Joe Bell


Some roads are harder than others.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Maxwell Jenkins, Gary Sinese, Morgan Lily, Blaine Maye, Igby Rigney, Coral Chambers, Scout Smith, David H. Stevens, Blake Barlow, Charles Halford, Jayne Luke, Juan Antonio, Kenadee Clark, Ash Santos, Cassie Beck, Christina Thurmond, Raquel Horton, Jason Cozmo, Christina Torriente. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Humans tend to fear the different, and that is particularly true of white straight males, or at least, so it seems sometimes. In a conservative town like La Grange, Oregon, a town that prides itself on “American values,” bullying young gay teens seems to have been accepted as adhering to those values.

Joe Bell (Wahlberg) is embarking on a quest; he is walking from La Grange to New York City to put a spotlight on bullying. His son Jadin (Miller) was viciously bullied after coming out, with people leaving messages on his social media profile urging him to off himself. Nevertheless, Jadin became the only male on the cheerleading squad and seemed to be almost defiantly queer, but all was not well. His dad supported him only superficially, so long as his son didn’t embarrass him. Possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Joe often grew enraged over petty things, and at every opportunity he had to show support for his son, he turned away.

But when Jadin takes his own life, Joe is driven by grief (and perhaps guilt) to make his quest, talking up his message to whoever will listen, or at least that’s what he sets out to do. The brutal truth is that Joe isn’t much of a public speaker and when ordering food in a diner, he overhears some other men making ugly homophobic remarks. Instead of confronting them, he hands them a card and leaves, which Jadin rightfully chides him for. You see, even though Jadin is gone, his spirit is walking alongside Joe every step of the way, alternately cheering him on and questioning his methods and motives.

There are no heroes in this movie except for maybe Jadin, and often Jadin is made out to be a stereotype, a martyr of teen bullying. Joe is self-centered, truly a product of a conservative rural town in which men are in charge, women are there for support and those who don’t fit in are to be humiliated, shunned and driven away. Joe acts the way he does because he doesn’t know any better, and in that sense he is a tragic figure; tragic because he doesn’t see that his lack of support, his refusal to stand beside his son instead of sweeping him under the carpet as much as possible has left Jadin feeling alone and with nowhere to turn, which we see in a powerful scene that announces that Miller is a talent to be reckoned with.

As far as Wahlberg goes, this is not a movie that relies on his natural charisma and easy-going charm. Joe is rough around the edges and often says or does the wrong thing. He alienates his long-suffering wife Lola (Britton) and his other son Joseph (Jenkins) at a time when both are hurting, but Joe only sees his own grief. There’s a scene early on where he is addressing a noisy high school assembly about bullying and it’s almost painful to watch as Joe literally fumbles his way through, saying nothing of any depth and concludes with a lame “Any questions?” when he has given them nothing to analyze. It’s brilliant in the sense that you wouldn’t expect a blue collar dad from rural Oregon to suddenly turn into a brilliant orator. Grief isn’t always enough.

The writing, from the Oscar winning duo of Diana Ossana and the late Larry McMurtry who previously collaborated on the far superior Brokeback Mountain, is solid throughout, although to be honest it’s kind of hard to make something interesting of a movie that’s essentially about a guy walking down the side of the road. At times, the movie seems a bit maudlin, and it does feel like a movie that was meant for woke audiences rather than those who really need to see it  I must say, however, that it was nice to see Gary Sinese on the big screen, although his role shows up late in the film as a sympathetic sheriff.

