Tag Archives: Political Drama

The Stand (2021)

[3 stars]

Timing is everything in entertainment and The Stand, well, it couldn’t have picked a worse time. Despite the long anticipation, and the desire to see this epic tale told with the breadth it deserves, watching a story of a pandemic (even if it is just a McGuffin) doesn’t quite ring right at the moment.

But timing isn’t its only issue. The show suffers from all that was good in the book and all that was bad. Some of the casting works nicely, like Amber Heard’s (Aquaman) Nadine, Odessa Young’s (Shirley) Frannie, and even James Marsden’s (Sonic the Hedgehog) Stu. Other characters like Owen Teague’s (It: Chapter Two) Harold Lauder, and Nat Wolff’s (Admission) Lloyd, aren’t credible…and, in fact, Lauder isn’t even afforded some of his evolutions from the book despite the available time in the series.

Other changes to the story, like making Flagg the actual devil and Mother Abigail potentially an angel (though really more of a prophet) removes too much of the interesting aspects and struggles. Part of the real suspense in the book is that people have to choose (including Flagg and Abigail). That Flagg actually has a supernatural hand in causing the pandemic is just so frigging cheap a choice and shows no imagination on the part of the writers. It’s too easy and lets people off the hook. I do admit that Alexander Skarsgard (The Hummingbird Project) is a near-perfect choice for Flagg. Whoopie Goldberg is a bit less perfect as Abigail, but that felt more like the writing than her efforts.

There are also some nice smaller appearances that work nicely. Natalie Martinez (Self/less) gets to have a nice arc. And Brad William Henke (Bright) delivers within the limitations of Tom’s boundaries nicely. Even Ezra Miller’s (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) Trashcan man, for all its outlandishness, works for the need and the part. But Nadine’s story gets rushed at the end.  And the Vegas crew, generally, is just so over the top as to be entirely ridiculous. You never wonder about the outcome. Only the Colorado side feels real and sustainable (which has its own commentary and point eventually).

When the book came out 40+ years ago, it was something really new. That just isn’t the case anymore. And, worse, it feels culturally old. Despite having been updated in time the characters and situations haven’t been updated for a 2020 sensibility in politics, identities, nor culturally. That gap is squarely on the writer’s and directors. While a lot of the plot is sadly timeless, how we deal with one another has changed and the rhythm and language just feels off.

Ultimately, I wish the writers had been willing to really rework the story without losing its main premise and tension. Good vs. Evil doesn’t have to be extremes. In fact, some of the biggest impacts on both sides are often small gestures or choices that ripple out. Sure, we want it to build to a great crescendo, but the series even pulled that moment from us in an odd throwaway, supernatural event that doesn’t even really fit with the rest of the tale. In fact, the choice utterly cheapened all the efforts of the people involved because, ultimately, they didn’t matter. I do like that they had a coda episode that shows that stories just continue, that they don’t end just because of a plot milestone. Using it to create a second climax, another Stand, was clever. However, again, it cheapened everyone else’s choices and lives by forcing the God/Devil fight directly into it all rather than done at a distance. Deus ex machina is not a satisfying solution for a 9 part series, even if it can be used as a point in shorter fare.

Despite some good performances, incredible scope, and solid production values, this version of The Stand still isn’t the one we deserved after so long. Much like Dune, it struggles to find an artist who can breathe life into its rich and complicated world without making it feel like a farce.

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Judas and the Black Messiah

[3.5 stars]

The Black Panthers are a complicated subject. Not just for their own actions and politics but also because of the reason they even existed and the response at the local, state, and federal levels. Director and co-writer Shaka King tackles the subject through the particular thread of Fred Hampton’s life and assassination. And even though the story was done with Hampton’s family and the Panther’s blessing, he does so with honesty and minimal bias. I can’t imagine that was an easy feat.

Interestingly, Hampton, Bobby Seale, Malcom X and the Black Panthers have been in the zeitgeist lately, showing up directly or tangentially in One Night in Miami, Small Axe, and Trial of the Chicago 7, as well as thematically in many other films. And, though unplanned, it’s important to notice that this film is releasing about a month after insurrectionists, led by white supremacists and incited by the president, stormed the Capital. Certainly puts an unexpected patina on it all.

The story, is told primarily through the eyes of Bill O’Neal, given oily life by LaKeith Stanfield (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). He drives the action that ultimately sweeps up Daniel Kaluuya’s (Widows) Hampton. Kaluuya himself slips into Hampton’s story comfortably and seamlessly, though perhaps not quite as poetically as the original. And Dominique Fishback (Project Power) provides a nuanced performance with grounded and conflicted emotions through which we watch Hampton.

