Tag Archives: Historical

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

[3 stars}

We all know Mapplethorpes (both sides: people, flowers), Worhals, Lichtensteins, Michaelangelos, Calders, Pollacks, Van Gogh, Banksys, and Degas (the list can go on and on), if not by name by familiar sight. But did you ever wonder why you knew them? Why, when these artists were pushing the boundaries of art, who was it that was explaining to the world why it mattered? Or, at least, convinced the world it mattered. In centuries past, it was dynasties like the Medici. In current times it is critics and collectors who have the ear of the museums and media.

The Square attempted to tackle this question a couple years ago in fiction. But this documentary takes on the life and impact of a single man who was a fulcrum point for many artistic movements and shifts in public perception, not to mention culture: Sam Wagstaff. Not a name that comes trippingly to the tongue, but an important one nonetheless.

Learning about Wagstaff’s life and impact are the best parts of James Crump’s documentary, which is otherwise extremely staid, dry, and in its way, scholarly. In other words this 80ish minute walk through history and lives is more like a class lesson than a gripping bit of documentary. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but certainly shrinks its audience to the PBS crowd even if the subject matter might intrigue a wider group.

Despite the title, this really is about Wagstaff, with some passing information on his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is important to Wagstaff’s story, but the title is a bit misleading. Mapplethorpe was a flashpoint in American art, arts funding, and the government. He was the tipping point that conservatives used to start killing the NEA and NEH and using it, instead, as a propaganda machine for conservative values. The terrified conservatives weren’t completely successful, but you can trace the approach and hate and battle that is going on today between government funding for the arts in a fairly straight line back to the early 80s and artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano.

This is far from a great documentary, but it is some interesting background and a huge amount of visual representation, video and stills, of the pieces involved. Many people, including Patti Smith, who knew the men well provide first-hand accounts of their lives and interactions. As a lesson in art history it is a nicely condensed overview of Wagstaff and his life and impact, with nods to Mapplethorpe. As a question raised as to the veracity of taste and what drives what is accepted, it is somewhat intriguing. As a movie, even as a first documentary for Crump, it is middling but for its willingness to show and discuss material that is often avoided.

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.

 

Pose

[4 stars]

What makes Pose brilliant isn’t it’s use of transgendered actors (been done before in Transparent, Boy Meets Girl, Orange is the New Black, etc). It isn’t the exposè style of the Balls (been shown before in Paris is Burning and Saturday Church, and elsewhere). It isn’t even the heart-felt tales of the characters (we’ve seen a lot of these kinds of tales before).

No, the genius of Pose is that it treats its characters as normal; that you cannot help but see them as they see themselves, especially the women. In particular Mj Rodriguez  and Indya Moore, from Saturday Church, and Dominique Jackson whose stories dominate the eight episodes. But there are rooms-full of these incredible women struggling for recognition, in every way you can define that.

But it isn’t just about the women. Billy Porter (American Horror Story) brings an energy as MC to the Balls and to the series. He navigates his own complicated tale and manages to draw on his wide variety of talents. Newcomer Ryan Jamaal Swain delivers a sweet and vibrant ball of hope to story while his dance teacher, Charlayne Woodard (Glass), provides some additional outside perspective.

The other contributing factor to the genius of Pose is that it also manages to bring the late-80s period piece into current political and cultural relevance with the parallel storylines of Evan Peters (American Animals), Kate Mara (Morgan), and James Van Der Beek (Downsizing). The reflections and tangling of the two worlds offers surprises and insights as well as a few dark laughs.

Ryan Murphy’s breadth of genre and his ability to make them each so personal, be it high school, horror, or history, continues to surprise and find success. Pose isn’t perfect. It is a tad arch, which isn’t surprising, and some of the actors are natural, but a little untried. But the overall impact and journey is surprisingly effective and avoids feeling exploitative or in any way disingenuous.

If Beale Street Could Talk

[3.5 stars]

On the surface, this is a small and personal tale of love and family. But it is, of course, much more than that. It is also, in its way, a modern day Color Purple, exposing social injustice on an intimate level, making it impossible to ignore or pretend to not understand. In some ways, the social injustice reflections are intrusive and jarring, much like portions of BlacKkKlansman, but in other ways it’s like having a friend explain their point of view and experience in a very real way.

