Archive for the History Category

Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on February 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A 1968 memo issued within the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation once stated that one of their goals was to “Prevent the RISE OF A ‘MESSIAH’ who could unify … the militant black nationalist movement.” The messiah of this title is Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), chairman of the Black Panther Party chapter in Chicago. The Judas is William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a career criminal who had been masquerading as an FBI agent to steal cars because “a badge is scarier than a gun.” Genuine FBI operative Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) must have admired his ingenuity. After Mitchell apprehends the thief for grand theft auto and impersonating an FBI agent, he makes O’Neal an offer he cannot refuse. In lieu of serving jail time, O’Neal is extended an opportunity to infiltrate the Black Panthers and become an informant by reporting on their activities. He accepts.

There’s an interesting dichotomy at work here. Director Shaka King seeks to recontextualize the historical depiction of this Black Power organization by the US government. There was the political party created in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale that was a heavily armed group that relied on open-carry laws to launch neighborhood police patrols. The FBI considered them an ultra left-wing institution. This led to their designation as a “Black-nationalist hate group.” Then there’s the record presented here that portrays them as a hub of free social programs for the community. There’s breakfasts for children, health care clinics, and legal aid — all for people in need. Those activities makes them sound like they’re competing with Mother Theresa. Nevertheless, King doesn’t shy away from some of Fred Hampton’s more polemical speeches. In one intense moment, Hampton urges an audience “Kill a few pigs, get a little satisfaction. Kill some more pigs, get some more satisfaction. Kill ’em all and get complete satisfaction!”

Judas and the Black Messiah is an incredible fable anchored by two compelling performances. The one that first seizes focus and screams “Give me an Oscar!” comes from Daniel Kaluuya. That’s not to disparage his performance. He is bursting with fiery charisma as Fred Hampton. The black leader is such an incendiary presence that it is impossible not to take notice. It’s wholly believable that people would follow this man. His oratory skills are superlative when addressing a marginalized crowd, already disaffected by police brutality. He is the quintessential “angry young man” but he alternatively displays compassion and tenderness when interacting individually with people, particularly fellow member Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) who would become his girlfriend. The picture successfully humanizes him as an individual.

What lingers in the mind well after you’ve finished watching is the life of one William O’Neal. Given this is a drama that is ostensibly about Fred Hampton, that U-turn is perhaps the most unexpected cinematic surprise of 2021 thus far. Some may label O’Neal, “the villain”. This is a lot more complex than that. The film handles his existence with humanity. Actor Lakeith Stanfield imbues the man with a benevolence that presents him like the heartbreaking figure in some Shakespearean tragedy. He emerges as the spotlight as well as a personality that bookends the chronicle. Portions of actual interviews with William O’Neal from the second part of the acclaimed documentary Eyes on the Prize, are included here. I would highly recommend you seek this documentary out if you are even remotely intrigued by what you see here.

If Daniel Kaluuya is the soul, then Lakeith Stanfield is the heart. You’d assume a messiah would be more important than Judas. I find it surprising that an account that has been largely promoted to be about Fred Hampton, ultimately evolves into a chronicle of his betrayer. When (yeah not IF but WHEN) Daniel Kaluuya gets an Oscar nomination for Best SUPPORTING Actor, it will highlight this fact as further proof. O’Neal’s life is indeed astonishing for the way he must come to terms with and then justify what he is doing. He is conflicted. Agent Roy Mitchell as Bill’s handler isn’t all bad either. He is shocked — at least initially — by some of the FBI’s lawless methods which include outright murder in the line of duty. As the saga unfolds Mitchell becomes far less sympathetic. The one element that is not nuanced is that of J Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) performing under (what I hope is) pounds of pancake makeup applied to his pockmarked face . He is the clear-cut, hissable villain. Hoover is an absolute monster here that makes all previous incarnations of him seem saintly by comparison.

