Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait

A Quiet Passion


Sisters are doing it for themselves.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Noémie Schellens, Miles Richardson, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter, Stefan Menaul, Maurice Cassiers, Yasmin Dewilde, Marieke Bresseleers, Barney Glover, Verona Berbakel. Directed by Terence Davies

 

Emily Dickinson remains, more than a century after her death, one of the giants of American literature. Little-known in her own time (only a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime, most of them heavily edited), she lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home, rarely coming out of her home and in fact rarely emerging from her bedroom. It was only after she passed away that her sister discovered a treasure trove of her poems and made it her life’s work to see them published and even then she didn’t get the acclaim she deserved until well into the 20th century.

So who was Emily Dickinson? As a young woman (Bell), she was dismissed from Mount Holyoke Academy (nowadays Mount Holyoke College) for her lack of piety. Rather than capitulate to the demands of the headmistress, she stood up for herself much to the bemusement of her father (Carradine). Emily returned home to live with him and her mother (Bacon) as well as her brother Austin (Duff) and most importantly her sister Lavinnia (Ehle), known to one and all as Vinnie.

Now grown into full womanhood, Emily (Nixon) asks and receives permission from her father to use the early morning hours when all else in the household are asleep to write. It is permission, she later explains, she would never get from a husband. Emily remains outspoken about the place of women in the society of the day and she finds a fellow traveler in Vryling Buffam (Bailey) with whom she exchanges barbs at the institutions of church, marriage and society in general. Twirling their parasols like nunchuks, the two make a formidable pair.

As the years pass, Emily maintains an increasingly faint hope of writing something important. She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst. Her brother’s infidelity causes a family schism that creates tension in the household, a tension that Vinnie tries in vain to mediate. Emily does get at least one persistent suitor (Menaul) but she is so cruel to him that at last he takes his leave of her. She develops a passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Loren) but when he is transferred to San Francisco she is devastated. Thinking herself too plain for marriage, she changes her wardrobe from nearly all black, as was common in the day to all white. As those closest to her die or get married (which Emily likens one to the other), she increasingly withdraws from life.

This is not the Emily Dickinson I had pictured in my head, which shows you how much I know about the great poet. I had always thought her shy and retiring but in fact it was not shyness that made her reclusive. She was forthright and blunt in conversation almost to the point of cruelty. She was an independent thinker as well which was not attractive to men of the era but Emily didn’t need a husband to feel complete in life.

Nixon gives a performance that may be the high water mark of her career, which is saying something. She’s one of those actresses who rarely gets much acclaim but has over the years quietly accumulated a resumé of distinction, one that would be the envy of any actress. Best-known for her work in Sex and the City, she really inhabits the role of Emily Dickinson, reading her poetry in voice-overs to help put context into the events onscreen. It is a forceful performance that only grows more powerful as the movie goes on.

She gets plenty of support, particularly from Ehle who is a marvelous actress in her own right and like Nixon doesn’t always get the acclaim she deserves. As Vinnie, Ehle is the embodiment of compassion and loyalty. Carradine also excels as the somewhat stiff-necked father, and Bailey almost steals the movie as the ebullient and outgoing Vryling who it is a shame is a fictional composite. I would very much like to believe that such a woman existed at that time – and perhaps she did – just not in Emily Dickinson’s world.

There is a definite Merchant-Ivory vibe her in the sense that we get a lush visual experience with mannered performances and dialogue that reflect the era. Especially early on in the film, the actors seem to struggle with the language and the overall effect is a little awkward but as the movie goes on it feels a little bit more organic, although the delivery is still somewhat deadpan.

This is definitely a movie for adults with adult attention spans. It might seem a little long (and definitely younger audiences will find it so) but in the end this is a movie to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop the viewer and bring them into the world of Emily Dickinson in mid-19th century Amherst. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to everybody – hence the somewhat middling rating – but for cinema buffs, lovers of history, lovers of poetry and those who have cinematic patience, this is a movie that will transcend its score and reel you in.

REASONS TO GO: Nixon gives a superb performance. Davies uses Dickinson’s own poetry to accentuate the various scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors sound uncomfortable with the language and style of 19th century New England. The movie is a bit on the long side and younger audiences may find it tough sledding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene of sexual material, a disturbing image and some thematic material inappropriate for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davies used six different biographies of Dickinson as source material in order to get her character right. He believes that she was a legitimate genius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hours
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wall

Tommy’s Honour


Father and son have a conversation.

