Tag Archives: Political Drama

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

[3 stars]

Joseph Cedar’s fictional depiction of backroom politics and influence was prescient given that it came out in 2016. It isn’t a highly tense political drama, like The Post, or even a snappy depiction of events, like The Big Short, but is more a quiet grinding of an inevitable train wreck. Cedar does get clever with his story-telling, but the plot becomes almost incidental to the story of Norman himself.

Richard Gere (The Dinner) embodies a NYC nebbish with precision and practicality. He has created a highly flawed but capable character who is constantly swimming out of his depth, but who is surprisingly successful by simply persisting and believing in himself. His performance makes this movie and makes it worth seeing. In fact, it was the reason I ended up sticking with it through to the end despite being only mildly engaged for the first third. Gere and Cedar managed a subtle alchemy that allowed them to tell the story they wanted, how they wanted, and not lose me.

There are many recognizable faces filling in the rest of the film. Of them, only Lior Ashkenazi is really worth calling out. His is the only other complex performance in a sea of fairly standard deliveries. But the tapestry of the whole does eventually come together into something surprising. Norman is a very recognizable template if you’ve ever lived in NYC. He comes close to a stereotype, but never crosses that insulting line. We’ve all known Norman’s of one degree or another, but at this level of influence his ilk is now front and center in our lives thanks to current politics; intentionally or not. 

At some point, seeing this movie for Gere’s performance is really worth your time. The film itself is also good, but more a study in some subtle craft than the creation of a must-see classic. There is much to take away from Norman, and some uncomfortable mirrors to look into as well. While it did not make a huge splash in release, it is sure to be quietly around a long time as a success, much like the titular character himself.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Roar

[2 stars] or [5 stars]

No this isn’t about the Heath Ledger Celtic prince series. This is even a bigger oddity and, by far, the most outrageous, batsh*t crazy flick I’ve ever seen. Not because of the movie itself…there really isn’t much of one…but because it was done with untrained animals. A LOT of untrained animals. I was utterly spellbound watching the film due to the insanity of it all. It truly has to be seen to be believed, which is why this has such a wonky rating. It ends up more of a curiosity than a movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, in a carnival sort of way.

Roar was intended as a environmental flick masquerading (thinly) as a horror/suspense that pits Hitchcock darling Tippi Hendren (The Birds, Marnie) and her real-life family (daughter, Melanie Griffith (Automata), husband, Noel Marshall, and two of their sons) against a house of feral felines of the great cat variety. It is, in fact, the only screen credit for Marshall in front of the camera, who was more typically with producing credits. But this was a family labor of love in front of and behind the camera; Joel Marshall, another son, was doing the seamless art and production design.

There is nothing remotely believable about the acting or story in Roar, but that isn’t the reason to see it. The Marshall family personally raised well over 100 lions over the course of 11 years (five of those were during filming in the late 70s) in order to get a houseful of great cats for their vision. Honestly, you’ve just never seen anything like it (didn’t I say that already?). They even give the cats writing credit up front. The commentary and related Q&A on the disc are also fascinating and cover the background of the making of the film.

To be fair to the result, you know this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously by the music and opening credits. However, the final messages (subtle as a sledgehammer) are sadly still relevant, if not even more important, today.

While unrelated, it is worth noting that Hendren continues to work to this day, though it may still be her past we are all obsessed with. Her time with Hitchcock even inspired two different movies in recent years. Roar isn’t something she is going to be remembered for, at least for her acting, but it is a testament to her and her family’s determination and vision…and not just a little bit of crazy in there.

Roar

Quatermass and the Pit

[3.5 stars]

I would have sworn to you that I’d seen this before. But when I got the opportunity to “re-watch” it recently, I discovered I was very wrong. What I had seen was 5 Million Years to Earth. That flick is a condensed, movie-version of this 6-part serial by the same writer, Nigel Kneale. Confusing matters is that 5 Million Years to Earth is also a title that has been used for the series at times through the years.

[As a side note if these titles sound familiar, don’t confuse it with their contemporary, 20 Million Years to Earth, which is a whole different thing and a classic in its own right.]

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the show is a victim of its era, but it is also decidedly ahead of it in some ways. In fact, it is rather on point for today’s rise in xenophobia. It’s even brave enough to reuse film from the Blitz as part of its action and message barely ten years after the events. Also, the female assistant,  Christine Finn, who’s voice you might recognize from the original Thunderbirdsis about the most competent of the adults in the room.