I’ll end my review with how the movie begins. Director King introduces his creation with the title card “Inspired by true events.” These disclaimers always irk me. They come across as carte blanche to make stuff up. Granted most, if not all, movies must use a certain amount of creative license. There are too many conversations where few people were actually in the room. There’s also the filmmaker’s point of view. That’s entirely fair. Whenever I see those ubiquitous retractions, it just makes me want to read up on the actual history. That is — when I am intrigued enough — and trust that these events are uniquely disturbing. Obviously, I am a film critic, not a historian so I am not here to fact-check the narrative. I am going to assess the entertainment value of the picture. King worked with screenwriter Will Berson and comedians Kenny and Keith Lucas to pen a tale that I found fascinating. In an interview, Kenny and Keith Lucas pitched the idea of a Fred Hampton biopic as “The Conformist meets The Departed.” That’s such a perfect description, I simply had to quote it. Similarly, Judas And The Black Messiah is a taut and exciting 1960s period thriller that compares favorably with those classics.

02-12-21

The Dig

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 31, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You don’t know how badly I wanted to simply title my review: I DUG THE DIG. Aside from the fact that it’s a corny beginning, I had to convince myself that I loved it that much. I did appreciate the film, but “dig” is a slang word that seems to imply more admiration than I truly felt. In short, this is a perfectly fine film, but it didn’t wow me.

The Dig is one of those movies “inspired” by historical events. A 2007 novel by John Preston is the basis for this leisurely paced story. The 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo is the location where a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating from around the 6th to 7th centuries were found. The owner of the land Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has hired Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the large burial mounds on the grounds of her estate. When he discovers an undisturbed 88-foot ship buried in the dirt, national experts take over. It becomes apparent that the site is a significant archaeological find. Edith is very protective of him and her property. She wants to make sure Basil gets credit for whatever he finds.

The drama is sort of an imagined idea of what transpired during their research . The narrative is curious because the account completely shifts the spotlight midway through from Edith and Basil to the marriage of Peggy (Lily James) and Stuart (Ben Chaplin). These are archeologists who have been called in to help out with the undertaking. It does return to the central duo by the end, but why the change in focus? It’s possible that screenwriter Moira Buffini felt there wasn’t enough excitement between Edith and Basil to sustain an entire picture. I liked their chemistry, but perhaps Buffini had run out of interactions between the two. Nevertheless, the first half is better than the second, so the pivot isn’t an improvement.

The production’s greatest asset is the beauty of the exploration itself. I like the details in their unearthing of various objects and the enthusiasm of their discovery. The cinematography is lovely since it’s a beautiful portrait to savor at a gentle pace. I’ll cite director of photography Mike Eley (Made in Italy, The White Crow) as his contribution is important. It’s an understated and relaxed tale, but I enjoyed the quiet simplicity of it. The Dig is a pleasant, if not deep, excavation of the period.

And there’s the pun.

01-29-21

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in Crime, Drama, History with tags on October 19, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the most significant film of 2020. No, not really, but that’s how this solemn melodrama is presented. Incoming attorney general John Mitchell (John Doman) and his justice department have cooked up a case against a list of Richard Nixon’s enemies. To underscore the point, Mitchell even describes the litigation to prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as “the most important trial of your lifetime.” This is a gloomy and academic courtroom drama from writer Aaron Sorkin who is a talented writer who knows a thing or two about such things. Nearly 3 decades ago he gave us A Few Good Men which is a classic I truly adore. I was primed to love this. Alas, this is my reflection on a disappointment.

Chicago 7 has value because it’s a true story. However, as the chronicle is detailed here, it wouldn’t exist solely a fictional work to be enjoyed. This is the depiction of an event from the past that seeks to instruct and enlighten. The account is based on the prosecution of a group of anti-Vietnam War protesters. They were charged with conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. This timely tale “ripped from the headlines” seizes the current zeitgeist. As such, it’s been hyped as a major awards contender this year.