(2016) Sports Biography (Roadside Attractions) Jack Lowden, Peter Mullan, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Max Deacon, Peter Ferdinando, Kylie Hart, Benjamin Wainwright, Ian Pirie, James Smillie, Paul Reid, Seylan Baxter, Therese Bradley, Christopher Craig, Andy Gray, Colin MacDougall, Brett Alan Hart, Gareth Morrison, Paityn Hart, Jim Sweeney, Paul Tinto. Directed by Jason Connery

 

Golf wasn’t always the game it was today. It was developed over a long period of time, codified and eventually turned into a game which is played all over the world. It is, in many ways, a game that belongs to Scotland.

Old Tom Morris (Mullan) was one of the great names of golf in the mid-19th century. As the course greenkeeper at historic St. Andrew’s, he was a custodian for one of golf’s most hallowed institutions. As a caddie and a player of some renown, he helped set the standard for the game at 18 holes; he also designed a fair number of historic courses throughout the United Kingdom and was himself an Open Invitational champion, one of the first.

It was his son Tommy (Lowden), sometimes known as Young Tom, who was truly the shining light as a player. He became one of the first touring professionals and one of the first players who would be paid in advance rather than at the finish of his appearance. Young, handsome and charismatic, he became one of the first superstars of the game.

But Tommy chafed at the class distinctions that kept him from making something of himself. His father came from humble origins and remained so; Old Tom expected Tommy to do the same and be content with it. The arrogant Major Boothby (Neill) agrees with Old Tom and tells Tommy in no uncertain terms that he will never be a gentleman.

Tommy, not unsurprisingly, disagrees. What alienates him from his mother (Bradley) is that he’s fallen in love with Meg Drinnen (Lovibond) who has some skeletons in her closet and is somewhat older than he. Despite her own humble status, mom feels that Tommy could do much better when it comes to a marriage. She changes her mind however after a heart to heart with her daughter in law and finds out the circumstances of those skeletons. It is one of the most moving moments in the movie.

But Tommy and his dad unite for one more challenge match, one that will end up having a terrible impact when Old Tom makes an error in judgment. Thereafter, Old Tom will spend the rest of his days trying to reclaim his son’s honor.

This is a nice recreation of the early days of golf. The manicured links of today are much different than what golfers contended with back in the day. That much will be fascinating to students of the game which is where the primary appeal of the film will lie. However, the golf sequences themselves aren’t quite as convincing as athletic sequences in other films.

Mullan with his impressive beard jutting out makes for a kind of stereotypical Scot; aggressive and opinionated but deferential when needed. The red-headed Lowden gives Tommy a temperamental edge but is occasionally on the bland side. Lovibond as the fiery Meg nearly steals the movie out from under everybody.

The pace is pretty slow throughout but particularly during the middle portion of the film which may be okay with golf fans but perhaps not so much with film buffs, particularly the younger ones. More seasoned sorts will appreciate the attention to detail in the film. Looking up the lives of the Morris men, the movie appears to stick pretty close to the facts, another plus.

It is somewhat ironic that this film which is told from a poverty class point of view also celebrates a game that is a symbol of the elitist 1%. That might stick in a few progressive craws a bit. Still in all, the movie has some appeal, particularly to golfers (not all of whom are billionaires) and for those who can’t get out to the multiplex can enjoy the movie when it’s broadcast on the Golf Channel later this year.

REASONS TO GO: The mid-19th century environment is nicely recreated. There are some fine performances, particularly from Mullan and Lovibond.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace is slow, particularly through the middle. The golf sequences are unconvincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are not for small children; there is also some profanity and a bit of sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Connery is the son of Sean Connery and played the title role in the British TV series Robin of Sherwood for a season.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Bagger Vance
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary

The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

(2016) Historical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield. Directed by Nate Parker

 

It has been more than 150 years since slavery ended in this country and still it is necessary for the descendents of those in bondage have to remind us that Black Lives Matter. It is sadly evident from the shenanigans of the followers of Donald Trump, from the evidence that the KKK is still alive and well and for the institutionalized racism that allows people to think that flying a Confederate flag isn’t offensive to a sizable percentage of the population that we still have a long way to go.

However when Nat Turner (Parker) was alive slavery was in full force and there was no end in sight. He lived in Southampton County, Virginia and as a boy (Espinosa) played with the scion of the plantation owner. The owner’s wife (Miller) saw something in the young boy and sought out to teach him how to read – although only the Holy Bible, because she felt that would be the only book useful to him. After the plantation owner passed away his son Samuel Turner (Hammer), now grown, orders Nat back to picking cotton much to his mother’s disappointment.

However, it turns out that Nat has a talent for preaching the gospel and it seems to calm down the slaves – it might not hurt that Samuel was, as owners go, fairly reasonable and less cruel. The local parson (Boone) witnesses Nat’s testimonial and suggests to Samuel that he send out his slave to surrounding plantations to placate the workers by preaching to them the Gospel. As this would put direly needed coin in Samuel’s pocket, he agrees and Nat begins to see first-hand what the conditions on other plantations are like.

