Tag Archives: Political Drama

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Hunter Killer

[2.5 stars]

An uneven adventure film that has its moments, but pisses them away at almost every turn with painful cliches though it manages to escape others. And, saddest of all, the last major appearance of Michael Nyqvist (John Wick). It isn’t as bad as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but this clunky action film gets sunk by Donovan Marsh’s uneven directing that no amount of talent can overcome. I will admit that there are moments where it works, particularly when the military in the field are working together. But that is, often as not, followed up by moments of absurd scenes with the likes of Gary Oldman (Tau), whose great talent is sorely abused into an histrionic military leader who would have never risen to his position.

That aspect of the characters makes this actioner into a weird, blue-collar polemic. Simply put: Those in power are fools; those on the ground are the sober thinkers. The truth is that most military leaders in first-world countries are very calm, considered people who hate to risk lives without purpose or to play politics… well, ever. The fantasy world of Hunter Killer resurrects false views of the military, at least our military, from decades ago.

The movie isn’t entirely absurd on that level though. There are few characters that have risen to admirable leaders. Gerard Butler (Den of Thieves) is a fairly credible, if somewhat wooden-er than usual, submarine captain. And Nyqvst gives us a subtle and stoic Russian as his counterpart. But Common (Smallfoot), though calm and collected, just has no credibility as a 1-star general. It is a hollow performance, however earnest. And Linda Cardellini (Green Book), though allowed to have brains, is also guilty of a silent coup thanks to the writing. And even some of Butler’s crew come across as having been inappropriately promoted, particularly his XO played by Carter MacIntyre.

Now, all that said, if you squint…quite a bit…the story is engaging and tense, particular during the fighting and evading scenes as most good sub stories can be. The setup is intriguing and the cinematography really something spectacular at times. But it isn’t a good movie. It is barely a passable one. It could have been so much more, but the producers clearly had a point of view and no sense of the real world, only the macho world they envision as they mouth-breathe their nights away.

The Front Runner

[3 stars]

I want to start with what is good with this story because, honestly, it is a film worth seeing even if it doesn’t accomplish what I’d have liked.

At the top of the positive aspects of the film is Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman) who delivers a solid performance as the idealistic Gary Hart. Vera Farmiga (Boundaries), as his wife, also tackles the challenge of her situation with a decidedly adult demeanor. The rest of the cast is solid, but none pop. Even J.K. Simmons (The Snowman), who normally stands out amid a crowd, just isn’t enough of a focus to make him memorable. This is mostly because the story is very focused on Hart and his family. The resulting story is neither a whitewash nor a vilification of Hart, Rice, or even most of the journos involved. Jason Reitman’s (Tully) direction keeps the story honest (even if the script misses the mark by a wide margin on making it’s point).

So let’s talk about what the movie missed. This moment in history was a seminal moment in politics and journalism, one from which we’ve never recovered. But the impact of that is never really achieved on screen. Recently, Vice laid out another aspect of the dismantling of objective journalism and the ending of the Fairness Doctrine. But it was only one aspect of the changes that have occurred. The story of Gary Hart is the other.

Front Runner never establishes what things were like before the moment the Miami Herald made Donna Rice a household name. There are brief conversations, but no real sense of the indelible change and the impact that has brought us to today. A day when there is absolutely no privacy and journalism, real journalism, is a dying skill…a skill who’s value is not even understood by a large portion of the public it used to serve. Worse, the highest offices in the land seem fit to claim open, honest, balanced journalism is “an enemy of the people.” Well, this is how it all really started. But without a clear touchstone for what it had been, it simply becomes a story we watch rather than comprehend.

With a well-documented serial philanderer in the White House, and blatant racists serving in Congress and state houses, it is easy to forget that politicians not only used to be held to a higher standard when confronted, but that any information on their private lives was not even considered germane only 35 years ago. Everything changed with the journalistic and self-destruction of Gary Hart.

Unfortunately, this movie didn’t quite capture that aspect. While there is still real investigative reporting out there, the larger group of news, print, and online are chasing entertainment or simply printing what they need to get eyeballs, regardless of the rigor behind the story or the veracity. And by doing so, they’ve often become the unwitting weapons of those they are trying to expose. And many readers have lost the ability to take in the information critically to pull apart fact from conjecture and opinion. They’d rather take their news in unverified tweets. In other words, the Fifth Estate is under siege from both within and without.