Aaron Sorkin is an exceptional writer. Of that, I am convinced. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Social Network which is brilliant. Although that picture was directed by David Fincher who imbued its aesthetic with spectacular style. This is only Sorkin’s 2nd time directing (Molly’s Game was the first) and I truly wish someone else had taken over those duties. While he has an ear for crackerjack conversation, he’s less attuned to what makes a compelling movie. He’s famous for fast-paced dialogue and extended monologues. The saga runs 130 minutes so you’re going to get a lot of those. Nevertheless, the delivery of those speeches is so traditional and dated. This feels like something you’d watch in school. There’s a frustratingly long opening montage that clumsily introduces the characters. Then there’s the actual lawsuit which is the bulk of the movie. Flashbacks are peppered into the narrative. These interstitials illustrate why these defendants are before the court. None of it is innovative or emotionally galvanizing. It simply exists to educate. This is your standard-issue Hollywood legal drama with the good guys clearly defined on one side and the bad guys on the other.

The sprawling cast is composed of unique casting choices. The “saints” include Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale. They all have vignettes that will play well in the highlight reel on Oscar night — should they get nominated, that is. That clearly is the goal. Civil rights lawyer William Kunstler who defends the Chicago Seven is the designated hero so he has several moments. Actor Mark Rylance sporting long hair, is quite affecting in the role. Now for the “sinners.” If there’s a performance that’s begging for a prize, it’s Frank Langella as Judge Julius Hoffman. Initially, I was inclined to hate him as the villain of the piece. His grumpy old man character glaringly represents the establishment. However, I gradually regarded his over-the-top histrionics as a reactionary as a welcome comedic break from all the serious talk. I savored his cranky behavior in his verbal exchanges with William Kunstler.

It all climaxes with a conventional checklist of some of the most hackneyed elements ever put forth on film. The ending literally features a slow clap with the music swelling and a stirring speech. I mean it’s as cliched as anything I’ve ever seen and it’s the last thing you’re left to think about before the credits roll. Some will relish the theatrics. Overall Chicago 7 has some great writing about a historical milestone, but as entertainment it came up short for me. Be that as it may, it is just the type of didactic, politically left learning portrait that Hollywood adores. Its heart-tugging specifying is designed to win accolades. I suspect this will be recognized when nominations are announced on March 15th. It is a wee bit amusing when lesser-known defendant John Froines (Danny Flaherty) wonders aloud as to why he and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) have been included. “This is the Academy Awards of protests,” Lee deadpans. “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” At least the movie is self-aware.

10-16-20

Misbehaviour

Posted in Drama, History with tags on September 22, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

These days, you know a controversial radical has been been awarded the mainstream stamp of approval if Keira Knightly is cast as that person in a handsomely mounted biopic. In November 1970, a group of feminist activists flour-bombed the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to proclaim their dissatisfaction with the Miss World Beauty contest. That’s the inspiration for this well-meaning but passive drama highlighting a host of various women ….oh and uh…Bob Hope……..associated with the event. The comedic icon hosted the highly watched event. Its viewership comprised of over 100 million people across the globe. Filmmaker Philippa Lowthorpe (BBC TV’s Call the Midwife, UK miniseries Three Girls) is the first [and only] woman to win a BAFTA for directing. It’s rather fitting that someone with that distinction should helm a production such as this. The largely female creative team behind the camera includes producers Suzanne Mackie & Sarah Jane Wheale along with a screenplay by Rebecca Flynn & Gaby Chiappe.

Misbehaviour is an account featuring an ensemble that attempts to detail several stories. The chronicle wants to be both a takedown of pageants that demean women while also uplifting those very same institutions as an establishment that elevates underrepresented individuals. The confusing point of view inexplicably changes over the course of this saga. However, if I had to cite a driving focus I’d say it was Sally Alexander. She’s portrayed by the aforementioned Keira Knightley who is making a habit of playing crusaders for the cultural good as of late. Sally is a history major at Ruskin College, Oxford and a feminist activist within the women’s liberation movement (WLM). She’s supported by fellow activist Jo Robinson, a rougher around the edges personality performed by Jessie Buckley. Jo is the punk antagonist to Sally’s more sophisticated intellectual. They share a common goal though — to “overthrow the patriarchy.” Beauty titles objectify women, they claim. Neither are happy with the Miss World pageant.

