Tag Archives: Historical

Bless Me, Ulima

[3 stars]

How much has changed since 1944 New Mexico? Well, after watching Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the same named novel, I fear not much.  That isn’t Franklin’s point, but I’m watching this 9 years after its release and art is nothing if not contextually interpreted. Though, to be fair, some of those aspects (inequality, power, prejudice) were Franklin’s intent, they just resonate a bit differently in a world where we’re slamming shut our borders and separating families out of fear and greed.

While there is some nice storytelling through the eyes of a young boy which borders on magic realism, this isn’t a great adaptation. The use of voice over, in particular, is somewhat cheap and distracting. The plot also leaps along in some odd ways, and aspects of the world are a bit forced. Fortunately, the main message of being bonded to the world and each other, never really goes out of style. And Franklin found a unique time and family to deliver that idea. But for all the plot, it feels more like a slice of life than a deep tale worthy of feature film. An interesting slice at times, but incomplete. So, while this is a somewhat interesting film, I can’t strongly recommend it. However, as a brake from all the standard fare out there, it is certainly a different world and set of characters.

Bless Me, Ultima

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Sylvia

[2.5 stars]

Are famous people interesting because they’re famous or famous because they’re interesting? Which is to ask: why did Christine Jeffs (Sunshine Cleaning) decide to take on John Brownlow’s (The Miniaturist) weak attempt to dramatize Sylvia Plath’s tale? And I ask because, while there are some nice performances, the story is a vapid and male-filtered view of Plath’s struggles with writing and mental health, not to mention life in general. Not what you’d expect from a female director taking on this icon of poetry.

It’s important, I suppose, to note this movie is 16 years old at this point, well before #metoo, though still in a world that was self-aware enough to recognize the issues with the cleansed biography. While Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Iron Man, Sliding Doors) journey as Plath finds many levels and nuances, the presentation is not kind nor sympathetic to her (unlike Joker was for Phoenix) when portraying mental health issues.

Despite the point of view being clearly through Plath’s eyes, her story seems to be lensed through her husband’s experience, Daniel Craig (Knives Out) as Ted Hughes, and her friend, Jared Harris (Carnival Row). Michael Gambon (Judy) and Blythe Danner (Hello I Must Be Going) add some sympathy and insight to Plath’s portrayal and life, but not enough to overcome the inherent issues.

The story is neither honest enough nor gripping enough to excuse its nearly two hours on screen. The issues here are very much with the direction and script rather than the performances, so if you want to catch some earlier roles for the leads, particularly Craig before his breakout in Layer Cake, you can invest your time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Harriet

[3 stars]

Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.

The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.

While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)

Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.

Just Mercy

[3.5 stars]

Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle) has a way of telling stories that find the emotional core in the chaos while still making a point. Admittedly, drawing that out for injustice on death row isn’t as hard as his previous work co-written with Andrew Lanham. But Bryan Stevenson’s efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative are an important story to tell because the work isn’t done. And, in these politicially divisive times, it is actually sliding back in some areas.

Jamie Foxx (Robin Hood) is the primary focus of Michael B. Jordan’s (Creed II, Gen: Lock) newly minted lawerly efforts. While Jordan and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) are effective in their roles, they are really the bread upon which the tastier bits of the story are laid. Foxx lays out Walter McMillian’s  life for us in subtle shifts of emotion and unexpected responses. Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) likewise twists himself into Ralph Myers’s skin and brings his struggle to life through small moments and pauses.

The movie itself is engaging, but not overly revelatory because the story and the narrative format are very familiar. However, the depth and scope of the problems are still shocking. Updates through the first part of the credits slam that home. Just Mercy isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t, to be honest, the best film you’ll see this year, but the performances are solid, the journey gripping, and the story is important to see.

Ford v Ferrari

[3 stars]

If you’re a gearhead or follow racing, there is much to love in this throwback tale of US ego battling European drive.

If you’re not into cars, there are still some interesting aspects and insights into Ford reinventing itself (the story of iconoclast versus the system). However, the real draw is more likely to be the solid performances by Matt Damon (Downsizing) and Christian Bale (Vice). Much has also been made about Caitriona Balfe’s (Money Monster) supporting role as Bale’s wife. And it is a good performance, though I wasn’t as enthusiastic about the role as others, but that was more script than Balfe’s efforts.

Ultimately, this movie a slice of history that provides a view of a turning point in car manufacture, but the impact of the new direction didn’t really make me want to cheer. The film just sort of falls flat at the end. As this is based on history, I tried to give the story a break, particularly for its ending. But it’s up to the writers to frame a tale that is effective and interesting. While the story pulled me through, I can’t say I was satisfied or even clear at the end as to the point.

