Tag Archives: Historical

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Lizzie

[2.5 stars]

The story of Lizzie Borden has been told (and retold) many times. It has fascinated audiences for over 100 years. That’s staying power. Finding something new to say about it isn’t easy. To be honest, I’m not sure Craig William Macneill’s sophomore outing with  first-timer Bryce Kass’s script manages to, but they give it a good try.

This newest story is told in a chronologically looping narrative to slowly uncover the proposed facts of the infamous killing. It concentrates first on the motives and emotions and then, finally, on the deed itself. It is a very slow burn and with only a modicum of tension. Where it tries to separate itself from previous tales is in the counterpoint of the cast.

Chloë Sevigny (Beatriz at Dinner) presents her Lizzie as an interestingly modern woman amid her more classically period fellow cast. It sets her apart in a subtle way. It isn’t quite enough to carry the movie, but it is a noticeable choice and difference.

Jamey Sheridan (Battle of the Sexes) and Finoa Shaw (Mrs. Wilson), as her parents and the fated victims, are fairly standard portrayals. They are solid, but nothing much new. And Denis O’Hare, as the n’ere-do-well Uncle is an interesting inclusion, but only again as backdrop. It is Kristen Stewart (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), as the young Irish maid and Sevigny’s counterpart, who is the largest variable in this retelling. Her performance is good, but not groundbreaking. And, ultimately, doesn’t fully develop.

If you were looking for something new in this story, you will find tidbits. But it is far from historically complete or insightful. It includes some facts but omits others. It avoids recorded aspects and invents some never really in evidence as it posits a potential scenario. For those hopelessly fascinated by the story, it is probably more interesting. But the movie never manages to rise above its retelling enough to become a platform for something more. And that is a shame. There is some good work in this film, but it isn’t a must-see on any level, except perhaps as a chance to see Macneill and Kass’s early steps in cinema.

Free Solo

[4 stars]

How many people spend 8 years waking up every morning thinking: I’d like to risk my life climbing that sheer rock face without a rope?Well, Alex Honnold did, planning and then executing a nearly inhuman feat. You end the journey with him feeling entirely inadequate…and also full of possibility.

Through phenomenal photography and honest story-telling, you spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat, riveted and tense. Frankly, it is both exhilarating and exhausting. But you leave with an appreciation of the skills needed to accomplish such a feat and the kind of mentality it takes to even consider it.

Of course the story may be centered on the scaling of El Capitan, but it is the “why” of it all that adds the emotional tension to the very real physical fear Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary manages to elicit. They layer the physical challenge with Honnold’s personal and emotional challenges in life. We never quite get a full picture of of him, past or present, but much is teased. We are left with an incomplete metaphor for Honnold’s efforts as they reflect in his life, but it adds to the moment the entire film is focused on. Had this just been about the climb on the final day, it may have been pretty and intriguing, but it would have revealed nothing about the man, the sport, nor, to be a bit broad, the human condition.

It is clear that it takes a particular kind of mindset and approach to life to free solo at the level Honnold and his colleagues do. The film doesn’t exactly celebrate nor judge that mindset, but it definitely attempts to present it with genuine affection and wonder. It is beautifully and amazingly filmed. Without distracting from the story, the documentary even becomes part of the story itself. And, yes, it is most definitely worth your time. It definitely earned its Oscar.

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.

Grantchester (Series 4)

[3.5 stars]

The first three series of this entertaining mystery show twisted emotionally around the heartache and confusions of the vicar of the titular town, James Norton’s (Flatliners) Sidney. Series four goes about remaking the show with a fascinating transition. And much like the recent Father Brown sequence, it is also bringing in more of the current world in reflection.

What hasn’t changed is the mysteries solved by teaming up with Robson Green’s (Being Human) Geordie. They are often violent, socially reflective, and interestingly twisted at times as they squeeze through a constabulary that wants things to be easy, even when they rarely are. But we also get some interesting side plots as threaded arcs through the series. While the lives of the others in the vicarage were always part of the tales, these are more pointed and very separate. Kacey Ainsworth finally gets a bit more of a life outside Geordie’s and Tessa Peake-Jones gets to settle into the marriage from the previous series while retaining her connection running the household. And Al Weaver (Colette) expands on his delicate and tragic course.

New additions are the main engines for the changes that take place. Most notably, Tom Brittney (Humans) who brings an equally committed and conflicted sense of religion and life to the show. In many ways his energy is much more welcome as it is more vibrant and less maudlin than Sidney’s character.

The series itself has a very complicated but controlled arc over its six episodes. Watching it all being torn apart and put back together, while getting some good stories to carry it along, is really quite entertaining. If you haven’t found Grantchester yet, start at the beginning as otherwise much of this latest series will be lost on you. If you have been enjoying it up till now, be assured the story continues to grow and satisfy, even as all the characters are forced through reckonings and realizations.

The Front Runner

[3 stars]

I want to start with what is good with this story because, honestly, it is a film worth seeing even if it doesn’t accomplish what I’d have liked.

At the top of the positive aspects of the film is Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman) who delivers a solid performance as the idealistic Gary Hart. Vera Farmiga (Boundaries), as his wife, also tackles the challenge of her situation with a decidedly adult demeanor. The rest of the cast is solid, but none pop. Even J.K. Simmons (The Snowman), who normally stands out amid a crowd, just isn’t enough of a focus to make him memorable. This is mostly because the story is very focused on Hart and his family. The resulting story is neither a whitewash nor a vilification of Hart, Rice, or even most of the journos involved. Jason Reitman’s (Tully) direction keeps the story honest (even if the script misses the mark by a wide margin on making it’s point).