The entrants in the competition have less of a voice as that’s not really the main thrust of the tale. They are less featured but we are introduced to a handful of the contestants, There’s heavy favorite Miss Sweden (Clara Rosager) and Miss United States (Suki Waterhouse). There are also two South African candidates — a white “Miss South Africa” (Emma Corrin) and then a last minute addition, the black “Miss Africa South” (Loreece Harrison). Her under the wire addition due to pressure applied from a journalist on organizer Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans). His steely wife Julia, a Miss World executive, embodied by Keeley Hawes. Also, connected with the tournament is Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear sporting a ridiculous prosthetic nose). Justified or not, I have always held a positive view of Bob Hope for his tireless dedication to charitable causes. Be that as it may, the estate of the beloved icon and philanthropist will not be pleased with the smarmy, leering imitation he is afforded here. Conversely, his wife Dolores Hope is presented in a favorable light by a knowing Lesley Manville. Dolores is unfailingly devoted and supportive. However we are encouraged to pity the long-suffering wife who is apparently cognizant of her husband’s womanizing ways.

Feminism is in fact a social campaign with a range of ideals and goals that vary depending on an individual’s background. The best part of Misbehaviour is the scant morsel of even-handedness that arrives in the form of the supremely talented actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She plays Jennifer Hosten, the fiercely independent representative from Grenada who also happens to be one of the few women of color allowed to participate. The narrative shouldn’t want to detail more crusades but the anti-apartheid movement becomes a focus as well. Jennifer’s presence is a breath of fresh air because her journey is the one plot development in this script that I did not predict. This individual appears to subvert the intended message that pageants degrade women. A conversation Jennifer has with Sally Alexander is a critical dialogue within the film. Given the power of Jennifer’s declaration at the end, I sorely wish Jennifer had secured a central role and not what she is relegated to here – a periphery character.

09-15-20

Greyhound

Posted in Action, Drama, History with tags on July 21, 2020 by Mark Hobin

greyhound_ver2STARS3Are you thirsting for more World War II dramas?  Well, you’re in luck.  This is yet another — and decidedly old fashioned — saga between Axis and Allied powers.  This one happens to star America’s sweetheart Tom Hanks.  It’s clearly a passion project too because he also wrote the screenplay.

The setting is the Battle of the Atlantic which was a long ongoing military campaign that began in 1939 and lasted until the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.  Hanks stars as US Navy Commander Ernest Krause in charge of the USS Keeling which had the codename: Greyhound.  That’s where the title comes from.  He’s leading a convoy of 37 ships.  Considering his career, the part is sort of a callback to the movie Captain Phillips.  There the 64-year-old actor also played a ship commander, albeit one from more recent times.

Tom Hanks is great at playing decent, honorable men.  He has cemented his status in the last decade with Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, Bridge of Spies, and Sully.  Add this one to the list.  He’s definitely noble here.  He’s even shown kneeling in prayer at the end of the day.  However, the interesting thing is he’s playing a character that is a little out of his depth as an authority.  The rest of the crew have seen battle before so they’re knowledgeable.  Captain Krause has a lot of more years on these fellows but he’s less familiar with combat and his inexperience in this area plays a key factor in the story.  The production is respectable and sincere so it has good intentions.

If only the narrative were just a wee bit more compelling.  Hanks’ script isn’t about exploring the emotional core of one man.  Instead, you get an immersive feel for the day-to-day routine of the officers.  The dialogue is chock full of the jargon and minutiae of naval tactics, but it lacks humanity.  You can still enjoy the movie without understanding all the lingo but if you really want to understand every word I suggest closed captions.  Nevertheless, the military fight scenes are the best part.  They are extremely effective and well filmed so I’m giving this a pass because of the impressive spectacle.  I will only lament that it would’ve been significantly better in a theater on a big screen.

07-12-20

Hamilton

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music, Musical on July 9, 2020 by Mark Hobin

hamilton (1)STARS4For those living in a cave, Hamilton is a musical about Alexander Hamilton who was one of the founding fathers of the United States.  The play is known for a couple of daring distinctions.  It stars mostly non-white actors and incorporates hip hop, R&B, pop, and soul into “a story about America then, as told by America now.”  The stage production may make creative selections in casting but it still uplifts what is known as the American Dream for a group of men who were immigrants to a new land.