So if you want to know more about, or re-experience, Le Mans in the mid-60s, or if you want to see how Ford began to turn itself around during the same period, this is the flick for you. Likewise, if you want to see a bromance that is entertaining, but not entirely with a solid story, Ford v Ferrari may work for you. Or, perhaps, if you want to see Tracy Letts (Indignation) bring Ford Jr. to life, not to mention a sense of old industry and the issues at the core of many large companies, it may suffice.

However, if you just wanted an entertaining movie with a fun ride and clear story that leaves you exhilirated, you probably want to look elsewhere. While James Mangold (Logan) got fabulous performances out of his actors, the script and story just aren’t as gripping. Should you go, though, choose the biggest screen with the best sound you can find. The racing scenes deserve every bit of positional sound and subsonic rumble you can absorb.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

[3 stars]

Have you never heard a song and been transported back to a different time and place? For anyone aware in the 60s-90s (and even a bit more) Linda Ronstadt had songs for all occasions and all styles, blazing a trail for female rockers as she went. And because she was so varied and so successful for so long, it’s easy to forget just how wide a path she trod, and how many songs she recorded that mark out lives with milestones of sound.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to documentaries or stories from past eras from Howl to The Celluloid Closet to Lovelace they are constantly seeking corners of pop culture and history to explore and explain, and winning awards while doing so.

This latest offering is told through Ronstadt and many of her friends and collaborators. It’s an interesting, but not exactly gripping, biography. For one, Ronstadt is just a nice person with little, if any, controversy associated with her (or at least little the directors were willing to expose). What does come out is her impact on the industry and those around her, which is likely much bigger than you remembered. Certainly it was for me.

Despite the lack of “oh wow” moments or deep dark secrets, the film pulls you along and, ultimately, tells a story. Honestly, for much of the docu, you’re pretty sure it won’t resolve into a cohesive point or tale, but the music combined with the archival and contemporaneous footage are more than enough to keep you engaged until it all comes into focus.

For anyone who likes music or who simply want a nostalgia trip, this is a solid 90 minutes worth your time. If nothing else, it will reinvigorate or establish some serious respect for this diminutive woman with an outsized voice and confidence to set her own path.

Judy

[3.5 stars]

Like the near-mythic star she portrays, Renée Zellweger (Same Kind of Different as Me) rises above Tom Edge’s (Strike) rather bad adaptation, to breathe life into Judy Garland. In fact, until the final few moments of the film, the story, and good part of the dialogue, doesn’t come close to providing the superstructure her performance and energy have on screen. Simply put, Zellweger makes this movie.

There are a few nice supporting roles. Jessie Buckley, also in contention for Best Actress this year for her Wild Rose performance, is probably the most notable. The rest, even such big names as Michael Gambon (Fearless) and Rufus Sewell (I’ll Follow You Down), rightly vanish in her bright light.

Whether you subscribe to the cult that surrounds her persona or love her for the luster of Hollywood she embodied, Judy Garland’s story is affecting and important. And Zellweger sells it with all the tragic verve that icon has ever mustered.

Judy

Bombshell

[4 stars]

When Rupert Murchoch comes off as the good guy in a story, you really have to wonder about the base you’re starting from. There is a lot of surprising and disturbing information in this film, much of which was already known, but it is given life and context by director Jay Roach (Trumbo) and Big Short writer Charles Randolph with a frenetic energy and tight-lipped humor.

The most surprising aspect of this (as a movie), to me was that though the events are driven by Gretchen Carlson’s story, in the guise of Nicole Kidman (The Upside), and the core thread is pulled through by Margot Robbie’s (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) fictional Kayla Popisil, it is Charlize Theron’s (Destroyer) Megyn Kelly who owns this movie. That isn’t just because she frames the story narratively, it is because she uttlerly disappears into the character in a terrifying way and owns the energy of it all.

That isn’t to say that Robbie isn’t, yet again, brilliant nor that Kidman isn’t believable and effective (though less so for me). It is simply to say that Theron has turned in another career setting performance that proves again her abilities. To be fair, part of the reason for this focus is likely because Carlson is still under a gag order and wasn’t even allowed to talk with the filmakers, so they had to be rather circumspect in their portrayal.

Sprinkled liberally throughout the movie are other good performances, such as Brigette Lundy-Paine’s (Atypical) assitant, Allison Janney’s (I, Tonya) NYC laywer, Kate McKinnon’s (Yesterday) liberal-out-of-water reporter, and, of course, John Lithgow’s (The Tomorrow Man) repugnant but self-righteous Roger Ailes. But these are all supporting roles to Theron’s drive.

And now a confession: I had no interest in seeing this movie. I didn’t want to support Fox in any way or provide it attention. OK, I was wrong. Though the subject matter is challenging, the message is important and the delivery entertaining. Whether you like the women involved, this story is universal (particularly for women, but also for more men than will ever admit it). I still don’t respect the on-air personalities of these people, but Bombshell makes them more into people and lifts the veil of entertainment from their public personas.

Bombshell should be seen by everyone…but by women and young girls in particular.