale is purposefully broad in its telling. It is, however, full of Wells’s trademark camerawork and his dry sense of humor.

Constant Wells colleague Joseph Cotten is very much at the center of the movie, though he is technically on the side of the plot and focus. Tim Holt as Dolores Costello’s spoiled son is a frustratingly selfish SOB that it is hard to want to watch, but fortunately he is supposed to be so. And Agnes Moorehead, as his spinster Aunt, is so over-the-top as to be absurd at times, and tragic at others. The best showing, however is by Anne Baxter in one of her earliest roles. She is charismatic and alive in an otherwise rather stodgy framework of people around her.

Ambersons isn’t a great film. As a story it is hard to digest and the characters beg to be slapped silly until they see sense. But there is something compelling about how it is told. Wells never lost sight of the humor, dark as it got, even if he didn’t quite manage to pay off the final act. Regardless, as a piece of film and Hollywood history, it is a nice piece to slot in when you have an afternoon or evening.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

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Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Against the Law

[3 stars]

It is sometimes hard to remember how much the world has changed in the last 60 years. Despite recent setbacks, in general the world and humanity have matured as the distance and time between global points has diminished, and become more accepting of those around them. The sense of “otherness” is becoming common place rather than exotic. To survive, we have realized that we must embrace those around us rather than fight or feeling threatened. Hey, I did say “in general.”

But back as recently as the 1950’s, homosexuality was still a crime in most of the world, punishable by prison. Peter Wildeblood, a London journalist in that era, was caught up in the hypocrisy of his time and was part of the infamous Lord Montagu of Beaulieu trial.  Alongside Alan Turing, one of the other notable attacks on so-called inverts at the time.

Wildeblood, in this portrayal, is given life by Daniel Mays (Byzantium). He is the story, though he has some nice support from those around him. And, inter-cut into the movie are interviews with men from the era who recount their experiences and reactions. It is an interesting counterpoint but it does make the rest feel a bit more clinical than emotional, despite a rousing conclusion to the film as it comes into the present.

After prison, Wildeblood fought in the only way he knew how, by writing about his life, the trial, and declaring himself to the world and, specifically, to the Wolfenden committee. The committee ultimately declared “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.”

While this seemingly groundbreaking report was delivered on 4 Sept, 1957, it would be almost 10 years before the laws in Britain would begin to change. On 27 July, 1967, homosexuality between consenting adults of 21 years or older was decriminalized. And it wouldn’t be until 1994 that the law was brought into full parity with non-homosexual relationships and the age of consent dropped to age 16.  There is a wonderful overview of of non-conforming individuals in a series of monologues produced by Mark Gatiss (Denial) also in this film, called “queers.” which I highly recommend; writer Writer Brian Fillis (An Englishman in New York ) also wrote one of the monologues in queers.

Against the Law is an effective, if not entirely a solid film. Its intention is to educate and remind. On those counts it does admirably. And Mays provides a sympathetic focus, though a somewhat stunted arc as a character due to the structure. Still, I can recommend this based on his performance and the impact of the included interviews.

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