Tag Archives: Historical

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland

 

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

[3stars]

Annette Bening (20th Century Women) does a wonderful job of recreating Gloria Grahame with a sort of Marilyn Monroe at the Grand Hotel vibe. Grahame had a tragically fascinating life, full of huge successes and personal regrets. But the film never feels like a biopic. Writer Matt Greenhalgh (Nowhere BoyThe Look of Love) didn’t fall prey to assuming we already knew Grahame and were invested in her. He brings us to her just as Jamie Bell (Fantastic Four) and his family, Dame Julie Walters (Brooklyn) and Kenneth Cranham (Bancroft), come to and become attached to her.

Director Paul McGuigan (Victor Frankenstein) also navigated the complicated plot and characters with confidence. He doesn’t make excuses for the characters, but allows them to be honest as he unpacks the truths over the course of the story.

I didn’t know about Grahame going in. In fact, I didn’t even realize the film was biographical till the end. It is simply an interesting story told and acted well. Benning, in particular, brings her A game to a very layered, and at times desperate, woman. This film would also make a great double-feature with Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.

Film Stars Don

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

[4 stars]

Bombshell is well named and well punned by first time writer/director Alexandra Dean. She brings us a wonderful examination of one of the best known faces of the 20th Century: Hedy Lamarr. It is all the more poignant is that this arrives in an atmosphere of the #metoo movement and the rising concerns of the potentially eroding position women hold in society.

What Dean makes immediately clear is that while Lamarr’s face was known, and maybe some of her life, who she really was remained ignored till recently. Through interviews with family, friends, and industry colleagues, as well as extensive recorded interviews and footage, we get a sense of the astonishing person behind the tabloid history that dominated her legacy. Which isn’t to say her life wasn’t tumultuous, but it was also full of invention…literally.

Take 90 minutes to learn about Lamarr and how she has shaped your life in ways you have never known. And, while you’re at it, gain an appreciation for both the horror of the studio system and the implicit bias that still pervades the world.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

The Death of Stalin

[3 stars]

So what do you get when you have an unchecked leader running a country with only sycophants at his side? No, not that, I’m speaking of Russia in 1953. Though the parallels are utterly intended and the implications somewhat overwhelm the humor at times. But when Armando Iannucci, the co-writer and director of In the Loop and Veep, decided to tackle the Russian oligarchy for his second film, you rightly expect dry, wry. and bleakest black humor. If you didn’t, you probably have gone to the wrong movie.

Here’s the thing, this is not my favorite kind of humor. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I found it painful at times, and quite silly at others. It has a Monty Python-esque meets Chekov quality, and not just because Michael Palin (Remember Me, Absolutely Anything) is in it as Molokov (yes, that Molokov). That it also manages to cleave close to historical fact at the same time is a credit to Iannucci and his gang. But the movie doesn’t flow in a way that feels entirely right for my tastes. He does, however, know how to cast for his needs.

The actors are all top-notch comediens, from Steve Buscemi (Electric Dreams), to Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant), to Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown), even to the stoic and surprising Olga Kurylenko (The Water Diviner). Andrea Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes) and Rupert Friend (Hitman: Agent 47) have their own little storyline to run out and Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness) comes in hard and fast to steal a good part of the last of the film. But it is Paddy Considine (The Girl With All the Gifts) and Tom Brooke (Preacher) who launch us into the world and set the tone perfectly and who manage to bring it all back together, in its way.

Iannucci has given us a cautionary comedy; a well-done satire. For the right audience it will entertain completely. For others it will cause an uncomfortable frisson. And for yet others, it will simply stoke the frustration and anger they are currently feeling with the world. So go in knowing what kind of film you might be seeing and decide if it is for you.

The Death of Stalin

The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

[3 stars]

Picture it: 1971 Switzerland. Rolling farmland. Mountains. And women still without the right to vote. Yes, seriously. This film chronicles the weeks leading up to the 1971 referendum that reversed that absurdity (though it would be another 10 years before it was added to the constitution).

What is weirder is watching the story and seeing the world that so many in power today pine for.  It is a village locked in the 40s and 50s in look and 1800s in mentality. For all that, it is full of humor and entertainment. It isn’t a belly laugh kind of film, well not often, but it balances the darker side of the reality with the lighter side. There is a particularly wonderful scene with Sofia Helin (The Bridge) on that front.