Now, it also depicts government types as bullheaded and uneducated… OK perhaps that’s on point for our times as well more than we’d like to admit. However, generally, it was just an easy way out to write the plot, which is more complex and deeper than you’d expect for a 1958 genre classic. And, of course, there are the buckets of tea made by characters when things get dicey.

Adding to the fun and the history of it all is that Quatermass is also a direct pre-cursor to Doctor Who, which would launch 5 years later. Whether in the air or as an influencer, it is an unavoidable comparison. Seeing the bones of what inspired Who was really quite eye opening. The first Doctor even has a lot of the same mannerisms and demeanor as André Morell’s Quatermass, particularly in this sequence of the on-again, off-again show. By the way, his colleague in the plot, Cec Linder, and he both worked in TV and film until they died…these were two solid actors who gave it their all, even in this off-beat BBC offering. 

But the Who link isn’t the reason to make time for the series. Quatermass tackles questions that are still debated today and, unabashedly, suggests some answers. Given the recent discovery of a liquid lake on Mars, perhaps not entirely nutty answers. Yes, it is low-fi in its presentation, but it dose a lot with what it has, often by only inferring what you see. Yes, the plot is pushed along by less than delicate means at times. But it is just as often surprising and is undeniably captivating if you enjoy the genre at all. Make sure you see this rather than being sure you have. It wouldn’t be a waste to rewatch it, but it would certainly be a shame to never have.

Quatermass and the Pit

Mile 22

[2.5 stars]

Oh, Peter Berg (Battleship), you always promise so much and deliver so little. This bit of what amounts to terrorist porn is certainly full of action, but bereft of character. While Mark Whalberg (Ted 2) may have created a fast-talking and somewhat entertaining team leader, he isn’t a person, he is simply putting on an interesting idea.

And while there are strong female parts, they aren’t much in the way of characters either. Ronda Rousey (Furious 7) doesn’t really get to explore what she had to work with. And Lauren Cohan (Chuck, The Walking Dead), who is certainly a tough-as-nails fighter, overplays the mother side of what was written. Not because a kick-ass military person can’t have family and emotion in their lives or even care that much, but because she came off as schizophrenic rather than as competent; and she’s meant to be Wahlberg’s protege.

Iko Uwais (The Raid 2) shows off his skills as a fighter and, to a degree, as an actor. To be fair, he really just has to look enigmatic most of the time rather than plumb any serious levels. And John Malkovich reprises his Unlocked gig, which isn’t saying much for a man with such talent.

Where this movie really goes wrong isn’t so much in its conception or even its subject matter. Even the basic plot is intriguing. Where it goes wrong is the framing, which is, essentially, a solipsistic treatise excusing government funded murder as necessary, even to be celebrated. For some audiences that will work just fine. In the world we live in now, even while admitting I was mildly entertained by the action and well paced suspense, I found the message rather off-putting at the end. Nearly the same plot could have been used without the commentary and it would have worked better. As it is, you go for the action, blood, and gore, if you go, but not for the story or any cogent political awakening.

Mile 22

BlacKkKlansman

[5 stars]

Undoubtedly, this is Spike Lee’s (Chi-Raq) best film since Do The Right Thing. Not because he is back on political ground, he never left it, but because it flows, it is human, and it is a masterful piece of storytelling that takes you from Point A to a Point B in unexpected ways. It is an hypnotic film that draws you in with its humor and, while never subtle, slowly turns the screws to leave you with that same self-reflective feeling Do The Right Thing managed way back when.

Certainly Lee’s trademark camera work and shots are present, but he holds them back for better impact than he has in the past. And his direction for the actors is subtle as he orchestrates the off-beat and nearly unbelievable tale.

In the lead, John David Washington (Ballers) floats perfectly through Stallworth’s story. Adam Driver (Logan Lucky) supports him well by his side and navigating his own complex history. As difficult as these roles were to play, Topher Grace (The Calling), Ryan Eggold (Lucky Them), Jasper Pääkkönen (Vikings), and Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) deserve special notice. They had to navigate some very dark places with conviction and without allowing them to become caricatures; no easy task.

This film is rather female poor, which was a surprise. However, Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Ashlie Atkinson (One Dollar) each create fascinating, true-believers who are very much part of the story. As a surprise short bit, Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) sets the tone nicely if not entirely fits in the movie. There are many other performances to notice, but this would get too long to list them all. Suffice to say that it is a well heeled and directed cast.

