Tag Archives: Historical

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.

The Scarlet Hour

[4 stars]

Remember when films were ephemeral events…before it was all stored and streamable from the cloud? How exciting is it that we’re still in an era where movies can be rediscovered after vanishing from screens for decades. Thanks to The Palm Springs Noir Fesitival one of these, The Scarlet Hour, was presented with a pristine new print supplied by Paramount. And what a treat.

Noir is definitely a matter of taste. The style is delightfully (or painfully) arch and the character types are amusing or insulting, depending on your point of view. But when lines like, “If I were dead, you couldn’t take me to the morgue,” get bandied about, I lean more toward the amused entertainment side of interpretation.

But this isn’t just about femme fatales, malleable good guys, and mustache twirling bad guys, not to mention just simply bad choices, it is about moral indignation and escapism. And, when done well or with the right cast, a rewatchable classic.

OK, Scarlet Hour, despite its pedigree director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) isn’t quite a classic. But it has a number of aspects going for it, thanks to Curtiz’s ability to discover new talent. Scarlet Hour boasts several new, or relatively unknown, actors at the time including Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon, and Jody Lawrance.

But it is Elaine Stritch (Just Shoot Me), in her film debut, that steals this movie utterly. She is the most believable and displays the trademark wit and timing that would distinguish her career for the next 60 years.

In addition, a number of recognizable faces of the time were around. Among them, James Gregory, E.G. Marshall, Edward Binns, David Lewis, and Richard Deacon. Each elicited applause or sighs of appreciation upon their appearance from the audience.

The movie knows what it is…even going so far as to have a copy of White Christmas in a bargain box at a record store in one scene. It doesn’t apologize for the heightened emotions and choices. It gobbles down the genre while still providing some nice variations and unexpected moments. It probably helped that Frank Tashlin adapted his own novel for the script, with the help of John Meredyth Lucas and Alford Van Ronkel. The final moments are all very much in question as the story unspools. It isn’t entirely satisfying, but it is certainly genre-acceptable.

There are many reasons to see this flick if you get the chance. The actors, the director, the silly fun of it all. But it is also a piece of history and a lens into time and style. And Curtiz distills a lot of it nicely and with a bit of a knowing wink.

The Scarlet Hour Poster

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

[4 stars]

Few movies can sustain 3+ hours of narrative. Fewer still can do so absent some amount of action. Avengers: Endgame had story, but also a fair amount of pure adrenaline moments to keep it all going. Never Look Away has only story and still manages to remain riveting through to the end. It does employ, like other longer films, a somewhat episodic approach to revive the story every so often. In this case, it has three distinct chapters that cover the childhood and young adult life of Tom Schilling’s (Woman in Gold) Kurt.

Schilling, along with Sebastian Koch (Bel Canto), dominate the story that starts in 1937 Germany (outside Dresden, no less) and tracks through the early 1960s. I had no idea how writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (The Tourist) was going to keep me interested for so long and through so many frustrating situations, but the script is nicely segmented and filled with enough genuine emotion and moments to keep you going.

Supporting roles by Oliver Masucc (Dark), Saskia Rosendahl, and Paula Beer were also a help. It is easy to see why this was an Oscar contender, not to mention other awards. It packs a punch without, usually, using a hammer to do so. It is an honest story of the war, but it is mostly about the meaning and communication of art. Where springs the impetus? What is an artist trying to communicate? Should they be trying to communicate? Is it just a craft or something more? All highly philosophical stuff, but they are discussions that are happening around the romance and dangers of Schilling’s life, which remains the focus.

This is also just a simple story of deep, abiding love of all kinds: familial, romantic, erotic, ideological, political. The world created by von Donnersmarck is seductively drawn and subtly appointed. And its central message in the title is not so much a challenge as an invitation and reminder that life is happening. Even with its somewhat ironic penultimate scene, its point is made. Though I will say that while I had anticipated and awaited the final moments of the film, it didn’t quite reach the pinnacle my emotions wanted, even if it did logically. That small gap was more my desire for complete closure on one of the threads, which was left to the imagination rather than on-screen resolution. Missing that, however, my anticipation made me trip over the last moment and caused cracks in the nearly perfectly constructed journey for me. And yet, I’d still highly recommend the film; it will surprise you.

One slight warning…some of the subtitles seemed to just blink on for a split second before vanishing. Honestly, I was able to fill in the gaps very easily, but it was frustrating. This is the second film I’ve run into this and I’m not sure why (it doesn’t appear to be a setting I can control, like the positioning on the screen). This seems an easy thing to avoid and quality control should be picking this kind of gaff up. It certainly knocked me out of the story more than once. Had this been a lesser movie, it probably would have lost my faith completely.

Rocketman

[4.5 stars]

Are you more interested in the truth or the lie? What sets this biopic apart from other musical tales is that Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) wrote a fantasy that tells the truth rather than a fantasy that replaces it. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, fun as it was, it was a fantasy that obscured the truth and was empty of message. Rocketman is a soaringly beautiful but honest account, in idea if not specifics, about John’s life growing up and, finally, accepting himself and getting sober. And, of course, there is the music.

Taron Egerton (Robin Hood)delivers an Elton John that is charismatic, warts and all, showing yet again his ability and range. And, unlike Malik’s Freddy Mercury, Egerton actually sings the role (though admittedly John’s voice is much easier to replicate than Mercury’s).

Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) reteamed with Egerton for this musical. He took Hall’s script and made it sing, literally and figuratively. It is a non-stop reimagining of John’s catalog of songs, giving many of them new life. Just to see John’s debut at the Troubadour as conceived by Fletcher, Hall, and Egerton is worth the price of admission. It is a perfect example of fantasy making reality more real. If I have any gripe about how the story was told, it is that chronology is challenging…to be fair, it isn’t clear if John knew what year it was at that point either, so perhaps it was more a disorienting choice rather than a gap.

While Egerton is certainly at the center of all that is Rocketman, he is surrounded by talent that completes the story. Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon) as his mother, Steven Mackintosh (Robot Overlords) as his father, Jamie Bell (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as lyracist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden (The Bodyguard) as John’s manager and lover, and Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country) as his grandmother all add important aspects and deliver great performances. Howard, in particular, walks a terribly difficult line to bring John’s mother to the screen in a consistent and believable way.

The story is exhilarating and will have you rethinking the pop phenomena and music that is Elton John. His songs may be pap, most of the time, but it is pap that wrote a good part of the score for world over the last several decades. And his story, as cautionary or exemplar is worth seeing. This is the honesty I wanted from Bohemian Rhapsody which had no sense of truth to it, even if it was entertaining. I’m glad Fletcher got a second bite at the apple, after finishing Bohemian for screen, to do this kind of story right. Rocketman is triumphant in the right ways, even if its underbelly is quite a bit more scuffed by life.

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.