No musical has had a greater cultural impact on Broadway in the last decade.  Over the past 5 years, shows have consistently sold out and when you could buy a ticket they were prohibitively expensive.  This is a filmed version of the phenomenon that debuted in 2015.  There’s no trying to hide the theatricality of it all which makes it is a rare treat for audiences.  At this point, it’s unclear when theater will resume.  Fans can now witness the visual representation of the work they know by heart.  This was accomplished utilizing the original cast.  Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda inhabits the starring role and Leslie Odom Jr. portrays Aaron Burr.  There’s also Daveed Diggs as both the Marquis de Lafayette & Thomas Jefferson, Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, and Jonathan Groff as King George.  Those are the featured actors.  There are many other talented performers as well.  I wish I could list them all.

The play received a record 16 Tony nominations and won 11 including Best Musical in 2016.  This is a chance to see the magnificent achievements of Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry for which they all won.  They may not be conventional choices for those roles, but they are extremely captivating.  Furthermore, the performances from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Jonathan Groff, and Christopher Jackson were all nominated.  The cast is indeed outstanding.  You can literally see the spit fly when Groff as King George III enunciates his lines and music.  It may be surprising to realize that the rest of the cast actually outshines Miranda in both singing and acting.  One scene where he’s required to cry feel particularly forced.  I saw this performed when the national tour came to San Francisco.  An actor named Julius Thomas III played the titular role and he was incredible.  However, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still a genius for writing the music and screenplay.  This is a work of art.  (He received Tonys for the Book and Original Score.)

Hamilton, the 2020 film of the Broadway experience, is much more than simply a filmed stage play.  Director Thomas Kail edited from 3 shows (2 with an audience, one without) during June 2016 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in Midtown Manhattan.  This all from the finest seat in the house.  This is a view better than any theater patron could have ever imagined.  Kail knows when to pull back and afford the presentation a broad overview and when to zoom in and be intimate.  He utilizes close-ups, Steadicam, crane, and dolly shots to give the viewer the very best perspective possible.  It is an impressive achievement and most definitely a perfect manifestation of Lin-Manuel’s artistic vision.  A filmmaker must make many critical decisions when presenting a live performance.  Director Kail’s craft elevates the spectacle to maximum effect.  There’s something undeniably special about being physically present in the theater.  Nevertheless, this is the optimal way to see Hamilton for most people.  Few records of this type have ever felt so immediate, vibrant, and vital.

P.S. It’s hard to catch all of the crucial lyrics of the songs and rap battles as they’re delivered. Turn on closed captioning for subtitles that will make your experience even better!

07-03-20

Apollo 11

Posted in Documentary, History with tags on March 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

apollo_elevenSTARS4I couldn’t possibly be a bigger Oscar fan.  However, I’ll freely admit they often get it wrong.  In fact, the Documentary branch of the Academy is guilty of at least one glaring omission every year.  It happened in 2017 when Tower failed to garner a nom, then again in 2018 with Jane and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in 2019.  You get the idea.  I could’ve selected a title for every year, but then that would become a rant.  This is a review — a very positive one at that — for this year’s omission: Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 was, of course, the spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon.  For many Americans, it was a proud occasion they will always remember.  However since it took place on July 24, 1969, many moviegoers (including this one) weren’t even alive at the time.  This commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the NASA mission.  However, you’d think it occurred yesterday given the clarity of this document.  Naturally, shots of crowds and people convey hairstyles and fashions that will betray an earlier era.  Yet the space footage feels immediate and recent given the quality, power, and detail seen here.  It feels ageless, perhaps (dare I say) even futuristic.