This is another movie whose heart is in the right place but could have used a bit of sprucing up to make it truly marvelous, but we’ll have to make do with memorable performances by Wahlberg and Miller which isn’t really a bad thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Heartfelt messaging. Wahlberg is solid in unfamiliar territory, and Miller is a breakout star.
REASONS TO AVOID: Preaches to the choir somewhat and maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity including offensive slurs and disturbing thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Jadin is depicted to have died immediately in his suicide attempt, in reality he was still alive when he was discovered and hung on for 15 more days before being taken off life support and passing away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Laramie Project
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Till Death

Saint Judy


Don’t fence me in.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Blue Fox) Michelle Monaghan, Leem Lubany, Common, Alfred Molina, Alfre Woodard, Ben Schnetzer, Gabriel Bateman, Waleed Zuaiter, Mykelti Williamson, Peter Krause, Aimee Garcia, Kevin Chapman, Gil Birmingham, Roxie Hanish, Rob Brownstein, Fahim Fazli, Samira Izadi, Kim Strother, Allel Aimiche, Anne Betancourt, Peter Jason, Michael Hagiwara, Ceci Lugo. Directed by Sean Hanish

 

Judy Wood (Monaghan) is a lawyer who moved to Los Angeles so that her son (Bateman) can be close to his dad (Krause) from whom Wood is divorced. She gets into the immigration law firm of Ray Hernandez (Molina). She’s expected to churn out open-and-shut cases as quickly as possible, but she latches on to the plight of Asefa (Lubany), an Afghan activist who tried to set up a school for women, which the Taliban took exception to and subjected her to torture and rape. She fled to the United States to request asylum – only to discover that the law didn’t cover women in that situation because women aren’t a minority. Drugged by American prison officials, at the end of her rope, knowing that she will die if she is returned to Afghanistan, Judy is her last hope.

Released in the midst of the Trump presidency when immigration was a hot-button topic, the film boasts a top-knotch cast led by the criminally underrated Monaghan, who has a career full of terrific performances but never seems to get the credit due for her talents. This movie, which pretty much barely created a ripple during its release, is the perfect example. I think that at some point Marvel needs to cast her as a superheroine so that she can start getting the roles and recognition she deserves. Unfortunately, despite some strong supporting performances (particularly from Lubany, Common as a sympathetic prosecutor, Molina and Kruse), the script eschews human drama in favor of emotional outbursts, plot development in favor of pontificating. While nobody can argue with the importance of Wood’s work or the justness of her cause, the movie seems to have taken its title a bit too seriously, which is ironic since the name was given to Wood as a bit of an insult – too good to be true, never met a cause she didn’t stand up for and so on. The movie would have benefitted from less posturing and more insight.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan is appealing, leading a stellar cast.
REASONS TO AVOID: On the schmaltzy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and the description of a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dmitry Portnoy, who wrote the screenplay, was a former intern of Wood.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Erin Brockovich
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Audible

Tove


Art and literature collide.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Juno) Alma Pöysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Joanna Haartti, Kajsa Ernst, Robert Enckell, Jakob Öhrman, Eeva Putro, Wilhelm Ehckell, Liisi Tandefelt, Emma Klingenberg, Juhana Ryynänen, Henrik Wolff, Dick Idman, Simon Häger, Kira-Emmi Pohokari, Sanna Langinkoski, Saga Sarkola, Jon Henriksen, Lydia Taavitsainen. Directed by Zaida Bergroth

 

European readers are more likely to recognize the Moomins,( hippopotamus-like characters who live in a strange and magical world called Moominland and were something like the Smurfs) than American readers, although some might. Fewer Americans still would be acquainted with their author, Tove Jansson, a Swede living in Finland.

Tove was born to a Bohemian family whose patriarch, Victor (Enckell) was a well-known sculptor, his wife Signe (Ernst) a graphic artist. Tove is trained to be a painter, but she seems more comfortable following in her mother’s footsteps, despite her father’s insistence that anything other than painting would be beneath her talents. Already somewhat well-known for drawing cartoons lampooning Hitler during the era of Quisling, she has a sprightly personality that really recognizes no boundaries other than those she imposes on herself.

She initiates an affair with socialist politician Atos Wirtanen (Roney) who happens to be married. She attends parties, often taking shots at the bourgeoisie of Finnish society. She pays her rent with paintings that she promises will increase in value once she becomes famous (although her fame came in a different media than she thought she was going to be).

