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

The Photographer at Mauthausen (El photógrafo de Mauthausen)


Sometimes a picture is worth a heck of a lot more than a thousand words.

(2018) Biographical Drama (NetflixMario Casas, Richard von Weyden, Alain Hernandez, Adriá Salazar, Eduard Buch, Stefan Weinert, Nikola Stojanovic, Rubén Yuste, Frank Feys, Marc Rodriguez, Albert Mora, Joan Negrié, Luka Peros, Rainer Reiners, Toni Gomila, Macarena Gómez, Emilio Gavira, Soma Zámbron, Erik Gyarmati, Marta Holler. Directed by Mar Targarona

 

Most movies about the Holocaust concentrate on the Jewish victims, which is as it should be. However, they weren’t the only victims. Early in the war, as Nazi Germany overran France, Spanish Republicans who had fled the victorious forces of Franco, were declared “stateless” by the Spanish government, allowing the Nazis to round them up and stick them in concentration camps, which they largely helped build – such as the one called Mauthausen in Austria.

Francesc Boix (Casas) was a member of the Spanish communist party sent to Mauthausen. A Catalan by birth (a region of Spain of which Barcelona is the capital), he managed to get attached to the photography unit under Ricken (von Weyden), one of those German officers obsessed with documenting everything, including the horrors.

At first, Boix uses his position to help switch the identification numbers of dead men with living men, in order to save the living, but as he is called upon to witness summary executions, mass graves, torture, forced prostitution and all manner of depravity, he is sickened. As word begins to reach the prisoners that the tide of the war has turned, Boix realizes that the evidence so meticulously gathered by the Germans would doubtlessly be destroyed – and those who had perpetrated these horrors would therefore get away with their crimes. He was determined to not let that happen.

Most concentration camp movies tend to be set in the more notorious camps in Eastern Europe. Most Americans are unfamiliar with Mauthausen, although the Spanish people know it well. In a lot of ways, this is a pretty standard Holocaust movie with gut-wrenching depictions of inhumanity and some instances of extraordinary heroism. Targarona uses the actual photographs taken by Boix and Ricken to choreograph his scenes, which we come to realize as the actual photographs are shown at the end of the film.

Like most Holocaust films, there are moments that will hit you like a punch to the gut. It isn’t always an easy film to watch, again like most Holocaust films. But particularly now with the rise of authoritarian leaders all over the globe, it is particularly necessary that we remind ourselves how easily we can fall into the same morass that the German people did in 1937. “Never again” doesn’t seem like such a sure thing in 2020.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some pretty powerful moments. Shows a side of the Nazi occupation of Western Europe that hasn’t been seen often.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much like other films depicting life in concentration camps.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, nudity, violence, disturbing images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Lejias can’t speak German. In reality, the actor who played him (Joan Negrié) speaks fluent German, the only Spanish actor in the cast to do so.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Rental

Lords of Chaos


Welcome to my nightmare.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Gunpowder & SkyRory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, Sky Ferreira, Valter Skarsgård, Anthony De La Torre, Jonathan Barnwell, Sam Coleman, Wilson Gonzalez, Lucian Charles Collier, Andrew Lavelle, James Edwyn, Gustaf Hammarsten, Jon Ølgarden, Arion Csihar, Jason Arnopp, Tom van Hoesch, Dzsenifer Bagi. Directed by Jonas Åkerlund

 

In the mid-90s, black metal rose out of Norway as a reaction to what the practitioners viewed as the trendiness of death metal. The group Mayhem essentially defined the genre, then became enmeshed in it, finally being destroyed by it, even though the band continues to perform even to this day.

Disaffected Norwegian Euronymous (Culkin) forms the band as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with Norway’s Christian society and to take death metal further than it seemed likely to go. When Swedish lead singer Dead (Cohen) commits suicide, Euronymous – who discovered the body – seems to grow callous towards the grisly end of his friend, even handing out necklaces that contained bone fragments from his bandmate’s skull to the remaining members of Mayhem as well as to musicians that he liked.