Sometimes real life is even better than the movie.  The journey to the Moon and back to Earth has been detailed before.  There is a myriad of ways that director Todd Douglas Miller could have assembled this chronicle.  Contributing to the timelessness is that his presentation contains no voice-over narration or interviews other than the voices of the people in the actual time as it is transpiring.  We also have original music composed by Matt Morton.  He employs a Moog modular synthesizer to underscore an account that is — in a word — thrilling.   Incidentally, every instrument and effect used in the score existed at the time of the mission.  There’s something so pure, simple and quite frankly, unique, about a record that doesn’t guide the viewer at all.  As a result, the takeaway is largely up to the audience to extract what they want from the images and music presented.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of an Oscar nom for Best Documentary Feature was an unforgivable oversight, but it could have easily warranted one for Best Film Editing as well.  Todd Douglas Miller has scrutinized countless hours of footage, many of it heretofore unseen, in a coherent and mesmerizing account.  He keeps the editing creative and dynamic.  As you’d expect, the Moon landing itself is a highlight.  His use of split screens to depict the operation as they prepare to set foot on the surface is brilliantly conceived.  The point when the lunar module (LM) separates from the Columbia spacecraft is breathtaking.  We get two then three images side by side.  The separations and connections of the LM Eagle have never been conveyed with such lucidity as this.  If there is a criticism it’s that the narrative is hindered by its inherent non-specificity.  A little narration might have helped in constructing what exactly is happening at any given moment.  However, that is precisely what makes the document immortal.  What it lacks in information, it more than makes up for in poeticism.  It looks and sounds amazing.  Apollo 11 is a work of art.

03-24-20

Judy

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Music with tags on September 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

judy_ver2STARS4Oh sure there’s entertainers Judy Collins and Judy Holliday but a biopic simply called Judy would have to be about Judy Garland.  Any endeavor presenting an account of the stage, screen and television star has an awesome task set before them.  Judy, however, is narrowly focused in scope.   This is not a traditional biopic of an entire life in showbiz.  It’s a highly selective snapshot.  Judy is adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.   It chronicles her life in 1969 when she did a series of sold-out concerts at London nightclub The Talk of the Town.

This is not a happy tale.  These are the events that occurred during the last year of Judy’s life.  The drama presents the details of her existence at the time.  As such it is the profile of a career in decline.  She has no home, losing one hotel room due to nonpayment and checking into another one with kids Lorna Luft (Bella Ramsey) and Joey Luft (Lewin Lloyd) in tow.  She accepts a gig for a 5 week run of shows in London so that she can afford to take care of her kids.  The irony is that by agreeing to the engagement she is physically unavailable to be with them.  And what about those concerts?  Well, depends on what night you showed up.  Sometimes she would come out and deliver that legendary magic in a stellar show greeted by thunderous applause.  Other times she wouldn’t take the stage at all, or if she did, perhaps she’d stumble out in a drunken stupor.

Judy is about one woman.  However, many other personalities affected her experiences.  Director Rupert Goold occasionally cuts to flashbacks of Judy’s childhood (portrayed by Darci Shaw) where we eavesdrop on her interactions with studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).  These berating conversations on the set of The Wizard of Oz will foreshadow the insecurities of her adulthood.  There are some lighthearted moments too.  The most uplifting occurs in the present.  Garland runs into two fans named Dan and Stan, an older gay couple played by Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira.  They’re waiting to greet her outside when she leaves the nightclub where she’s performing.  Feeling lonely, she asks to join the stunned pair for dinner.  The characters may be fictional but the warmth of their interaction is genuine.  The film also stars Finn Wittrock as fifth husband Mickey Deans, Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft, her third marriage, Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli, Michael Gambon as theatrical manager Bernard Delfont, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, the show’s production assistant.  All of these individuals encompass the portrait of an artist but make no mistake, they are all in service to the tale of one superstar.

As a story, it’s sad and muted but as the presentation of a singing idol, it’s spectacular.  I admit I walked in rather skeptical but I walked out a believer.  Renée Zellweger channels Judy Garland in a way that is uncanny.  I still can’t believe this is the same actress that played Bridget Jones.  It is a transformative performance.  Renée embodies Judy’s vulnerability, insecurity, and sadness in a manner that is profoundly personal.  Zellweger famously starred in the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago so it shouldn’t be surprising that she actually sings here.  No, Renée doesn’t sound exactly like Judy but this was a period in the legend’s life (let’s be honest)  where she wasn’t at the top of her game.  Renée’s somewhat flawed vocals serve this production perfectly.  It’s hard not to consider the trajectory of Renée herself who received 3 Oscar nominations during the heyday of her career.  She won the award 15 years ago as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cold Mountain in 2004.  She hasn’t been nominated since.  That will undoubtedly change this year.