Then she meets Vivica Bander (Kosonen), a theatrical director who is the daughter of Helsinki’s mayor – and also married herself – who challenges her “Have you ever kissed a girl?” As it turns out, Tove hasn’t but she’s never one to turn down a challenge and before you can say “Teemu Selanne” the two are having a torrid affair. And along the way, we get to see the birth of Toe’s most famous creations, and the elements of their personalities that came straight out of Tove’s life (well, we sorta do anyway). But Vivica isn’t ready to commit to being with Tove; will she accept being a second banana in her romantic relationships forever?

This is a sumptuously filmed biopic by veteran Finnish director Bergroth, with gorgeous production design by Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth. Tove’s studio is a near-perfect reproduction of her actual studio, which can be seen online in photographs. The soundtrack largely utilizes jazz, big band and mambo/tango tunes from European bands and is absolutely delightful.

Pöysti does a credible job capturing Tove’s pixie-esque personality. As an added grace note, we see the real Tove dancing joyously on the island retreat taken in super-8 footage by her real-life partner Tuulikki Pietilä (who makes only a brief appearance near the end of the film, played by Joanna Haartti) who, although scarcely mentioned in this film, spent most of her life with the Moomin creator which I thought was a bit odd, but then, Tove did nothing conventionally. Why should her biopic?

REASONS TO SEE: Superb production design. Nifty soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kinda slow through the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content, nudity and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The official submission of Finland for Best International Film for the 2021 Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Potter
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Saint Judy

Mapplethorpe: The Director’s Cut


Matt Smith gets high.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Goldwyn) Matt Smith, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, Brandon Sklenar, Tina Benko, Mark Moses, Carolyn McCormick, Thomas Philip O’Neill, Mickey O’Hagan, Anthony Michael Lopez, McKinley Belcher III, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Karlee Perez, David J. Cork, Kerry Butler, Hari Nef, Robert George Siveris, John Bolton, Christina Rouner. Directed by Ondi Timmoner

 

There are figures in popular culture that loom large, directly or otherwise, in the national psyche, but for one reason or another we don’t really know much about them well, other than what our own personal prejudices tell us about them. One such is Robert Mapplethorpe.

His name still evokes powerful feelings among many today. Some see him as an artistic genius, one who pushed boundaries on male sexuality and the male body. Others see him as little more than a pornographer, a gay man whose work epitomized the bathhouse scene of New York in the 70s and 80s. His work was so controversial that it was the first (and to date only) exhibition to ever cause the gallery owner displaying it to be arrested on obscenity charges.

This biopic, helmed by able documentary filmmaker Timmoner, stars Matt Smith (roaming much further from Doctor Who than even Gallifrey) in the title role. We see him as a member of the ROTC at Pratt Institute, just before dropping out and moving to Greenwich Village in the 1970s, where he would take up with legendary punk goddess Patti Smith (Rendón) who was then a struggling musician. The two carried on a brief romantic relationship but it soon became obvious that young Robert swung for the other side. Eventually his relationship with gallery owner Sam Wagstaff (Hickey) would lead to him being championed by Wagstaff and his work to be discovered.

This isn’t a very flattering portrait of Mapplethorpe, who here is portrayed as someone who habitually used people and discarded them when they were no longer of use to him – including his own brother. He spent most of his life trying to catch the brass ring and when he finally did, found that it didn’t bring him any more happiness than chasing it did.

Smith is wonderful here, inhabiting his role admirably. The thing with biopics that most viewers, nearly all critics and quite a few filmmakers seem to never understand is that except in very rare cases, the actor’s job is not to portray the subject as they are/were, but as the audience thinks they should be/have been – after all, the audience likely never met Mr. Mapplethorpe or know anyone who did. We have only what we read about him (assuming we’ve read anything about him) or heard abut him or, more to the point, what we think about him. We think of Mapplethorpe as a gay man who was obsessed with male genitalia and homoerotic images; we are given a Mapplethorpe who is just that. So in that sense, Smith is entirely successful.

The movie covers some of the bases here; the effects of his strict Catholic upbringing, his contentious relationship with his father, the estrangement from his brother and so on. Timmoner doesn’t really get us too far into Mapplethorpe’s head; we rarely know what he’s thinking, although to be fair, Mapplethorpe played his opinions pretty close to his chest when he was aiive.

