Tag Archives: Historical

Cursed in Arcadia Ego

[4 stars (Tales of Arcadia) or 2.25 stars (Cursed)]

Two very different Netflix shows currently tackle the Arthurian myth. And, surprisingly, the children’s show does it better and more interestingly. Arthur is rich in myth and history with enough room in it to allow for many types of retellings. And these two shows couldn’t have done it more differently nor with such different levels of success.

Tales of Aradia was created by Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), based on his co-written books. It’s an interconnected collection of series that began with Trollhunters. Then came 3Below, followed by the most recent: Wizards. But the threads that lead to Wizards begin in the first episode of Trollhunters. And, yes, these are really aimed at older kids and young teens, without question, particularly the first couple series. However, I jumped into Wizards without watching the others and it hooked me. It was inventive with the myth, stretching it like crazy, but not breaking it in a way that felt wrong. And while it was clear I didn’t know the backstories of a lot of characters, I was never entirely lost; a credit to the writing of the show.

When I went back to the beginning of the inter-connected series, I was surprised to find references to events I’d just witnessed, and which would have gone unanswered for viewers for three years. In other words, I don’t think it matters which end of the time stream you start, it all comes together in fun ways.

The show is loaded with voice talent, and won several Emmys as well. Most notably in the cast is Anton Yelchin (Thoroughbreds), who began as the lead, and stayed with it through his untimely death near the beginning of season 3. And then the series made some great choices to both continue, and to not dismiss his loss when they changed the character voice to Emile Hirsch (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood).

When you’re looking for some distraction, some fairly solid animation, and a clever tale, this set of shows will work for you. And, more importantly, they don’t insult your sense of the underlying material they plundered to create their world.

Now, on to Cursed

Where to start with where this series went wrong… How about the desire to rewrite the Arthurian tale rather than just do a true prequel? How about mucking up Roman/Britannia history so badly as to be embarrassing? How about having people make stupid choices and dialogue that was utterly painful at times? How about an unrelenting dirge of a tale with barely a respite? Well, it’s a start.

I will admit I soldiered on through to the end of this story, though I almost completely bailed about half-way through the second episode. It was close and I did turn it off at that point. But I came back to see if they could rescue it. They sort of did. Sort of. But I was still let cursing (appropriately) at my screen in the final 15 minutes of the series.

Aspects of the reimagining are clever…but they’re also contradictory in their set-up, implying it is way before Arthur’s time, when in fact is is contemporaneous with it. That just threw it all into disarray at the outset. And then there is the religious war aspect, which was half-true, though massively shifted time-wise to feed their hungry beast of a plot.

The cast does what it can with the painful scripts and choices, but they are left hanging on the screen, more often than not, looking less than comfortable with the results. Katherine Langford (Knives Out) and Devon Terrell (Ophelia) bumble around the countryside having to deliver mouthfuls of bad dialogue, and strained protestations of affection. And Gustaf Skarsgård (Vikings) has created an outrageous Merlin, that tries to resurrect Nicol Williamson’s unforgettable turn in Excalibur. And then there’s the sadly miscast Sebastian Armesto (Tulip Fever) as Uther Pendragon, whose been shrunk to a fool and wisp of a man. And that doesn’t even touch the psychotic nun, Emily Coates, who does OK, but who we never get enough about to understand what drives her. At least the young Billy Jenkins (Humans) gives us a full character, even without all the backstory.

Honestly, if we’re looking for strong, female-led tales of the time, and Arthur in particular, can’t we just finally adapt Mists of Avalon or Parke Godwin’s Firelord series? The characters are way more interesting, and the story much more credible and fascinating (and closer to true history and embraced myth).

The point is that if you’re going to do a re-imagining, do it with a purpose, not just changing things for shock value or convenience to muck with people’s expectations. Ultimately, that’s all Cursed does as it slogs through its torturous existence, and without even the courage to finish the story.

Wait for Your Laugh

[4 stars]

Rose Marie was a fixture in comedy for close to 90 years in the industry. She was one of the original megastars of vaudeville and radio, and transitioned to TV and film without missing a beat. But that’s what she accomplished, not who she was. She was also a fascinating character with a life you couldn’t invent and be believed.