Unlike other “rights” movies, like the wonderful Pride, there is never a huge moment of triumph, despite the wins. Writer/director Petra Volpe instead gives us a series of small victories and a sense that the efforts have to always be going on to maintain and protect those rights. Sound familiar?

Definitely a timely and interesting film to see against the backdrop of today. It is well acted and emotionally satisfying, capturing the culture and the history in unexpected ways. Oh, and it was well recognized on the festival circuit as well.  Make time for this movie for both inspiration and entertainment.

The Divine Order

Some more mysteries

A few short write-ups on some new mystery series coming our way.

Bancroft is one of the darker origin tales to come out of the BBC. A four-part tale following the exposure of a 27 year old cold case, and the damage it can still imbue. Staring Sarah Parish (Atlantis) and Faye Marsay (Game of Thrones), both women climbing in the British police force and playing an increasingly dangerous game of politics. It is a very British series and will not be to the taste of everyone, but it is also a good setup for the next sequence. If you need a touchstone, think Line of Duty meets Prime Suspect.

The Miniaturist is faithful to the book, which is both its strength and weakness. A conundrum to be sure. The story is a compelling historical drama and romance in 17th Century Holland, well-led by Anya Joy-Taylor (Split). But the central conceit of the story and title are incidental to the plot itself. You could rip out the entire aspect of the miniaturist herself and nothing in the story would have to change. The book is the same way. It reads like it was originally a different story, but that the author got caught up with other aspects, but never removed the original concept. Either way, it is worth the time to see and/or read.

Shakespeare & Hathaway is of a very different cloth than the previous two. It is mostly a light comedy detective series in Stratford-upon-Avon. But while it has a great deal of fun with Shakespeare’s plays (which isn’t necessary to understand, but lots of fun if you listen carefully) it ranges into some rather dark mysteries and motives. To give you a sense of their whimsy amid the blood, Amber Aga (Abstentia) plays DI Christine Marlowe. To borrow a phrase from the Bard’s time, it is neither fish nor flesh nor fowl but something a bit wonderfully weird and entertaining. The stories are led by veterans Mark Benton and Jo Joyner along with capable and relative newcomer Patrick Walshe McBride. When you are looking  for something that is somewhere between Father Brown and Midsomer Murders or The Coroner this will really fit the bill with some laughs and even some surprises. 

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

They say you should never look in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant…and in some ways that applies to your favorite stories as well. There is practically no child that hasn’t grown up knowing Winnie the Pooh. There is a magic to that silly old bear. But, having grown up, you do need to ask yourself if you want to know what the truth, real story, and inspiration were behind the wondrous Hundred Acre Wood. As several of the biographies of the last decade or so highlight, the life of the Milnes wasn’t storybook by any stretch.

But writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (Revengers Tragedy) and first-timer Simon Vaughan did a good job of distilling Robin’s story even while telling it primarily from his father’s point of view. That approach allowed them to navigate all aspects of the family, though the intent of the focus is on Robin’s experience. The tale is very layered and complex, often in subtle ways. It tackles class, war, parenthood, child rearing, love, show business in various forms, art, and the creative process, not just the specific genesis of Pooh and his friends. Probably not the story you imagine.

Will Tilston, in his first major role as Christopher Robin, was a brilliant bit of casting. While his acting may not be quite as polished as the rest of the cast, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) elicited a great performance that struck just the right tone for his challenged childhood. Alex Lawther (The End of the F**ing World) then takes that setup as the older Robin and pays it off rather well.

But while the story is about Christopher, it is primarily told from the adult point of view. Domhnall Gleeson (mother!) delivers a powerful and sympathetic performance as A.A. Milne. Like many men (for instance Tolkien) returning from WWI, he struggled in near silence to recover. How that affected his writing is a critical part of the history. As his mother, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) walks a very odd path of love and motherhood that is particular to that era and at that strata. There is love there, but of a particular kind. It is Kelly Macdonald (T2: Trainspotting) that Robin recognizes as the main source of intimacy in his life, and Macdonald provides a good target for it. It isn’t a new type of performance for her, but rather a comfortable and recognizable character delivered with expertise.

A side-effect of the scope of the story is that the movie is a little challenging to follow emotionally. The focus is split between the generations. That isn’t ultimately a bad thing, but it dilutes the result through much of the film, even as it pays it all off by the end. Also, it wasn’t helped by the aging make-up toward the end of the movie which really fails and broke the reality of the moments for me.