Much like Barry Jenkin’s previous Moonlight, this is as much a poem as it is a story. It is told in small vignettes across two timelines. We see the start of the relationship between Stephan James (Selma) and KiKi Layne reflected against the ultimate resolution of it. It is a beautiful story full of unexpected moments and passion. It is a tale about what makes family and how family makes us. The young pair are magnetic and we can recognize our own passions in them even if we’ve outgrown some of the intensity.

Regina King is as solid as her golden statuette for the role suggests. She and the rest of the cast tend to surprise in their reactions to the world and one another. Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq) and Colman Domingo (Assassination Nation) complete Layne’s immediate family, who are fiercely supportive of one another. There is certainly strife, but it is clear from the outset how they can pull together.

There a number of important characters in smaller roles. Among them are a barely recognizable Ed Skrein (Tau), leveraging his trademark nasty streak and Finn Wittrock (La La Land) at the other end of that spectrum as examples.

After Moonlight, all eyes were on Barry Jenkins to deliver. With over 150 awards nominations, including 3 Oscar nods and a win, you could say he succeeded at least on some level. But whether this is a good movie or not is going to be a matter of personal taste. it is laconic in its narrative. It is intense in its emotions. It is preachy at times in its message. But it is effective and affecting not to mention beautifully filmed and directed.

Along with other recent films like The Hate U Give, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, or even Selma, 13th, and Hidden Figures, Beale Street gives us a view of America that has been long avoided but that is now starting to make its way into the mainstream. What we, as a society, do with that awareness is the next big question.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

[4 stars]

What makes this documentary fascinating is less the presentation of the material than the insights it provides. It is also one of the oddest adaptations I think I’ve encountered. Kent Jones attempts to bring to life the infamous 1960s interviews that produced the book Hitchcock/Truffaut by Truffaut…a book which he later revised and re-released in 1985 a few years after Hitch left us and just before his own death.

What emerges, however, is more of an audio book and commentary about the interview’s revelations, cherry-picked by Jones and his collection of famous directors who were influenced by these two giants of cinema. Think of it as skipping through the book to some of the more interesting parts and getting to chat about them. The result is still a fascinating look at Hitchcock’s thinking, though more so at the way others interpret him. It also likely expands your knowledge of size of Hitchcock’s opus. You may find  yourself trying to find at least some of his earlier films that are much less well known.

This docu is certainly an interesting multiplier to the fictionalized look at his life in The Girl and Hitchcock even if its shape is a bit amorphous. If you love cinema and are drawn to understanding it, this is a must see film. But even those with passing interest will find something to chew on and will recognize the men…and it is all men…discussing how watching Hitch and Truffaut provided the impetus and artistic goals that have guided their lives and our viewing history for the last nearly 100 years.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Lizzie

[2.5 stars]

The story of Lizzie Borden has been told (and retold) many times. It has fascinated audiences for over 100 years. That’s staying power. Finding something new to say about it isn’t easy. To be honest, I’m not sure Craig William Macneill’s sophomore outing with  first-timer Bryce Kass’s script manages to, but they give it a good try.

This newest story is told in a chronologically looping narrative to slowly uncover the proposed facts of the infamous killing. It concentrates first on the motives and emotions and then, finally, on the deed itself. It is a very slow burn and with only a modicum of tension. Where it tries to separate itself from previous tales is in the counterpoint of the cast.

Chloë Sevigny (Beatriz at Dinner) presents her Lizzie as an interestingly modern woman amid her more classically period fellow cast. It sets her apart in a subtle way. It isn’t quite enough to carry the movie, but it is a noticeable choice and difference.

Jamey Sheridan (Battle of the Sexes) and Finoa Shaw (Mrs. Wilson), as her parents and the fated victims, are fairly standard portrayals. They are solid, but nothing much new. And Denis O’Hare, as the n’ere-do-well Uncle is an interesting inclusion, but only again as backdrop. It is Kristen Stewart (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), as the young Irish maid and Sevigny’s counterpart, who is the largest variable in this retelling. Her performance is good, but not groundbreaking. And, ultimately, doesn’t fully develop.

If you were looking for something new in this story, you will find tidbits. But it is far from historically complete or insightful. It includes some facts but omits others. It avoids recorded aspects and invents some never really in evidence as it posits a potential scenario. For those hopelessly fascinated by the story, it is probably more interesting. But the movie never manages to rise above its retelling enough to become a platform for something more. And that is a shame. There is some good work in this film, but it isn’t a must-see on any level, except perhaps as a chance to see Macneill and Kass’s early steps in cinema.

