Tag Archives: LGBT

Agatha and the Truth of Murder

[3.5 stars]

If you like Christie, this is a must-see story. If you’re a mystery fan, it depends on your tolerance for a solidly standard BBC mystery with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. The movie stands on its own nicely, regardless of your familiarity with Christie and her works, but there is more to get out of it the more you know.

Many stories and speculations have been made about the 11 days that Agatha Christie disappeared in 1926.  Even the facts are still debated and discussed because no definitive answer has ever been documented (one theory, another theory). Of the fictions posited, several, including a Doctor Who episode, presume she went off to solve a real-life murder, because it would be the most amusing assumption.

This latest look at that real-life mystery is really rather fun. Tom Dalton’s script is clever and nicely reflective of Christie’s work while remaining both a good mystery and very self-aware. Christie, played nicely by Ruth Bradley (Humans), gets to learn about the real world and and her public before our eyes. It is a delightful performance that is both strong and vulnerable, and even a bit naive about the world.

Joined by Pippa Haywood (The Bodyguard), the two dive into a cold case with, of course, many suspects and an obscure motive. A perfect Christie set up with a solid supporting cast. Of note are two character actors, Tim McInnerny (The Hippopotamus) and Ralph Ineson (The Hurricane Heist). Each delivers a number of unexpected moments and levels to what could have been dull roles. Some credit to that success is the script, but the actors had to sell it, and they do.

The story does take some liberties with the truth, but nothing that is overly concerning. And director Terry Loane shows he has learned a lot during his second-unit years, keeping the tale moving along crisply, and packing a lot into the 90ish minutes of the run. This may not be as slickly appointed as many of the recent remakes of Christie’s work, but it is very well done and entertaining.

Father Brown (series 7)

[3 stars]

Father Brown has been around for a while now. They are sweetly entertaining cozy mysteries, much like Miss Marple but lacking some of the complications and not really worth calling out as something special. This newest series remains in the cozy territory, but our slightly secular Father B has suddenly become rather humanist and, somehow, even more religious at the same time. Every episode, save one, has him suggesting absolution via confession…not quite in the booth so much as the witness stand. Still it is a marked shift.

So too are the plots. Nearly every episode is a morality play tethered very much to the present, even though it is anchored in the past. The show has always shined a light on hypocrisy, but these plots go even further and are period only in their trappings. And it is clear the series was set up like stations of the cross; one episode per message. Only the finale cleaves fully to past series traditions in plot and, because of that, feels a little out of place with the remaining 9 episodes. It isn’t a bad finale…in fact, it is a rather satisfying one…but it is of a very different tenor, which makes the series arc a little unbalanced.

The cast remains the same, with Mark Williams (Early Man) running the presbytery with assistance from Sorcha Cusack (River), and  Emer Kenny (Pramface) and Nancy Carroll (Prime Suspect (1973)) hanging about. In the constabulary, John Burton gets a bit of an upgrade this series in focus. Only Jack Deam has devolved in development, becoming even more a pompous ass than he was, despite a few special moments. His character causes more than a little teeth-grinding thanks to his lack of growth and awareness. But even with that miss, the the show runners have imparted an interesting breath of fresh air into the show in this series, without mucking up what made it work in the first place.

Strawberry and Chocolate

[3 stars]

This is a decidedly low-budget affair with moments of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocre and painful presentation. But those moments really do make the time worthwhile, as numerous festivals and the Oscars agreed.

Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz make an unlikely pairing of friends from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cruz is a true believer in the Communist party in Cuba, while Perugorría is a bit more aware of the realities of life and politics…not to mention a gay man in a macho society.  With a bit of help from the neighbor, Mirta Ibarra, the three become friends and help one another heal.

The story that plays out is more than a little forced, but the commentary and emotions that are surfaced are as applicable today as they were over 20 years ago when this film was made. The relationships that form are genuine, even if the ages of the actors and backstories for the characters are a little off. As a peek inside Cuban culture, and loving look at people generally, it is a funny and heartwarming journey as director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate contribution to film.

 

The Favourite

[3.5 stars]

This makes three for three highly noticed, and very different, films for director Yorgos Lanthimos who hit the cinema consciousness with The Lobster followed by Killing of a Sacred Deer.  The first was surreal look at love, while the second was dark examination of family, life, and suburbia (or perhaps something else…honestly that one baffled me).