This documentary by Jason Wise and partner Christina Wise is funny, well-paced, and a great overview of the entertainment industry as it evolved. And for those that only grew up knowing Rose Marie as the sharp-tongued, gravelly voiced actor from Hollywood Squares, it will probably be revelatory.

But beyond the factual, this is also a wonderful tale of love, endurance, and persistence. It’s a reminder that life is constant change and effort…but doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it along the way. When you need a break from all the craziness, this is a wonderful distraction.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

Charlotte Gray

[3 stars]

This is a fairly standard, though gorgeously filmed, WWII espionage/love story, with few surprises. What makes it worth seeing is Cate Blanchett (Where’d You Go Bernadette). The 2001 season was a good one for Blanchett. The month prior, she’d wow’d audiences with her Galadriel, which would permanently set the tone of her screen presence.  When she steps on screen, regardless of character, she dominates; confident, radiant, terrifyingly in control. But in Charlotte Gray, she starts, uncharacteristically, weak and grows into her role without ever quite becoming that pillar of power. It’s almost like watching the growth of Blanchett as she matured into a star.

The rest of the cast is quite the list as well. With Billy Crudup (After the Wedding), Michael Gambon (Sylvia), Rupert Penry-Jones (Whitechapel), and Anton Lesser (Endeavour) driving the main plot with Blanchett, and a slew of others around them, the movie is packed with talent. These are all great reasons to spend time in Vichy France. In fact, given our current world politics, it’s a good time to be reminded why that form of collaboration and conciliatory/accommodating  attitude can be so destructive.

Director Gillian Armstrong (Little Women (1994)) managed the story well. She certainly helped guide her actors through complex challenges without ever quite having them tip over into melodrama. But she couldn’t quite escape the obvious. Even if there were moments of surprise, they were almost all tipped or inevitable. Really, her triumph in this is the evolution of Blanchett’s character. For that it is worth your time.

Charlotte Gray Poster

Becoming Jane

[3.5 stars]

As his follow-up to Kinky Boots, Julian Jerrold produced this bit of snarky reflection on Jane Austin’s early days. He was also immensely helped by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams’s clever adaptation of Austin’s life to show us the budding 16-year-old author and the events that launched her into history. The pair both managed to both mirror her works and riff on the known history.

The flick is led wonderfully by Anne Hathaway (Serenity) and James McAvoy (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) in the Austin and Lefroy roles (actual age of the actors aside). Lefroy truly existed, and there is evidence of their deep affection and end to their story, though the script does take liberties in order to give more power to Austin. The change is forgivable given the purpose and the difficulty in doing a comedy of manners from the late 1700’s in modern times.

The duo are supported by a great cast as well. With Maggie Smith (Sherlock Gnomes), Julie Walters (Wild Rose), James Cromwell (Dante’s Inferno), and, in a small but pivotal role and his final performance, the late, great Ian Richardson pitches in as well.

And then there were other emerging talents such as Anna Maxwell Martin (The Bletchley Circle), Lucy Cohu (Summer of Rockets), and Laurence Fox (Inspector Lewis). Each provided a foil for Hathaway and deepened the tale.

Now, all this effusive outpouring aside, it is still, at its heart Austin. Not my favorite. I loved the verbal banter between Hathaway and McAvoy, which they delivered well. They also made a credible couple. They even managed to agonize in ways that helped make the challenge of the times (romantic attachment vs. duty to family/semi-arranged marriage) at least clearer, if not entirely palpable. But the base issues just never quite grab me as I just find it all so frustrating, even if accurate to the period. This came close to helping me settle into the realities a bit more and feel the story, but there is still a good deal of assumption about what the audience already understood and accepted. But adding to the positives, it is also sumptuously filmed.

If you like Austin, you’ve probably already seen this, so I don’t need to tell you. If you are roped into seeing it, as I was, it honestly isn’t all that bad. It will never make my top 10 movie list, but it might easily make my top 3 Austin/period piece list. So, that’s something.