He takes under his wing teenage Varg Vikernes (Cohen) who has the zeal of a convert. Varg takes to burning churches, some of them centuries old and Norwegian cultural treasures. Euronymous heartily approves of this behavior, even though he is more of an observer than a participant. Things begin to get dicey between the two as Varg brags – anonymously – about the deeds, even boasting that he had killed someone – to the press. Euronymous is horrified, understanding that this could get them all arrested but Varg feels that they need to be feared, to make a statement that this is not just posing but who they really are. As the two men grow more paranoid, it leads to a fracture within the band – and a shocking crime.

Åkerlund has plenty of insight into the scene; as a young man he played drums for the Swedish band Bathory which was an inspiration to the real Mayhem but strangely enough, we don’t get much. The motivations for these people to do genuinely evil acts seems to be a kind of macho one-upsmanship and a fear of being labeled a poseur. Although the film takes place in Norway, the film is in English with the character of Euronymous providing narration. Cohen sounds a bit like Christian Slater which also is somewhat disconcerting.

Surprisingly little black metal is used on the soundtrack; in fact, the lead-up to the climax utilizes Dead Can Dance – decidedly not a metal band – effectively as the background score. The suicide is graphic as is the final scene and sensitive sorts should definitely steer clear; that final scene is particularly brutal and realistic. The movie is interesting as a character study, but at the end of the day we get the distinct impression that who these guys really were was a bunch of asshats.

REASONS TO SEE: Disturbing in an interesting way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Seems to glorify knuckle-dragging behavior.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s chock full of profanity; there’s also nudity, sex, graphic bloody violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Euronymous is portrayed here smoking regularly and drinking heavily but in reality he rarely drank anything stronger than Coca-Cola and did not smoke.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Hulu, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 48/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Until the Light Takes Us
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Beyond Skiing Everest

Vice (2018)


Love him or hate him, Bale nailed Dick Cheney.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Annapurna) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Jesse Plemmons, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Gurgis, Tyler Perry, Josh Latzer, Jeff Bosley, Camille Harman, Jillian Armenante, Matthew Jacobs, Alexander MacNicoll, Cailee Spaeny. Directed by Adam McKay

 

Dick Cheney is a polarizing figure. The former Vice-President is looked upon by many conservatives as an architect of the modern Republican party; liberals tend to see him as the boogie man. He is a man renowned for playing his cards close to the vest and as a result is something of an enigma.

Cheney is not so much portrayed as inhabited by Christian Bale, an actor noted for throwing himself feet first into his roles (he would win the Golden Globe for this one). He is accompanied, as all great men are, by a great woman, his wife Lynne (Adams, nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe). He becomes an aide to then-Senator Donald Rumsfeld (Carell), an association that would last through several administrations.

McKay presents this almost as a comedy; there are indeed some farcical interludes (like a false set of credits that role before Cheney decides to take the Vice-Presidential position) which seems like an odd call, but it works. Cheney is by his own admission not the most charismatic of men and how he rose to such a powerful position is something of a miracle of “right guy, right place and right time.” The humor helps lighten the movie which wouldn’t have worked as well as a straight drama.

I can imagine those readers leaning to the right will find this contemptible and disrespectful. I can’t disagree with the latter; McKay’s politics made it inevitable that this would not be a kindly portrait of the former V.P. Liberals of the more fire-breathing sort will say this doesn’t go far enough in excoriating a man that some believe paved the way for our current chief executive and his philosophy of absolute executive power.

But I’m not here to review the politics of the film, only the film itself. It is well-acted, highly entertaining and certainly worth a look, particularly if you are left-leaning. As I said, those on the right will likely not find this a laughing matter as I’m sure a similarly themed movie about, say, Al Gore, would be to folks like me.