In the background, pulling strings and guiding outcomes, Martin Sheen (Grace and Frankie) as Hoover and Jesse Plemons (Vice) make you squirm. Sheen for his sheer, vile hubris. But Plemons is more subtle and complex. The subtlety derives from the decisions he makes while internally sacrificing as he bends to pressure; doing so even as the implications of his actions become more apparent…he accepts all the choices despite those realizations.

This film is a tale of tragedy, but tempered with hope. It is also our history (and not a small part of our present, like it or not). The full scope of that history, and the truth of those involved, has yet to be widely told. This movie is a start and it is one you should see for the performances and the information.

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2067

[2 stars]

You’re allowed one big lie in a story to get it going. This is especially true in genre fiction. 2067 decided to go for three…starting with an absurd premise about “synthetic” oxygen. And I might have bought into that without the misunderstandings about fusion or the biggest McGuffin of them all: time travel (and, in this case, a conscious decision to create a paradox).

And OK, maybe I could have even gone along with all of that if Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Dark Phoenix ) hadn’t whined through so much of the action that he sounded like a 5 year old. At least Ryan Kwanten (The Hurricane Heist) balanced out the shrill noise, but he didn’t have much to work with. Smit-McPhee just didn’t have any chemistry with anyone, including his supposedly devoted wife, Sana’a Shaik, who seriously tried to make it all look believable.

Writer and director Seth Larney, who is more commonly behind the camera, stepped a bit closer for this release. Unfortunately, he really just didn’t have the story under control. There was no sense of pacing and no real tension after the first scene (which was rather well done, science aside). There are some interesting ideas and conundrums in the tale, and a reasonable resolution. However, it would work better as a short story than it does as a flick because so much of it relies on clearly the internal struggle of Smit-McPhee’s character.

I honestly can’t recommend this, despite the effort, ideas, and the production values. It’s overlong and just not particularly engaging. Larney has some ability, however. If he can learn from this, I’d be curious to see what’s next.

2067 Poster

Outside the Wire

[3 stars]

In many ways this is a fairly standard war flick, in the modern style. But it does have a bit of a twist and it ultimately asks some good questions and makes some real points (even if it does so a bit ham-handedly).

With a script by, primarily, a video game writer and directed by Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan), the somewhat quest-styled, surfacey approach to the story isn’t too surprising. It’s still entertaining, and the plot isn’t entirely without flare, but it isn’t brilliant.

The real source of any levels and nuance is brought by Anthony Mackie (Altered Carbon) who adds a sense of gravitas, though he isn’t the main character. The lead is taken on by Damson Idris (Snowfall). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the presence to dominate the screen and his subtle approach to the role doesn’t manage to provide background, only in-the-moment responses. It’s clear there is a backstory to Idris’s character, but it’s never really revealed either by reaction or script. That leaves us with just the mission we can see, and any questions that may raise.

A few small roles keep it rolling, primarily  Emily Beecham (Hail, Caesar!). But others, like Pilou Asbæk (Overlord) are thrown away.

Ultimately, after a nicely tense climax, it all sort of devolves into the obvious with little learned and little impact for those that remain. The questions certainly still exist, but the story of the movie seems to be just a full circle with, perhaps, a bit more empathy on the part of Idris, though exactly what he’s learned is a little muddy.

For a fun bit of escapism, this isn’t a bad choice. The production is rich and the tension kept nicely high. Just don’t expect it to have the meat it hints it may contain.

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The Mauritanian

[4 stars]

Director Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) is drawn to the harsher realities of life and making them accessible and understandable. The Mauritanian is the story Mohamedou Slahi previously popularized in his book, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi is one of the victims of the choices made after 9/11 and the establishing of the Guantanamo Bay facility and its ongoing embarrassment.

While the story is confusing and angering and disturbing, what is astounding is how Slahi made it through and stayed positive, even forgiving. Tahar Rahim brings Slahi to the screen with a raw energy and empathy that is magnetic.

What helps set this story apart is its lack of explicit lines. Almost no one is completely good or evil. They are all portrayed as driven and, to the extent they can be at any time, honest with themselves or the situation. Even Slahi’s champions, Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis) and Shailene Woodley (Snowden), aren’t necessarily there for him at the start; they’re there to defend the law, as they see it. On the opposing side, Benedict Cumberbatch (1917) and Zachary Levi (Shazam!) are there in righteous anger, and with a sense of extreme duty. All these characters evolve in unexpected ways.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it isn’t devoid of positive aspects. It is a reminder of the fact that we still haven’t recovered from our tragedies and that many innocents got swept up in the wake of a country gone mad. It is also a reminder of why the rule of law is so important and not intended to be bent to the will of a single administration or person. Not to mention of a reminder that we still have a mess to clean up and apologies to make even 20 years later.

Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

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Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

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Costal Elites

[3 stars]

When writer Paul Rudnick decided to vent his spleen about the (now) outgoing administration, he did it with his typical tongue-in-cheek earnestness. The five monologues traverse a number of subjects and different people, but have much in common. First and foremost they are all reactions to very real actions and sentiments expressed or otherwise felt around the country. And, second, they all profess some level of defiance and hope, even at their darkest.

Bette Midler (Hocus Pocus) serves as the launch point and ultimate coda to the story. She is the quintessential NYer, as much parody as parable, and a little too close to the truth at times. Dan Levy (Happiest Season) and Issa Rae (The Lovebirds) deliver some sharp observations about what’s changed in the world with contained humor that constantly threatens to explode. And Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Monsterland) wraps it all up in a quiet, contemplative bow with a view from the front lines of a NYC hospital. But, honestly, it was Sarah Paulson’s (The Time Being) struggle with her family that I found the most effective of the five, even if it was a side-trip in the overall story. Hers was the most relatable and most lamentable of the stories.

I wish Jay Roach (Bombshell) had managed some of the internal transitions better, or had insisted that Rudnick remove the off-camera characters and allowed the characters to just soliloquize. Every time they answered back to unspoken questions it shattered the illusion for me. These weren’t questions we, as the audience, would have asked in most cases. And, honestly, the moments could have been rewritten to keep it all flowing smoothly. But, that said, Roach did help these five actors navigate their various high-wire acts to tie it all up nicely for an entertaining, if somewhat self-conscious commentary.

Costal Elites is very much what it calls itself. The stories and statements reflect both the good and the bad that the title implies, and wittingly falls into its own trap without finding a way out of the impasse. To be fair, I don’t know if that was intended or simply the reality. Either way it is a wonderful expression and reaction to the dark reality that has smothered the nation, and it’s a bald wish for it all to end.

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One Night in Miami

[3.5 stars]

A boxer, a singer, a preacher, and a football player walk into a motel… It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but in this case it not only really happened, but it was four towering figures of their time: Mohammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcom X, and Jim Brown. Four men who knew one another well, and all of whom were at inflection points for themselves and all those around them. The gathering was to celebrate the night Cassius Clay decked Sonny Liston and became the reigning world champion.

Kemp Powers imagined that conversation first as a stage play and then as this adaptation, which Regina King (Watchmen) directed as her first big-screen feature. And she did a bang up job choreographing the four men in a tiny room. Despite it being primarily a dialogue-heavy exchange, it never really flags in energy or interest. Kingsley Ben-Adir (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword),
Eli Goree (Riverdale), Aldis Hodge (What Men Want), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Harriet) keep everything moving and offer insight into these pivotal men. Ben-Adir, in particular, delivers a Malcom X near the end of his life full of fire and purpose, but more than equally full of compassion and care. Odom Jr’s chops are something to be reckoned with as well.

This is a surprisingly quiet film for the combination of people involved and the moment in history. It feels, quite literally, like being let into a secret and private party. We know the public-facing versions of these people, but what did they really think in private and what did they admit to each other? Cooke, in particular, has little on record about his private life. Many sides of issues are raised and the result leaves you feeling you understand not just these men, but the era and the ongoing issues more completely. I will say that I was surprised  that, with King at the helm, how little there was of the women in the lives of these men on screen. If I have any major criticism of the story, it’s that.

On a side note, writer Powers is about to have a hell of a year. After working on the initial season of Star Trek: Discovery he moved on to the play version of One Night in Miami. Both this movie and the much anticipated and lauded Soul (now only on Disney+) are hitting screens at the same time.

One Night in Miami... Poster

Wolfwalkers

[3.5 stars]

The living art approach that Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart awed audiences with in The Secret of Kells, and which continued in Song of the Sea, is embraced again in this latest offering of Wolfwalkers. The art aspect isn’t quite as dense as the previous movies, but the style and sensibility are unmistakable.

What hasn’t changed is the mining of the depths of old, primarily Celtic, myths to tell powerful stories of love and family with strong young women at the helm. And, making them more relevant, reflections on our own times unavoidable. This film, in particular, takes on gender roles, colonization, and nature conservancy. But the heavier themes are all in the background. The main focus is the struggle of two young girls and their relationships with their remaining parent.

There is some solid voice talent with the likes of Sean Bean (The Martian) and Simon McBurney (Carnival Row) bringing characters to life. However, it’s the two young women, Honor Kneafsey (The Bookshop) and Eva Whittaker who are the marrow of this story. It’s their joy and wonder, as well as longing and fear, that keep it energized.

Despite the heavy and dark aspects of the story, the tale is kept light and moving along through humor and sheer, wonderous beauty. The art style mirrors ancient tapestries with flat perspectives and illuminated frames. It isn’t quite as intricate as the previous films, but the result is still quite stunning.

If you like animation with more depth than just story or clever action and want to see it as both art and tale, this is one to queue up. And, if you haven’t seen their previous films, go dig them out give yourself a treat.

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