Becoming Jane

Umbrella Academy (series 2)

[4 stars]

After a hell of a cliffhanger at the end of their first series, Umbrella Academy kicked off their second series with a great reset and kickoff. The first 5 minutes sets up a whole new set of challenges that will take the supercharged siblings the full 10 episodes to unravel. Getting there is full of action, mystery, humor, new questions, and unexpected answers. And, best of all, this series is even better than the first.

The story is much more complex than the simple, and somewhat obvious, big mystery of the first round. Much of the story is driven wonderfully by Aidan Gallagher’s (Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn) Five and Ritu Arya’s (Humans) Lila. Though it should also be noted that they are counter-balanced by Kate Walsh’s (13 Reasons Why) somewhat over-the-top and forced Handler. She’s intended to be that way, but a little more restraint, particularly at the end, would have gone a long way and would have had me rating this second go-round higher.

But it isn’t just the plotting and quipping and action that drive this second offering, it also the meat of it. The series digs into social and other issues without blinking. It isn’t concentrated there, so I can’t say they manage to truly explore them, but there are unforgettable moments throughout. The series will sweep you along and then go into warp speed for the final few episodes.

It should also be noted that the show is one of the most visually inventive and best scored series out there right now. Even each of the opening credits are a little gift to the audience, and the music fairly rocked.

In the end, we’re left with new questions and possibilities. My biggest complaint? We’re going to have to wait a long while for the next round thanks to the pandemic. But that will just give me time to rewatch the entire series while we twiddle our thumbs.

The Umbrella Academy Poster

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

[3 stars]

I really, really wanted to like this more than I did, but I’m not sorry I spent the time with it. Billed as the “Historic farewell performance of the King of Glitterock” it was anything but. However, it was the retirement of Bowie’s Ziggy character from the touring stage. The concert isn’t filmed particularly well, though the sound isn’t bad. And it isn’t even the complete show. However, it is as curious for what songs are included as which aren’t, given this was in 1973 a few months after the release of Aladdin Sane. For example, we do get Watch That Man, but not The Jean Genie. Go figure.

What is interesting is seeing Bowie prepare and perform when he was still somewhat raw. His control of the audience was still developing. And his cult of personality had just begun to grow, though he certainly had some chops for this tour.

Generally, this isn’t going to be of interest to anyone who isn’t a huge fan and who many not have been old enough to see him live way back when. This isn’t on the scale of Glass Spider or even with the simplistic polish of his Sound and Vision tour, but there is a raw rock’n’roller joy and energy and it’s filmed very much in the style of the era (and with suitably grainy stock thanks to the low light).

There are plenty of docus about Bowie that include archival footage and put it in context, if you want to see more performances and his evolutions. Five Years is one of the best, if you’re looking particularly to learn about his genesis. So this one is up to you. Concert films are rarely brilliant (Stop Making Sense aside) but they are rare moments in time to be enjoyed if you enjoy the artist.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Poster

Radioactive

[3 stars]

What saves this oddly structured biopic from falling apart, like The Current War did, is the sheer will and power of Rosamund Pike (A Private War) and Sam Riley (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil). Their performances, particularly Pike’s, are endlessly fun to watch and feel raw and honest rather than forced. This is no small feat as Marie was driven and blunt; but Pike finds all the layers of that drive, making her focus only an aspect of her character and depicting this strong woman as a whole person. Too often historical women are shown in wildly different moments just to bring out their “womanhood” in order to appease the audience. Not so here…Pike is a complete person all along; abrasive at times, but in a way that feels like there’s someone real underneath it rather than just a mask or a different human each time we see her in different situations, for instance: family vs. work.

There are also a couple of nice, smaller performances. Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.), Simon Russell Beale (The Death of Stalin), and Katherine Parkinson (Humans) are the ones to note. And I will add that Riley is practically unrecognizable in his role of Pierre Curie, whom he imbues with a fierce intelligence and a complicated approach to the mores of the time.

