Tag Archives: Historical

Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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The Dig

[3 stars]

There’s a lot going on in this quiet tale about an archeological dig taking place on the cusp of WWII. That aspect is both its charm and challenge. But even though the result is a bit of a muddle narratively, the characters and story of The Dig remain compelling.

Led by Ralph Fiennes (The White Crow) and Carrie Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), we explore passion, marriage, class, education, gender roles, and life achievements. And that’s just those two. Throw in Johnny Flynn (Emma.), Lily James (Yesterday), and Ben Chapman (1917) and you add in gender norms, sexuality, and the value of joy.

Moira Buffini’s (Byzantium) adaption of John Preston’s novel is sprawling in scope. And director Simon Stone took it on without insisting on a tighter focus. The challenge is that the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation is itself a wonderful tale on its own. Not necessarily an issue, but because that makes the dig both core story and metaphor to everything else going on, it all begins to become very scattered. If the excavation and the politics over it hadn’t been so towering in the tale, it could have become a quiet mirror to the rest of the subplots comfortably. Instead, the various stories fight for focus. In the end, it sort of unravels as a complete movie even while managing to be satisfying for any individual story.

The acting and production are all quite wonderful. From the bloviating to the quiet despair, the cast manages to deliver. While there is a sort of Merchant Ivory sensibility to it all, it maintains a better energy and sense of tension (well, to my mind anyway). The Dig is interesting history, and also a good set of character studies that make it all worth the effort.

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Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

[3 stars]

The better documentaries tell a story. Not just by showing the life and events of their subject, but also crafting a path through that information in a way that makes a point. Sometimes that point is solely the director’s, but when done well it sums up the subject’s experience. Eight Days a Week is a bit of both, by necessity.

There is so much to cover about the Beatles that director Ron Howard (Solo: A Star Wars Story ) chose to focus solely on the touring years. We see the band’s rise and the insanity of their tours, which were the largest ever conceived at that time, booking the first stadium tours in modern music history (I think, technically, the Greeks got there first long ago). Through photos, film, audio recordings, and lots of wonderful performances, we see what brings the Fab Four to their final touring stop: the roof of their studios in Jan 1969.

That well-known, semi-impromptu performance has been shown many times and in many ways. Through the frame of Howard’s edits, it becomes a happy and heart-breaking farewell without bringing in all the other stressors that history has happily posited and recorded. Howard doesn’t ignore the rest of the Beatles’ story, but there isn’t lots of background or discussion of the internal tensions that have been raked over many times before. But by framing the movie around the tours, their reaction to them, and those specific challenges, Howard does manage a slightly different view of the band than I’ve seen in other docus. It doesn’t present the whole picture, but it does illuminate some new corners of the band’s heyday.

If you have any interest in the band, their music, or the period, this is worth your time. But if you want a full picture of the story, you’ll have to watch additional documentaries and profiles to fill in the gaps and view all the facets.

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A Couple Forensic Mysteries

I recently saw a couple of procedurals, each with their own twist on the form. Both are really quite good.

Traces
The main, and impressive, aspect of this 6-parter is the naturalistic dialogue of the specialists and the police. Other characters are more in keeping with a dramatic mystery, but when the experts talk, it feels real rather than forced or contrived. Led by the young but rising Molly Windsor as a very damaged survivor, we follow three crimes that influence one another. With Laura Fraser (The Loch), Jennifer Spence (Bletchley Circle: San Francisco), Martin Compston (The Aftermath),  and Vincent Regan (Lockout) in some of the primary roles to keep it moving, the story manages a range of characters and complications. It also provides a nice forensics course and openings for a following season without feeling like they haven’t wrapped up what they needed to in the first. With the great Val McDermid providing the initial idea and guidance to show creator and writer Amelia Bullmore, the quality is built-in.

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Pembrokeshire Murders
I don’t usually like true-crime based mysteries. They far too often come off as crude re-enactments or thin recountings of fact. This three-parter, however, just comes across as any BBC well-told mystery. The structure is a bit rushed as its main audience already knows the outcomes, but it is all done in very dramatic (as in original fiction style) ways so that even those of us who don’t know about these murders stay riveted on the discoveries and results. Luke Evans (Blitz) is the center of the story, though he’s surrounded by a solid cast.

 

The Little Things

[3.5 stars]

This dark little mystery is brought to you via a triumvirate of talent. Led by Denzel Washington (Equalizer 2) and backed up by Rami Malek (Papillon) and Jared Leto (Blade Runner 2049), this is a steadily paced tale of justice and redemption. While there are numerous smaller roles, the movie is really these three. Washington provides the quiet, intense gravitas while Malek brings the youthful intensity and Leto…well, Leto brings the crazy.