He also meets Cherry (King), a comely house slave that he urges Samuel to buy. Eventually he lets her know that he’s smitten by her and she eventually relents to his charms. The two are married Gullah-style but as Cherry is now working on a neighboring plantation, they see each other rarely.

But tensions between slaves and whites are growing exponentially and after Cherry is brutally raped by white slave catchers led by the despicable Raymond Cobb (Haley) and soon thereafter his friend Hark’s (Domingo) wife Esther (Union) is raped by a lusty slave owner from a neighboring plantation. Nat begins to realize that the entire institution of slavery is unjust and that it is his duty to help the Lord strike it down. In August of 1831, he and a group of his fellow slaves, pushed beyond their limits, go on a spree, attacking plantations and killing the owners and their families. The first blows of a civil war have just been struck, although none will know it at the time.

Some (including myself) will compare this to 12 Years a Slave and there are some things that do make the comparison palatable. Both films show the brutality of slavery and both films show how unjust it was. However while 12 Years was a lot more intellectual an endeavor, this is from the gut. It captures the rage of angry black men who certainly have a great deal to be angry about.

This is clearly a passion project for Parker who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in and likely sold tickets in the box office for. Passion projects can be double edged swords when it comes to doing biographies. There can be a tendency to mythologize the subject and I think Parker indulged in that a little bit here. The Nat Turner that is depicted here is almost saintly until the sexual assaults drive him to lead a bloody uprising in which women, children and even infants are murdered. One has to deal with some of the gruesome deeds that occurred at the hands of Turner and his followers, however justified they may have been. I don’t believe I’m being racist when I say that Turner, about whom little is really known from a historical perspective, was likely not that nice; what we do know about him suggests that he had hallucinations – or visions if you like – of angels and divine beings (which to be fair are depicted in the film) and that he himself felt that he was being called by God to dispense justice to the slave owners and lead his people out of bondage as a modern day Moses.

Parker is at a bit of a disadvantage, truth be told; Turner was a rarity among slaves in that he could read but most of what we know about him comes from Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia written by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray and supposedly based on his actual confession, although many historians question its validity. Parker had to fill in a lot of blanks and does the best he can. Even William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, had to essentially invent Parker as a fictional character, which brought a lot of outrage from African-American intellectuals and civil rights leaders at the time.

The depictions of the horrible things suffered by slaves at the time may be among the most graphic ever put to film and may be too much for sensitive viewers. For my own part, I’m glad that Parker chose to go this route; too often Hollywood has portrayed slaves as sad people in chains singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and wondering when oh when Lord will we be free. The reality of their existence was brutal and inhuman and while there were slave owners who were compassionate, there were many who were not.

Parker gives a searing performance as Turner and he shows a ton of screen presence here. He is supported by Hammer, whose character is a borderline alcoholic and certainly not always a kind and gentle man towards his slaves. Domingo is a tower of strength in his role as Hark, one of Turner’s confidantes and closest friends.

I do think that Parker would have benefitted with a little more objectivity in the script; it feels like the storytelling here is a bit rote and a bit too linear. That’s more or less just quibbling over grammar in a sense, and shouldn’t deter that many from going to see this.

Some right wing sites have drawn parallels between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps that was intentional, but to be honest I don’t think Parker is advocating that black men rise up and start slaughtering white people indiscriminately; after all, that approach didn’t end very well for Turner or the others that rose up with him.

The film has generated some controversy based on Parker’s past legal issues. You can read about them elsewhere. I find it a shame that they have likely had an effect on the attendance for a very good movie about a very worthy subject. That’s not to vindicate Parker or what he allegedly did, albeit he was acquitted of all charges against him. I’m not a big believer in punishing someone for something they’ve already been acquitted of not doing. While the guilty sometimes get wrongly proclaimed innocent, more often people are acquitted because they are innocent.

This is an intense cinematic experience that is sadly mostly out of theaters. It should soon make its way to home video and who knows; if it gets any Oscar attention it might well get a theatrical re-release. Either way this is a movie worthy of your attention for both historical and cinematic reasons alike. It’s most definitely an angry young black man film, but it behooves all of us to listen to what angry young black men have to say.

