Tag Archives: Political Drama

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.

The Darkest Minds

[3 stars]

I have to admit, this movie was a good deal better than I expected given how badly it bombed at the box office. That doesn’t mean it’s great, but it was watchable…with occasional moments of yelling at the screen for dumb story choices. I’ll get back to the writing, but better first to compliment the cast who shouldn’t be overlooked for the weaknesses in the production.

Amandla Stenberg, who got her first big break as Rue in The Hunger Games, leads the cast of young actors through this latest hellish landscape of a dystopian future. She does so with a good deal of charisma and a nice emotional journey. Along with her companions, Harris Dickinson (Trust), Skylan Brooks (The Get Down), and Miya Cech, they battle their way to a potential future. And, of course, there’s the only slightly veiled, slightly creepy (and much toned down from book) Patrick Gibson (The OA) who joins them along the way.

The young cast hang onto control of the movie well, even when there are much more practiced adult actors sharing the stage with them. Among those, Mandy Moore (47 Meters Down), Gwendoline Christie (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Wade Williams are the ones that pop. And then, of course, there is the amusing West Wing revenge of Bradley Whitford (The Post) who finally gets to sit in the President’s chair for this one.

Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda) managed her cast and the material she had well. But that is the problem, the material, which is solidly tween/teen in its maturity.

So, now back to the story itself.

Writer Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines) delivered a very un-adult script. Why things happen and how the world deals with them are lensed through the mind of a teen, with a teen’s understanding of how the world works. I’m not talking about perspective of the film, I’m talking about the writer and the amount of thought and research he put into their plot. If I’d known it was Hodge behind the keyboard going in I’d have been less surprised.

Dystopian stories are currently all the rage, but they are all riding the coattails of The Hunger Games. Hunger Games didn’t create YA dystopias, but it certainly set the expectation bar for how much money could be made by turning them into movies. The problem is, the studios have never understood why that movie took off and others (The Host, Divergent, Maze Runner, etc.) never really did.

Certainly there was a difference in the quality of the writing and, in some cases, the quality of the casting and/or directing. But really the answer is much simpler. Hunger Games, for all its futuristic framework, looks like this world and acts (mostly) like this world, and included adult thinking in its plot choices. It also took an important lesson from the Harry Potter series.

People who don’t read a great deal of science fiction or fantasy are not comfortable in thoroughly made-up worlds they are unfamiliar with. Hunger Games, like Potter, slowly acclimated a generation of readers into its world. Potter spent more than the first half of the first book in an English town and then only slowly opened the world around Hogwarts over the next 2 books. By the time they got there, most readers were completely unaware of the journey they’d taken and were willing to accept all amount of strangeness, because now it was familiar. Hunger Games managed a similar, if a bit more rapid, immersion.

Darkest Minds is a familiar world, but almost immediately has people with powers, which jumps the credibility line for a good deal of the viewing public. They’ll buy into it, but in fewer numbers and with a good deal of tongue-in-cheek nodding. It’s a shame, really, as almost all fiction these days is really genre based…Michael Crichton started that trend in spades decades back. But if the world is familiar enough to start, you can get an audience to go with you. This movie leaps too quickly into the weird and different to bring a large audience with it.

If you’re looking for distraction and some reasonable performances from up and coming young adults, it isn’t a bad afternoon. Certainly it is no more than a popcorn flick with grand intentions that are never achieved. Reaching for franchise had it stumbling. They should have gone for a standalone and hoped for the chance to take it further. The meat of a story was in there. The script let it down.

The Darkest Minds

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

[2.5 stars]

When Stieg Larsson died in 2004, he left us all hanging on the intended fate of Lisbeth Salander. His first three books weren’t the entire journey he’d envisioned. His fourth book will never see the light of day due to legal stupidity and family greed. And the final six lived only in his head. However, his remaining legal family licensed out the characters and commissioned more books, starting with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. I refused to support the ongoing book series, but I couldn’t resist checking out the movie. I wish I had.

Despite some real effort on the part of Claire Foy (First Man), this is a hollow movie with no heart at the core. The gap is in the plot and the script, which assume you know the previous stories (and are willing to forget parts of it as well). The story also veers radically from the central drives for Salandar and her relationships in the world.

This is most notable with Sverrir Gudnason (The Circle), who does a fine job of acting, but he isn’t Blomkvist. He’s far to young and pretty. And he has no emotional thread to grasp; though one is indicated in the script, the story isn’t there. He is a complicated man with complicated relationships, not just a foil or convenience with which to move the plot. Even the usually entertaining hacker Plague, Cameron Britton (Mindhunter), was somewhat flat in this story.

