Tag Archives: Historical

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.

Overlord

[3 stars]

If you were somehow lucky enough to miss all the ads and trailers for Overlord, stop now and just see the movie blind. Honestly, the studio really did the flick a disservice by telling you what it was about. Part of the fun of the film is watching it all getting revealed, and they took that from me in spades.

OK, from here out I’m assuming you’ve seen the trailers and the ads. You’ve been warned.

Sure this is nothing but an update to Resident Evil by way of Dunkirk, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. It is, in fact, fairly well done and full of good moments, surprises, and the kind of splatter that combination would suggest. There is also a real sense of a good war film here that goes, shall we say, quite sideways. It is well shot and really rather well acted by most of the leads.

Jovan Adepo (Fences) is our way into this band of brothers…and it is very much a bro film. But Adepo gives it both heart and sense of danger. From early on it is clear that no one is safe in this story and that registers clearly for him, and through him to us. The machines of war quickly begin to eat up the people we meet.

Alongside Adepo fight a mixed batch of characters that each bring different levels and layers to the story. Wyatt Russell (Ingrid Goes West) is the seasoned veteran there to run the mission. John Magaro (Carol) is the smart-mouth jackass who nevertheless proves his mettle. And Mathilde Ollivier, in an early film for her, gives them something to fight for and just a touch of badly needed estrogen in the film. In a smaller role, but fun to see, is Iain De Caestecker (Lost River, The Fades) who does a great accent and has a bit of fun.

Arrayed against this motley gang are the Axis. Only a single Nazi stands out worth mentioning in that bunch: Pilou Asbæk (Ghost in the Shell). While it is a somewhat scenery chewing depiction of a German officer, he manages to find some balance, though not any heart. He certainly finds the creepy, which was his purpose in the tale.

Julius Avery (Son of a Gun) delivers a very watchable, enjoyable, and surprising movie for his Sophomore outing. Sure it is of a particular genre, but he doesn’t treat it that way. He treats it like a film about war, people, and the horror of what it takes to win and survive. Part of that success was the script from an unlikely pairing of Billy Ray (Hunger Games) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant). Both writers have a wide range of styles, but of very different sensibilities. Playing off the real events of Operation Overlord gave the two a solid underpinning for the story and its drives that allowed their talents to mesh well.

This was originally rumored to be a Cloverfield universe film. It is, in fact, designed much like those movies…slowly unrolling layers that end with unexpected aspects. But it isn’t part of that franchise in any other way. I wish the studio had believed in the quality of the film and allowed it to surprise and gather an audience. I get that it would have been challenging given the genre mash-up. Folks going for a war film would have been pissed and those showing up for pure horror would have been confused and angry that it doesn’t really become that till more than halfway through. But the story is compelling, well-paced, and nicely delivered. Definitely worth the big screen if you like either mashups, splatter horror, or both. And Avery is definitely a director you’re going to be seeing again, regardless of how Overlord legs out or not at the box office.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Bohemian Rhapsody

[4 stars]

I want to be clear before I go any further: I had a great time with this movie. I grew up with Queen. I saw them in concert. I still must stop everything and sing along with a good part of their music. The audience I saw it with even broke into spontaneous applause at the end. Bohemian Rhapsody is a beautiful fantasy, a love-letter to Queen and, more specifically, Freddie Mercury.

And speaking of, Rami Malek’s (Mr Robot) Freddie Mercury is  a wonder to behold. He so captures the movements and look as to make you think you’re seeing the real thing. In fact, the casting generally was astounding in terms of matching people. Gwilym Lee (Isle of Dogs), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Joseph Mazzello (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) also did wonderful jobs matching the iconic group.

The casting continued into the supporting cast. Surrounding the band, Lucy Boynton (Sing Street), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Allen Leech (Bellevue), Aaron McCusker (Fortitude), and Tom Hollander (Tulip Fever) were all wonderful. Only Mike Myers felt out of place, simply because he was there as a nose-thumbing joke even if he did the part well.

But here’s the thing. Sure it was entertaining. Yes, the music is amazing, but it always was. The music was used brilliantly to support the story too. If you loved Queen going in, you are sure to love the movie. But it isn’t a good film, no matter how well it works.