Admittedly, depicting the lives of complex people is always a challenge. Just look at the recent biopics of Freddy Mercury and Elton John. Both movies were by the same director, but each had utterly different approaches in an attempt to capture the men and their impact. Jack Thorne’s (Wonder) script of Marie Curie’s life, in its attempt to do the same, is both fascinating and baffling. Fortunately it was smoothly tackled by Marjane Satrapi (The Voices), who is adept at slipping back and forth between wildly different aspects of a tale when she directs.

The challenge with the story is that it attempts to show the long-term impact Curie’s discoveries had. Since some of the most impactful applications and issues didn’t even begin to become common till 20 years after her death, it presented a problem. The solution Thorne and Satrapi settled on was to intercut future scenes with the contemporary.

This had two effects. First, it forced commentary around the Curie’s efforts that wasn’t there at the time and blurs the their truth. And, second, it creates an odd fantasy during the end of M. Curie’s final moments that felt wrong to me. In other words we’re forced to see her life through historical eyes and lose a good deal of the contextual reality.

But despite any issues these choices caused, the performances of the two leads is truly wonderful and worth the time to see the film. Also, while some of the Curies’ life is taught to children, a lot of it is missed in school. The family is truly extraordinary, and the story they were a part of is both inspirational and horrifying.

Radioactive Poster

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

[3 stars]

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed that this movie still works after almost 40 years. Its points still hold and its humor is still on point. Not bad for Lou Adler’s (Up in Smoke) only second directing gig. And it has some fairly good music performances in it as well.

But, message and amusement aside, it is the cast that wows you. Not because they deliver such great performances…they’re reasonable. But the main cast are young stars that were all near the beginning of their careers. Diane Lane (Serenity) is the front person for the Stains; a young woman with an axe to grind and a desire to succeed. She’s joined by Laura Dern (Marriage Story) and one of Marin Kanter’s few performances. And then there are early appearances of Christine Lahti (Operator) and Ray Winstone (Point Break) as well.

This isn’t a great movie, but it is surprisingly effective for all its lo-fi, indie feel. It captures a small sense of the era, and takes some wicked swipes at the music industry. When you have time and want to spelunk the early 80s and the Punk/New Wave movement in a light way, it is a fun and entertaining view.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains Poster

Emma. (2020)

[3 stars]

Eleanor Catton (The Luminaries) wrote a wonderful adaptation of Austen’s famous novel, which Autumn de Wilde directed flawlessly in her first feature outing. If you like Austen, you’re sure to love the result. If you like Austen. I’m fairly certain I’ve expressed my frustration with her work in the past. It isn’t a flat-out dismissal, but my bar is high for success.

I will say that I very much enjoyed the second half of this film. The first half was a rather tedious setup for the remainder. Not that there weren’t funny moment as we learned the characters. Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass) proves again what a range and depth she has as an actor as she dominates her house and neighbors. She is surrounded by many women of talent. Amber Anderson (Strike) and Taylor-Joy even perform their own music for the camera. Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) is completely sympathetic as the simpering and sad-but-dedicated pawn who is the secondary thread that ties it all together. And Gemma Whelan (The End of the F***ing World) and Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) add some wonderful color to the world. As the quietly (mostly) ineffective head of household, Bill Nighy (Pokémon Detective Pikachu), of course, is hilarious throughout.

And then there were the suitors. Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country) and Johnny Flynn (Lovesick/Scrotal Recall) were wonderfully odd and oddly human, and the standouts. Flynn, in particular, bringing Knightley to life in a heart-warming way.

My personal tastes aside, I do want to acknowledge that, for a first feature for both Catton and de Wilde, the result is amazing. I’d certainly look for more of de Wilde’s work. Catton I’d be more reticent about. I tried The Luminaries and was bored out of my skull. Like the first half of this movie, it moved very slowly with little to chew on that wasn’t obvious or kept my interest. I appreciate period dramas that retrain their sensibilities, but I do also demand to be intrigued and entertained in a way my contemporary brain expects to some degree. Otherwise what you have is a museum piece, not a show.

So, again, if you like Austen, you’ve found a perfect piece for your dietary needs. If you’re not a fan, and have some patience, this does pay off during the downslope side of the tale. It is certainly a gorgeous production from a cinematography and costume point of view as well.

Emma. Poster