Despite the wildly different styles, there are some commonalities in his work. First, he gets great talent to bring his vision to life. In this case Olivia Colman (The Night Manager) and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) reunite with Lanthimos to bring us two very different women. Colman as Queen Anne is a bundle of emotional issues, but with the power to move continents. Weisz, as her long-time friend, confidant, and adviser is either a Machiavellian blight on England’s rule, or Anne’s and her country’s protector from a ill-prepared monarch. Into this steps Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), a fallen aristocrat, and cousin to Weisz, trying to survive. Dark hilarity ensues.

And that is the second aspect of commonality for Lanthimos: dark humor. It is a language he revels in and that suffuses his stories. Supporting that humor from the sidelines are Nicholas Hoult (Equals), Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Boy Erased), and James Smith (In the Loop), but this is very much the women’s movie.

One of the other striking commonalities for Lanthimos’s movies are the endings…or lack of them. His three most recent offerings all have contemplative endings that are open to interpretation. While he wrote Lobster and Sacred Deer, Davis and McNamara’s script for the Favourite fits comfortably with these other two at the final credits. I would say that the end of this movie is a bit clearer and has some powerful commentary, but also some aspects that left me pondering the meaning. That open end is likely pure Lanthimos as it is about the presentation rather than the dialogue. Honestly, it is the ending that dropped my rating of the overall film, which is otherwise an incredibly entertaining tale of court politics with enough of a contemporary flare to reach a wide audience and powerhouse acting to sell it.

This isn’t quite the laugh-fest I had hoped for when I sat down, but I did enjoy it a great deal. Colman, in particular, delivers a wonderful performance, only bits of which were spoiled by the trailers. That isn’t to diminish Weisz or Stone’s equally strong performances, but Colman ultimately controls this story.

Lanthimos continues to prove himself capable of delivering gripping, dark stories about people that entertain and make you think. I would still prefer slightly less cryptic endings, but the journey is worth the uncertainty at the end.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

[3.5 stars]

Watching a train wreck occur is not something that usually appeals to me. But this painfully honest depiction of Lee Israel’s adventure in forgery is a fascinating look at what someone is capable of if sufficiently desperate and full of a sense of entitlement. It isn’t a pretty picture, but it is packed with bleak and dark humor served perfectly by Melissa McCarthy (The Happytime Murders) and Richard E. Grant (The Hitman’s Bodyguard). Their performances are at once moving and disturbing, and not just a little bit funny.

McCarthy, all to often goes for broad, slapstick humor. I’m sure it pays the bills, but it is wonderful to see her use her real skills…those that make her comedy work so well…to give us something a bit more memorable and serious. Grant, as well, creates an indelible character that lives on well after the movie in your mind. Both are worth consideration of all the awards nods they’ve wracked up, and I expect they will be seeing more.

While these two dominate the story, supporting performances by Dolly Wells (Boundaries), Jane Curtain, and Anna Deavere Smith (Black-ish) help push along the story solidly. In fact the recreation of NYC of the early 80s, particularly in the circles they traveled, is spot on.

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is no stranger to darker material that needs to be handled with emotional care. The script by Holofcener and Whitty helps her out by finding a wonderful through-line that doesn’t feel forced or manipulated, even though it is obviously a fictionalization of the true events. Impressive for two writers without a many credits behind them. It never blinks and never makes an excuse for either main character. They are who they are…the title tells you everything you need to know about their attitudes.

You’ll be hearing about this film all through awards season, so make time for it. It will entertain, even with its dark filter, and it certainly is an unexpected ride.

Welcome to Marwen

[4.5 stars]

It’s easy and obvious to go to the musicals, the comedies, and the action films over the holidays. But if you don’t make time for this most unique and wonderful of stories, you’re cheating yourself.

Welcome to Marwen is entertaining, challenging, and hopeful. And a lot of the reason for that success is Steve Carell (Battle of the Sexes), who continues to prove his mettle as a serious actor. In this incarnation he is as vulnerable and powerful as ever; his performance will rip out your heart and hand it back to you reinforced.

Along with Carell are several women, some of whom barely, if ever, show up as anything other than dolls. Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) and Leslie Mann (Rio 2) are chief among those in his real life that need be mentioned. Both have engaging stories of their own that intersect with Carell’s Hogancamp, but it is their way of dealing with him that makes them stand out. Though Gwendoline Christie (The Darkest Minds) has a wonderful cameo that really pops as well.

The rest of the cast, particularly those that appear mostly or only as dolls are good, but they are very much there to move the plot along more than anything else. Even Diane Kruger’s (In the Fade) Deja is more impetus than real. That doesn’t diminish the work of any of the men or women, such as Janelle Monáe (Moonlight), it simply acknowledges where they live in the story.