\REASONS TO SEE: Bale and Adams truly inhabit their roles. Irreverently funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: Conservatives may not dig this, and everyone may find it a tad dry
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and a few violent images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bale has the same birthday as Dick Cheney does (January 30).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: W
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lionheart (1988)

Stan & Ollie


A classic pairing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Joseph Balderrama, John Henshaw, Tapiwa Mugweni, Keith MacPherson, Stewart Alexander, Kevin Millington, Toby Sedgwick, Rebecca Yeo, Stephanie Hyam, Kate Okello, Sanjeev Kohli, Richard Cant, Ashley Robinson, Susy Kane. Directed by Jon S. Baird

The comic duo of Laurel and Hardy have transcended their medium and become iconic. Most people know who they are, even if they’ve never seen them in action. Their bits, born in the traditions of the music hall and vaudeville, still are as enthralling today as they were 80 years ago.

However, this biopic depicts the legendary team in the twilight of their career. Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver “Babe” Hardy (Reilly) have long since passed the zenith of their careers and have been rendered by television and teams like Abbott and Costello as artifacts of a bygone age. Needing cash and hoping to mount a comeback in a Robin Hood-like picture that Laurel is writing, the two mount a tour of England at the behest of promoter Bernard Delfont (Jones) in 1953.

At first, they are playing in dodgy venues to sparse crowds. There is a tension between the two, largely due to a feeling of betrayal that Stan has that Oliver worked with silent comedian Harry Langdon (Cant) on a picture called Zenobia which Laurel dismisses as “that elephant picture” following a contract dispute for Laurel while Hardy was still under contract to Hal Roach. Hardy who had ballooned to well over 300 pounds by that point, had health constraints that affected his ability to perform. Also, their wives Lucille Hardy (Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Ananda) didn’t get on particularly well.

Like most Hollywood biographies, the film does fudge a little bit on the facts but it does get the essence of the relationship between the two right, not to mention the personalities of the two men. Laurel was a thinker, a compulsive sort who did the lion’s share of the writing while Hardy was a more easygoing fellow, a bit of a hedonist and not one for thinking about the future. Even though for much of the film the relationship between the two was frosty, there was still a great deal of affection between them as you would find for any two people who were in close quarters for more than 30 years.

Coogan’s performance won him a BAFTA nomination, but for my money the performance to see here is Reilly’s, which the Hollywood Foreign Press apparently agreed with me on as he was the one who got the Golden Globe nomination. In all honesty, though, both performances are distinctive with Reilly’s being just a little bit more so.

Where the movie kind of fails is that we don’t see what really made them such a wonderful team; sure, we see a few bits here and there, and we get a sense of the chemistry between the two, but you would be hard pressed to explain why the two were so popular in their heyday by watching this film.

Still, that may not have been what Baird and writers Jeff Pope and AJ Marriott were after. This doesn’t give us the sweep of their careers, only a snapshot of a particular time in their career when they were admittedly past their prime. Still, it’s a sweet tribute to a pair of comedians who made an incalculable contribution to motion picture comedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Coogan and Reilly do a fine job of bringing the two beloved comedians to life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t re ally explore the essence of their humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got it’s nationwide American release on Oliver Hardy’s 117th birthday.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic:  75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chaplin
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Trip to Greece

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)


Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

(2018) Biographical Drama (FocusSaoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, Maria Dragus, Eileen O’Higgins, Ian Hallard, Kandiff Kirwan, Adam Bond, Angela Bain, Izuka Hoyle, Liah O’Prey, Katherine O’Donnelly. Directed by Josie Rourke

 

You would think that history is immutable, written in stone; this event happened to these people on this date. History is, however, very much subject to interpretation and particularly to revision. If we don’t like what we know about history, we extrapolate what we don’t know; in trying to give context we often rob history of its own truth.