But, unlike the also true Shock and Awe, Lee managed to find the personal stories in the tale and to talk to us openly and honestly, bringing home the point of his film. In fact, he baldly lectures and nods to our present day. Because he does, but within the strictures of the story he’s telling, it becomes wry, sarcastic humor rather than pure chest-beating exposition. I don’t know how he managed that, but it worked.

The movie has its flaws, but not many. Most of the concerns I had fled as the movie wrapped up and the reasons for many choices became clear. It is certainly an odd structure, but it is also a beautiful piece of architecture and a movie not to be missed. Make time for this film in the theater. It isn’t necessarily a big-screen flick, though Lee certainly knows how to frame things, but it does deserve your support and time. It isn’t a pleasant subject, but you get plenty of sugar with the medicine. That BlacKkKlansman is a true story only adds to the weird and scary wonderfulness of it all.

BlacKkKlansman

The Tunnel: Vengeance (series 3)

[4.5 stars]

Much like the recent finale of The Bridge, the creators of its spin-off, The Tunnel: Vengeance, knew this was the last visit we would have in this world. It gave them the freedom to remove all the typical boundaries and safeguards. While the two shows paralleled each other up through the end in many ways, they diverged greatly as well, each becoming distinct despite sharing the same roots.

The Bridge had only a few characters that lasted from start to finish as the consequences of its plots mounted up. The Tunnel chose to follow the same characters through all three, complex stories changing the trajectories of the interactions. But, in both cases, it is the female lead that became the fascinating center of it all, even when the story was being told from another’s point of view. In The Tunnel, that was Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel) whose Elise, though a riff on The Bridge’s Saga, was very much her own character and with her own history. While a great deal of the Tunnel is driven by her partner, Stephen Dillane (The Darkest Hour, Game of Thrones), she is the one we fall for and care about. In part that is because she is the injured and blameless one. Dillane, like his inciting counterpart in Bridge, is quite a bit more flawed. While each influences the other over the course of the series, their base natures remain the same.

Expanded roles for a number of the minor characters were welcome in this sequence as well. William Ash (The Loch) and Juliette Navis, in particular, get to expand on a complicated and often funny interaction.

The Tunnel is a rare instance of a spin-off being as good as the original and finding its own way. For its finale, it even brought in new creative talent behind the scenes, which reinvigorated the storyline without violating the feeling of it all. It is, like its origins, decidedly dark and the events and plans byzantine, to say the least. However, it is driven by humanity and by refreshingly flawed heroes. If you haven’t caught this series or its inspiration yet, do. If you’ve been following it, you won’t be disappointed by its conclusion.

The Tunnel

Shock and Awe

[3 stars]

At a time when the free press is under attack from the very highest offices in the government; and at a time that these self-same leaders are inciting and encouraging literal attacks on those in the Fourth Estate, Shock and Awe is a reminder of the power of, the need for, and the fragility of the foundation of news organizations and their place in a democracy.

Rob Reiner really couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to create and deliver this story. Like The Post, this is also an accurate tale of finding and reporting a truth that the public needed to know. Unlike The Post, the people standing in the way were not the government, but rather the newspaper editors themselves due to an extreme rise of nationalist fervor in the wake of 9/11.

As a reminder of truth and the value of a free press, this movie is invaluable. As a film, it is crafted with journeymen-like care but it isn’t necessarily a great movie. It tends to avoid deep dives and explanations, shifting the focus from an All The President’s Men effort to that of a more personal story. In some ways, that is fair and more impactful; the only mystery here was why no one would print the truth rather than what the truth was. To hold it together, Reiner frames it with a very personal story to remind us of the consequences of such situations.

Shock and Awe is competently delivered by the cast. In addition to Reiner, Wood Harrelson (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and James Marsden (Welcome to Me) make a great and competitive team. Tommy Lee Jones (Just Getting Started) brings in his trademark curmudgeon with a brain and heart. Most surprising was a nice turn by Milla Jovovich (Future World) who breaks type and works well with Harrelson. Jessica Biel (Hitchcock) gives us a nice character, but doesn’t really add to the main story. Even the introduction of Richard Schiff (Geostorm), whose character is directly related to the tale and whose performance is nicely balanced, doesn’t quite build up the story as it could. Combined, we get a taste of the world they were all a part of, including their personal lives, even if we don’t ever really understand the details or feel it as deeply as we should.

