Tag Archives: Historical

The Aftermath

[3 stars]

Most war stories focus on the lead up to conflict or the battles themselves. Very few look at what comes immediately after and how it affects people. Mind you, the “aftermath” in this film is a layered statement rather than simply the months after VE day in bombed-out Hamburg.

The story revolves around three survivors of the conflict, each damaged in different, but overlapping, ways. Keira Knightley (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Alexander Skarsgård (Little Drummer Girl), and Jason Clarke (Serenity) keep the story taut and interesting, even when the events are a little forced at times and obvious at others. Both issues are more due to the adaptation rather than the acting. In compressing the story to fit into a movie, some important moments of change are rushed.

Director James Kent (Inside Men) keeps the story moving and helps the main cast navigate their paths. He also recreated the era and Hamburg with incredible and effective detail. From the opening moments he gives you a sense of the era, the horror, and the desperation. Most of the side characters, however, are a little cliche; there for convenience but without a lot of flesh. Martin Compston (Line of Duty), in particular, is hurt by this, though his screen-wife, Kate Phillips (The Little Stranger), manages to provide depth within the limited script she’s provided.

Even with the few weaknesses in execution, there is enough in the main performances and story to make this worth your time. Watching them attempt to heal their wounds is an affecting and honest tale.

Ms Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries

[3 stars]

This expansion of the Miss Fisher mysteries by Acorn TV isn’t awful, but it isn’t the Miss Fisher we knew and loved. It is simply a fun set of mysteries and characters.

The core issue is the title character. Geraldine Hakewill is fine, but she doesn’t have even a small portion of the energy and charisma that Essie Davis brought to the original character. And though surrounded by a fun group of well-executed characters, she just doesn’t dominate the stories the way she needs to for this role.

Basically, much like The ABC Murders, Acorn is trying to capitalize on a property without being able to deliver the same quality. It is a shame as the story and characters are entertaining…they’re just not what you want or hope for even though it is substantially the same production crew from the original.

Geraldine Hakewill in Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries (2019)

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Amazing Grace

[3 stars]

Aretha! What more do you need to know?

Come to this for the joy of the music and the significance of the moment (not to mention some of the people captured on screen).

OK, to be fair, this is more a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most famous gospel albums of all time than a full documentary.

What you get is a peek at Aretha working, as opposed to just purely performing. You get to see her roots, some of the depth of her beliefs, and a little of her family and background.

Recorded live with an audience, Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors, Eyes Wide Shut) tried to capture the event and energy. This is not Pollack’s Stop Making Sense. It doesn’t create a story, it is unable to really capture the feeling of live gospel, and the quality of the visuals is pretty grainy (though the sound is restored nicely). There are reasons for all this, not the least that it is from 1972 and many technical issues plagued the shooting and post-production. Aretha herself never wanted this movie released, even after they solved many of the sound problems; no one in public knows what her objections were.

But it is released now and it is a gift to her public. It isn’t her best performance. The music isn’t the most exciting, nor is it organized in a way to pull you along or take you on an emotional journey. It simply is. It is a visual album that is a balm to the nerves and delight to your heart, even if it isn’t your type of music or even your religion (for the record, it is neither to me). But it is worth your time.

Summer of Rockets

[3 stars]

The first three-quarters of this limited series are both intriguing and engaging. We are introduced to a complex group of people in an intriguing historical period and provided just enough plot to keep us wondering where the heck things are going to go. And then it takes a turn. It is a fair turn in retrospect, but the resolution and motivations are, at best, forced.

Despite the sort of non-ending provided, the rest of the ride is actually interesting and the cast is chock full of solid performers. Among them is Keeley Hawes (Mrs. Wilson) who appears to be in just about every BBC show these days. But the tale revolves more around Toby Stephens’ (Vexed, Lost in Space) Petrukhin, a Russian-Jewish inventor trying to make a place for himself and his family in 1950s British society. A far from easy task.

Along with Linus Roache (Mandy), Lucy Cohu (Ripper Street), Mark Bonnar (Shetland), Timothy Spall (Finding Your Feet), Claire Bloom, as well as a nice Sophomore turn for Lily Sacofsky (Bancroft) and freshman outing for Rose Ayling-Ellis, we get a look at many facets of British life, fears, and prejudices of the era. While not ground- breaking, putting a rising Jewish family at the center of the story provides a lens that we haven’t often seen through in these stories.

Whether the plot feels fair and complete to you I imagine will be a matter of expectation. I suggest you just roll with it. This starts as an intimate story and ends the same. But it certainly has a lot of meat in the middle to work with and keep you wondering and wanting more.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Best of Enemies

[3 stars]

When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.

Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.

But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience.  To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?

But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.

If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.

All Is True

[3.5 stars]

It is fair to say that if anyone currently had the right to take on Shakespeare, the man, in his later years, it is Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express). From his early launch into the public eye with Henry V and his unedited Hamlet, not to mention all his other adaptations on stage and film, he owns the Bard. Even Julie Taymor (Tempest), who has assailed his works as well, isn’t as immersed on all sides of the process like Branagh, who has adapted, directed, and played the roles. That isn’t to say there aren’t others (the Donmar Warehouse comes to mind) as well, but in scope and depth, again Branagh has earned the right and has the deep, personal affinity to do it.

