Tag Archives: Historical

Fear Street: Part 3 – 1666

[3 stars]

It’s all comes down to this: the origin. And what a nice payoff it is. As you’d expect, given the previous two parts, the cast reprises from the previous 1994 and 1978 time frames to inhabit the 1666 characters. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch are back at the center along with Ashley Zukerman (The Code), Gillian Jacobs (Life Partners), and, now with a bit more range, Benjamin Flores Jr. (Rim of the World).

Having the setup of the previous two parts, this third flies in a swift 2 hours of suspense, action, and frustration. But the best part is that everything you’ve learned comes back into play right up through the end. And there is where it stumbles just the tiniest bit.

The main action resolves perfectly fine and acceptably. But there is a moment, and you can’t miss it, where there is an obvious and boneheaded oversight. I know it’s a trope of the genre, but it could have been less ham-handed. In fact, if it weren’t for that, I’d have rated the whole movie higher. That gaff cost it because after all the clever, subversive, and frankly well thought out planning, it was cheap and insulting to the audience.

But that frustration aside, which is small in comparison to the journey, this is a great trilogy of dark fun executed with a clever eye and solid talent. Leigh Janiak pulled the sequence off with aplomb and will have me watching for her next project for sure; as well as some of the cast.

Fear Street: 1666 Poster

Woman in Motion

[3.5 stars]

Nichelle Nichols. The name alone evokes a smile. She is a force of nature and one of the most relentlessly optimistic and gracious people you’ll ever meet. And yes, I say this with a small amount of direct experience.

Director Todd Thompson had a challenge with this story. Talking just about what Nichols did for NASA would be interesting, but would lack context. Adding the context is so wildly off topic that it could distract from the focus of the story. But he managed to walk the line and bring it all together in a way that was, frankly, unexpected as the wandering narrative unspools. In some ways, and I think purposefully, it mirrors Nichols’ own conversational tone and threading.

Thompson did, however, over-produce the docu a bit. It is a little too gimicky and a little too polished/flashy at times. These aspects did distract from the story itself. I imagine not everyone will find that to be the case.

But the story behind how Nichols changed the face of NASA and, in no small way, the world is worth every minute you spend with it. And if you haven’t already caught Hidden Figures, add that on as required follow-up viewing for an even larger context.

At the end, stick around through the credits for a wonderful final look at a facet of Nichols that just didn’t fit into the rest of the story directly. It was a great note to leave the story on and only increases your respect for this powerhouse of energy and effort.

Woman in Motion Poster

Ailey

[3 stars]

Through contemporary interviews, much-abused archival footage, and the rehearsal efforts of the American Dance Theatre to honor their founder, Jamila Wignot does her best to introduce us to Alvin Ailey, the man. But the truth is that much of who that man was had never really been captured in public records…or at least none that have been readily shared, if the resulting documentary is to be believed at face value.

His cultural truth, his childhood truth…that is on display throughout and in his choreography. That said, there are a few moments of unguarded, personal truth that let us in. Ailey, the man, even though he avoided most of the worst of segregation and prejudice in his working life, never felt safe to be his true self till very late in his life. At least not in the dance part of his life… which by all accounts was most of what he was.

The resulting total of his story is one that leaves you educated and affected deeply. He was respected and loved by his dancers and the arts world. What is sad is that the quality of a lot of the archival footage is pretty worn as, I’m sure, no one saw the point of capturing and protecting the work of a primarily non-white dance company back in the 50s and 60s.

But the film doesn’t focus on the choreography per se. What Ailey thought of himself, his place in the world, and how he dealt with those pressures, is what Wignot really wants us to understand. Not just to comprehend Ailey, but to understand the culture he came from and to help break that cycle. Find this and support it when you get the chance. Even if you know about Ailey and his work, this likely will expose more than you were aware of about him and the American Dance Theater.

Ailey Poster

Shadow in the Cloud

[4 stars]

Talk about an unexpected thrill-ride from beginning to end. Roseanne Liang directed and co-wrote this, with Max Landis (Bright), as her Sophomore offering. And it is damned impressive.

Chloë Grace Moretz (Tom and Jerry) dominates this film. From the opening credits she embodies her strongest female role since her Kick-Ass days. The story is tightly focused on Moretz, her actions and her reactions. As her character is slowly revealed, we are constantly re- evaluating what we think we know. There are several male characters, but who cares? They exist solely as fodder to Moretz’s tale.

In the center of it all, acting as engine to the machine, is one of the biggest McGuffins I’ve seen in a while…simply because it is so iconic. The movie opens with a war-time cartoon that sets up this horror piece of the story. If you’ve ever seen Nightmare at 20000 Feet you have a sense of what’s coming (or think you do anyway).

The rest is an unbelievably tense ride. Like Pitch Black, once this one starts downhill, it goes at breakneck speed and never relents. And it ends on a hugely satisfying tableau.

Make time for this one. It is ostensibly a horror film, but it is so much more than that as well, even managing to pay homage to the WACs and WASPs of WWII. I can’t wait to see what Liang offers up next if this was any indication of her ability and eye.

Shadow in the Cloud Poster

The Astrologer

[2.5 stars]

So why write about a 1975 film that has no one recognizable and a director/writer, James Glickenhaus, not really known for his quality material? Because, despite the illogical leaps, racist overtones, and odd story telling, there is something intriguing about this thinly veiled metaphor for the CIA and its ilk. And something uncomfortably appropriate to today’s situations around the world as well.

