Tag Archives: Historical

Water

[4 stars]

This much recognized tale by director and co-writer Deepa Mehta is more than just an historical. In fact, despite its setting in 1938 India, it is disturbingly reflective of today with its abuse by the class system, treatment of women, religious fundamentalism, and general social unrest. And I don’t mean reflective of India, I mean worldwide. But commentary aside, the story alone is compelling.

In her first and only film to date, Sarala Kariyawasam, holds this film together with her young and intense presence. As a young widow (at 7 years of age) she is forced to live out the rest of her life cloistered. The collection of women she now lives with are faced with her indomitable spirit and the chaos she brings to their ordered world.

In parallel, John Abraham (Dhoom) and Lisa Ray (Endgame) provide a separate and adult focus of life and possibility. It is a tale we’ve seen before, in many ways, but one that doesn’t tend to get old if you like romance and believe love is more important than rules. That doesn’t mean this is an easy set of choices and the outcome is far from sure, but these actors bring you along the journey and help you believe the choices.

Overall, of course, there is the title: Water. The element here represents life, magic, love, and so much more and so much less. I am curious now about its companion pieces that I didn’t know about: Fire and Earth. Water completes the trilogy, which I can see given the ending, but I have no sense of the overall journey and shape from only this single movie.

This is a beautiful and emotionally frustrating film with a lot to say about the past and about the present. Definitely worth your time if you missed it till now.

Water

queers.

[4 stars]

A truly wonderful and surprising collection of eight, 20-minute monologues commissioned to celebrate the the anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the first official step in England to decriminalize homosexuality. Each monologue tackles a different decade from 1917 up through the present. Cleverly, they do not progress in chronological order, but rather bounce from from 1917 to 1994 to 1987, 1957, 1967, 1941, 1929, and finally 2016.

The effect is one of historical context for each of the eras providing heartfelt stories without making it feel like a history lesson. And the finale, in 2016, works as commentary overall, though only through the reflection of the rest of the pieces. I laughed and cried often through the sequence thanks to mostly wonderful writing and great performances.

Originally performed at the Old Vic, these were also adapted and recorded for the BBC. The monologues succeed on different levels, some being much better than others. But each monologue captures its decade in poignant ways and every one is a frank conversation of the joys, fears, and dreams of the speaker of that time.

Driven by Mark Gatiss (Denial, Doctor Who), who also was one of the writers, the production collected up some solid talent to deliver the stories: Alan Cumming (Eyes Wide Shut), Rebecca Front (Humans), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones), Kadiff Kirwan (Chewing Gum), Russell Tovey (The Night Manager), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Ben Whishaw (Lilting)and Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). If nothing else, it is a 2.6 hour acting and scripting class.

Make time for these if you get the chance. It is almost entirely focused on the gay experience rather than the lesbian or otherly identified, but the sense of otherness, the sense of triumph, the sense of love and need is universal.

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Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Against the Law

[3 stars]

It is sometimes hard to remember how much the world has changed in the last 60 years. Despite recent setbacks, in general the world and humanity have matured as the distance and time between global points has diminished, and become more accepting of those around them. The sense of “otherness” is becoming common place rather than exotic. To survive, we have realized that we must embrace those around us rather than fight or feeling threatened. Hey, I did say “in general.”

But back as recently as the 1950’s, homosexuality was still a crime in most of the world, punishable by prison. Peter Wildeblood, a London journalist in that era, was caught up in the hypocrisy of his time and was part of the infamous Lord Montagu of Beaulieu trial.  Alongside Alan Turing, one of the other notable attacks on so-called inverts at the time.

Wildeblood, in this portrayal, is given life by Daniel Mays (Byzantium). He is the story, though he has some nice support from those around him. And, inter-cut into the movie are interviews with men from the era who recount their experiences and reactions. It is an interesting counterpoint but it does make the rest feel a bit more clinical than emotional, despite a rousing conclusion to the film as it comes into the present.

After prison, Wildeblood fought in the only way he knew how, by writing about his life, the trial, and declaring himself to the world and, specifically, to the Wolfenden committee. The committee ultimately declared “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.”