The result is a watered-down polemic about what nationalism can bring and why questioning, generally, is a good thing. It is also a solid reminder of why the press isn’t “the enemy of the people” as our current leadership has been heard to say, and often repeat.

What is a surprise in this story is that it also reminds us that, in majority, those with careers in government do care about the truth and the country. That may seem an odd thing to say, but more than one person I know has expressed the sense that those in elected office are craven and self-serving, unconcerned about anyone and anything other than their own comfort and finances. Or perhaps that doesn’t seem so odd to say these days when we’ve a leader who has hired his whole family and pushes government meetings and international guests to his own properties while still accepting deals in apparent trade for favors overseas?

What is made clear is that the only people who fear a free and honest press are those trying to hide the truth. But it is also important to hold the press to account, as this story does, because they do wield immense power. However, we do need them as an un-jaundiced eye on the world to understand it.

[Keep in mind that there is variant of reporting that is really just entertainment. Fox News (and its ilk) if you go for that kind of thing, is fine entertainment, but it isn’t news. In fact, it legally isn’t news. It is classified as entertainment, and they often lie and misreport to get ratings; they have no legal obligation to the truth (and no morals to speak of). This is factual statement, go look up the court cases and interviews with their leadership that prove it.]

News, on the other hand, has to be balanced and honest, and stick to the facts, editorializing only when necessary and always doing so openly. News organizations aren’t infallible, but they do have to make every attempt to be accurate. Shock and Awe puts up a mirror to the past and what can happen when the press doesn’t do their job… and how bad and long-lasting the consequences can be.

Shock and Awe

Lear (2018)

[3.5 stars]

In the world of Shakespeare on film, there are many citizens, but only a few really stand out. Akira Kursawa’s Throne of Blood (nee Macbeth) and Ian MacKellen’s Richard III for their fascinating interpretations and performances come immediately to mind. And then there are Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet for their classic and down-to-earth depictions (not to mention full-text presentations). There are filmed stage performances as well, but those are a different discussion and, arguably, a different genre.

As Hamlet is a requirement for younger actors, Lear, like Prospero (or Prospera), is a right of passage for venerable actors. In fact, Glenda Jackson is joining that list soon as well. It would have been a great disappointment not to see Anthony Hopkins (Thor: Ragnarok) tackle Lear before he folded up his career…not that that seems to be coming any time soon. And Richard Eyre’s (The Dresser) adaptation and direction makes this an interesting Lear indeed.

One of the challenges of Lear is that it starts far into the story of this tragic family. We can intuit a lot, but it often starts with such a level of animosity from the children that it feels like a cheat. Eyre’s choices help us really see the fear and hatred build in Regan and Goneril, played by Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Emma Thompson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) . We also see Lear change and deteriorate wonderfully through the piece. And though not quite as topically impactful as Ian McKellen’s Richard III, the modern setting also works nicely allowing it to resonate with the growing concerns of eldercare.

There are some wonderful side performances in the various houses as well from Christopher Eccleston (Unfinished Song), Tobias Menzies (The Night Manager), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Jim Broadbent (The Lady in the Van). However, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the two integral roles of Cordelia and The Fool, respectively played by Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and Karl Johnson. Both are serviceable in their roles, but neither really left an impact for me, which has something to do with the actors, but also with some burden on the directing choices in which Eyre’s approach has some intriguing shifts in focus beyond setting.

It is the Edmund/Edgar machinations which are made the center of the story for most of the movie. These mirrored relationships were always important, but wrenching the center of the play off the titular character was interesting. The bastard, played by John Macmillan, and the son, by Andrew Scott (Sherlock), are both powerful performers. However, despite the interesting effect on plot structure, their screen relationship is forced and never really gels…even at the end. Another interesting change is that the Fool is disposed of with scant comment (and probably without much import for most of the audience). It is done in set-up for the final scenes, which are always discussed dramaturgically as the substitution of Cordelia for the Fool (and after Lear and Mad Tom have each taken some ownership), but it has an incomplete impact and import the because it is executed so dismissively.

For all the solutions this production finds in bringing the motivations to life, the film exacerbates the problem of compressed time by virtue of its length. Despite good visual bridges, the plot is forced along far too quickly (115 minutes). Honestly, this tale could probably sustain a mini-series in length and thereby get places more believably. Shakespeare’s wonderful prose aside, the credibility of the choices has always been a challenge in this play. Huge leaps based on long-festering slights are necessary, but hard to digest for the audience given the scope of Lear’s travels and the evolution and impact of his story on an entire country.

