Tag Archives: Political Drama

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Red Joan

[3.5 stars]

Movies of political intrigue are often entertaining but, because they tend to concentrate on the action and suspense and lose the humanity, they are not typically great movies. Red Joan is all about the humanity, with enough suspense and intrigue (though no real action) to keep it riveting. Based on a true story, and a timely one in many ways, it’s a wonderful depiction of living with a moral ambiguity in a world that wants all things to be simple.

Judy Dench (All is True), who is far from a frail old woman, manages to crumble before us as Joan. She is clearly tired and, in her way, happy to finally have the truth come out rather than keeping all the secrets that have influenced the direction of her life. While Dench’s moments are powerful and essential, it is Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) as her younger self that carries the movie in the main. She does so as a woman in search of acceptance in a man’s world, though never giving into that aspect; she remains both strong and human throughout.

Tom Hughes (About Time), Ben Miles (Collateral), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Child in Time) fill out the critical roles around Joan. Each brings a particular element and challenge. And each has their own contribution to the resolution.

Trevor Nunn (Lear) directed Lindsay Shapero’s first feature script with an honest eye. There are few, if any, histrionics despite the tension and stakes; but they aren’t needed. The story carries itself in quiet moments that are stretched to breaking. But this isn’t a Le Carre tale like Little Drummer Girl, the tension is in the characters more than the risks. The personal story itself is enough, especially when delivered by such a solid cast.

Red Joan

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

[3 stars]

Before Jojo Rabbit, but after Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, Carole Lombard and Jack Benny took on Hitler and WWII in their own slightly-screwball comedy of Polish acting royalty battling the Nazi invasion in Warsaw. And they had help from a very young Robert Stack.

There is a lot to enjoy in this wartime, feel-good flick. Director Ernst Lubitsch helped the cast navigate the darker sides of war, leaning into it as a foil rather than sinking into it in despair. Given this was created and released less than a year after Pearl Harbor, that’s pretty amazing.

Admittedly, the rhythm of the comedy overall is a bit odd for today. Though Lombard’s fast, sharp wit, a la her previous Twentieth Century, is certainly one of highlights. Overall, there is more of a stage sensibility with the dialogue and odd pauses. But, despite the dated feel, it manages to entertain and surprise with a clever script and focus on the human in the danger. But it isn’t a satire or larger commentary, it is purely a romantic comedy with WWII trappings.

And I could be wrong, but To Be or Not To Be is also probably one of the last comedies about Hitler until Mel Brooks tackled him again in The Producers 25 years later. (Note: though I know Abbot and Costello made Hitler Ho!, I can’t find a year for it anywhere, let alone a copy). As WWII quickly progressed, humor about it was not what people were looking for.

For a silly escape with some historical significance, this is worth looking up at some point…and the Criterion restoration is crisp and beautiful.

To Be or Not to Be

Angel Has Fallen

[2.5 stars]

Before 300, who would have ever pegged Gerard Butler (Hunter Killer) as the leader of action franchises? Since then he’s done a string of entertaining, but not particularly good, films. And this particular series is as uneven as they come. Olympus Has Fallen was surprising…but its sequel was just awful. However, it made enough to bring us this threquel, which is somewhere between the two in quality.

There are some things going for this story. First, embracing its aging lead and recognizing that a job that involves as many explosions and physical contact as Butler’s has a deteriorating effect on the body. Also, there are some great moments peppered throughout and, perhaps best, the relationship and by-play with Nick Nolte (A Walk in the Woods).

Unfortunately, these tidbits of good are bound together by some of the weakest mysteries, worst logic, and bad writing I’ve seen in a major in quite a while. Poor Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL) is saddled with a character that put the “feeble” in FBI. And Tim Blake Nelson (Just Mercy) is about as credible as a hedghog as the vice president.

Part of what worked against the movie is that its effects and stunts are top notch, making the B-grade script and story show its warts all the more. So, whether you see this one has to be up to you. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve certainly seen so much better. The script is so insulting to the audience that you need to disengage, yell at the screen till you’re too tired to continue doing that, or turn it into a drinking game. Choose your approach carefully.