Think this is all hyperbole? Consider that just last week (blog time) Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion suggesting that libel law protections for journalists and their papers put in place by New York Time vs Solomon should be overturned.

OK, rant over. As a movie Front Runner is definitely worth seeing. You may want to dig a bit more into the information to understand the context. This isn’t The Post, it is really more about the man than the implications. That was a legitimate choice, but not the more important one in my opinion.

The Bookshop

[3.5 stars]

One of the things I love most about independent British cinema is that even when they are following formulas, they never quite get there as you expect. And with The Bookshop, well, it isn’t even the formula you think it is…not entirely. While it is a romance, it is also a look at small town politics, reputation, privilege, and personal values. And, yes, books.

There are many tropes in Isabel Coixet’s (Learning to Drive) adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel. Each trope is loaded with expectations and given just enough rope to make it complete through her careful direction. How each resolves, or might resolve, is part of the journey. And the journey certainly intrigued a number of festivals and awards juries.

Emily Mortimer (Mary Poppins Returns) drives the story with an odd but powerful presence. She never quite fully gels for me, but is still compelling. Bill Nighy (Ordeal by Innocence), Patricia Clarkson (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), James Lance (The Look of Love), and even the young Honor Kneafsey (Crooked House) are also all equally gripping but somehow not quite real. Since the entire film is framed with a forced narration, turning it into a story on its own, that seems about right, if a little unexpected in feeling.

Whatever you think this movie is going in, or even while watching it for that matter, just let it take you where it wants. It is a journey worth taking though it may not be quite the journey you expected or even quite at the level of believability in tone as you’d like. It works, and it is full of wonderful moments and prompts for your own, personal consideration, just like the good book it aspires to be.

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

Io

[2.5 stars]

The best science fiction takes an aspect of science and uses it to illuminate human nature or present dangers. The trick is that the science has to be real, or at least believable… and you can get away with one really big lie (like faster-than-light travel or communication). Io has some truly human moments and struggles and it is nicely driven by Margaret Qualley (Death Note) and Anthony Mackie (Love the Coopers, Avengers) with a small assist from Danny Houston (Game Night).

The science, however, is truly, horribly wrong from the very opening moments of the film. I had hoped that by ignoring the opening monologue I could enjoy the rest of the movie more, but the writers doubled and even tripled down on their awful understanding of space travel and evolution making it difficult not to grimace. I will admit that director Jonathan Helpert managed to build the tension and keep the story going despite these issues. With only three characters that took some effort, even with the talent he had to work with.

This one is really your choice. Qualley continues to show her talent and Mackie gets to work with a new type of character. If you like these actors or want to see more of their work, you can make it through this flick. But as a story, it is the kind of science fiction I’d like to stamp out.

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

Smallfoot

[3 stars]

There are some real gems jammed into the goop of Smallfoot. For instance, the opening is a wonderfully rich satire that is a story in and of itself. Much like the opening of Up it was its own tale before the tale. And Smallfoot’s main message is equally as adult and important, and it is delivered cleverly with the Yeti and Humans unable to easily communicate (in a surprisingly accurate way).

But, ultimately, co-writer/co-director Karey Kirkpatrick (Spiderwick Chronicles, Chicken Run) gave us a kid’s film trying hard to be Frozen and slipping into silliness too often to make it a classic…or even all that good. The musical numbers are bolted on and poorly mixed, even if delivered with talent. The dialogue is just OK and the plot, generally, is way too obvious (though it has at least one nice twist).  One of the issues may have been the number of other co-writers and co-directors that worked on the film (3 other writers and one other director). Just too many chefs.

Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) takes the lead in the cast as a guileless Yeti coming to terms with new knowledge. Along with James Corden (Ocean’s 8), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Common (John Wick: Chapter 2), Danny DeVito (The Lorax), Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation), and even
LeBron James (possibly in prep for his upcoming Space Jam 2), the cast has quite the scope and solid delivery of what they had to work with. But you can’t overcome a weak script no matter how talented you are, you can only sell it well.

So, yes, you can probably watch this once, alongside a youngster, without being too bored. However, if those same mini-people demand it on repeat, set it up and walk out of earshot. Once is more than enough for this, despite any of the good bits that it may contain.

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.