Director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse) crammed it with cheap moments and huge assumptions about what you knew.  The narrative is confused and meandering. Writers Anthony McCarten (The Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (The Crown) made it difficult to follow the timeline and presented Queen’s rise and their artistic creation look absurdly simple. Like I said initially, a wonderful fantasy but hardly a honest biopic or look at the effort involved.

[If you think I’m being harsh, check out this much blunter and, frankly, not far off the mark commentary.]

There is a journey for Mercury in the final cut. It is sort of him finding and accepting himself (again, this ends up oversimplified and weirdly easy despite the ending). The final result is oddly triumphant amid the tragedy that was the end of Freddie’s life. Who would have thought you’d get a foot-tapping crowd-pleaser of a man dying of AIDS?

So, should you see this? If you love Queen’s music, absolutely. See it on the big screen. Get lost in the fantasy that you are given. Cheer the ending. Just don’t think you got the real or full story. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

The Happy Prince

[3  stars]

When Oscar Wilde died, he was buried beneath a monstrosity of neo-classical faux Egyptian frieze of his own design…that, of course, had an enormous phallus extending from the winged vision of himself like some kind of air rudder or, more likely, a final statement to the world for how they treated him. So the story goes, shortly after its unveiling an elderly woman came by and whacked the adornment off with her umbrella.

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the sense of that ongoing tale, told daily in Père Lachaise cemetery, is mirrored in this reflection of Wilde’s final years. A clash of ego and society, a sense of self versus a sense of decorum. Woven though the movie is the thread of Wilde’s own children’s tale, The Happy Prince, which metes out the lesson much more poignantly. It reminds us also what he gave to the world and what the world did to him.

Writer, director, and star Rupert Everett (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) wore many hats for this period production. He gives us a tired and ruined Wilde in the last couple years of life, but with a strong memory of what came before. It is an intriguing performance, though only sympathetic through the actions of others against him; Wilde is just not a very nice guy in almost any way in this portrayal, though he is deeply passionate. Everett’s directing is subtle and he navigates a very complex narrative to bring us to the end. Ultimately this is as much metaphor about artists and outsiders as it is about Wilde (the near ultimate of both).

Everett is helped along by a number of solid performances, by the likes of Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Emily Watson (Lear), and Tom Wilkinson (The Titan) to name a few. Joshua McGuire (Lovesick [nee Scrotal Recall]) has a particularly strong bit part to deliver too. However, it is Colin Morgan (The Living and the Dead), as Wilde’s long-time and volatile lover, Bosie (Lord Douglas), and Edwin Thomas as Wilde’s longtime friend that form the structure of the tale and its downward spiral with intense performances.

The Happy Prince isn’t a happy tale, to be sure. I can’t tell whether Everett liked or disliked Wilde, but he certainly tried to tackle him in one big gulp with this first feature script and first time directing. Unlike another recent artist biopic, Final Portrait, while we do get a glimpse inside the mature artist at the end of his days, we don’t quite get a sense of why he was the icon he had been; it is in this I think Everett missed, or perhaps made, his point. Honestly, either works but we’re more used to seeing Wilde as an outrageous and brilliant character than as a broken man. It isn’t that there aren’t moments of joy and glimpses of his glorious past, but simply that it is all through Wilde’s lens of loss with little triumph.

Ultimately, it isn’t a great film due to its pacing and slightly muddled resolution and focus. But it is a disturbing reflection of our current times and a hard look at the end of Wilde’s life without flinching. If you are intrigued by Wilde’s life, it is a look at this period in a rather different way than we’ve seen before in films like Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance or the more recent (and wonderful) Wilde. The performances are a study in quiet longing and devotion, even when unreciprocated. And the recreation of the era across several countries well executed. That may sound a bit clinical, but as I noted, Wilde, who dominates the story, isn’t particularly sympathetic, even if those around him are. It is a film you need to be in the mood or be warned that it may take you some dark places.

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.

