Tag Archives: Historical

Come From Away

[4 stars]

Every person has a story, or so the saying goes. And with nearly 7000 in-comers nearly doubling the population of one corner of an island, that’s a lot of potential stories to tell. But I can’t say I rushed to watch this remembrance of 9/11. I mean, a musical with true stories about one of the most shocking days in recent history? I knew it had been lauded, and I’d even seen a number or two performed, but I just couldn’t let go enough to enter that world. I wish I had sooner.

Despite the subject, the show is full of humor and human kindness (all summed up with one, and intentionally, very bad knock-knock joke near the end). The music and stories are wide ranging, with actors playing multiple roles. It touches on the whimsical and the dark, but leaves you with hope and some sense of bittersweet joy. Not because of any one story so much as the overall efforts of the people of Newfoundland during the five days the world came to a halt. The whole thing is delivered as a swift 90 minutes without an intermission and with a solid cast. And the filming and sound are wonderful, keeping the feel of a stage performance but with cinema level visuals and soundtrack.

My suggestion to you, if you’ve avoided the show so far, is to give it 10 minutes. If it hasn’t locked you in by then, you’re not their audience. I found myself totally absorbed despite the stories mostly being obvious and the overall tale part of history. It is cathartic in its way, but neither jingoistic nor apologetic. It is focused on the minutia of the tragedy and the reminder of who people can be. Honestly, it isn’t a bad message for today either, given the strife and division tearing at society as a whole. The fact that it was filmed during one of the first performances after Broadway reopened after the pandemic shutdown only enhances that echo.

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Striking a Sinful Pose

[4 stars]

I’ve held off writing up Pose for a lot of reasons. And held off posting this discussion for even more. But now that it has wrapped, and my brain was whirring on the shape of it all, I found my fingers unable to avoid it. And I know I’m going to get some grief for doing so. That’s OK, I can own it.

There are few writers looking at the LGTBQ+ community with the love and honesty that Ryan Murphy (The Prom) does. Only Russell T. Davies (It’s a Sin) comes to mind in terms of other writers of similar impact and power. But while It’s a Sin and Pose came out about the same time they are very different contexts and very different shapes, though ultimately both celebrations of love, life, and the community they inhabit.

It’s a Sin compresses the start and turn-to-hope of the AIDS crisis into a single, limited series that is devastating and joyful at the same time. I’ve written it up separately and will try not to repeat that here other than in comparisons.

Pose, on the other hand, targets roughly the same period over three seasons, a different decade in each, in a more, shall we say, Dramatic way. I don’t mean the flamboyant wonderfulness of the women in the show, I mean the story structure. The melodramatic sensibility mirrors the personalities, but it is also intentionally huge and just a tad soapy.

In some ways I not only respect that choice, but love it. It was certainly entertaining and, more importantly, there was never a doubt or hesitation to recognizing the women in the story. For those not aware of the Ball culture or without a lot of contact with (or with misconceptions about) the trans community, it was also an education as well as an entertainment. It took the joy and the horror of the controversial Paris is Burning and brought it to fictional life in unforgettable and sympathetic ways.

But I also found the story approach putting distance between me and the characters; especially in the final season. And that was a bit unexpected as I remember those years. I was there for some of those events, but certainly knew many who were when I wasn’t. And that frustrated me as a viewer. Not that I didn’t cry… I most certainly lost it often through the show (and through It’s a Sin too) even as I’d also be belly laughing at other times.

And while I was not at the Balls, neither was I part of club culture in England (or NYC for that matter) during those eras. But I knew (and lost) people from all those walks of life. In fact, I just recently lost another friend who had survived on the cocktail for decades. I suspect the pandemic as the precipitating cause, but I may never know. Like so many friends living at a several state remove, he vanished until word trickled back to me via the grapevine.

My point is that neither of these worlds or stories or people or lifestyles are utterly alien to me, though I have to admit that I’m more connected to It’s a Sin than Pose in a direct sense.

Perhaps what it comes down to is that Pose is a wonderful story while It’s a Sin is more a wonderful statement. Both are some of the best and most complete views of the communities they depict. But my aversion to the melodramatic definitely made Pose a challenge at times. But both are important milestones in media and emotional stories that will wring you out even while you cheer and laugh.

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Agatha Christie and the Curse of Ishtar

[3 stars]

Agatha Christie was a fascinating and talented woman. Self-assured and infamous, and with several mysteries as part of her own life. Most notably: a 10 day disappearance that has spawned many fictional guesses from created mysteries to Doctor Who.

And while we’ve spent decades watching and re-watching various versions of her famous books, over the last several years new mysteries have been penned that shim into what is known about Christie’s real life. These stories turn her into a detective extraordinaire, not just the writer who created some of the best selling books on the subject.

Most of these offerings fell flat for me. They weren’t credible, just poorly written mysteries, or simply got too much wrong. But Curse of Ishtar, despite taking some serious liberties with the  recorded facts, managed to create an engaging mystery very much in Christie’s style and still made it feel like it was the woman herself in the role. For his first time out directing a full-length piece, and an historical at that, Sam Yates managed very well. And Tom Dalton’s script provided Yates with the best of his Christie-reimagined sequence (Truth of Murder, Midnight Murders being the other two…which are primarily missable).