And Branagh brings all that experience, love, and ability to bear on this fictionalized look at Shakespeare’s last years. But, that said, he isn’t the best actor of the movie, despite tackling the title role. That actually goes to Judy Dench (Victoria & Abdul) as Shakespeare’s wife and his screen daughters Lydia Wilson (Requiem) and Kathryn Wilder who all have very complicated and fraught relationships with the men around them.

Ben Elton’s script is a brilliant bit of detective and fictional effort to explain everything from Shakespeare’s will to his final years sans quill.  It is clever and entertaining, but also unwilling to let anything go. A point in fact, Ian McKellan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) has possibly one of the most beautiful and most unnecessary scenes in the movie. It would have been a shame to cut it, but cut it Branagh should have. It did nothing to advance the main, or even secondary, plots and was just a possible explanation of one of the most enigmatic collections of Shakespeare’s writing. Interesting? Sure. But not part of the movie that made it to screen.

How great figures exit this world has long fascinated people. The truth is that most just fade out of public scrutiny until they simply disappear. This film provides a sympathetic framework to understand one of the most celebrated and long-lasting writers in human history. It is sumptuously filmed and honestly delivered. It isn’t perfect, but it is a delight…especially so if you know his works and the various hypotheses that have followed him through the centuries. It is most definitely worth your time and worth it on the big screen if you can see it there. I barely caught it myself during its brief expansion. But, even on the small screen, make time for it if you have any interest in the Bard at all… or just to see some truly remarkably subtle performances.

Hotel Mumbai

[3.5 stars]

Have you ever watched an action film and wanted to shout at the characters for monologuing or otherwise doing stupid stuff rather than just taking the shot? That isn’t an issue in this depiction of the 2008 Taj Hotel siege. It is an utterly chilling recounting of the events executed (literally) with a cold and realistic eye. The terrorists truly don’t see their victims as human and callously dispatch them with calm and self-righteous demeanors.

The result is an incredible inside-view of events, at least in feeling. As a first feature film as director and co-writer, Anthony Maras truly pulled no punches. Against the backdrop of violence, he provides a few people for us to invest in and follow. Among them Armie Hammer (Never Look Away), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin), Dev Patel (Lion), Tilda Cobham-Hervey (The Kettering Incident),  Nazanin Boniadi (Counterpart), and Anupam Kher (Mrs. Wilson) each have stories for us to follow. Some of their narratives feel a little forced and overly contrived, but the truth is also that surviving such an event is usually due to a collection of odd circumstances.

Maras, in an attempt to provide some sense of completion and hope at the end of the film, stretches out the final moments a little too much. The ending could have been trimmed considerably and still provided the needed sense of relief and whatever solace was going to be possible. In fact, the end sequence had the only real moments that dragged during the story.

I want to stress again that this is not an entertainment. It is a fascinating look at a horrific event, but don’t go into it lightly or expecting a actioner with the good guys spouting quips and homemade grenades. It is a true horror show, all the more so because it really happened and because we are not shielded from the nature of the evil. In fact, you barely can comprehend them enough to even react to them…they are a cold force of nature beyond the understanding of sane, empathetic individuals. Like I said, not for a night’s entertainment on the couch, but still a story worth understanding when the world is what it is today.

Farinelli

[3 stars]

Stardom has been with humanity since its earliest days. What excites the masses shifts, but there is always something that captures imagination. In the 18th century, for a time, it was castrati; singers sans balls who’s life altering choices were made for them as young boys. Farinelli was one of the biggest. Singers, that is.

Though made in 1994, the movie resonates with current tastes and reflections. From the camp to the glitz, you can’t watch this without thinking of Freddie Mercury’s story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody, the docu Studio 54, or even reflect on the careers of Bowie and Elton John. This is Glam Rock in its infancy.

The story, however, is more of an opera: overblown and extreme. But the film struggles a little on bringing us into it all. In large part that is because it is more than halfway through before you start to understand the character’s motivations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the final moments and thinking about it more that it came into full clarity. That either makes director and co-writer Gérard Corbiau’s result very clever art or a poorly constructed film. It isn’t an easy call to make on that point.

Stefano Dionisi’s Farinelli is everything you’d expect. His brother, taken on by Enrico Lo Verso is more cryptic. The two play off each other well…but it is a curious and fraught relationship that is as much confusing and it is sibling battles. Arrayed against them is the better known actor (stateside), Jeroen Krabbé, who tackles a much-conflicted Handel. Some of the film smacks of Amadeus because of this conflict, but the stories, while philosophically often sharing ideas, are very different.

This would be a really fascinating movie to remake today. Given the sexual politics that have dominated so much of the news, not to mention the tensions mounting around the world, there is fertile ground for both spectacle and commentary. For now, however, we’ll have to settle for this incarnation of it, which hits on many historical accuracies, even if that isn’t its real intent or focus.