REASONS TO GO: The Nat Turner story deserves to be told. The depiction of slavery is as brutal as any film has ever shown it to be – which is a good thing. Strong performances by Parker, Hammer and Domingo elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those with right-leaning tendencies may find the film to be polarizing. Muddies up history a little bit and makes safe storytelling choices.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is brief nudity and some fairly disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film depicts the turning point in Turner’s decision to revolt as a brutal assault on his wife, in reality his writings don’t acknowledge that he was married, although there is evidence that there was a marriage. Contemporary accounts do mention that he trusted her with his plans for the uprising but whether or not they were actually husband and wife still remains a mystery. Most historians regard the reason for his rebelliousness as spiritual visions and consider it unlikely that he felt his marriage, if it did indeed exist, was a valid one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Years a Slave
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Girl on the Train

Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Love & Friendship


Kate Beckinsale machinates.

Kate Beckinsale machinates.

(2016) Period Romance (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Kate Beckinsale, Morfydd Clark, Tom Bennett, Jenn Murray, Lochlann O’Mearáin, Sophie Radermacher, Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, Jordan Waller, Ross Mac Mahon, Frank Prendergast, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Kelly Campbell, Jemma Redgrave. Directed by Whit Stillman

Woman Power

The role of women has evolved over the centuries, but it still has a long way to go. One woman who has helped it evolve is the author Jane Austen, who wrote about strong female heroines in a period when women were not just second class citizens, but third or even fourth class. It is something of a shame that Austen heroines are to this day still more of an exception than a rule.

Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is a widow with scarcely a penny to her name. In the Regency era, that is a dire situation indeed. Having married into the upper class, she is used to a certain lifestyle that she can no longer afford. Having a scandalous reputation as a temptress (one that has been well-earned to be sure) hasn’t helped her cause. With few options, she goes to her sister-in-law Catherine Vernon (Greenwell) and her good-natured husband Charles (Edwards) to stay with.

Things are tense between the two women, mainly because Susan had opposed the marriage and had done her best to quash it – unsuccessfully. Now the appearance of Susan’s daughter Frederica (Clark) has complicated matters. Susan has been trying to get Frederica married to the extremely wealthy, moderately handsome, sweet-natured but utterly dim Sir James Martin (Bennett) whom she doesn’t love and has been resisting. Susan herself has been courting the charms of Catherine’s younger brother Reginald (Samuel), much to the amusement of Susan’s American friend Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny).

However all of Lady Susan’s plots and schemes may come crashing down about her head. There are people who just plain don’t like her and disapprove of her. It will take all of her wits and intelligence to stay one step ahead of everyone else and succeed in making sure both she and her daughter are able to live in comfort and privilege.

Director Whit Stillman is one of those guys who is well-respected within the film community. He has some really terrific films to his credit, including Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, both must-sees for any film buff. He seems tailor-made for the works of Jane Austen and true to expectations he nails it with his first foray into the grand dame’s work.

And that turns out to be the case. Stillman gets the essence of the language, making it flow without making it too incomprehensible to modern ears, which is often the case with Regency-era adaptations. He also knows how to bring the best in Beckinsale, who starred for him in Last Days of Disco. She is absolutely superb here, self-confident, manipulative, venal and absolutely seductive. This is the kind of performance that serves notice that you’re not just a B-movie actress, as she has already shown in several other indie films.

There are a couple of other great performances here as well, including Sevigny’s acerbic turn as Mrs. Johnson. Sevigny is an actress who is criminally underused by both Hollywood and the independent film scene. Her appearances are always much anticipated and appreciated by this critic, and she gives one of her best performances here in years. Bennett is also tip-top as the incredibly dense Sir James. He is delightfully funny and provides a fine counterpoint to the very intelligent Susan.

The only quibble I have is that so many of the other roles are played in an almost stilted fashion. That does make Beckinsale’s work stand out but I think it detracts from the rest of the film. I would have liked to have seen a little more personality in some of the other actors.

This is also a lush-looking film, with beautiful locations and sumptuous costumes and wigs. The period is recalled evocatively but in many ways you don’t feel you’re looking at the actual era so much as an idealized version of it. As is often the case in Austen’s work we rarely see beyond the walls of the upper classes – the savage poverty that was also a hallmark of the era. It exists only as a big bad boogieman to terrify those of the upper class who are teetering on the edge of it.

Jane Austen isn’t for everybody. Most audiences find her dull and slow, but there is a lyricism about her work – even the filmed versions of it – that I have found oddly moving and appealing throughout my life, from reading her actual words to the adaptations of those words. I think that she continues to teach us about the reality of who women are – or can be. She has created dozens of role models who can STILL be role models nearly 200 years after the fact. If there is anything more impressive than that, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale gives a marvelous performance and Bennett is inspired comic relief. Gorgeous costumes and settings. A fine adaptation of a lesser-known Austen work.
REASONS TO STAY: May be too mannered for some. A few of the supporting performances are too colorless to stand up.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements are a bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sienna Miller was originally cast as Lady Susan, but had to drop out and Beckinsale was cast in her place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dark