What is more disappointing is that the movie feels choppy and fragmented. There’s no flow to the film, no fluidity. Instead, we move from one set piece to the next, almost as if each scene was directed by someone completely different. It leaves you feeling like the film was directed by committee.

The film was originally released in 2019 without making much of an impression so I’m not exactly sure if anyone was calling for a director’s cut of the film. 12 minutes of additional scenes are added to the movie, which doesn’t really improve the film any. It just means you have to sit through twelve more minutes of it. The expanded edition is available on Hulu and Amazon Prime; most of the others have the original theatrical version.

REASONS TO SEE: Matt Smith loses himself in the role.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fragmented and overly long and ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mapplethorpe’s mother passed away three days after her son did.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basquiat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Cryptozoo

The United States vs. Billie Holiday


Lady Day sings the blues.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Paramount) Audra Day, Leslie Jordan, Miss Lawrence, Natasha Lyonne, Trevante Rhodes, Dusan Dukic, Erik LaRay Harvey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Koumba Ball, Kate MacLellan, Kwasi Songui, Adriane Lenox, Letitia Brookes, Tyler James Williams, Slim Williams, Orville Thompson, Garrett Hedlund, Jeff Corbett, Amanda Strawn. Directed by Lee Daniels

 

For most modern Americans, Billie Holiday is a distant memory of our grandparents, a footnote on the cultural scene whose name might be familiar but whose music isn’t. As our tastes have turned more towards Ariana Grande, Beyonce and Lady Gaga in terms of female performers, few realize that all three – and so many more – owe Holiday a debt of gratitude.

Holiday’s best-known song is “Strange Fruit,” written by the poet-activist Abel Meeropol, depicting the lynching of a black man. The song, even today, is absolutely horrifying and stark. Time magazine voted it the song of the centurn in 1999, and for good reason. The song also got Holiday the attention of the FBI, led by the noted racist J. Edgar Hoover, whose underling and chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry Anslinger (Hedlund) remarked that while they couldn’t arrest her for singing a song, they could arrest her for her noted drug use.

From then on, Billie Holiday (Day) was a marked soman. Hounded by the FBN, she was arrested for narcotics use – turned in by undercover agent Jimmy Fletcher (Rhodes) who later became romantically involved with her – and sent to prison for a year. Because of her conviction, she lost her cabaret license which allowed her to perform in nightclubs which was her bread and butter. She was able to get booked at Carnegie Hall, where she delivered a triumphant comeback performance that led to European tours and theater bookings, but Anslinger continued to put the pressure on, even arresting her and handcuffing her as she lay dying on her deathbed at the age of 44.

It’s a sad, disgraceful story that as told here, is largely true, although some things are inventions; the extent of her romantic involvement with Fletcher is unknown as is much of his background. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks wrote her screenplay based on a single chapter of a Johann Hari book on the war on drugs that detailed how the FBI went after Holiday in the last decade of her life.

We are treated to an absolutely dazzling performance by Day, which has already netted her the Golden Globe in a bit of an upset (it was thought that Frances McDormand had the award sewn up) and puts her on track for the Best Actress Oscar, which she is nominated for. She does her own singing here and does a pretty good approximation of Holiday, although she lacks some of the vocal warmth that Holiday had. She captures Holiday’s feisty, don’t-take-no-crap attitude that was at odds with the amount of abuse she took from the men in her life who abused her physically (and helped her get hooked on heroin) and financially, as well as from a society that didn’t want women of color to speak out against the system. Her refusal to stop singing “Strange Fruit” is portrayed as an act of heroism, which it surely was.

The odd thing here is how the song, which was theoretically at the center of her troubles with the government, isn’t sung completely through here – she reads some of the lyrics at one point and a few lines are sung, but the song remains more of a concept than an actual presence. Even the triumphant Carnegie Hall performance, in which audience members are depicted calling out for the song, curiously doesn’t have her singing it, even though she did perform it that night. Considering how important the song is to the story, and that people are less familiar with the song now than they were even twenty years ago, it’s mystified why we don’t hear more of it.

