Adam McKay’s genre-hopping Vice (B) is a distant cousin to Oliver Stone’s similarly dark comedic Natural Born Killers, admirable for creative storytelling about issues ripped out of the headlines but a bit confounding in what it’s intending to explore about its caricatures. Christian Bale is as good as you’ve heard brilliantly inhabiting the enigmatic role of Dick Cheney at various points in his life; he’s best in his quietest moments utterly lacking in expected reactions (his multiple heart attacks are treated like an occasional case of the hiccups). Amy Adams is magnificent as his deeply humanizing wife Lynn; she’s in fact his beating heart and just as ruthless. Many others in the ensemble simply feel like stunt casting, although Sam Rockwell does indeed make a spiffy W. The plot largely explores the build-up of the case for unilateral presidential (and strong vice presidential) authority and for the Iraq War. McKay so blissfully plays with the conventions of cinema – never trust a closing credit scroll or that a sequence won’t show up in iambic pentameter – that he often loses track of his central themes. In the film’s straight down the barrel of a shotgun portrayal of Wyoming’s famous son who stays pretty resolute in his principles and doesn’t care if you like him or not for it, you can find traces of character to please both sides of the aisle. But largely it’s a blistering assessment of power and an indictment of what the Cheney/Bush (or was it the other way around?) administration did with said power when they had it. There wasn’t a big record to clear up here, and the film doesn’t attempt to rose color it.
Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex (B) takes a page out of the Spielberg Lincoln playbook by telling the story of a pivotal player in American life through the lens of a single subplot that succinctly illuminates an individual’s singular belief system. In this new movie, that person is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also chronicled in an awesome recent documentary RBG); and she’s splendidly embodied by Felicity Jones, playing the part with a quiet ferocity. Opposite a game Armie Hammer as her supportive lawyer husband and opposite old-fashioned adversaries played by the likes of Sam Waterston, Jones’s Ginsburg gets a lovely pedestal on which to shine. She’s most rousing in the moments in the margins, like when she notices she’s being fetishized by a make job interviewer or when she realizes her teen daughter has inherited her stubbornness. Her public performances lack some of their intended punch, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the case setting her destiny in action. The filmmakers were shrewd to choose a rather cut and dry example of discrimination on which to base the film’s central narrative; there were certainly pricklier scenarios they could have spotlighted which would have challenged the director and audience more. The storytelling is a bit predictable but still very lovingly rendered, and it’s a thrilling showcase of both actress and subject. In these times, there can hardly be enough films like this.
All hail Saoirse Ronan! As the titular star of Josie Rourke’s absorbing mostly historical drama Mary Queen of Scots (B), the fierce young actress adds to her sterling repertoire of strong female roles and brings pulse pounding verve to what could have been a dull period piece. The actress is commanding and imaginative and summons viewers to follow her anywhere. Eschewing some of the wilder audacity of another costume drama on the market right now, Rourke’s entertaining film is straightforward in plot and purpose, but it’s a fitting and feminist take on what royal women have to do to maintain power even as sovereigns surrounded by manipulative men. Under pancaked prosthetics, Margot Robbie successfully disappears into the role of Elizabeth I of England, rival to the throne versus Ronan’s Mary Stuart of Scotland. The film gets high marks for inclusive casting and upping stakes often as the women contemplate various pathways to extend their respective royal bloodlines. In addition to the strong women, Jack Lowden, David Tennant, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester and Ismael Cruz Córdova shine in the ensemble. The film handles a few pivotal sequences a bit oddly, but overall it’s rousing.
