Archive for the History Category

Operation Mincemeat

Posted in Drama, History, War with tags on May 17, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

British cinema will always have a fascination with World War II. Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are recent offerings. Just this past January, we were blessed with Munich: The Edge of War which detailed Hitler’s early designs on Czechoslovakia. I now present Operation Mincemeat, a true-life tale about the effort to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. This involves obtaining a corpse and passing it off as a fallen soldier with secret documents suggesting Greece is the real target.

The best thing about the film is the cast which features Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen. Coincidentally, the two actors have each played Mr. Darcy in versions of Pride and Prejudice, Firth in a 1995 BBC production, and Macfadyen in the 2005 movie with Keira Knightley. The intelligence officers plan the disinformation campaign. Even Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) — yes, the future writer of James Bond — is tapped to help. Despite the fact that the central pair are on the same side, feelings of jealousy arise. Both are attracted to a widowed secretary who works in their office. Actress Kelly Macdonald portrays Jean Leslie. Jason Issacs oversees the tactical deception as Admiral John Godfrey. And what WWII drama would be complete without an appearance by Winston Churchill? That role is occupied by Simon Russell Beale.

Operation Mincemeat is a solid production skillfully assembled by experienced director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). There are bits of levity inserted throughout. The attempts at humor enliven the atmosphere. If you relish fact-based espionage, then you’ll find this to be a competent melodrama ably supported by a talented ensemble. However, the account is a little too content to rely on proficient actors simply doing their thing. This is one of those cases where the truth is stranger than fiction. Reading about the real-life mission is a lot more fascinating than the entanglements depicted here. The period piece is polished and genteel, but I craved more excitement. It all culminates with a telephone call informing the audience how the endeavor went. I won’t spoil the outcome, but any history buff will already know the answer. I was kind of anticipating a recreation of the attack. Now that would have been exciting.

05-11-22

Munich – The Edge of War

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Munich: The Edge of War is an intimate period piece. OK sure we’re dealing with countries on the brink of World War II but at heart, it’s a human drama about individuals. As such, the portrait employs lots of tight close-ups and conversations framed by a constantly moving hand-held camera. The technique is ostensibly employed to create a sense of urgency, but I got motion sickness from all the movement.

That objection is honestly the most critical complaint I have. I rather enjoyed this handsomely mounted political thriller. The chronicle is set in September 1938 over the four days of the Munich Agreement. For the uninformed — myself included before seeing the film — this was a settlement reached by Germany, Great Britain, France, and Italy that ceded a portion of Czechoslovakia, (called the Sudetenland) to Germany. At the time, most of Europe celebrated the pact which was presented as a way to prevent a major conflict. Unfortunately, it was completely signed on Hitler’s terms. As history has shown, this so-called “agreement” was merely the very beginning of Hitler’s conquests.

The movie is set during the events of real history but it features two fictional characters. These are childhood friends who work in the government. Fresh-faced George MacKay portrays Englishman Hugh Legat with all the naivete his appearance can muster. He is the secretary of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain (sympathetically portrayed by Jeremy Irons). Actor Jannis Niewöhner is Paul von Hartmann who works as a German translator in the Foreign Office in Berlin. Paul may hold strong nationalistic beliefs, but he is still part of the German resistance. Paul acquires a top-secret document and comes to realize Hitler has been underestimated. He’s just getting started and far more dangerous. Actor Ulrich Matthes presents the most emaciated version of the Führer I have ever seen. Although Matthes registers a flicker of madness behind the eyes. Paul challenges his friend Hugh to help stop this contract from being signed. The two become reluctant spies.

Munich is conveniently based on having the 20/20 hindsight of what would ultimately happen but it is a fascinating tale of “what if”. It’s an expertly crafted and well-acted saga with an adapted screenplay by Ben Power (The Hollow Crown TV series ) from Robert Harris’ novel. Interestingly, the view of Neville Chamberlain’s actions is a decidedly positive take that gave Britain and France more than a year to prepare for combat. The somewhat revisionist view frames his rather submissive lack of opposition as an overall plan for the greater good. This political procedural can drag occasionally. However, people who love historical dramas — particularly those about the events that led up to WWII — will find a lot to enjoy here.

01-28-22

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Posted in Drama, History, Thriller with tags on January 27, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bold, minimalist, and grim – Joel Coen’s adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth is a stark vision in black and white amidst the “shadows and fog.” Joel may be working sans brother Ethan for the first time, but he isn’t alone. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Stefan Dechant support his vivid display of German expressionism. The movie shot on a Los Angeles soundstage is an austere stage drama but with cinematic flourishes thrown in to maintain interest. There’s a lot on which the eye can feast although computers still can’t seem to render a realistic-looking bird. Oh, but brush up your Shakespeare! This version makes no concessions for those not intimately familiar with the text.

You’ll probably get the gist of it. Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) and Banquo (Bertie Carvel) win a decisive battle over the treasonous Thane of Cawdor, for King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson). On their way back from combat they meet three witches (all portrayed by Kathryn Hunter) who prophesize that Macbeth will be awarded the next Thane of Cawdor, then become King of Scotland. Macbeth and his scheming wife Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) collude to assassinate Duncan and take the throne. It all ends in a lot of deaths, like every great Shakespearean tragedy.