Daniels weaves in a lot of flashbacks and flash forwards, jumping around in the narrative which can be confusing at times. We do see the absolutely horrific childhood she experienced which certainly led to her need to escape her demons through drugs, alcohol and sex. While her affairs with men are shown pretty graphically, Daniels is a bit coy with her affairs with women, alluding only to one female lover (actress Tallulah Bankhead); she was bisexual and had more than a few female partners during her time.

But that’s no nevermind. This is a much grittier – and less sanitized – version of Holiday than the more well-known portrayal in Lady Sing the Blues and while the movie is on the long side and could have used a bit less emphasis on Anslinger and Fletcher, this is still a high-end movie that deserves to have a wide audience, not just for the story of one of America’s great artists, but on how shabbily she was treated.

REASONS TO SEE: Day gives an award-winning performance. The music is unforgettable. Captures the reality of the African-American experience of the era. Daniels pulls no punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: The presentation is a little bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is heavy drug use, profanity, racial epithets, sex and nudity, violence and disturbing images of lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Evan Ross, who plays an FBI agent in the movie, is the grandson of Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in Lady Sing the Blues.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews; Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Billie
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Older

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily

Judas and the Black Messiah


Fred Hampton preaches to the choir.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner BrothersDaniel Kaluuya, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemmons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen, Amari Cheatom, Khris Davis, Ian Duff, Caleb Everhardt, Robert Longstreet, Amber Chardae Robinson, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, James Udom, Nick Fink, Alysia Joy Powell.  Directed by Shaka King

 

When discussing the civil rights struggles of the late Fifties and into the Sixties and Seventies, a pantheon of names stand out, from Rosa Parks to Medgar Evers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcom X. One of the names much less known is Fred Hampton, but his contribution bears repeating.

In the late 1960s, the Black Panther party has risen as both a community organization and a political organization. Dedicated to the idea of revolution, the party was eyed with suspicion and terror by white America; the press demonized them (often at the behest of the FBI, whose openly racist director had tentacles throughout the civil rights movement) to the point that even today, they are much misunderstood and often looked upon as little more than terrorists by the white community.

Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) was a young star of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers. Intellectually gifted and a skilled orator, he had a wealth of compassion for the black community, helping to organize meals for hungry children and emphasizing education to them. However, he also was dedicated to the systematic dismantling of the society that had enslaved his people, and now even a century later was keeping them down through means both legal and otherwise. He espoused a turn to communism, which also earned the ire of J. Edgar Hoover (Sheen), who was not only racist but a fervent anti-communist to the point of hysteria.

William O’Neal (Stanfield) was a petty crook who attempted to swindle by impersonating an FBI agent. His lies seen through, he was caught and remanded to the actual FBI. Agent Roy Mitchell (Plemmons) gives O’Neal a choice; a long stint in prison for car theft and impersonating a federal agent, or have his record expunged and get paid for infiltrating the Black Panthers. O’Neal took the second route.

Rising through the ranks even as Hampton does, he sees Hampton become chairman of the party while he himself becomes a security operative. As 1969 comes to a close, he is asked by the FBI to give a detailed layout of Hampton’s apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Fishback), a speechwriter for the Panthers who is also pregnant with his child. O’Neal slips some phenobarbital into Hampton’s drink, insuring that the Black Panther leader will be groggy and unable to defend himself with what was to come. On December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police carried out a raid on the apartment and in the process, both Hampton and one other member of the Panthers was killed. It was nothing less than an execution, an assassination carried out by our own government.

The film is bookended by two clips; first, one of Stanfield as O’Neal, being interviewed for a 1990 PBS documentary, then the actual documentary footage of O’Neal, talking about his role in the death of Hampton. It is one of those mesmerizing cinematic moments in which the reel turns to the real. The movie has a few moments like this, most notably when Johnson talks to Hampton about how their impending parenthood must change the nature of their political activity. It is a haunting moment, given that Johnson would give birth to Hampton’s son twenty-five days after his murder.