Set 8 days before the “second coming” the story posits a world where astrology has been turned into a precise art. Well, that’s the opening voice-over, but as it turns out it is more about potential than precision, but let’s not mince details (the movie certainly doesn’t). The idea is both amusing and intriguing. But the real focus of the story is the arrival of the baby messiah and whether it will be a force for good or evil. It isn’t like this is a new concept, but this movie has more philosophical overtones than horror.

However, it should be noted that it is also prone to making assertions…which it promptly violates or otherwise invalidates. And while there are a few credible performances, most are in that painfully 70’s, almost porn stilted delivery. I will grant Glickenhaus one thing: the cast is actually quite diverse, even for its time.

Now, I’m not recommending this without severe reservations, but it somehow came to my attention (how, I can no longer say) and got onto a long list for days when I had 90 minutes or less to burn uselessly. This certainly qualified. I actually found myself intrigued and curious, though ultimately disappointed, by the plot. But when it’s that short and the historical lookback alone is fascinating, I didn’t chock it up to a complete loss or even unentertaining. Though, I suspect, it would work better when slightly mentally altered, if you go for that sort of thing.

The Astrologer Poster

Beforeigners

[3 stars]

We can debate under which grouping of the speculative fiction umbrella this series belongs, but there shouldn’t be a doubt that it is solid spec fic in the best sense of the term. Beforeigners takes the time-travel premise and turns it into an entertaining social metaphor of our times. It’s all a bit offbeat, but it takes itself seriously as a police procedural, without ever getting too earnest. But what would you expect from the co-creators of Lilyhammer (Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin)?

Admittedly, there is a bit of rationalization you’ll need to do in order to buy some of the premises. Specifically, whether Stone Age people could adapt and learn modern languages and social/business structures, but the show allows for a several year learning ramp after the set-up. And the big mystery, though not completely explained in this first series, is definitely more complex than it seems at the top.

The policing duo at the heart of the story is Nicolai Cleve Broch (Ragnarok) and Krista Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049). Each has their own personal tales running in parallel and with inevitable clashes into their professional lives. And neither path is entirely easy or straight-forward in its direction. But both performances are nuanced and fun to watch. Kosonen especially.

There are some other nice supporting characters, like Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir’s (Justice League) and Ingunn Beate Øyen, each of who impact Kosonen in different ways.

Ultimately, there is a lot of set up without a huge amount of resolution in the 6 episodes. However, it feels satisfying and promises a huge meal into the second series (in production now). So if you’re looking for something new and different, this may be the series for you.

Beforeigners Poster

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

[4 stars]

Much like the history it parallels, writer and co-director James Lebrecht’s story of his childhood grows into a larger tale thanks to his summer at Camp Jened and the people he met. Never heard of Jened? You’re not alone, and yet it became the nexus around which an international movement developed. In many ways, it’s a camp that, in its final evolution, could have only existed in the early 70s; run by hippies, devoid of judgement, and full of the joy and love for those around them. The power of that environment ripples out to this day.

But this docu tracks not only the civil rights movement for those with disabilities of all kinds, but also lays out the value of truly seeing someone and accepting them for who they are. Using archival footage and new interviews, you’re asked to communicate with camp members on their terms. It is done without apology and without rushing. And the impact of that choice is impressive, particularly if you’ve never known anyone with similar challenges; it will shift your perspective.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution Poster

Da 5 Bloods

[3 stars]

Watching a Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) joint is like watching jazz on screen.  He has a style and rhythm to his work that is always evolving, but always identifiable. Da 5 Bloods, for all its interesting moments and ideas (and trademark politics) seems to be missing a beat or flow. The elements are there, but the music is absent.

There are many good performances holding together the story. But, primarily, it swirls around Delroy Lindo (LX 2048) and Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country), as his son. Lindo’s struggle with PTSD and his past is the engine that drives all the events, while Majors serves as catalyst and potential redemption.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie was Lee’s choice to use the older actors as their younger selves in the flashbacks, rather than casting age-appropriate performers. It really drives home how war lives with soldiers their entire lives. One of the creepiest aspects is watching Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and his storyline in the movie. It was one of his last and still before anyone knew he was ill.

Almost every major director of the last century has taken on a war movie. It’s a platform for commentary and a challenge as an artist to do well. Lee, for all his talent, isn’t a stranger to fighting and conflict on screen, and he certainly had fun mirroring many great films that have come before. Some of that is visual, but just as often with sound and score.

And, speaking of, this film had one of the most distracting film scores I’ve heard in a long time. The fact that I “heard” the score so loud and clear for the first third of the film is part of the problem. It was horribly distracting and not as well used as it was after that first act of the story.

Overall, Da 5 Bloods is a mixed bag of value. The main story is a McGuffin for the intent. That becomes relatively clear early on. But the film is also under-edited, creating a jarring experience that makes absorbing the real points harder to do. It feels like Lee was rushed on delivery rather than applying his typical, detailed care to all elements. It’s still worth seeing for the performances and the messages, but it isn’t exactly a fun ride despite some humor along the way.

Da 5 Bloods Poster

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

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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.

Judas and the Black Messiah Poster