First Man

[3 stars]

Let’s first talk about what director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) did right and well with First Man; I’ll get to the frustrations later. Unlike The Right Stuff, this is a story about real people, not demigods. It really tries to tell the story of a man in the middle of history without knowing he’s in the middle of it. And while the space race was undoubtedly a point of national pride, the level of jingoism, as compared to previous tellings, was much reduced and was in context rather than propaganda and the point of the story.

Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049) brings a humanity to Armstrong I’ve never seen. Perhaps a bit too much as I question his strength of mind for what he has to do, but nevertheless it made him more relateable. As his wife, Claire Foy (The Lady in the Van) is a balancing influence with some nice moments and layers to her as well.

Quite frankly, the rest of the cast, while all good, just don’t matter. This is Armstrong’s tale, and his family’s.

Pablo Schreiber (Den of Thieves), Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night), Ethan Embry (Grace and Frankie), Ciarán Hinds (Woman Walks Ahead), Jason Clarke (Winchester), Kyle Chandler (Game Night), Corey Stoll (The Seagull), Shea Whigham (Cop Car), Patrick Fugit (Gone Girl), Lukas Haas (The Revenant) get a mention here simply because it feels wrong not to acknowledge their efforts. Without them as backdrop, the Armstrong story couldn’t have been told.

Now, about that story…

Writer Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight) is clearly comfortable adapting stories both from books and from history. However, in this case what he delivered, and what Chazelle accepted, is part of what was so wrong with the film. Had it released a couple of years back, it probably wouldn’t have stood out so baldly. But, after Hidden Figures, how do you show NASA and this particular story without showing even one of the women, let alone black women, involved in the success? How do you only have housewives helping out by only “supporting their men?” How do you present the landing on the moon as the success of old white men only? It is a glaring and frustrating aspect, even if it was the perspective of the time.

Another choice of Chazelle’s caused some loud chatter, but that one didn’t bother me at all. I support not showing the planting of the flag, given the focus of the movie on people rather than countries; it was a story choice, not a political statement and you do see it in tableau. However, I didn’t find the most famous of the moments, that first step, all that triumphant. Perhaps because I knew it would happen. Perhaps because I remember watching it happen. But I think, really, it was because Chazelle lost the build-up and payoff in his structure and it whittered away rather than came home. Of course, the focus for being on the moon is shifted rather sharply for Armstrong. Very poignantly shifted, if the moments on the moon are to be believed. But if Chazelle didn’t want to focus on that iconic moment, he shouldn’t have focused on it for 20 minutes and then lost the tension.

Finally, from a film craft point of view, when the heck are directors going to understand that hand-held and large format movies don’t mix well. If you must use hand-held, do it sparingly. On IMAX it simply gets nauseating, throwing you out of the story. Chazelle used shakeycam all over the place. Some made sense, but a huge portion didn’t. I understand the use during the flights and tests, but we didn’t need the 8mm effect to have it feel like old home movies. There were specific moments he could have used it to emphasize Armstrong’s personal struggles, but because it was so overused, it lost all emotional value.

For only his third film, Chazelle continues to impress. This may not be the huge success that was hoped for, but he does show an ability to take on different types of stories and to continue to deliver interesting characters. I think, in this case, he needed to do more research and be more aware of the current times to tell the story well and fully. As it is, it is certainly impressive at moments and worth seeing overall, but the flaws are somewhat fatal for me in terms of ever needing to see it again (unlike his other films).

Colette

[3.5 stars]

Some films find their time, and Colette is certainly one of those. (If you want a bit more about its timing, read this.) As a story, ultimately, of female empowerment and personal freedom it is perfect for the political and social climate; it is also very well acted and executed.

Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty) in the title role is a wonderful blend of vulnerable power. She is a woman of her times, but with a mind and will to make her own way, at least eventually; social revolution is never a quick thing. What is fascinating is how the story resonates differently for people. Colette’s relationship with her husband, played by Dominic West (Tomb Raider) is challenging to watch. He loves her, but also takes advantage of her even if it is with her consent. My view of this history was a bit more malicious before I saw this portrayal. He is played, quite well, as a charismatic ass, but an ass nonetheless. West’s Willy (cause that is just fun to say) was a man who had a brand and what amounted to a factory for art under his name. Who knew “work for hire” went back that far?