I started this write-up with a warning, which I’ll reiterate. If you want to keep the pure magic of the stories you know, you don’t want to see this film. The film has its own magic and, certainly, respects the phenomena that is the stories that are quickly approaching their first century in print. But it also exposes the reality of a difficult childhood and fumbled parenting. On a pure movie level, the acting and directing are solid, however, so I certainly recommend it if you aren’t worried about seeing how the meal was made.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Frankie Drake Mysteries

[3 stars]

I was originally going to just let this show slide by uncommented upon. It was the Canadian answer to Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, but without the writing and acting. In other words, diverting enough to watch, but nothing to recommend or run from. Well, I almost ran from it…the hour-long comedy/drama was a lot of time for little return. But then something interesting happened. About halfway through the inaugural season they went on a typical hiatus, and when they returned the writing had massively improved. The mysteries got better, the characters started to add depth, and the acting got beyond surfacey silliness.

In the title role, Lauren Lee Smith (Ascension) began this series rather ham-handedly. She had no sense of what it was to be a flapper and the costumers and writing did her no favors. She came across as weak copy of Fisher. As Frankie’s partner, Chantel Riley (Race) had real potential, but no storylines to really explore any of it. But around episode 6 they found their footing and refocused the show. Riley gets a family and some real plot opportunities. Smith becomes more of a person and less of a cartoon cipher with an excuse to play 1920s dress-up.

Not all characters got to grow as much. Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini & Doyle, Alias Grace) remained primarily comic relief. However, her abilities were expanded upon. I’m looking forward to seeing how they flesh her out in the next season.  On the other hand, Sharron Matthews as the coroner starts off strong in the series and only gets better as it goes along. The show also manages some fun guest stars through their freshman series.

You may have noticed I’ve only called out women. One thing I can say about Frankie Drake is that it really is only about the women. There are male colleagues, victims, and criminals, but it is driven by the four women.

I don’t know if Frankie can sustain its return from the edge of extreme mediocrity, but I’d like to believe they discovered their issues and are now on track. OK, it does stumble a little in the last couple episodes, but one is a wrap up to discard a character that needed to be flushed, and the finale is a little over-edited, but provides some solid history to grow from (again from the Fisher playbook, but done well). Give it a shot when it arrives on air or streaming. Stick it out for the first five or six episodes to watch it turn the corner. It isn’t bad for the first five, but knowing it improves makes it worth the wait. Whether it can survive to renewal remains to be seen.

Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel

Victoria & Abdul

[3 stars]

From the very beginning you know the tone of this tale is not going to be the dry historical you probably expected. Victoria & Abdul is, for a large part of the movie, a light film filled with comedy and joy, though it certainly takes on important issues while it both celebrates and lambastes the pomp of royalty and the untenable position of a monarch. Judi Dench (Tulip Fever) tackles the leader of the British empire 20 years after her previous turn in the position in Mrs. Brown. In fact, this movie picks up that persona well into her years, long past Albert, and years after Victoria was again on her own. The two would make a great double feature as you can see the foundation of what leads to Victoria’s choices and household.

In the other title role, Ali Fazal (3 Idiots) brings an interesting energy to his character that feels almost false or forced, but somehow real. He is the perfect optimist opposite Adeel Akhtar’s (The Big Sick) whingeing and political ire in opposition to the court around him. Of note in that group are Eddie Izzard (Absolutely Anything), Olivia Williams (Man Up), and Paul Higgins (Utopia), among a host of others.

What starts as silly, progresses roughly as you’d expect as jealousies and prejudice begin to assert themselves. But Victoria was a tough old cookie, even till the end;  nothing was ever going to be simple.

Having already tackled Queen Elizabeth II, it shouldn’t be surprising to see director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) take on Victoria. He is well at home in the upper crustiest of crusts, and happy to show all the cracks as well. He coaxed a wonderfully balanced set of performances out of the entire cast and filmed it with care and love for his central characters.

And though the tale is oversimplified, Lee Hall’s (War Horse) script provides enough meat to keep it all feeling complete. The dialogue is also often delightfully unexpected.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is entertaining and worth the investment of an evening to learn about a newly discovered bit of history. Seeing Dench take on the mantle of the monarchy again to complete the story she started back in 1997 is also a gift.

Victoria & Abdul