Archive for the History Category

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

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