Tag Archives: Political Drama

Golem

[4.5 stars]

Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played  engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.

Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.

I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.

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.

 

On the Basis of Sex

[4 stars]

Who would have thought that a movie about tax law could be so riveting? It brings to mind The West Wing, which famously made the census and picking a postage stamp must-see TV.  But, of course, this film isn’t about tax law, it is about equality and a social movement that still struggles today. In fact, next week will mark the third Women’s March, inspired by the continuing fight against people who would like to throw the country back to an earlier era where women, in particular, were seen as second class citizens at best, and property at worst.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a solid one thanks to a heart-felt script and a solid cast. Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) takes on the mantel of RBG, bringing her to life as a young woman and, more importantly, a person. With Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You) by her side and Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El RoyaleVice) as their daughter, we see a family engaged in the process and devoted to one another’s efforts and successes. Depicting them as a family adds the deeply personal to the deeply political that could have easily overwhelmed the story.

Justin Theroux (Mute), as the ACLU’s Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates (The Great Gilly Hopkins) have nice supporting roles who both guided and impeded RBG at times. But ultimately, they helped push her to becoming the great, practicing jurist she has become.

On opposing counsel, Sam Waterston (Miss Sloane),  who continues his lifelong career of onscreen litigators, got to portray an out and out asshole, mired in a past that is far too reflective of a good part of today’s political world. Along with Jack Reynor (Kin) and Stephen Root (Life of the Party) the three become the voice of fear and oppression. They are true believers, and perhaps a bit too emphatic in their delivery, rather than calm. Emotionally, it is more palatable for them to be evil and wrong, rather than contemplative and wrong, but it made them less believable as people.

That said, the strength of Daniel Stiepleman’s first script is that it tends to remain focused on the human rather than the political in the story. Yes, the law and the impact are central, but the motivations and the impact are all personal. That the real story of RBG is, in fact, a wonderfully dramatic starting point didn’t hurt his efforts.

For all the great joy, impact, and subtlety of this film, Mimi Leder’s direction let it all deflate at the end. Honestly, I was ready to applaud when the final credits rolled, as was the fairly packed theater I saw it in. And then Leder let the story just sort of die with blocks of text. Truly a shame. It didn’t ruin the film, but it certainly robbed it of a feeling of triumph and possibility. And, frustratingly, a small set of edits could have kept up the energy and feeling rolling so that the last moments of zipping into the present would have felt triumphant rather than as a quiet button to the tale. Despite that let down, it does leave you with a sense of how far we have come and what we risk losing as a society if we don’t keep fighting to protect it.

So, yes, you should see this wonderful depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and impact on law in this country. Bring  your daughters and sons or young person of your acquaintance. Remind them how new and vulnerable the law is and society can be, why we fought and why we must continue to fight. Getting entertained at the same time is a nice bonus.

Roma

[4.5 stars]

This is one of the most affecting portrayals of real life I’ve seen. It is heartwarming and heartbreaking, occasionally terrifying and always engaging. It’s filmed with an ease and relaxed eye that provides a moving window on the action without ever letting you get too comfortable with that view. In some ways it evokes the Italian classic The Tree of Wooden Clogs, but with a more complete story to share. 

A lot of the success of the film is down to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who is the center of it all. It is a great entree into film for her. She is engaging and honest on screen, full of depths that are sometimes stirred, but often left to build up with sediment that we watch rain down on her. Our view of her life is uncompromising, but her openness is disturbingly inviting to us as voyeurs. 

Roma is unique in a lot of ways. As primarily a streaming movie from a major director it raised eyebrows (and a lot of awards). As a black & white presentation in a high-def-color world, it forces a sense of nostalgia and provides a gorgeous pallet. As a moment in history, regarding immigration and inequality, it is timely. And, as a piece of film, it is nearly the complete vision of a single man. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) was director, writer, cinematographer, and editor as well as producer on Roma. It makes this film a wonderfully personal and whole concept. It allowed Cuarón to take his time setting scenes and telling the story exactly as he intended without someone else’s filter being layered on. Of course, as a single vision, it is a tiny bit bloated and could probably have been trimmed ever so slightly. But it only shaves a tiny bit off the perfection of its final form. 

If you can see this on one of the rare big screen showings, make the time. It is beautiful visually. However, it still works on a reasonably sized television as well. But no matter how you see it, make time for this film. It will slowly enfold you in its arms before battering you around a bit; but it is full of hope as well as tragedy. It is, above all, human. 

McFarland, USA

[3 stars]

When McFarland came out three years ago, it was seen as a movie of possibility and perseverance in the vein of Brooklyn Castle or Spare Parts. Today, with the rise of 45 to office and the rhetoric about immigrants, it has an entirely different resonance. It is, in fact, a view of society that a good part of the country needs to see to be reminded of who immigrants are, what they endure, why they came here, and how they contribute. But, to be fair, that is all subtext to the main story of young men learning to believe in themselves rather than to believe other’s opinions of them.

This is one of those perfect Kevin Costner (Hidden Figures) vehicles; a slightly curmudgeonly middle-aged man with a big heart and belief in others. There is a large and talented supporting cast as well, though Maria Bello (Prisoners) and Carlos Pratts (The Bridge) are the main standouts for the story.

Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) sells the story in a Hallmark sort of way. The last third of the movie really diminishes its possibilities. However close to truth, it is primarily designed to manipulate, losing some of its credibility in exchange for cheap emotional punch. It still works, but it becomes very predictable and forced.

For a feel-good evening and, perhaps, education, it is worth your time. Certainly the real story deserves to be heard, however heightened the transition to screen made it.

Vice

[4 stars]

Hilarious. Nauseating. Angering. Unreal. Adam McKay’s (The Big Short) depiction and investigation into the life of Dick Cheney is full of energy and, from the outset, honest about where he stands on the subject.

Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) delivers an astounding performance as Cheney. To say he disappears into the role is an understatement. It is creepy, it is so believable. By his side, Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals) does an equally chilling turn as his wife, Lynne. Even while humanizing them, they are unabashedly power hungry, walking evil. Not that I or McKay have an opinion on the matter.

There are some rather good bit performances as well. Sam Rockwell’s (Woman Walks Ahead) George W. Bush grew on me as he played it out. LisaGay Hamilton (Take Shelter) as Condoleezza Rice was quietly magnetic and Shea Whigham (First Man) was decidedly vile. I do have to say that I didn’t find Steve Carrell’s (Welcome to Marwen) Rumsfeld very solid, which was disappointing. It eventually got there, but there was something off in his presence and I couldn’t ever quite see the real man.

One performance being utterly missed, because it is so invisible in many ways, is Jesse Plemons (Game Night). His role is somewhat thankless, but he is the engine that keeps it all humming along. It is a solid definition of supporting actor and worth mentioning.

There is no question this movie has an agenda, as I’ve mentioned. It is as accurate as possible (and it becomes clear why that is only “as possible”), but the overall tone is clear. And do stick through the first two sections of credits, and look carefully, to get McKay’s final points.

I’m not sure if this is an empowering film or simply a warning. Frankly, I had difficultly making it through as it isn’t what one could call hopeful. However, it is a strong reminder of why we have to stay involved in the process and think for ourselves. Democracy, like marriage, is work. Stop putting in the effort, stop asking questions, and stop holding people accountable and you only have yourself to blame for the results.

But, as a film, it is entertaining. Just go in with a deep breath and stay calm or you’ll find yourself tied in knots by the end.

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.

Little Drummer Girl

[3 stars]

John Le Carre stories are always complex and often dark. From The Night Manager to A Most Wanted Man to, well pick one, they are deliberate tales of behind-the-scenes espionage that reveal knowledge only as needed. Little Drummer Girl is no exception. But this time it is as much Mission Impossible as it is The Third Man. The focus of this series is what goes into becoming and surviving in deep cover. Well, that’s the main thread, there are plenty of political and other aspects of intrigue as well.

The cast, as always, is quite solid, but it is dominated by Florence Pugh (Lear) as the semi-naive recruit. Her path through the six episodes is convoluted and layered. I never quite buy her being confused or undetermined about her beliefs, but her emotional conflicts about people and survival are very real. Helping her along is Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect) in a role that is nicely different from many of his others. His Gadi is quiet and intense, but not bombastic. Similarly, Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) gets to explore interesting new territory as a ground-down spy and bureaucrat who is both exhausted and determined. While his contemplative nature remains, it is wonderfully crusted with life.

As with all the Le Carre tales, following all the motivations and politics is an effort, but it is part of what sets the stories apart. The attention to and adherence to details keeps the stakes high and visceral.

Like many of director Chan-wook Park’s (The Handmaiden) efforts, the pacing of this series is a bit slow, but never dull. And the new view into the world of spies and the era it is exploring will keep your attention to the very end.

Assassination Nation

[3.5 stars]

This is a hard film to watch, but probably not for the reasons you think. Yes, it is full of violence and it will anger and disturb you, that is true. But the hard part of this film is that it feels all too real and possible.

Writer/director Sam Levinson pulls off a neat magic trick by taking vulgar mayhem and making it into an honest-to-god statement about society and people. It takes a while to get there but when it does, it is a solid gut-punch. But even the journey is unexpectedly intriguing thanks to the cast.

Led solidly by Odessa Young, a small group of friends navigates high school and life as it all crumbles around them…literally. Abra, Suki Waterhouse (Future World), and Hari Nef (Transparent) back up Young nicely, and each has their own plotline to spin out. These four, young women each embody different aspects of the challenges of growing up in a world saturated with social media.

The adults around them are at turns clueless and, at turns, active in the unavoidable disaster that begins as the credits roll. Joel McHale (The Happytime Murders) is the only one with any real plot to work with though Anika Noni Rose (Ralph Breaks the Internet) does get her moment. Jeff Pope (Hap and Leonard) and Colman Domingo (The Kick) don’t really have any story of consequence, but each creates a recognizable character to push it all along.

Like I said, this isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is worth your time if you have a high enough tolerance for violence. You get a reminder and warning at the top of the movie as well, to give you one last chance to bail. But as a piece of social commentary, this is an effective and solid film. If Levinson can continue to develop that aspect of his voice and continue to match his stories to the need, he’s going to be a director and writer to watch.

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.