The rivalry between Elizabeth Tudor (Robbie), Queen of England, and Mary Stuart (Ronan), Queen of Scotland, was largely a political one, made personal because the two were cousins. In this revisionist version of that rivalry, both queens are manipulated by the venal and fragile egos of the men at court as well as by the tides of religious fervor that was sweeping both nations. Mary was a devout Catholic and was despised by the largely Protestant population of her country, the most outspoken of whom was John Knox (Tenant), founder of the Presbyterian Church. Also whereas Elizabeth chose to forego marriage and children and concentrate on ruling her country, Mary chose to strengthen her grip on the thrown through marriage leading to a series of romances that may have done more to harm her standing than help.

Elizabeth is portrayed here as sympathetic and admiring of her cousin Mary, but forced into a rivalry reluctantly, even though there’s absolutely no evidence in that regard; screenwriter Beau Willimon (House of Cards) even dreams up a face to face meeting between the two monarchs even though that never happened in actuality; I suppose it makes for good drama but then again, Hollywood has never been the place to go to for history lessons and generally, I have been okay with that unless the “dramatic license” becomes egregious.

Both actresses do very well with their roles, and why would they not; Ronan and Robbie are two of the most talented actresses in the business and they are given two compelling historical figures to work with. Sadly, both of the women here are portrayed as victims of their time rather than as shapers of it. Often, progressives have a tendency to passively denigrate that which they are trying to portray as worthy; the truth is that Elizabeth was one of the most politically savvy figures of her time or any other time, for that matter. If she was manipulated, it was no more so than any other male political figure including her father Henry VIII; chief of state manipulation has been a human tradition ever since we started putting people in charge.

The film has sumptuous production values with wonderful costumes (Elizabeth’s wigs alone are worth a gander) but I truly wish the film had portrayed both of these figures as the compelling characters that they are rather than using them to make a political point about an era that neither would have recognized or, likely, approved of.

REASONS TO SEE: Ronan and Robbie give wonderful performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Eschews historical accuracy for woke political messaging.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Tennant plays John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His father was the Moderator of the General Assembly for that church.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 60/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elizabeth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Grace

Resistance (2020)


The path of least resistance.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCJesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Edgar Ramirez, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Karl Marcovics, Félix Moati, Alicia von Rittberg, Vica Kerekes, Tobias Gareth Elman, Kue Lawrence, Christian Clarke, Aurélie Bancilhon, Karina Beuthe Orr, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Ryan Hadaller, Phillip Lenkowsky, Louise Morell. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz

 

Marcel Marceau is a name that likely many Americans under the age of 40 are unfamiliar with, other than perhaps in broad, general terms. He is considered perhaps the greatest mime who ever lived; certainly, the greatest of the 20th century. Few Americans – myself included – know much more than that. But did you know he was also a war hero?

Marcel (Eisenberg) is an aspiring actor working in a cabaret. His disapproving father (Marcovics) would prefer that his young son follow him in his trade – a Kosher butcher. However, both their plans are put into disarray with the Nazi invasion of France. Dad gets shipped off to Auschwitz while his son joins the French underground, mainly in order to protect a group of Jewish orphans but also to stay close to the comely Emma (Poésy), but also because the charismatic Georges (Röhrig) insists on it.

Opposing them will be Klaus Barbie (Schweighöfer), one of the most vicious and sadistic Nazis in history. Moving the orphans from occupied France to neutral Switzerland will take heroic measures – and the mime, who has heretofore not been too fond of children until recently and has served mainly as a forger, will find reserves of strength he didn’t know he had.

Eisenberg is kind of an odd choice to play Marceau, although his eternal boyish looks stood him in good stead when he was playing the 16-year-old Marcel. His French accent was kind of an on-again, off-again affair which was fairly annoying after a while. Still, Eisenberg manages to churn out perhaps his most likable characterization ever. He’s always played guys with a bit of a neurotic edge, but this is much more of a straightforward portrayal. Besides, I think the entire French nation would have risen up in protest had Eisenberg played him neurotic.