Renée captures Judy’s soul.  My favorite line is when Mickey Deans greets her at a party with a cocktail.  “You can’t have the world’s greatest entertainer out here without a drink,” he says to Garland.  “Oh Frank Sinatra’s here?” she coyly replies.  Renée Zellweger effortlessly delivers the quip with an impish twinkle but it’s an external facade that glosses over raw emotion deep within.  At best, Renée’s work here is her crowning achievement.  At the very least, her acting is a compelling reason to see this picture.

09-26-19

Mary Queen of Scots

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_queen_of_scots_ver4STARS3It really is a testament to the talent and charisma of Saoirse Ronan that Mary Queen of Scots is still worthwhile viewing.  The star is bloody good as the titular heroine.  Her achievement kept me enrapt.  I can’t say the same for the rest of the picture.

After the death of her husband Francis II, King of France, Mary Stuart returns to her native Scotland.  Both Scotland and England are under the realm of Mary’s cousin Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie).  Yet she asserts her claim to the English throne.  Elizabeth regards Mary’s actions a direct threat to her ruling authority.  The largely Protestant government there has outlawed Catholic mass.  Mary preaches tolerance of both religions.  She immediately incurs the wrath of Protestant cleric John Knox (David Tennant) who is her vocal critic.

The colorful ensemble boosts a flawed production.  Diverse casting choices include Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick, Ismael Cruz Córdova as David Rizzio, and Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph.  These aren’t historically accurate decisions, but they distinguish this interpretation as a contemporary tale, so there’s that.  Naturally beautiful Margot Robbie is cast as the heavily made up Queen Elizabeth I.  She is suffering from smallpox under what looks like pounds and pounds of foundation. Director Josie Rourke cuts back and forth between the two monarchs to contrast their differing points of view.  Robbie is very good too. Her appearance pops up here and there, but this is Ronan’s movie.  As ancient history (16th century), nothing I discuss here should be considered a spoiler, but the two don’t even share the screen until the very end.  Even then, history teaches us they never even met at all.

I am a sucker for a stately well-done period piece. This isn’t it.   History buffs are likely to go into conniptions over the inaccuracies and even fans of tawdry soap operas are likely to find the events questionable.   I won’t get into details but certain developments surrounding Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband, Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden) compelled me to research their veracity. Some of this is pure fantasy at worst and loose conjecture at best.  The costumes are sumptuous. The production design is heavenly and as mentioned earlier, Saoirse Ronan anchors it all with a captivating performance.  I say if you’re already obsessed with biographies about monarchs, this should satiate your fix.  Although the timing of this release couldn’t be worse.  There’s already an irreverent film about a queen currently playing at the multiplex right now (The Favourite).   It’s so much better.

12-18-18

The Favourite

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Dance, Drama, History with tags on December 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

favourite_ver2STARS4.5Way back on January 21, 1989, one of the highlights on Saturday Night Live’s 14th season occurred during the 10th episode.  John Malkovich was the host plugging his work in Dangerous Liaisons, an obvious forebear of this film.  One of the skits in which he starred, was a bit I affectionately remember as “Mocking Lord Edmund.”  In it, Malkovich portrayed an 18th-century aristocrat who suspects all the wrong people of insulting him.  “You mock me,” he would disdainfully rebuke.  Each admirer was bewildered at his scorn for their honest praise.  Malkovich’s deadpan delivery in a haughty accent was comical in itself.  But the main joke was that his two servants (Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey), whom he didn’t suspect, were actually mocking him behind his back.

