Tag Archives: Historical

Uncle Frank

[3.5 stars]

Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) tackles the-truth-in-the-quirky  like Aaron Sorkin tackles the-poetic-in-the-mundane. His string of shows and movies all focus on characters, and the beauty and tragedy of life. This outing, literally and figuratively, he tackles the late 1960s life in NYC and rural South Carolina. Two venues that couldn’t be more different then, or today.

But, as always with Ball, part of what makes his stories work is the incredible talent he gets to inhabit those characters. While the story is about Frank, the title clues you into the point of view, which is led by Sophia Lillis (I Am Not Okay With This) as Frank’s niece. Lillis, again, proves she is not only up to the task of a lead, but is capable of wonderful and subtle emotional range. Her family, including Frank played by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Endgame), all orbit around her axis.

Which isn’t to say they are minor or side characters, it is simply that she is the spine around which the whole tale depends. It is her story into which they feed. And it’s a story many will relate to, directly or indirectly. The family is filled out by the likes of Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes), Margot Martindale (The Hollars), Stephen Root (On the Basis of Sex), and Judy Greer (Halloween).

Completing the cast, in what is one of the most complicated and challenging roles, is Peter Macdissi (Towelhead). Bettany and Macdissi have an easy give and take amid the sturm and drang of their lives. But with little explanation, their history feels obvious and real. And their love for one another is equally palpable.

While this is a story of secrets, they aren’t secrets for the audience, generally. The big things are all obvious. It’s how Lillis’s Beth becomes awakened by them, how she grows and changes because of them, and how she learns to see and appreciate things for what they are rather than how she elevated them. In other words, it’s a tale of growing into adulthood and learning to accept yourself and those around you for who they are. It may be a bitter-sweet journey, but this isn’t a tragedy; it’s a heart-warming tale of struggle and triumph. And one I do highly recommend.

Uncle Frank Poster

What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

What the Constitution Means to Me Poster

Made in Dagenham

[3.5 stars]

OK, yeah, this is very much in the framework of Norma Rae, and full of the same kinds of evolution and moments. But not only is this depiction of female empowerment in 1968 Dagenham true, it brought about real and permanent change to both England and most of the industrialized world (other than the US who still doesn’t have an equal pay law over 50 years later). Not that Rae’s inspiration, Crystal Lee Sutton, didn’t have impact, but it was nothing like this.

Sally Hawkins (Godzilla: King of Monsters) leads the story as an unassuming wife who finds her voice and stands up for, as she puts it, basic rights. The cast is chock full of talent, but it all centers on Hawkins and Daniel Mays’ (The Limehouse Golem) family.

As you’d expect, the rest of the cast is dominated by some great female performers: Rosamund Pike (State of the Union), Geraldine James (Anne (Anne with an E)), Andrea Riseborough (Mandy), and Miranda Richardson (Good Omens) to name a few. However, Bob Hoskins (Hollywoodland) and Richard Schiff (Shock and Awe) are worth mentioning among the male cast, though far from the only good talent.

Dagenham is exactly what you want it to be, with a bit of British grit thrown in. Much like Military Wives or its similar tale in Pride, it allows some real-life to intrude into the retelling. But the bones of the story are true. The timing of my viewing is also actually quite relevant, with the election just days away.

Because it is formulaic, for good and ill, I can’t rate the movie higher as a movie. But director Nigel Cole (Doc Martin, Calendar Girls) gave us a reminder of not only what is possible but also what is still so very wrong; with the US in particular though I’m sure that wasn’t his intention. But it is an uplifting movie, all the more for its honesty and resolution. And it’s a flick you’ll finish with a feeling of empowerment and joy.

Made in Dagenham Poster

McQueen

[3.5 stars]

In his relatively short life, Alexander McQueen was a force in fashion that could not be ignored. Love him or hate him, he was a master of design and presentation, not to mention a conscious provocateur.

This docu traces his rise and impact through interviews and tons of archival footage. It is a highly personal view of events, with very little in the way of objective exploration. McQueen would probably agree with that approach, but it makes the film, for all its beauty and inventiveness in presentation, less informative and more a reflection on the man.

And McQueen is a fascinating and tragic character; a driven artist and a damaged man. More than anything, you are left with the impression that perhaps the inevitable tragedy was avoidable if anyone had challenged McQueen’s ability to control the room and provided intervention.

Ultimately, there isn’t much to glean about the man in the fashion world, other than his c.v. and footage of his shows, as there is about the man behind the curtain. If you are a fan or curious it is certainly worth it for that. The new footage is a visual feast, nicely balancing a lot of the lower-fi archival footage. But, frustratingly, it does lose its sense of time. Being more commentary than academic, it provides few year markers to help you place the action (unless, of course, you know his career so well you can place the year by the collection).

For a peek behind the curtain of both the industry and to see the unguarded moments of the man, this is a wonderful excursion. If you want to know more about McQueen’s explicit impacts and efforts, I’m afraid you’re on your own.

McQueen Poster

Lovecraft Country

[4 stars]

The origin of this series is the book of the same name by Matt Ruff. The book is a perfect match for our times all on its own, and predated the explosion of outcries that have swept the nation in a prescient coup when it was published back at the top of 2017. The book even predates Get Out. Like the HBO adaptation, it’s also episodic by design and full of adventure amid the message. And Jordan Peele (Us) is the perfect match for overseeing series that Misha Green has created. Much like Watchmen and Penny Dreadful: City of Angles, this is an entertaining commentary that is impossible to look away from and devastating to run through.

From the beginning the show separates its action from the book, but manages to retain the sense and direction of it entirely. It’s quite a feat of adaptation. There are reasonable arguments to be made that they tried to do too much, overloaded the metaphors with too many examples and storylines. But I enjoyed the additional layers; the arc of this series builds a house of cards through its 10 episodes that we get to asail in the finale. How it all plays out is completely open till the end which helps add to the suspense. And, of course, there is setup for what could be an even wilder ride for a season 2 (read more about that here after you’ve seen the current series). However, one of the impacts of the changes from the book is also a much less likeable cast of characters. None of them are wholly positive, and all of them are often prickly to the point of being nasty.

The story itself is a quietly complex and intense tale that slips in and out of the world we know and a world that only haunts nightmares. More impressively, it makes horror, well, feel more real. It isn’t about making you jump, it’s about making you metaphysically ill and uncomfortable while making the characters truly afraid. Despite the wild situations, they all feel very grounded in truth, be it real humans and their repugnant ways or ghosts and elder gods and their swinging tentacles and many eyes. Look, in particular, at the third episode, “Holy Ghost,” and consider these aspects.

Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Birds of Prey) are the primary focus pulling us along. Their relationship, and tension in that relationship, evolves over the stretch of the story and serves as the backboard against which so much else bounces.

Smollett-Bell is also just one of many powerful women in the story. She is joined by Aunjanue Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk), Wunmi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), and Abbey Lee (The Dark Tower) who serve as example and preachers to the plight of women and the taking of power. Even Courtney B. Vance (Project Power) and Michael Kenneth Williams (Motherless Brooklyn) take backseats to their storms.

There are too many amazing episodes to call out, though “I Am” certainly ranks up there requiring a special call out…if nothing else for its audacity given the mainstream audience target. In a good year of content creation, Lovecraft would have stood out as something special. In the year of the pandemic where new material is fairly restricted, it towers over most of the rest. Much like Watchmen’s sweep of awards last season, watch for Lovecraft to dominate nominations, if not also taking home many awards.

Lovecraft Country Poster

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