The last third is more in the suspense genre and Jakubowicz does a good job with maintaining a bit of an edge-of-the-seat tone, although to be honest since we know Marceau would go on to be an entertainer for another sixty years after the war, it is a bit anti-climactic – we know he’ll survive. Sadly, the movie is a good 20 minutes too long and terribly uneven; there are some good moments, as we’ve mentioned but there are nearly as many that don’t work. Jakubowicz makes some odd choices like having Ed Harris as General George S. Patton (!) show up in the beginning, and the end. While it’s true that Marceau did work as a liaison to Patton at the conclusion of the war, the insertion of the colorful general (who is subdued here) seemed a bit like name-dropping and didn’t particularly add anything to the story. Besides, even Harris would admit that nobody is ever going to equal George C. Scott’s performance as Patton.

This is a story that needed to be told, but it also needed to be told better. Marceau was undoubtedly a hero and few people outside of France are aware of it. The movie is sadly uneven and a bit self-indulgent but the heart is in the right place. Those willing to take a chance on it will be treated to a movie that’s worth the effort to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: Eisenberg is at his most likable. The suspense elements work well.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slow-moving jumble.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough violence to garner a restricted rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film takes place in Strasbourg, France, it was largely filmed in Prague.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews, Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Terminus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clover

The Front Runner


Hugh Jackman can’t believe he went from being Wolverine to being Gary Hart.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Columbia) Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Mark O’Brien, Molly Ephraim, Chris Coy, Alex Karpovsky, Josh Brener, Steve Zissis, Tommy Dewey, Kaitlyn Dever, Oliver Cooper, Jenna Kanell, RJ Brown, Alfred Molina, Ari Graynor, John Bedford Lloyd, Steve Coulter, Kevin Pollack, Sara Paxton, Joe Chrest, Courtney Ford, Rachel Walters.  Directed by Jason Reitman

 

The story of Senator Gary Hart’s (D-Co.) 1988 Presidential campaign is either a comedy of errors, or a tragedy of monumental proportions – likely depending on your political point of view. The facts are fairly simple. Hart (Jackman) was considered the front runner for the Democratic nomination until the press – mainly in the person of Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Zissis) chased down rumor that Hart was having an extramarital affair with a model by the name of Donna Rice (Paxton). The scandal – which was all innuendo and is denied to this day by both Hart and Rice – was enough to sink Hart’s ship and wipe out his political career.

Reitman tends to lean towards the quixotic. It is clear that the Hart scandal signaled the end of a tacit understanding between the press and politicians that personal affairs were off-limits; the press smiled and looked the other way while John Kennedy had several affairs, most famously with Marilyn Monroe – so they say. Hart’s own stubborn refusal to see the coming storm and ignore the scandal that was brewing is seen as a tragic flaw in his character – he wanted to focus on the issues. In today’s political reality, that concept seems as quaint as the horse and buggy.

The movie is based on a book by journalist Mike Bai with the script co-written by Bai, Reitman and former political campaign staffer Jay Carson and thus has a ring of authenticity of it. Reitman seems to be going for a West Wing-like vibe in which idealists who want to make the world a better place are stymied by political realities, but the movie is oddly low energy, something that the West Wing could never have been accused of.

A dynamite cast including some outstanding performances by Farmiga as Hart’s long-suffering wife, Simmons as his campaign manager and Molina as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee are a highlight. Reitman also treats Rice with much compassion, showing her as a victim and not as a golddigger which is how the contemporary press portrayed her. She was assuredly not that.

Still, I would have liked a bit more attention to period detail and maybe a less low-key performance by Jackman who would seem to be perfectly cast as Hart, but never really gets the politician’s personal charisma right. Hart was a front runner for a reason, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film.

REASONS TO SEE: A stark reminder that we elect the leaders we deserve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too low-key for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: ever and Ephraim play two of the Baxter sisters on Last Man Standing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Primary Colors
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sorry We Missed You