Most of the film is the buildup to the inevitable resolution between Colette and Willy. But, in between, the relationship is a bit more hospitable and representative of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was a hotbed of art and social evolution. I also couldn’t help but hear echos of Big Eyes while watching, but the spousal dynamic is very different and more subtle in Colette–a dynamic that is sure to spur interesting debate between viewers.

In key roles around the couple, Denise Gough (Juliet, Naked), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Ordeal by Innocence) offer several perspectives on women in that time for Colette to consider. And Al Weaver (Grantchester) and Dickie Beau, in particular, provide some interesting performances and men for her life.

The film is very deliberate in its pacing, but gripping. Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) takes his time to establish Colette so we can watch her mature and explore and change. He also co-wrote it with his Still Alice collaborator Richard Glatzer with the assistance of Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience). Lenkiewicz helped rescue the film from some of the same pitfalls of Still Alice, which rushed to its end. However, the ending still didn’t quite nail the moment for me. It should have been an unmitigated triumph and was, instead, simply a solid moment. Westmoreland simply lost control of the pace to bring it off at full power for me.

This is a film worth seeing and, honestly, it is filmed for the big screen. It is lush and full of period detail. It may translate to a small screen for the story, but it will lose some of its scope and richness. It will also probably echo through awards season for the performances and production, so catch it early so you know why. And, while you’re at it, enjoy the story of independence and ability about a woman who is still one of the most celebrated European writer’s of all time.

Final Portrait

[3 stars]

The lives of the famous and artists fascinate us. Whether it is the fictional as in A Star is Born, or the mysterious such as Loving, Vincent, or the brainy like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, or any of the many biopics about Oscar Wilde, the movies keep getting made. Perhaps we watch because we want to understand fame. Or maybe genius. Whatever the impetus, their lives are often, to be honest, fascinating.

While the artist Alberto Giaocometti probably isn’t one of the names that would jump to most people’s minds as possible subject, this true tale documented by the portrait’s subject, James Lord, is full of humor along with insights as to the nature of artistic drive. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) brings the artist to life in a wonderfully funny and darkly intense portrayal that draws us in just as it did the world and Lord, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name). We watch Hammer’s Lord get pulled into Gioacometti’s spell, torn between having his portrait completed and frustration with a process he had no understanding of prior to agreeing to sit. Through the unexpected several week process Lord becomes our eyes into Giaocometti’s life, joys, thinking, and fears.

Around the two swarm Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel), and Sylvie Testud who each highlight different aspects of the household and the times. And each deals with the challenges differently. What keeps them in his orbit is all part of the story.

The insanely prolific actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) took on this adaptation of Lord’s book about the experience as one of his few writing and directing challenges. He’s only done a handful over the year; his first was the wonderful Big Night and you can see how that sensibility and love of character has matured. Tucci has a great eye and keeps the energy up, even during long silences, by making us invest in the portrait’s completion ourselves. Though more of a slice-of-life than a full story, it is a fun, funny, and fascinating 90 minutes, with wonderful performances worth seeing.

Midnight’s Children

[3 stars]

Salman Rushdie has an obsession with dualities, starting with, or at least most notably with, his infamous Satanic Verses. He loves pitting good against evil, rich against poor, strong against weak. His stories are also rarely to be taken at face value. Midnight’s Children is no exception. This fable, ostensibly about two boys born at the same time on the eve of India’s independence, is more about the history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh than it is the characters on the screen.

Narrated and written by Rushdie, the movie is a slightly fantastical tale told primarily in English. The story is fascinating, but a lot of the layers I’m sure were lost on me since it was all metaphor for the country, politics and culture. But even with the cultural gaps, it was a gripping story. It was certainly helped by Deepa Mehta, who has trod these themes before in her Water, Earth and Fire trilogy. She was a perfect director to take on the emotions and approach Rushdie intended.
This is an epic, so be prepared to strap in for 2.5 hours. But it is also done across three or four timeframes (depending on how you slice it) as the boys grow up and the country evolves. The time is necessary to set up and expose all of the issues. It is a rather light approach to the whole thing, by admission of the narrator and omission of the writer, but its points are unmistakable even if its punches are somewhat pulled.

Midnight