Robert Zemeckis (The Walk) has finally found the perfect story for his motion capture tech. The odd flatness of the rendering is perfect for dolls. The effect feeds into the experience rather than fighting it as has often been the case in his previous movies like Polar Express or Beowulf. The story itself is also a nice match for his emotional sensibility. Zemeckis unfolds the story at its own pace, bringing us to a cathartic and bittersweet end that is both unavoidable and wonderful. The fact that it is also a true story only makes it more magical and inspiring.

The only reason I couldn’t give this 5 stars was that there are some dropped threads in the otherwise brilliant script. It takes it just a tad off perfect, but doesn’t diminish the story. This isn’t like anything else you’re likely to see this season, or any season. Make time for Marwen. Let it open your mind and your heart.

Mary Queen of Scots

[3 stars]

In a story with a titular queen, it was odd that it barely passed the Bechdel test. In some ways it makes sense, since a lot of the plot is about how the men were reacting to the women in power and scheming to control them. But I would have preferred a bit more about the women themselves.

Soairse Ronan’s (The Seagull) Mary offers up a sense of strength and intelligence we don’t see in her counterpart, Elizabeth. Due to the script, Margot Robbie’s (Terminal) Elizabeth comes off weak and controlled. And the final moments for each woman hardened my sense of these assessments, though Elizabeth’s is open to interpretation. Given that that the director, Josie Rourke, runs the Donmar Warehouse I expected a bit more balance. But, then again, it was written by a man, Beau Willimon (The Ides of March) and it often feels that way.

There are important roles for men in this story as well, though it is heavily through the eyes of the two queens. Guy Pearce (Spinning Man), Adrian Lester (London Spy), and David Tennant (Jessica Jones) in Elizabeth’s court stand out nicely. Pearce for his weaselly way and Tennant for his chilling Rasputin for the Masses delivery. On Mary’s side of the water, Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), Ismael Cruz- Córdova (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and James McArdle (Man in an Orange Shirt) are the stand-outs, each for different reasons. Lowden for his craveness, Cruz- Córdova for the layers he adds to Mary and the history (true or not), and McArdle for his believable reversals.

As costume dramas go, this one is beautifully appointed and well filmed. It feels right and real, even if more than a little sanitized. There is nothing spectacularly new in either aspect, but neither do they impede the story. The production values are fairly invisible, which is one of the higher compliments you can make for such a film.

There is a sense of reflection on our current times in the plot. It isn’t as strong as I’d have liked. In fact, it is a little hard to tell if it is more about seeing it through the lens of #metoo and current politics or if it was intended. I honestly suspect it is more about the viewer than the script. There are a few interesting revelations about Mary’s court and life, or at least some nice complications and dark mirrors. However, my knowledge of that era isn’t exhaustive enough to know for sure what was accurate as opposed to dramatically intriguing.

If you like period dramas or are fascinated by this moment in history when two women were in control of England and Scotland and how that inflected their histories, make time for this. The performances are subtle and layered, and the pace of the story will sweep you along. I wish they’d dialed down the hype a little as I’m not sure it lives up to the marketing promise, but it certainly is a solid film that will see at least some technical Oscar nods, if nothing else.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

[3 stars]

This is the second well-received tale of battling gay-conversion to show up this year. What that says about the concerns of the day or the acceptance of people, I’m not sure. But they are both welcome and solid films. And while there are many similarities in subject, the movies are actually very different. Normally I wouldn’t compare two films so directly, but it is almost unavoidable given the subject matter and the proximity of viewing for me.

Boy Erased was a highly focused struggle of a young man and his family among misguided people trying to “help.” It was also a true story. Miseducation is fiction about a young woman who’s been thrown away to arguably less altruistic guides, and who must fend for herself. However, the sense of both films is very real and both leads are strong in their own ways.

Part of the differences that make this movie’s approach important is that Chloë Grace Moretz (Suspiria) is responsible for saving herself. For all intents, she is alone. It allows the story to tackle the concept  of selected family over blood, and the importance of that reality in many LGBTQ lives. Her camp, while full of more freedom than the one presented in Boy Erased, is run by people who are more psychologically evil, too wrapped up in their beliefs to see those around them or any other possible truth.

Unsurprisingly, in both films, the stories pivot on inevitable traumas caused by the re-education camps. Again, the moments are different as are the responses. And here is where the films diverge in character.

Moretz is quietly, if a little unevenly, compelling in her role. The issue with her character feels like a lack of commitment and background in the script. We never really understand her and she barely responds to those around her. Some of that is character choice, but some feels like weak writing and direction by Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) in her Sophomore outing. There are times when a little bit more heightened emotion might have helped, even if Akhavan’s ability to keep things natural was impressive.