The movie is blessed with some masterful performances, particularly from Kaluuya who is turning into one of the finest actors of this generation (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his efforts) and Stanfield, who makes somewhat sympathetic the role of O’Neal, who finds himself way over his head. Fishback has that amazing scene referred to earlier and serves notice that she, too, will be a force to be reckoned with, and Plemmons does some of the best work of his career as the manipulative (and manipulated) Mitchell.

The last half of the movie is absolutely riveting, and even if you know the story – which many Americans do not – the tension is palpable. It’s the first half of the movie where I have the harder time. It’s a bit disjointed and confusing, and takes a little too long in setting the stage. At times, King (who also co-wrote the script) seems to be more concerned about editorializing rather than telling the story, which doesn’t need it. Any good American should be outraged at the FBI’s clear abuse of their power, and the fact that all those involved essentially got away with the crime is all the more galling (a civil suit brought by Johnson and her son was settled after 12 years, one of the longest civil trials in U.S. history.

Hampton was by all accounts a superb organizer and coalition builder which was why he was so threatening to the white establishment. Had he survived (he was only 21 years old when he died), he might well have turned the Black Panthers into a political force; the rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson would later extol was something Hampton actually came up with. At the time of his death, he had created alliances with Hispanic political organizations, white leftists and African-American street gangs. His oratory ability was not unlike Martin Luther King’s and Kaluuya gives us a hint of his fiery delivery (if you want to see the real thing, there are several of his speches on YouTube). You may not necessarily agree with his political beliefs (he was a fervent communist) but it is clear that his loss was incalculable to the African-American community. One wonders that had he lived that maybe – just maybe – some of the racial issues that continue to divide this nation might not have been laid to rest. Or maybe, given his tendency to promote violence as a solution, they might actually be worse. We will never know.

REASONS TO SEE: The second half of the film is extremely compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: The first half of the film is absolutely forgettable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity, some sexuality and disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery all worked together previously on Get Out.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until March 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews, Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Air

The Glorias


Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug make plans.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Alicia Vikander, Julianne Moore, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lulu Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Mo Brings Plenty, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Kimberly Guerrero, Myles Evans, David Shaé, Victor Slezak, Enid Graham, Allie McCulloch, Tom Nowicki, Annika Pampel, Monica Sanchez, Gloria Steinem. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

Like many who have attempted to bring change to our culture, Gloria Steinem is a deeply polarizing figure. To some, she’s a heroine of the feminist movement, standing up to men and speaking truth to power regarding the patriarchy. To others, she was a conniving hypocrite who got attention because of her looks and had no compunction about using them to her advantage. Nobody can disagree that she made a definite impact on late 20th century culture which continues to reverberate now.

]Filmmaker Julie Taymor (Across the Universe) has never shied away from using unconventional means of storytelling, regularly diving into scenes of fantasy to describe what’s going on in the head of a character. Here, she utilizes four different actresses to play Steinem at various points in her life – Armstrong as a young girl, Wilson as an adolescent, Vikander as a young woman, and Moore as a middle-aged feminist leader. Actually, you might say there are five actresses playing her; Steinem herself shows up re-creating her stirring speech at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington.

The film hits most of the highlights of Steinem’s 80 plus years of life, from her relationship with her travelling salesman father (Hutton) who instilled in her a love of travel (being on the road is a theme utilized throughout the film), her mother’s gradual descent into depression and mental illness; her attempts to break through the boy’s club of New York City journalism (and succeeding by going undercover as a Playboy bunny), her early years as one of the most visible faces of the feminist movement, the founding of Ms. Magazine, and her relationships with various activists and political figures of the era, including Bella Abzug (Midler), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Monae), the outrageous and over-the-top Flo Kennedy (a memorable Lorraine Toussaint), UFW activist Dolores Huerta (Sanchez) and Wilma Mankiller (Guerrero), the first woman to be voted prime elder of the Cherokee tribe.