Naturally, the language is pure poetry. Disciples of the text will be in heaven. Phrases like “the be-all and end-all”, “at one fell swoop”, and “crack of doom” all first appeared in Macbeth. This is an ensemble with an A-list cast. Stars Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, and Corey Hawkins all contribute. However, it is considerably less well-known theater vet Kathryn Hunter who makes the biggest impression. She appears as one entity that can shapeshift into three witches, contorting her body in odd shapes as she speaks in raspy tones. As she sits looking downward in the rafters, the floor turns into an imagined reflective pool. That re-interpretation of the cauldron scene (with no metal pot) is a stunning highlight.

Sadly the issues I have are attributable to the Bard himself. An emotional attachment to anyone in the cast of Macbeth is elusive. The central role is consistently evil and the rest of the characters aren’t likable either. Without someone to champion, we have “no dog in this fight.” People are slain left and right and I couldn’t even summon up the feeling to give a care. Justin Kurzel, Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, and Akira Kurosawa have all launched adaptations. Throne of Blood is the most compelling, but then again, Kurosawa dispensed with Shakespeare’s language. Joel Coen makes a valiant effort but fails to convince me this play is anything more than an evocative curiosity of Elizabethan English that students can pick apart and study. It will no doubt have a long run in classrooms for the next decade by English teachers who use movies as an “instructional tool.”

01-14-22

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on September 23, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Let’s be clear. The downfall of Jim Bakker and his PTL Club TV program became public in 1987. It was then that Jessica Hahn alleged that she had been drugged and raped by the televangelist and another preacher (John Wesley Fletcher) back in 1980 when she worked for the PTL Club as a secretary. Jim Bakker would later contend the act was consensual. Regardless, Bakker still paid the former employee $279,000 at the time to keep her silent. None of this is presented within The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The details of what led to their disgrace are frustratingly vague. I was more uncertain about what happened after I saw the movie than before.

True to its title, this is a story told from the (apparently cloudy) eyes of Tammy Faye. That’s not a makeup joke. I’m saying her perspective was extremely limited and that’s the point of view of the film. But how does a screenplay attempt this tale and only briefly namecheck Jessica Hahn in a random news montage? In the aftermath of the sex scandal that made headlines, all of the PTL Television Network’s finances were called into question. The misdirection of funds is his undoing in this account. Michael Showalter directs and Abe Sylvia (TV shows Dead to Me & Nurse Jackie) adapts from a 2000 documentary by filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. The five-time Emmy-winning duo co-founded the production company World of Wonder in 1991, most famous for RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye elicits compassion for a woman who initially received none. The intentions of the screenwriters are admirable. Tammy Faye (and her husband Jim) were essentially a punch line back in the late 1980s. Here however the woman exudes warmth, sincerity, and kindness. The consideration and reevaluation gives the religious figure back her humanity. Jessica Chastain is more than up to the task in the titular role. She is a compelling presence. I can understand why the actress has garnered serious Oscar attention for her role as the embattled televangelist. She could well earn her third nomination (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty). The chronicle is not charitable to her husband Jim though. Nevertheless, Andrew Garfield still manages to convey a little of what drew Tammy Faye to this deeply flawed character.

Engendering sympathy for “women wronged by the media” has captured the zeitgeist. Lorena Bobbitt, Anna Nicole Smith, Tonya Harding, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, Pamela Smart, and Monica Lewinsky all became obsessions in the media for wildly different reasons. I don’t mean to compare their contrasting notorieties to each other. However, each woman experienced a negative burst of fame for something that some apologists now defend. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is part of this tradition. This feels like the fanciful recollections of a woman who was duped. The performances are what elevates this drama. Cherry Jones as Tammy Faye’s mom and Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell both add significantly to the narrative as well. I found the saga fascinating as I was riveted throughout.

09-21-21

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Posted in Drama, History, Music with tags on July 7, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everyone’s heard of Woodstock. It has pretty much become THE symbol of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The 3-day music festival was held August 15–18 in 1969. Its mystic significance has only grown since. Half a century later, the influential touchstone is still a historical benchmark of popular music as well as a defining moment for a generation. Michael Wadleigh’s landmark 1970 documentary cemented its status as a phenomenon.

There was another music celebration in New York that year. 100 miles away from Bethel, the Harlem Cultural Festival started earlier that summer. From June 29 to Aug. 24 on each Sunday at 3 PM in the afternoon, a concert took place in Mount Morris Park (renamed Marcus Garvey Park in 1973). The event was hosted and promoted by Tony Lawrence, a genial and charismatic nightclub singer. The stated purpose was to celebrate African American culture. Promoting the ongoing politics of black pride was also a motivation.