And, in the absence of that strong center from Moretz, other characters steal the stage. One of those is Sasha Lane (Hearts Beat Loud), who shines just by walking onto screen. Even in the final moments of the story, Lane tends to pull focus from Moretz. In some ways that is a compliment to Moretz who was unconcerned about having to own the moments, but it does leave the sails a little slack throughout. Emily Skeggs (Mile 22) was another character whose energy was hard to tamp down.

Arrayed against these young adults are Jennifer Ehle (The Fundamentals of Caring) and John Gallagher Jr. (Peppermint). Gallagher is a layered and broken character, but not entirely credible. Ehle, on the other hand, provides the driving energy for the camp and is, sadly, all too believable but her layers are only implied, which was a shame.

Overall, Miseducation arrives with a strong judgement of its characters from the outset, which makes it a little weaker than Boy Erased. I’m not speaking about the point of view so much as the willingness to make all people human, despite their beliefs. Miseducation is still effective at what it intends, and it is certainly worth your time. Also, as an indicator of what the writer/director is capable of, it is an encouraging sign.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

[3.5 stars]

Before you dive into this semi-salacious documentary, be aware that if you want to protect the fantasy version of Hollywood sold by the magazines and interviews, don’t watch this film.

That said, this many years on you’ve probably hear the rumors and the whispers about the stars from the early and middle years of Hollywood. At the center of the truth for a lot them was Scotty Bowers. As a companion to his memoir, Full Service, this documentary looks at the man behind the stories in a frank and, at times, explicit way.

Scotty Bowers appears to have no boundaries and fewer regrets. The stories he relates are both fascinating and sad, both for him and for the people involved. It is a reminder of what happens in the world when people aren’t allowed to be themselves. It is also a reminder that the picture of the world a lot of people hold up as the ideal, that mythical perfect America of the 40s and 50s, is built of utter falsehoods and hypocrites.

This isn’t a typical docu. There isn’t a real thread holding it all together, except a tenuous one around Bowers’ life and motivations. It is more exposè than narrative. But it is an interesting story that peels back layer upon layer, often in uncompromising ways. Identifying how you feel about both Bowers’ life and the fact that he is revealing all, outing the dead, and at least one of the living (watch for that), is far from simple moral math.

Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emporer) has captured glaringly honest, often shocking conversations with Bowers that, over the course of 90 minutes, provide answers, hope…or just simply some interesting yellow press, depending on who you are, what you know, and how you think. If you’re easily offended or don’t really want to know what your icons were up to, walk away and embrace the fantasy. If you’re at all curious about at least one aspect of the truth and why silence is never the answer, give it a spin. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is a fascinating one.

Green Book

[5 stars]

I know it is tempting to just head to the big tentpole movies this time of year. We all need and want distraction, not to mention transportation to something that is just fun. But you need to make time for this small but wonderful gem of a flick.

You may be worried that this is just another biopic about race relations, and it is to a degree. Or that is is manipulative or preachy; it isn’t, though it certainly exposes uncomfortable truths. But what this film is really about is the friendship of two men who know little about each other, but assume a great deal. It is full of humor as well as pathos.

In fact, if you had told me that Peter Farrelly, the director of Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber To could be responsible for such an affecting and effective piece of humor and history, I’d have guffawed. And not in an ironic way. But Farraelly did a brilliant job directing the subject, writing the script (along with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie), and in casting the actors.

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)  and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)  both turn in brilliant and effortless performances. Along with Linda Cardellini (A Simple Favor), Iqbal Theba, and a host of smaller performances, the era, cultures, and story come into sharp relief. And, yes, it is predictable at times, but in a satisfying way; more like delayed gratification than cliché.

Green Book has already started to accrue awards, and I can guarantee you’ll be hearing about it come Oscar time. It is beautifully crafted, balanced, and just honest enough to make its points. More importantly, it stays focused on the relationships rather than the politics (though those come through clearly too).

This is a must see film for its entertainment…the reminder of how little time has passed, and how much still needs to change is just a bonus.

Addendum:  Watching Ali play piano (or fake-play it, as the case is) is a wonder. You honestly can’t tell he isn’t playing. Not just because he spent hours learning the movements with the composer so he could get it right, but because he also nailed the posture and movements both on and off the bench. Unlike Moore’s Bel Canto, Ali’s performance is utterly complete in this respect. That he didn’t pull a La La Land like Gosling doesn’t detract from the performance because it is seamless in every respect.