Three new characters were introduced into the series. Stephen Merchant (Logan) probably had the most levels to play with because the writers had to give him a story; we knew nothing about him from the beginning and it is his actions that start the plot. On the other hand Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) is OK, but sort of cookie-cutter American NSA from a European point of view. The writers assumed actions would obviate the need for character on his part. They were wrong.

More surprising was the lack of a character for Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner 2049) playing Lisbeth’s sister. Forgetting how this and the rest of the revised/ignored backstory affects the series canon, there were rich possibilities for this woman, none of which were plumbed.

Director and co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did a beautiful visual job with the film. He also managed to capture the Swedish emotional sense with a lot of the characters. But he failed to recognize the weaknesses in the script and fight for better. And he allowed cliche to triumph over effort by some of his cast.

So the core issues of this come back to the script by writers Steven Knight (November Criminals) and Jay Basu. It feels like they took a passing knowledge of the books and decided to take those characters and throw them into a standard story. There is a small nod to the core of Salander’s, saving women or reacting to injustice, but that is simply there as a short grace note before dropping her into a Bond-like story that just isn’t a good fit and doesn’t further her purpose. However, and in some ways worse, some of the law enforcement research is awful, making the Swedish police and secret service into idiots.

So, to sum up, this is a somewhat mediocre action film and a very poor continuation of the Millennium series. Foy does a game job capturing the character, but never really gets to emotionally explore or expand her. As a stand-alone flick, without any knowledge of the base tale, you’d be watching a rather empty action movie with some clever bits to it. And there are some good moments and aspects, but this could have been a triumph, especially in the current climate. I’ll leave it to you whether or not to spend you time with it.

Bel Canto

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Paul Weitz (Grandma) has always enjoyed the unusual and quirky in stories. Bel Canto is certainly in that group, though a good deal darker than the rest of his opus. Unfortunately, it is also clear he isn’t very comfortable in that area. He was constantly dragging this story back more toward the lighter side, which diminished its tension and credibility.

Normally, Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars) would have overcome those issues and provided a performance to balance the lacks. Not in this case. Her Roxanne Coss is neither Diva nor wilting violet. And worse, she had no credibility as a singer. It is close, but her posture is all wrong, which ruined several key moments in the movie for me.

Ken Watanabe (Sea of Trees), as well, just never quite gains control of the story to give us someone to focus on, though he has nice interaction with Moore and Ryo Kase. Kase, more than these two, turns in a nice performance; perhaps the most believable of the cast.

The other half of the cast, the rebels, are all fine if not brilliant. The most interesting characters are Tenoch Huerta and María Mercedes Coroy who get to stand out by virtue of interactions with Moore and Kase.

In important side roles, Christopher Lambert (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) and Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies) make an impression as well.

Most of the movie issues are down to script and direction. There are powerful and interesting ideas in Bel Canto, but to absorb them you have to let go of reality and treat it as a near-surreal play. To really succeed it needed to stay more realistic. Without that there is no sense of threat and danger, not to mention loss. Weitz’s script is clear about what the story is from very near the beginning. For that approach to work we need to invest in the growing sense of connection and recognition of rebels as people without losing touch of the underlying realities. Koch’s character is intended as that interlocutor, but it just never comes together, at least not fully.

This is a movie for completists, whether for the director or the cast. I can’t say it is worth the investment solely on its own merits despite its message and reflection of current society.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

The Happy Prince

[3  stars]

When Oscar Wilde died, he was buried beneath a monstrosity of neo-classical faux Egyptian frieze of his own design…that, of course, had an enormous phallus extending from the winged vision of himself like some kind of air rudder or, more likely, a final statement to the world for how they treated him. So the story goes, shortly after its unveiling an elderly woman came by and whacked the adornment off with her umbrella.

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the sense of that ongoing tale, told daily in Père Lachaise cemetery, is mirrored in this reflection of Wilde’s final years. A clash of ego and society, a sense of self versus a sense of decorum. Woven though the movie is the thread of Wilde’s own children’s tale, The Happy Prince, which metes out the lesson much more poignantly. It reminds us also what he gave to the world and what the world did to him.

Writer, director, and star Rupert Everett (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) wore many hats for this period production. He gives us a tired and ruined Wilde in the last couple years of life, but with a strong memory of what came before. It is an intriguing performance, though only sympathetic through the actions of others against him; Wilde is just not a very nice guy in almost any way in this portrayal, though he is deeply passionate. Everett’s directing is subtle and he navigates a very complex narrative to bring us to the end. Ultimately this is as much metaphor about artists and outsiders as it is about Wilde (the near ultimate of both).