The film is extraordinarily well-acted, with kudos going particularly to Vikander, who reminds us once again that she is one of the best young actresses working today. There are some emotionally charged scenes – one in which Steinem says goodbye to a dying Mankiller, or the inspiring National Women’s Congress of 1977 which moved to get the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort that ultimately didn’t succeed after conservatives banded together to denounce the ERA as a weapon for the left to destroy the family unit. Sound familiar?

The movie jumps around from time period to time period, and while it isn’t too difficult to follow, the framing device of Steinem riding a Greyhound bus – often with other versions of Steinem on the same bus, sometimes interacting together – is inventive but overused, ultimately distracting the viewer from the flow of Steinem’s story.

I suppose it’s fitting for her biopic to be unconventional, because in life Gloria Steinem has been anything but conventional. It is also fitting that the movie comes out as the nation mourns the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg whose legal career made brought women’s equality closer to realization and whose passing may threaten the gains made in that regard.

The fantasy sequences may or may not be your cup of tea – I thought that Taymor should have been more judicious in their use, but you may disagree. In some ways, they are illuminating but in others they feel kind of more about the director than about the movie she’s making. I won’t attempt to place a stamp of yea or nay on those feelings; I leave that up to you, gentle reader because in the final tally it is really your call. I can only say that I found them to be overused; my wife, Da Queen, disagrees. So do other critics. That’s the kind of thing I love about movies like this – there is no right answer. Love it or hate it, you absolutely won’t forget it.

The film is curently playing in limited release around the country. It will be availble to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Wednesday, September 30th.

REASONS TO SEE: Vikander gives a whale of a performance. The NWC segment is inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: The fantasy sequences are overused and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore, Hutton and Vikander have all won Oscars; Midler was nominated for one.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
LX 2048

Tesla


Genius at work.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCEthan Hawke, Eve Hewson, Kyle MacLachlan, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Hannah Gross, Michael Mastro, Ian Lithgow, Jim Gaffigan, Blake DeLong, Lois Smith, Donnie Keshawarz, Rebecca Dayan, Josh Hamilton, Lucy Walters, Dan Bittner, David Kallaway, Karl Geary, James Urbaniak, Steven Gurewitz, Rick Zahn, Emma O’Connor. Directed by Michael Almareyda

If anyone deserves to have a biography that breaks all the rules, it’s Nikola Tesla. One of the great inventors and brilliant minds of his time, Tesla spent most of his life exploring ideas that other men never dared dream.

This biopic by Experimenter director Michael Almareyda has the kind of whimsy the notoriously introverted and taciturn inventor likely wouldn’t have approved of. The film is narrated by Mary Morgan (Hewson), the daughter of robber baron financier J.P (Keshawarz) who sits behind a laptop in all her Gilded Age finery and invites us to “Google” Tesla (Hawke).

We see most of the highlights of Tesla’s adult life, from his apprenticeship to Thomas Edison (MacLachlan) to his partnership with George Westinghouse (Gaffigan) in a rivalry with Edison to have his alternating current become the dominant electricity delivery method over Edison’s direct current.

Hawke plays Tesla without the Eastern European accent that the actual Tesla had in life (he was Serbian by birth) in kind of a hoarse whisper as if he has a chest cold in a public library. We get the sense that Tesla lived in a whole other universe than the rest of us; whereas most people, myself included, can only focus in on the here and now, Tesla’s eyes were focused on a more distant subject – the future.

Most of the time, deliberate anachronisms annoy me. They take you out of the film and put your focus on the director, and to an extent that’s true here, particularly when Edison whips out an iPhone but never more so than the final scene, in which Ethan Hawke does something that I don’t think Ethan Hawke has ever done in a movie before (and with good reason, as it turns out). However, I suppose that it could be argued that Tesla himself was an anachronism, a man born far too soon.

Biopics need to do two things; inform and entertain. And they don’t necessarily need to be overzealous on the informing aspect, but inspire a desire in the viewer to want to learn more about the subject. I’m not sure that Tesla is successful there; I will say that you are likely to learn more about the inventor by doing one of those Google searches (or to continue the theme, read his Wikipedia entry) than by watching this movie.