I could keep dissecting this production, which is actually a good sign. There is much to chew on. Often you only get one or two interesting aspects to chew on…but Eyre and Hopkins provide a full meal, if not all the courses. If you enjoy Shakespeare, you must see this production. If you come to the Bard only on occasion, you may find this a bit different than what you expect, intriguing, and certainly shorter than your typical play. It is the magic of Shakespeare that his work continues to make sense and have impact in various conceptualizations, settings, and times, even when some of the specifics may be confusing as society changes.

Same Kind of Different as Me

[3 stars]

This is not a subtle film. In fact, first time feature director and co-writer Michael Carney was as delicate as a sledgehammer at times. This isn’t to say that the story (a true one) isn’t insightful or effective, it is. It is just generally much more provocative than evocative.

What saves this film from just being a Lifetime installment is the cast and the truthful earnestness of its tale. Djimon Hounsou (Seventh Son) captures the real-life Denver and his situation emotionally and with conviction. If anything, his performance made this worth its bloated, nearly two hour length. And, as the couple that comes into his life, Greg Kinnear (Brigsby Bear) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones’s Baby) build a relationship fraught with reality and more than a little bit of idealism. In smaller, but important, roles Jon Voigt (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and Geraldine Singer (Mudbound) add a different balance and storyline. The one truly odd bit in the cast is the son, played by Austin Filson. Filson is notable only for the fact that he doesn’t speak a single line the entire film even though his screen sister, Olivia Holt, has a plot thread of her own.

The message and insights of this story are important ones, particularly at this time in the country when we seem to have lost track of who people in need are and how they got there. I won’t go into the disturbing irony of that trend when we supposedly have such religious leadership. But an important message and good acting don’t always make a good movie. Not that this is a bad movie, but it’s just the wrong side of cloying for me, and is clearly aimed at a faith-based crowd. I stand by that description despite the fact that it takes one of the main characters literally to the threshold of a church and then keeps them entering. Faith is not a bad thing, but it brings a tone and level of unreality to it all, even if the base tale is true. And, certainly, it spurred an ongoing wave of good works (that somehow remain primarily in the background till the credits).

So, should you see this? Probably. It is a good check on your assumptions and a goose to your sense of possibility. In more practiced hands, this could have been a better movie, but as a message delivered with credible talent, it will hold you till the end. But know what you’re walking into and accept it for what it is and what it isn’t.

Same Kind of Different as Me

American Assassin

[3 stars]

There is a lot that this movie gets right. A lot that it gets close. And a few things it just gets very wrong. But, overall, it is a very surprising and intense spy thriller.

From the beginning of the movie, you know you are in for something a bit more raw than what the genre usually delivers. This isn’t the slick of Mission Impossible or Bond, this is a brutal attempt to put you in the position of experiencing terrorism first-hand. And Dylan O’Brien (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) really comes into his own and out of his teen years with this part. Helping the young O’Brien cross-over into an adult role is where director, Michael Cuesta (Homeland), did some of his best work with his actors.

Michael Keaton (Spider-Man: Homecoming) also delivers some nice moments and, generally, a good performance. But there aren’t a lot of women in good roles here. Sanaa Lathan (Now You See Me 2) is strong, but never really feels in control. Her effect on the action is minimal since no one is really listening to her orders a good part of the time. And when they do, you don’t often get the feeling it was because she held control so much as they were going to do it anyway.

On the other hand, some of the men are equally underwhelming. Taylor Kitsch (Battleship) is a bit forced in his psychosis. The script didn’t help Cuesta or Kitsch on that point. And a small bit by David Suchet (Agatha Christie: Poirot) is simply a throw-away and waste of his talent.

Cuesta, in an attempt to keep things visually clear, also makes his covert ops folks some of the worst and obvious surveillors in history. They all stick out in a crowd like pustules on an infant rather than blending in, which rather weakens the credibility of their capability. And then there is the finale, which is both brave and impressive, but also with a couple things quite wrong. I won’t spoil it here, nor ruin your enjoyment of it should it not be obvious, but it did bug the heck out of me even while I was enjoying it.

This is a good ride of a movie. More violent than many American spy films, but within reasonable boundaries. I’m not sure what I expected going in, but it gave me a layered story and enough surprising moments to keep it flowing along. As O’Brien’s transition film, he really was the big winner here.

American Assassin