While this seemingly groundbreaking report was delivered on 4 Sept, 1957, it would be almost 10 years before the laws in Britain would begin to change. On 27 July, 1967, homosexuality between consenting adults of 21 years or older was decriminalized. And it wouldn’t be until 1994 that the law was brought into full parity with non-homosexual relationships and the age of consent dropped to age 16.  There is a wonderful overview of of non-conforming individuals in a series of monologues produced by Mark Gatiss (Denial) also in this film, called “queers.” which I highly recommend; writer Writer Brian Fillis (An Englishman in New York ) also wrote one of the monologues in queers.

Against the Law is an effective, if not entirely a solid film. Its intention is to educate and remind. On those counts it does admirably. And Mays provides a sympathetic focus, though a somewhat stunted arc as a character due to the structure. Still, I can recommend this based on his performance and the impact of the included interviews.

Product Details

Man in an Orange Shirt

[3 stars]

Man in an Orange Shirt manages to be something different than your standard coming out story. First, it spans two time periods (1940s/50s and the present), following a family line. Second, it looks beyond just the personal turmoil of the men involved.

Director Michael Samuels had some advantage tackling this kind of story having previously delivered Any Human Heart, which also spanned decades and characters. But the surprise for me here was was Patrick Gale’s script. He managed the subtleties and range of characters so well even though this was his first major script. While it feels like a standard tale at first, it takes some rather interesting turns by the end to pull everything together. It is at once romantic and bluntly honest and cruel, though it ultimately is a tale of coming to terms rather than a tragedy.

The cast has a lot to do with the success of the 2-part drama. Joanna Vanderham (What Maisie Knew), James McArdle (The Worricker Trilogy), and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Emerald City), from the WWII era are a wonderful collection of contradictory desires and beliefs. In the present, Vanessa Redgrave (Foxcatcher), Julian Morris (Pretty Little Liars), and David Gyasi (Containment) capture current times without losing the thread to the past. 

There are also a few nice, smaller roles with Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van), Julian Sands (Extraordinary Tales), and Adrian Schiller (The Danish Girl). 

There are many stories about being closeted and accepting who you are. This isn’t limited to the LBGTQ experience, but that is the primary focus of stories of this sort. Man in an Orange Shirt opens itself to a broad range of emotional issues to bring you something more and different in the genre without losing its emotional impact.

Man in an Orange Shirt: The Complete Series [DVD]

Their Finest

[4 stars]

Let’s start with the important part: you wan to see this film, despite any of its weaknesses. As well as being topical, it satisfies in unexpected ways. Now on with the rest of it…

Earlier this year there was another Dunkirk-based story, though from quite a different angle than Christopher Nolan’s. Lone Scherfig’s (An Education) takes on the event after-the-fact and from the propaganda office side, using it as an inspirational tale for the world. It becomes both an insightful and entertaining look inside film-making as well as into the politics and culture of WWII London during the Blitz. 

Gemma Arterton (Girl With All the Gifts) puts on a great Welsh accent and a delightful naivtee tempered with an inner strength and bruised heart that comes together in a satisfying and intriguing character. She spars with Sam Claflin (Me Before You) in amusing ways as the two find their way to one another in the midst of the chaos of the war, their lives, and their jobs.

Rachel Stirling (Bletchley Circle) and Bill Nighy (Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are the most notable characters supporting the two leads. Both provide some good humor and subplot. In addition, Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), Jake Lacey (Miss Sloane), Eddie Marsan (A Brilliant Young Mind), and Helen McCrory (Fearless) fill out the time, city, and touch points necessary to complete the tale.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, and I did, the adaptation is rather meandering. Gaby Chiappe’s first feature script is ultimately effective, but not crisp. It comes back together well, but the focus is all over the place, making it feel like it wanted to be a mini-series more than a single movie. This is no surprise as she is primarily known for TV series scripts (typically good ones), but it definitely shows promise for future films. I’d love to see what she does next. 

Trust the journey Their Finest lays out for you and take the ride. It will take its time getting there, but it does get there. I can’t tell if I like how it was constructed or if my misgivings are simply expectation highlighted by the commentary provided in the story itself (in terms of what audiences want). However, both in performance and message, this is a movie worth the time invested on several levels.