A jaw-dropping assemblage of talent showed up. The 5th Dimension, Sly, and the Family Stone. Stevie Wonder, The Staple Singers, Nina Simone, BB King, and Mahalia Jackson all took the stage at different points. Gladys Knight and the Pips also appeared. Would you believe they weren’t even considered headliners at that point? Despite the fact that their recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had been a massive hit in 1967, their legendary reputation had not been established. Gladys Knight’s performance is among my favorites and the Pips choreography is nothing less than sensational.

The actual event presented in the Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) was by all accounts a success. The series of six free shows boasted a combined attendance of nearly 300,000. Then it faded from memory. TV producer Hal Tulchin filmed the exhibition on 50 reels of tape which comprised 40 hours of live footage. He tried to get somebody — anybody — interested in his document. New York’s WNEW-TV Channel 5 (now FOX 5) broadcast hour-long specials at the time but that too failed to cause much of a stir. Later Tulchin tried dubbing this as the “Black Woodstock” to generate interest. It didn’t. For the better part of 50 years, Tulchin’s film was stored away in his basement in Bronxville and largely forgotten — until now. Sadly Tulchin, who died in 2017, is not around to see its resurgence.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson was shocked to discover this occurred in the summer of ’69. As the musical director for The Tonight Show and the drummer for the hip hop band the Roots, he’s a knowledgeable individual. Like the majority of us, Questlove was completely unaware of its existence. Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) becomes a riveting capsule of history. In between clips, we are treated to interviews with assorted people providing historical context and comment. Some of it is a bit redundant as it hammers away at a predetermined social narrative. Its virtue is abundantly clear simply from the visual spectacle and unvarnished facts. Nevertheless, the observations are deeply fascinating. Others are amusing. Festival attendee Musa Jackson was there when he was four with his family. “It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken” he fondly recalls. “It was the ultimate Black barbecue.”

One of the best things Questlove does is filming the artists today watching their appearances back then. Getting founding members Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension to comment is a deeply emotional experience for them as well as the audience. They apparently are witnessing the footage simultaneously for the first time as us. The group’s lush, meticulously crafted version of “champagne soul” straddled the line between various genres. They openly discuss their concerns at the time.

Many intriguing tidbits are revealed. Contrary to some reports, the NYPD did indeed provide security. You can clearly see them at various points throughout the crowd. They kind of stick out. However, for the June 29 date featuring Sly and the Family Stone, they did refuse and it was instead provided by members of the Black Panther Party. The 3rd show literally occurred on the very same day as the Moon landing. Illuminating interviews of the attendees provide their frank and cogent opinions on the relevance of that cultural milestone versus this one.

So many wonderful highlights. Its difficult for me to convey the passion of an actual performance. When elder gospel legend Mahalia Jackson invites protege Mavis Staples to sing, it’s certainly one of the film’s most powerful moments. The torch-passing spectacle of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was a favorite of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader had been assassinated one year earlier. Another inclusion that shows how much things have changed: New York City mayor John Lindsay — a white Republican — is warmly embraced by the crowd. He takes the stage in a mutual support of the community.

Now that it has been unearthed, it will be interesting to see the effect this long-forgotten document of history has on future generations. It already won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Critical acclaim has been ubiquitous. Thanks to Questlove’s influence, he was able to secure and edit this testimony. It is an impressive directorial debut. Finally, the revolution CAN be televised….for the first time in over 50 years.

07-02-21

The Courier

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller, War on June 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you love Cold War spy films? Well then I have good news!

Greville Wynne is a mild-mannered British businessman with no connections to the government. That’s a plus. His frequent trips to Eastern Europe on business is another advantage. The two qualities make him a perfect candidate to be a spy. MI6 recruits him to be just that. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is an American CIA officer who assists. Greville is tasked with acting as a courier transporting classified information to London. His contact is Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) — a high-ranking foreign military officer providing top-secret intelligence

The fact that this is a true story makes it infinitely more interesting. The confrontation in 1962 was between John F Kennedy in the U.S. and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear conflict. That’s the historical basis but this is a character drama first and foremost. The friendship between Greville and Oleg, two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forged a bond that is affecting. Greville’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is kept in the dark about her husband’s activities but she suspects something is amiss. At one point she mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair.

These portraits of history are fascinating. It’s all about the point of view. This unsurprisingly aligns with American and British interests. From the U.S. perspective and its allies of the Western Bloc, Penkovsky is a hero. His undercover operations helped put an end to the Missile Scare. However, to the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc, he was a traitor. How Penkovsky weighed patriotism vs. his moral compass would have been a compelling study. Although those ideas percolate underneath the surface, the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into that conversation. This is a simple movie with clearly delineated characters representing the “good” and “bad” positions.

The Courier is very much an old-school espionage thriller. They were all the rage in the 1960s: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Ipcress File, Torn Curtain, The Double Man, Ice Station Zebra. They’re something of a vanishing breed these days. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies are recent examples of note. If I’m being charitable, I’d say this is less engaging. If I’m being blunt, the account is a bit stodgy and dull. It’s a decent well-acted movie with nice production values though. I’d recommend it to fans of those films.

The Courier debuted domestically back on March 19. After earning a paltry $6.6 million in theaters, it went to video on demand April 16, where it’s currently available. It got a DVD release June 1st.

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