Angel Has Fallen

Two hits and a miss on Netflix

Three new Netflix series dropped in the last couple weeks. For a change, I had a chance to sample them near to their release. It was a mixed bag, but quite the range in material.

AJ and the Queen

Sweet and entertaining, without the extreme intensity of Pose and with just enough Drag Race to keep it all moving.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get a bit broad but it’s approach is generally very down-to-earth to keep it feeling real. That does make the pacing a little slower than some may like, but I’m finding it cozy. And while RuPaul is his wonderful self and driving the show, newcomer Izzy G. is making quite the impression as AJ with some serious chips. And, as you find out at the top, it is AJ’s story, not his. Hoping they can continue the effort and build on the characters.

Messiah

This is certainly not the first show to posit the Second Coming…in fact, squint a little and the opening episode echos Dune, among dozens of other stories, shows, and movies. But Messiah is intense and fascinating, with multiple threads all being woven into an intriguing tapestry.

With Mehdi Dehbi  (The Other Son) in the title role and Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) watching from the CIA side, the clashes are inevitible, but the message and the commentary are well educated and non-denominationally specific (so far) and intended to challenge. And with James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Sense8) at the directing helm of more than half the episodes, I’m feeling confident about the show’s ability to navigate the divisive material in an intelligent and entertaining way.

Medical Police

Yeah, couldn’t even get through the first episode. Not my humor, though it could be yours (Reno 911 anyone)? The pacing is off and the wry humor just falls flat more than hitting the mark. I’m out…you can decide on your own.

The Other Son (Le fils de l’autre)

(3.5 stars)

Changeling tales offer up interesting opportunies to investigate identity and family. Few, however, found quite the flashpoint as swapped births between an Israeli and Palestinian family.  Lorraine Lévy’s tale of two young men discovering their past is quiet and simple, with a modicum of political and religious fervor from the outside. It is focused more on how the young Jules Sitruk (Son of Rambow) and Mehdi Dehbi (A Most Wanted Man, Messiah) reassess who they are because of the revelations rather than how the world views them.

How their families deal with the revelations is part of the success and failures of the story as a whole. It tends to remain, wonderfully, understated. There are emotional moments and stressors, but this isn’t a melodrama. However, some of the choices and conversations feel manipulated to allow for other things to occur, which got a little frustrating even while the interplay was good. Fortunately, Lévy directed it all with a calm, sure hand rooted in reality rather than histrionics.

I have to admit I spent a good deal of the film waiting for it all to blow up into some kind of tragedy. And while an argument could be made that the tension that provides adds to the story, I found it more a distraction. So, I’m letting you know it isn’t a tragedy, though neither is it devoid of bigger issues and problems.

The Other Son is a thoughtful mental experiment that forces some interesting questions upon its characters, and through them the audience. Despite its quiet demeanor it is suprisingly gripping, and ultimately worth the journey.

The Other Son

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Harriet

[3 stars]

Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.

The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.

While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)

Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.

Just Mercy

[3.5 stars]

Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle) has a way of telling stories that find the emotional core in the chaos while still making a point. Admittedly, drawing that out for injustice on death row isn’t as hard as his previous work co-written with Andrew Lanham. But Bryan Stevenson’s efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative are an important story to tell because the work isn’t done. And, in these politicially divisive times, it is actually sliding back in some areas.

Jamie Foxx (Robin Hood) is the primary focus of Michael B. Jordan’s (Creed II, Gen: Lock) newly minted lawerly efforts. While Jordan and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) are effective in their roles, they are really the bread upon which the tastier bits of the story are laid. Foxx lays out Walter McMillian’s  life for us in subtle shifts of emotion and unexpected responses. Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) likewise twists himself into Ralph Myers’s skin and brings his struggle to life through small moments and pauses.

The movie itself is engaging, but not overly revelatory because the story and the narrative format are very familiar. However, the depth and scope of the problems are still shocking. Updates through the first part of the credits slam that home. Just Mercy isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t, to be honest, the best film you’ll see this year, but the performances are solid, the journey gripping, and the story is important to see.