The casting also helped along this particular mystery. Lyndsey Marshal (Dracula) delivers a strong Christie who is at an important crossroads in her personal and professional life. She runs to Iraq to escape and renew and runs headlong into Jonah Hauer-King…and a murder. Hauer-King is every bit her equal in many ways, though utterly willing to be led. The two are well matched for their challenges and for the story.

Supporting the rest of the story are a bevy of great characters. In primary positions are the oddly coupled Katherine Kingsley and Jack Deam (Father Brown) and the functionary, Stanley Townsend. And Liran Nathan has an interesting spin on the local authority.

The mystery is nicely layered, if not entirely smoothly unraveled. But the story works and it’s just credible enough to make us want to believe it fits into Christie’s real life. It’s certainly a nice distraction when you want a bit of period drama, mystery, and romance to fill your evening.

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The Great American Lie

[3 stars]

While Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation) isn’t the greatest documentarian yet, she is a good showperson, with plenty of data, images, and tight editing. We can debate whether that helps or hurts her cause, but I think the reaction will be different depending on your age.

Regardless, The Representation Project, and their aims, are laudable. The issues are very real. And Newsom’s approach to reminding us that America, despite its veneer of success, is so wildly out of step with its global peers is important. Her messages regarding equality and quality of life measures are crafted in ways that could reach all sides of the political spectrum. Too often the conversation is couched as us against them, when, in fact, it is all of us against a common, deplorable problem.

There isn’t much new information on the roots of inequality in this documentary. It’s certainly a good reminder of the issues and a prod to action. It’s also quite depressing, despite its attempts to provide some hope at the end.

And that is part of the problem it has as a movie, to be honest. As with her first docu many years back, the message is a little muddled. She provides a through-line story with an Oakland grade school, but it doesn’t map entirely well with the broader information. And rather than follow any real impact deeply, she peanut-butters the information so we simply get a sense of a lot rather than absorb the enormous impact to individuals or groups in a more impactful way. In trying to swallow the whole beast in a single swallow, the docu only manages to let you taste it while it’s lodged in your mental throat.

All that aside, it is definitely worth reviewing for reminders and solid information to disseminate to others when these subjects come up. And certainly as a touchstone as the next election cycle gains steam, it is a solid reminder of the truth amid the spin.

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Fear Street: Part 3 – 1666

[3 stars]

It’s all comes down to this: the origin. And what a nice payoff it is. As you’d expect, given the previous two parts, the cast reprises from the previous 1994 and 1978 time frames to inhabit the 1666 characters. Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch are back at the center along with Ashley Zukerman (The Code), Gillian Jacobs (Life Partners), and, now with a bit more range, Benjamin Flores Jr. (Rim of the World).

Having the setup of the previous two parts, this third flies in a swift 2 hours of suspense, action, and frustration. But the best part is that everything you’ve learned comes back into play right up through the end. And there is where it stumbles just the tiniest bit.

The main action resolves perfectly fine and acceptably. But there is a moment, and you can’t miss it, where there is an obvious and boneheaded oversight. I know it’s a trope of the genre, but it could have been less ham-handed. In fact, if it weren’t for that, I’d have rated the whole movie higher. That gaff cost it because after all the clever, subversive, and frankly well thought out planning, it was cheap and insulting to the audience.

But that frustration aside, which is small in comparison to the journey, this is a great trilogy of dark fun executed with a clever eye and solid talent. Leigh Janiak pulled the sequence off with aplomb and will have me watching for her next project for sure; as well as some of the cast.

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Woman in Motion

[3.5 stars]

Nichelle Nichols. The name alone evokes a smile. She is a force of nature and one of the most relentlessly optimistic and gracious people you’ll ever meet. And yes, I say this with a small amount of direct experience.

Director Todd Thompson had a challenge with this story. Talking just about what Nichols did for NASA would be interesting, but would lack context. Adding the context is so wildly off topic that it could distract from the focus of the story. But he managed to walk the line and bring it all together in a way that was, frankly, unexpected as the wandering narrative unspools. In some ways, and I think purposefully, it mirrors Nichols’ own conversational tone and threading.

Thompson did, however, over-produce the docu a bit. It is a little too gimicky and a little too polished/flashy at times. These aspects did distract from the story itself. I imagine not everyone will find that to be the case.

But the story behind how Nichols changed the face of NASA and, in no small way, the world is worth every minute you spend with it. And if you haven’t already caught Hidden Figures, add that on as required follow-up viewing for an even larger context.

At the end, stick around through the credits for a wonderful final look at a facet of Nichols that just didn’t fit into the rest of the story directly. It was a great note to leave the story on and only increases your respect for this powerhouse of energy and effort.

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Ailey

[3 stars]

Through contemporary interviews, much-abused archival footage, and the rehearsal efforts of the American Dance Theatre to honor their founder, Jamila Wignot does her best to introduce us to Alvin Ailey, the man. But the truth is that much of who that man was had never really been captured in public records…or at least none that have been readily shared, if the resulting documentary is to be believed at face value.