Everett is helped along by a number of solid performances, by the likes of Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Emily Watson (Lear), and Tom Wilkinson (The Titan) to name a few. Joshua McGuire (Lovesick [nee Scrotal Recall]) has a particularly strong bit part to deliver too. However, it is Colin Morgan (The Living and the Dead), as Wilde’s long-time and volatile lover, Bosie (Lord Douglas), and Edwin Thomas as Wilde’s longtime friend that form the structure of the tale and its downward spiral with intense performances.

The Happy Prince isn’t a happy tale, to be sure. I can’t tell whether Everett liked or disliked Wilde, but he certainly tried to tackle him in one big gulp with this first feature script and first time directing. Unlike another recent artist biopic, Final Portrait, while we do get a glimpse inside the mature artist at the end of his days, we don’t quite get a sense of why he was the icon he had been; it is in this I think Everett missed, or perhaps made, his point. Honestly, either works but we’re more used to seeing Wilde as an outrageous and brilliant character than as a broken man. It isn’t that there aren’t moments of joy and glimpses of his glorious past, but simply that it is all through Wilde’s lens of loss with little triumph.

Ultimately, it isn’t a great film due to its pacing and slightly muddled resolution and focus. But it is a disturbing reflection of our current times and a hard look at the end of Wilde’s life without flinching. If you are intrigued by Wilde’s life, it is a look at this period in a rather different way than we’ve seen before in films like Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance or the more recent (and wonderful) Wilde. The performances are a study in quiet longing and devotion, even when unreciprocated. And the recreation of the era across several countries well executed. That may sound a bit clinical, but as I noted, Wilde, who dominates the story, isn’t particularly sympathetic, even if those around him are. It is a film you need to be in the mood or be warned that it may take you some dark places.

Sorry to Bother You

[3 stars]

Writer/director Boots Riley certainly didn’t tackle an easy narrative for his first feature film. This movie goes from broad humor, to dark humor, to absurdist, to surreal over the course of its unreeling. A strange journey indeed. Sort of a more grounded Idiocracy, and yet more disturbing for that fact. Riley even consciously nods to Eyes Wide Shut in both his approach and specific scenes.  It is also the latest in a growing collection of social commentaries across many genre (Get OutBlacKkKlansman, etc).

Lakeith Stanfield (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) carries this film with a guileless approach. He accepts all the world has to throw at him and tries to play by the rules and then to use the rules to his favor. He is supported by his primary companions Tessa Thompson (Furlough), Jermaine Fowler (Superior Donuts), and Steven Yeun (Okja), who are each on their own journey and with their own sets of challenges for him and for themselves.

Three smaller roles provide impetus. Danny Glover (Old Man & the Gun) and Terry Crews (Deadpool 2) become mentors, of a sort. They represent two sides of the same coin for Stanfield to consider. And then there is Armie Hammer (Final Portrait), who gets to play an understated Steve Jobs-like character that serves a multitude of purposes. Hammer does an excellent job of keeping him human, despite the baggage the character has to represent.

There is no question that this is an interesting film. It is often funny. It is packed with commentary, some of it shouted at a very shrill pitch. But it isn’t just aimed at race, it encompasses art, personal success, corporate responsibility, political ennui, general happiness…the list goes on. Like I said, Riley tackled a complex narrative. It isn’t an easy film, but it manages to keep you as the world and story gets stranger and stranger, through to the final moments. But it definitely isn’t a film for everyone; it really depends on your tolerance for the bizarre.

Midnight’s Children

[3 stars]

Salman Rushdie has an obsession with dualities, starting with, or at least most notably with, his infamous Satanic Verses. He loves pitting good against evil, rich against poor, strong against weak. His stories are also rarely to be taken at face value. Midnight’s Children is no exception. This fable, ostensibly about two boys born at the same time on the eve of India’s independence, is more about the history of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh than it is the characters on the screen.

Narrated and written by Rushdie, the movie is a slightly fantastical tale told primarily in English. The story is fascinating, but a lot of the layers I’m sure were lost on me since it was all metaphor for the country, politics and culture. But even with the cultural gaps, it was a gripping story. It was certainly helped by Deepa Mehta, who has trod these themes before in her Water, Earth and Fire trilogy. She was a perfect director to take on the emotions and approach Rushdie intended.
This is an epic, so be prepared to strap in for 2.5 hours. But it is also done across three or four timeframes (depending on how you slice it) as the boys grow up and the country evolves. The time is necessary to set up and expose all of the issues. It is a rather light approach to the whole thing, by admission of the narrator and omission of the writer, but its points are unmistakable even if its punches are somewhat pulled.

Midnight

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.

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