Their Finest

Sylvia Scarlett

[2 stars] Way back in 1935 Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember) were to meet for the first time on screen. The results were not what you’d expect given their better remembered history. In fact, there is no romance between the two.

The object of Hepburn’s attention is not Grant but rather Brian Aherne. She and Grant are really more intended as comedy duo along the lines of Abbot and Costello or William Powell and Myrna Loy. But the movie really doesn’t work very well. Even Edmund Gwenn, who plays Hepburn’s father, is wasted in this film as he flails about and attains no sympathy from us, starting with the first scene. 

So, why watch this film at all? Well, it has three interesting aspects to it. Primarily, Hepburn is dressed as a boy for a good part of the film. It is intended to lead to hijinx and hilarity of mistaken intentions and confused sexuality (all with a laugh, of course). It didn’t work then. It works a little better now as gender roles and societal norms have relaxed. A little better. Hepburn is, mostly, a strong character in this story. But there are no guts to the script and barely a good joke, though Hepburn does a game job of jumping back and forth in her makeup and movement. And with Mel Berns make-up, Hepburn almost passes, looking like a young David Bowie in her drag.

The second bit of trivia for this film is Grant. It was, essentially, his breakout. Not with the film itself, but it was the first time his trademark personality on screen was exhibited and noticed. It led to his subsequent stardom.

The final interesting aspect of this film, especially given this summer’s misfires at the box office, was that Sylvia Scarlett was a massive bomb (losing about 350,000 or over 6M in 2017 dollars) when it released. It almost cost Hepburn her career. Three years later she would return triumphantly, and with Grant again, in Bringing Up Baby (followed in quick succession by Holiday, Philadelphia Story), and then Woman of the Year.

You don’t often get to see what didn’t work from years past. For good reason they tend to fade and be forgotten. In this case, the star power kept it alive until it found an audience, however tenuously. You’d never expect that George Cukor, who would go on to direct My Fair Lady, Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib, just to name a few, was at the helm of this damaged ship. But he did see the spark in the pairing of Grant and Hepburn and got to use it later on.

Sylvia Scarlett is not a great film, even in retrospect. But it is a fascinating piece of film history, with some moments to recommend it. I have to admit, I had to skip a small chunk of the film near the beginning because it was just so uncomfortably bad. But curiosity had me finish it. I also wonder if, in title and nod to theme, they weren’t playing on the previous year’s Marlene Dietrich success: The Scarlet Empress, but I don’t think anyone is left to ask that one.

 

 

This Film is Not Yet Rated

Even I’m appalled that it has taken me 11  years to finally see this documentary about an industry that I’ve been part of most of my life. Especially so as I’ve always felt the ratings system was bogus (at best). Despite its early, stated intentions to end the censorship era, the advent of the MPAA and the rating system simply shifted and made shadier the efforts to control content by a minority band of self-appointed moralists. If that statement left you in the dust, then you definitely need to see this movie.

The sad truth, however, is that even after 11 years nothing has really changed since this Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) documentary hit screens. The MPAA hasn’t changed tactics or efforts at all. They are still beholden to the same masters (studios) and are secretive and capricious (and even bigoted) in their decisions. (See 3 Generations for a recent example. )

On the up side, the lay of the land around the industry, in particular with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, has provided distribution avenues that didn’t exist at the time this docu was made. Also, the rise of “Director’s” and Unrated editions of films, only just coming to prominence when this docu was made, allows for the intended vision of films to find their audience. All of this doesn’t nullify the very real concerns or issues raised, but it points to potential ways around the gatekeepers from an artistic point of view. It would be a great follow-up to see how the financial landscape and decisions may be changing (though even Netflix is starting to scale back after years of risk).

Not Yet Rated exhibits Dick’s devotion to the truth as well as his sense of humor and commitment to his subject. It is a set of qualities that has garnered him several awards and nominations. This particular documentary struggles with its narrative, but not its entertainment nor its ability to inform. Which is to say that while it all comes together and there is a lot of information and revelation, the focus is a little soft. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck those letters come from on your entertainment, how they are selected, and how we compare to the rest of the world, you need to see this film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X