John Lee Hancock wrote and directed this tale of a serial killer stalking 1990’s LA. And while it is quite clever, you can get rather far ahead if you try. Fortunately, that doesn’t really matter as confirmation feels just as good as surprise because of how the story unfolds. It isn’t so much a police procedural as it is one of introspection and personal demons.

Enjoy the ride of this one, and be prepared to contemplate the outcomes and revelations. It is a story that is very much of its time, but not necessarily an antidote for any of the issues. But it isn’t about corruption so much as a drive for doing the right thing to the exclusion of all else, and the cost of failing that mission.

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It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

The Mauritanian

[4 stars]

Director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) is drawn to the harsher realities of life and making them accessible and understandable. The Mauritanian is the story Mohamedou Slahi previously popularized in his book, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi is one of the victims of the choices made after 9/11 and the establishing of the Guantanamo Bay facility and its ongoing embarrassment.

While the story is confusing and angering and disturbing, what is astounding is how Slahi made it through and stayed positive, even forgiving. Tahar Rahim brings Slahi to the screen with a raw energy and empathy that is magnetic.

What helps set this story apart is its lack of explicit lines. Almost no one is completely good or evil. They are all portrayed as driven and, to the extent they can be at any time, honest with themselves or the situation. Even Slahi’s champions, Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) and Shailene Woodley (Snowden), aren’t necessarily there for him at the start; they’re there to defend the law, as they see it. On the opposing side, Benedict Cumberbatch (1917) and Zachary Levi (Shazam!) are there in righteous anger, and with a sense of extreme duty. All these characters evolve in unexpected ways.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t devoid of positive aspects. It is a reminder of the fact that we still haven’t recovered from our tragedies and that many innocents got swept up in the wake of a country gone mad. It is also a reminder of why the rule of law is so important and not intended to be bent to the will of a single administration or person. Not to mention of a reminder that we still have a mess to clean up and apologies to make even 20 years later.

American Swing

[2.75 stars]

While focused on the infamous rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, this docu is really about Larry Levenson, the man behind the bedsheet. Because of that, the historical and psychological aspects of the phenomenon end up ultimately getting sidebarred. The story is eventually overtaken by Levenson’s tale rather than truly examining the sex club’s impact on society in general and NYC in particular.

It’s unlikely you never heard of Plato’s if you’re over 30. But you may not know its history or even it’s reality, though the myths continue to circulate. What American Swing does is try to put a human face to it all. It isn’t entirely without judgement, but it tries to stay balanced within the framework it constructs. There are some interesting interviews, some by recognized names but also many just regular members. As a documentary, I’m not sure what story it has to tell. I get the impression that when Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman set out to expand on Hart’s article, they didn’t realize they had no more than a history report until part way through production. Than they shifted to a focus on Levenson to provide it an arc and some structure.

As a bit of history, American Swing is interesting. Not perfect and not particularly insightful, but it is a glimpse into a part of NYC’s past for those who were only vaguely aware of the club.

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Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

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Bridgerton

[3 stars]

If you like your edgier Austin, such as the recent Emma, you are probably the audience for this latest period soap to hit the streams. It’s a richly appointed drama full of intrigue, romance, and manners. Coming from Shondaland, the creators of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, you likely have a good sense of how the 8 episode first series is shaped.

Certainly, one of the highlights is the unseen narrator played by Dame Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins Returns). Her daily paper helps drive the plot along, even as everyone attempts to use the soapbox as a weapon of societal war. While the venue is familiar, it’s a fictionalized and remade London, peppered with subtle anachronisms in phrases and music that help make it feel familiar even as you’re dazzled by the production values.

The rest of the cast is certainly solid, but only a couple performances really stand out. Claudia Jessie (Their Finest) as a middle sister is certainly among them. She is delightfully acerbic and frustrated, hemmed in by the mores and morays of the society she was born into. Similarly, but from an older generation, Adjoa Andoh gets to command the screen and shake things up. This is a decidedly female driven cast and story, despite the male dominated world around them. Even Regé-Jean Page (Mortal Engines), as sexy and complicated as he is, doesn’t do more than run the maze the women around him construct.

The blind casting of the show has been the subject of much debate. Frankly, I found it done fairly well. With rare exception, it isn’t used as commentary or anti-commentary…it just is. That doesn’t mean you can’t infer or otherwise reflect on the impact of the choices, but it really tries to be color blind.

If you’re missing your Downton Abbey and are done with Versailles and need something both amusing and a touch steamy, but definitely still a comedy of manners, this may fit the bill. Even I, who am so not an Austin fan, found myself sucked into the story. I will admit that the first half of the series was more to my taste than the latter half, when the plot becomes a bit more in period/genre rather than pushing against it. But, at only 8 episodes, I didn’t feel like I was wading too deeply into a dark, treacly pool that wouldn’t let me escape.

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