Period pieces are inherently hilarious.  The Favorite is an extraordinary work that takes an absurdist view of the strange reign of Queen Anne, who ruled Great Britain at the beginning of the 18th century.  England is at war with the French.  The ruler is attended to by her close friend Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). Sarah encourages her to fund the ongoing war with France so that her husband can claim victory.  Into this mix arrives Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), a servant with designs on bettering her own station in life.  The liaison between these three develops into a genuine love triangle. There’s no evidence that Queen Anne had a romantic relationship with either of these women.  Although speculation at the time did fuel court gossip.  Yet historians do agree that Sarah Churchill’s personal friendship with the Queen afforded her a lot of power and influence in the monarch’s decisions.   Regardless, historical accuracy is clearly not director Yorgos Lanthimos’ focus.  The bitter rivalry between Sarah and Abigail for the affections of Queen Anne is the central conflict.  And oh what a competition!

The centerpiece of The Favourite is a trio of flawless performances by Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz who form the central trio of strong women.   Queen Anne is a frail woman physically afflicted by ill health.  Olivia Coleman embodies the ruler as a woman plagued by insecurities.  She screams irrationally at a young attendant for staring at her.  She feels ugly.  She gorges on cake.  Vomits.  Then continues to gorge.  One moment she is a timid monarch afraid of choosing sides between the Whigs and Tories in Parliament.  The next minute her mind is fixed and she refuses to allow anyone to sway her.  Rachel Weisz is the Duchess of Marlborough, her close confidant.  She is a woman fiercely driven by her own political desires.  Abigail appears to enter the picture as sort of a wide-eyed innocent.  Anne Baxter in All About Eve anyone?  Emma Stone has one of the most expressive visages in all of Hollywood. The mere look of her face as she turns away in one flirtatious scene elicited guffaws at my screening.  As time wears on, the pursuit of her own selfish goals consumes her every thought.  Her poor husband Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) is frustrated by her lack of attention, even on their wedding night.

This is a visual spectacle that captivates our attention even when nothing is being said. The costumes and sets are lavish.  Sandy Powell’s monochromatic costumes stand in stark contrast to the candlelit halls of the palace.  The powdered wigs are piled ridiculously high.  And I’m talking about the males.  They wear more makeup than the women.  The beauty marks applied like stickers to the face.  Even the palace is a character itself with its massively high ceilings, cavernous hallways, and luxuriously appointed spaces.  Tapestries, art, and furniture dominate some rooms.  There is a definite sense of scope.  The cinematography by Robbie Ryan captures every inch of the spectacle mixing fisheye lenses with spinning camera angles.  It can get overwhelming.  At times we’re more focused on the way the scene is shot, not what is being shot.  But more often than not, the photography creates a sense of isolation that matches the mood of the characters.  Visually it’s an emotional experience.

Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have a playful ear for dialogue.  It’s also the first feature Lanthimos directed that he did not co-write with regular writing partner Efthymis Filippou.  I dare say it is the most quotable film of the year.  The catty one-liners abound in an artificial air of high camp.   There is an affected pomposity to these people that makes them amusing.  The script exploits the lexicon of our modern era to humorous effect.   The c-word is joined with the word struck to describe a man impossibly bewitched by a woman. The idioms of past costume dramas are subverted as well.  Abigail fawns obsequiously over Queen Anne’s hair.  “Stop it. How you mock me” the queen responds.  The screenplay recognizes how a retort delivered with withering contempt can be an exquisite joy.  At one point Sarah Churchill derisively chides crafty House of Commons dandy Harley (Nicholas Hoult).  “I can’t take you seriously when your mascara is running.”

The Favourite exaggerates what makes period pieces so fitfully entertaining.  In doing so, it becomes an artistic work of art.  There’s a lot of idiosyncratic details.  Sarah and Abigail shoot pigeons.  A splatter of blood unexpectedly covers Sarah’s face after Abigail hits one dead on.  Queen Anne keeps 17 rabbits as pets symbolically representing each one of her children that didn’t survive due to various maladies.  Prime Minister Godolphin (James Smith) races ducks in his spare time for fun.  A hapless Tory endues fruits thrown at him as some sort of parlor game.  I didn’t understand the point, but it conveyed decadence nonetheless.  Lady Marlborough’s choreographed dance scene with her companion at the ball is a riot for its anachronistic dance moves.  It’s a fabulous spectacle lit with candles.  Ok, I’ll admit The Favourite is about as historically accurate as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Yet for my money….it’s just as funny.

11-27-18