His cultural truth, his childhood truth…that is on display throughout and in his choreography. That said, there are a few moments of unguarded, personal truth that let us in. Ailey, the man, even though he avoided most of the worst of segregation and prejudice in his working life, never felt safe to be his true self till very late in his life. At least not in the dance part of his life… which by all accounts was most of what he was.

The resulting total of his story is one that leaves you educated and affected deeply. He was respected and loved by his dancers and the arts world. What is sad is that the quality of a lot of the archival footage is pretty worn as, I’m sure, no one saw the point of capturing and protecting the work of a primarily non-white dance company back in the 50s and 60s.

But the film doesn’t focus on the choreography per se. What Ailey thought of himself, his place in the world, and how he dealt with those pressures, is what Wignot really wants us to understand. Not just to comprehend Ailey, but to understand the culture he came from and to help break that cycle. Find this and support it when you get the chance. Even if you know about Ailey and his work, this likely will expose more than you were aware of about him and the American Dance Theater.

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Shadow in the Cloud

[4 stars]

Talk about an unexpected thrill-ride from beginning to end. Roseanne Liang directed and co-wrote this, with Max Landis (Bright), as her Sophomore offering. And it is damned impressive.

Chloë Grace Moretz (Tom and Jerry) dominates this film. From the opening credits she embodies her strongest female role since her Kick-Ass days. The story is tightly focused on Moretz, her actions and her reactions. As her character is slowly revealed, we are constantly re- evaluating what we think we know. There are several male characters, but who cares? They exist solely as fodder to Moretz’s tale.

In the center of it all, acting as engine to the machine, is one of the biggest McGuffins I’ve seen in a while…simply because it is so iconic. The movie opens with a war-time cartoon that sets up this horror piece of the story. If you’ve ever seen Nightmare at 20000 Feet you have a sense of what’s coming (or think you do anyway).

The rest is an unbelievably tense ride. Like Pitch Black, once this one starts downhill, it goes at breakneck speed and never relents. And it ends on a hugely satisfying tableau.

Make time for this one. It is ostensibly a horror film, but it is so much more than that as well, even managing to pay homage to the WACs and WASPs of WWII. I can’t wait to see what Liang offers up next if this was any indication of her ability and eye.

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The Astrologer

[2.5 stars]

So why write about a 1975 film that has no one recognizable and a director/writer, James Glickenhaus, not really known for his quality material? Because, despite the illogical leaps, racist overtones, and odd story telling, there is something intriguing about this thinly veiled metaphor for the CIA and its ilk. And something uncomfortably appropriate to today’s situations around the world as well.

Set 8 days before the “second coming” the story posits a world where astrology has been turned into a precise art. Well, that’s the opening voice-over, but as it turns out it is more about potential than precision, but let’s not mince details (the movie certainly doesn’t). The idea is both amusing and intriguing. But the real focus of the story is the arrival of the baby messiah and whether it will be a force for good or evil. It isn’t like this is a new concept, but this movie has more philosophical overtones than horror.

However, it should be noted that it is also prone to making assertions…which it promptly violates or otherwise invalidates. And while there are a few credible performances, most are in that painfully 70’s, almost porn stilted delivery. I will grant Glickenhaus one thing: the cast is actually quite diverse, even for its time.

Now, I’m not recommending this without severe reservations, but it somehow came to my attention (how, I can no longer say) and got onto a long list for days when I had 90 minutes or less to burn uselessly. This certainly qualified. I actually found myself intrigued and curious, though ultimately disappointed, by the plot. But when it’s that short and the historical lookback alone is fascinating, I didn’t chock it up to a complete loss or even unentertaining. Though, I suspect, it would work better when slightly mentally altered, if you go for that sort of thing.

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Beforeigners

[3 stars]

We can debate under which grouping of the speculative fiction umbrella this series belongs, but there shouldn’t be a doubt that it is solid spec fic in the best sense of the term. Beforeigners takes the time-travel premise and turns it into an entertaining social metaphor of our times. It’s all a bit offbeat, but it takes itself seriously as a police procedural, without ever getting too earnest. But what would you expect from the co-creators of Lilyhammer (Anne Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin)?

Admittedly, there is a bit of rationalization you’ll need to do in order to buy some of the premises. Specifically, whether Stone Age people could adapt and learn modern languages and social/business structures, but the show allows for a several year learning ramp after the set-up. And the big mystery, though not completely explained in this first series, is definitely more complex than it seems at the top.

The policing duo at the heart of the story is Nicolai Cleve Broch (Ragnarok) and Krista Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049). Each has their own personal tales running in parallel and with inevitable clashes into their professional lives. And neither path is entirely easy or straight-forward in its direction. But both performances are nuanced and fun to watch. Kosonen especially.

There are some other nice supporting characters, like Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir’s (Justice League) and Ingunn Beate Øyen, each of who impact Kosonen in different ways.

Ultimately, there is a lot of set up without a huge amount of resolution in the 6 episodes. However, it feels satisfying and promises a huge meal into the second series (in production now). So if you’re looking for something new and different, this may be the series for you.

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