Free Solo

[4 stars]

How many people spend 8 years waking up every morning thinking: I’d like to risk my life climbing that sheer rock face without a rope?Well, Alex Honnold did, planning and then executing a nearly inhuman feat. You end the journey with him feeling entirely inadequate…and also full of possibility.

Through phenomenal photography and honest story-telling, you spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat, riveted and tense. Frankly, it is both exhilarating and exhausting. But you leave with an appreciation of the skills needed to accomplish such a feat and the kind of mentality it takes to even consider it.

Of course the story may be centered on the scaling of El Capitan, but it is the “why” of it all that adds the emotional tension to the very real physical fear Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary manages to elicit. They layer the physical challenge with Honnold’s personal and emotional challenges in life. We never quite get a full picture of of him, past or present, but much is teased. We are left with an incomplete metaphor for Honnold’s efforts as they reflect in his life, but it adds to the moment the entire film is focused on. Had this just been about the climb on the final day, it may have been pretty and intriguing, but it would have revealed nothing about the man, the sport, nor, to be a bit broad, the human condition.

It is clear that it takes a particular kind of mindset and approach to life to free solo at the level Honnold and his colleagues do. The film doesn’t exactly celebrate nor judge that mindset, but it definitely attempts to present it with genuine affection and wonder. It is beautifully and amazingly filmed. Without distracting from the story, the documentary even becomes part of the story itself. And, yes, it is most definitely worth your time. It definitely earned its Oscar.

A Private War

[3.5 stars]

Making war real on screen is incredibly challenging. Making it personal without losing the greater issues is even harder. A Private War, much like the writings of its subject Marie Colvin, manages to do both.

It succeeds thanks to both the behind-the-scenes guidance and the on-screen talent. However, even with the likes of Jamie Dornan (Robin Hood), Tom Hollander (Bird Box), and Stanley Tucci (Patient Zero) on screen, the only person that matters, the only story as her character would have put it, was Pike’s Colvin. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) is this movie. Though I will say that Hollander delivers an uncharacteristically understated and sobering performance as Colvin’s bureau chief.

Colvin states it in her own words at the top of the film: fear comes later. Marie Brenner’s (The Insider) script captures how controlled and confident Colvin’s character was in war, and what a mess she was outside of it. An added aspect to this film’s success was director Matthew Heineman’s documentary roots. He manages to step back from the action to allow the story to tell itself.

In a growing collection of on-screen news-related tales, this one is a bit different. It isn’t about newspapers saving the world, like The Post, or destroying the world, like The Front Runner, or even being manipulated, like Vice. It is about war and the human cost on all sides. It is about what drives people to risk their lives to bring us the truth, without glorifying their choices.

In a fluke of the story and the timing, I was watching the film almost 7 years to the day from the last moments of the action, which provided one of the most chilling aspects of the film. I found myself doing the math and realizing that the horror of Homs, Syria being portrayed may have been from 7 years ago…but it was still going on today despite Colvin and other’s efforts and risks to get the world to notice; a final gift of the film reminding us that it is still up to all of us to act and not just observe.

Grantchester (Series 4)

[3.5 stars]

The first three series of this entertaining mystery show twisted emotionally around the heartache and confusions of the vicar of the titular town, James Norton’s (Flatliners) Sidney. Series four goes about remaking the show with a fascinating transition. And much like the recent Father Brown sequence, it is also bringing in more of the current world in reflection.

What hasn’t changed is the mysteries solved by teaming up with Robson Green’s (Being Human) Geordie. They are often violent, socially reflective, and interestingly twisted at times as they squeeze through a constabulary that wants things to be easy, even when they rarely are. But we also get some interesting side plots as threaded arcs through the series. While the lives of the others in the vicarage were always part of the tales, these are more pointed and very separate. Kacey Ainsworth finally gets a bit more of a life outside Geordie’s and Tessa Peake-Jones gets to settle into the marriage from the previous series while retaining her connection running the household. And Al Weaver (Colette) expands on his delicate and tragic course.

New additions are the main engines for the changes that take place. Most notably, Tom Brittney (Humans) who brings an equally committed and conflicted sense of religion and life to the show. In many ways his energy is much more welcome as it is more vibrant and less maudlin than Sidney’s character.

The series itself has a very complicated but controlled arc over its six episodes. Watching it all being torn apart and put back together, while getting some good stories to carry it along, is really quite entertaining. If you haven’t found Grantchester yet, start at the beginning as otherwise much of this latest series will be lost on you. If you have been enjoying it up till now, be assured the story continues to grow and satisfy, even as all the characters are forced through reckonings and realizations.