So let’s talk about what the movie missed. This moment in history was a seminal moment in politics and journalism, one from which we’ve never recovered. But the impact of that is never really achieved on screen. Recently, Vice laid out another aspect of the dismantling of objective journalism and the ending of the Fairness Doctrine. But it was only one aspect of the changes that have occurred. The story of Gary Hart is the other.

Front Runner never establishes what things were like before the moment the Miami Herald made Donna Rice a household name. There are brief conversations, but no real sense of the indelible change and the impact that has brought us to today. A day when there is absolutely no privacy and journalism, real journalism, is a dying skill…a skill who’s value is not even understood by a large portion of the public it used to serve. Worse, the highest offices in the land seem fit to claim open, honest, balanced journalism is “an enemy of the people.” Well, this is how it all really started. But without a clear touchstone for what it had been, it simply becomes a story we watch rather than comprehend.

With a well-documented serial philanderer in the White House, and blatant racists serving in Congress and state houses, it is easy to forget that politicians not only used to be held to a higher standard when confronted, but that any information on their private lives was not even considered germane only 35 years ago. Everything changed with the journalistic and self-destruction of Gary Hart.

Unfortunately, this movie didn’t quite capture that aspect. While there is still real investigative reporting out there, the larger group of news, print, and online are chasing entertainment or simply printing what they need to get eyeballs, regardless of the rigor behind the story or the veracity. And by doing so, they’ve often become the unwitting weapons of those they are trying to expose. And many readers have lost the ability to take in the information critically to pull apart fact from conjecture and opinion. They’d rather take their news in unverified tweets. In other words, the Fifth Estate is under siege from both within and without.

Think this is all hyperbole? Consider that just last week (blog time) Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion suggesting that libel law protections for journalists and their papers put in place by New York Time vs Solomon should be overturned.

OK, rant over. As a movie Front Runner is definitely worth seeing. You may want to dig a bit more into the information to understand the context. This isn’t The Post, it is really more about the man than the implications. That was a legitimate choice, but not the more important one in my opinion.

The Bookshop

[3.5 stars]

One of the things I love most about independent British cinema is that even when they are following formulas, they never quite get there as you expect. And with The Bookshop, well, it isn’t even the formula you think it is…not entirely. While it is a romance, it is also a look at small town politics, reputation, privilege, and personal values. And, yes, books.

There are many tropes in Isabel Coixet’s (Learning to Drive) adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. Each trope is loaded with expectations and given just enough rope to make it complete through her careful direction. How each resolves, or might resolve, is part of the journey. And the journey certainly intrigued a number of festivals and awards juries.

Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) drives the story with an odd but powerful presence. She never quite fully gels for me, but is still compelling. Bill Nighy (Ordeal by Innocence), Patricia Clarkson (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), James Lance (The Look of Love), and even the young Honor Kneafsey (Crooked House) are also all equally gripping but somehow not quite real. Since the entire film is framed with a forced narration, turning it into a story on its own, that seems about right, if a little unexpected in feeling.

Whatever you think this movie is going in, or even while watching it for that matter, just let it take you where it wants. It is a journey worth taking though it may not be quite the journey you expected or even quite at the level of believability in tone as you’d like. It works, and it is full of wonderful moments and prompts for your own, personal consideration, just like the good book it aspires to be.

At Eternity’s Gate

[3 stars]

Willem Dafoe (Aquaman) gives one of his most quiet, contained and intense performances as Vincent Van Gogh in this odd biopic. The story, as it is presented, is odd not for its subject, but for its style, but let me come back to that.

Dafoe is the lynchpin in this biopic. While there are other performances that help him along, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) as his brother, and Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) and Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) as confessors, only Dafoe really drives this story. Given that is through the eyes of a deeply disturbed and unsteady artist, that is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your experience of the story.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) has a thing for artists. He is driven to explain and capture the fine line between genius and madness. For a lot of this film we are forced to view the world through a shaky-cam or with split focus to achieve at least part of that goal. It is disorienting and alienating and, frankly, far too obvious. Given Dafoe’s performance, he should have trusted the actors and audience more to understand. The camera tricks were off-putting and, at times for me, unwatchable. Had he used the approach only for a few crisis moments in the film I could have understood and handled it better, but it is better than three-quarters of the film which was already 20-30 minutes longer than necessary.

What is even more disappointing than the camera choices is that we really don’t learn a lot about Vincent’s life. We see events, but never really get to understand them. Vincent clearly does and makes many decisions due to them, so we’re not even emulating his thinking process. The script simply jumps about to various points in his life and assumes we either know the background or can guess it. As a first script for Louise Kugelberg, I can understand that gap, but because Schnabel co-wrote, along with the massively prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière (The Patience Stone), I was a little surprised by the result.

For Dafoe’s performance, and some of the inner life of the creative process the film portrays, this is a fascinating film. If you want to learn more about Van Gogh’s life, and mysteries surrounding it, even the recent Loving Vincent will provide more. And, perhaps, I am being unfair to Schanbel’s intentions with this story, but that is in part because the story does try to answer some questions, but never really does full enough. Clearly that was part of the intent as there are black-screen monologues and text explanations to try and fulfill that purpose. Had the film makers focused solely on Vincent’s inner life and process, it may have felt more complete. As it is, we get some interesting ideas and a fabulous performance to appreciate, but not much else.

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.