The movie is more successful in the latter category. Even though Hawke seriously underplays the role, he still is a magnificent presence, prowling the screen like a caged lion. Hewson makes a spritely counterpoint, all feminine charm but able to hold her own as an intellectual equal to Tesla, something not very easy to do for anyone.

The score by John Paesano is haunting, with a touch of Sigur Ros to it and Sean Price Williams’ cinematography has the kind of warmth of a magic lantern slide show that’s charming. The trouble with Tesla is also the trouble with Tesla; the man was brilliant but not very interesting. He was far too preoccupied with his ideas for unlimited energy available for all people to bother with things like human relationships. At the end of the film, I sort of doubt you’ll know Tesla any better than you would reading the log line of the movie. His place in posterity demands that maybe a different take on the legendary inventor needs to be made.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous soundtrack. Hewson and Hawke are compelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels less of a biography and more of a “based on” type of thing. Might be a little bit too esoteric for general audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as artwork depicting nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tesla died in 1943 at age 86, outliving both Edison and Westinghouse. He was virtually penniless when he died.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Current War
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Words on a Bathroom Wall

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind


Happy happy joy joy.

 (2019) Biographical Drama (NetflixChiwetel Ejiofor, Maxwell Simba, Felix Lemburo, Robert Agengo, Fiskan Makawa, Lily Banda, Aissa Maiga, Fredrick Lukhere, Hestingzi Phiri, Rophium Banda, Philbert Falakeza, Samson Kambalu, Raymond Ofula, Noma Dumezweni, Lemogang Tsipa, Joseph Marcell, Martin Githinji, Melvin Alusa, Amos Chimpokoser, Edwin Chonde, Hilda Phiri. Directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor

 

We Americans often romanticize Africa as a place of glorious vistas and wonderful animals. Or, we demonize it as a place of corrupt governments and tribal genocide. Both of those viewpoints are incomplete; Africa is so much more. It is modern cities, but it is also small villages of subsistence farmers that are literally like living in another century.

This true story is based on the life of William Kamkwamba (Simba), a young boy with a knack for mechanical things who lives in a rural village in Malawi in abject poverty. His father Trywell (Ejiofor) faces drought and flooding, brought on when a neighboring farm sells to a tobacco company who promptly cut down all the trees whose roots held back flooding in the village with predictable results. The family was already living on the edge; now with most of their food supply destroyed and with no income from selling what they didn’t consume, things get desperate – William’s intelligent sister (Banda) is forced to withdraw from college and face a life of marriage and child-rearing, a life her mom (Maiga) knew would be a waste of her daughter’s potential. They also can’t afford the tuition at William’s school; however, he arranges with a teacher – blackmails, more like – to get access to the school library.

But William has an idea – a windmill to draw water from the village well to irrigate their farms. William has little to work with and his father, beaten down by all the obstacles he has failed to overcome, has little confidence that William’s idea will work and is unwilling to give up the bicycle chain that is crucial to the success of the windmill. The stakes couldn’t be higher for William and his family; could his knowledge of science and engineering overcome his father’s prejudices?

This is the first feature as a writer and director for Ejiofor and it’s a pretty good one. He captures all the tribulations faced by tribal villages in Africa, from political turmoil to environmental challenges to their own superstitions and traditions. That the real William Kamkwamba was able to overcome these things as a middle school-aged boy is nothing short of miraculous (today he is in his early 30s as this is written and a college graduate who has appeared on The Daily Show as well as given TED talks). Ejiofor takes great care to develop the story, but at times is a bit too workmanlike; a good director knows the shorthand needed to keep their film from bogging down. Ejiofor will acquire this skill through practice, no doubt. There’s a lot good about the movie, and it is worth checking out if for no other reason for an educational standpoint but be aware that the film has some noticeable flaws.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the honesty of African village life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Although the payoff is inspiring, the lead-up is frustratingly over-developed.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic concerns regarding poverty and starvation, but otherwise perfectly suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ejiofor filmed on location in Malawi; as he did not speak the native Chichewa language, he had to learn to speak it for his character.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: William and the Windmill
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Nose to Tail