In a year of breakthrough films by African-American directors, of black excellence, panthers and klansmen, of Beale Street scuttlebutt and warrior widows, an unlikely white director has also hopped on the race relations bandwagon, helming a durable and crowd pleasing vehicle that’s worthy of more than a footnote. In fact, there’s something about director Peter Farrelly, best known for gross-out comedies, that yields a consistently bright and triumphant tone for Green Book (A-), elevating a true story to modern classic status. This 60s-set dramedy features Viggo Mortensen as a white nightclub bouncer who takes a job as driver and security for a black piano prodigy played by Mahershala Ali on a multi-state concert tour, guided by the titular journal about how to stay on a straight and narrow path through the segregated Deep South. The central performances are authentic and lived in, with Mortensen chewing the scenery and any food in sight as a portly pugilist with buckets to learn and Ali lending delicate dignity swirled with a worldly virtuoso to a lonely character who finds himself a multiple outcast in his own skin. The buddy comedy elements of the film are fittingly amusing and often revelatory, so it’s heartening when Farrelly resists most hamfisted impulses even when the narrative takes dramatic detours. Combined with lovely music, impeccable art direction and two of the most iconic performances of the year, it’s old-fashioned Hollywood manipulation that’s hard to resist. While film historians may claim one must choose between the likes of a more traditional tale such as Driving Miss Daisy or a gut-punch of modern cinema such as Do the Right Thing to chronicle the racial reconciliation agenda, there’s spotlight aplenty for multiple lenses addressing America’s most complex questions when it bubbles up from the right spirit. Farrelly’s film is more Miss Daisy/Hoke Colburn or Andy Dufresne/Red territory on the moviemaking map, but even a familiar road to redemption filled with such grace notes so gorgeously played is well worth treading.
This is one of those declassified historical true stories like Argo that’s stranger than fiction and eerily prescient in its parallels to events of today. Pop cultural and historical provocateur Spike Lee’s brilliant 1970’s-set biopic BlacKkKlansman (A-) is an absorbing and gripping instant classic, the best non-documentary “joint” the writer/director has made in nearly two decades. The film’s success rides largely on John David Washington and Adam Driver, playing real-life undercover cops who mastermind and manifest a fascinating infiltration of white supremacists. Washington is charismatic and determined in his performance as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, determined to make a name for himself. Laura Harrier is sensational as a civil rights activist, and Topher Grace is amazing in a career trajectory redefining role as David Duke. The filmmaker is acutely aware of the power of cinema to change perceptions and dots the movie with bygone celluloid images and contemporary references that put his work in a march toward progress in representation. Aside from lensing a few moments that seem superfluous to the central themes, Lee has crafted a tight and taut thriller. He provides powerful point/counterpoint sequences weaving subversive themes and an unexpected premise into great storytelling.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (B-) is a movie about newspapers that buries the lede. After a painfully languid first 80 minutes in which the director simply fetishizes his faithful art direction of 1970s D.C., this historical drama culminates in a corker of a close that affirms faith in the free press and reveals an inspiring reluctant heroine. The rousing finish, punctuated with an obligatory back shelf John Williams score, feels somewhat unearned due to a series of lazy first and second act episodes that simply don’t zero in on the trajectory. In fact, there are three sequences so awkwardly written about characters reminiscing while sitting that I almost wondered if the master visual director had forgotten that it’s often more effective to show than tell (Oh, I get it – this is a staged reading of a movie!) In a plot that can be described as The Washington Post editorial team’s quest to publish secret government documents vital to the national interest – The Pentagon Papers – under threat of ruining its publisher’s family business or simply the pre-Watergate prequel to All the President’s Men, it’s a love letter to unfettered journalism and the rise of a strong woman. Tom Hanks as the editor gives a workmanlike performance; but as embodied in the story arch of publisher and guardian of the family business, Meryl Streep’s discovery of her courage is rather thrilling. The movie’s depiction of the printing press itself is a fun part of the ultimate action, filmed fondly like the Titanic or another vessel of a bygone era. But it seems Spielberg is too often a raider of a lost art, relying on old-fashioned and obvious tropes. The film wants above-the-fold grandeur but is relegated to Section B (minus).
Joe Wright’s historical biopic The Darkest Hour (B) takes few creative liberties as it chronicles Winston Churchill’s resolve to protect England from Hitler’s military, but the film is most notable because it affords Gary Oldman a rich fully inhabited central performance as the decisive and divisive prime minister. The direction is physically and metaphorically claustrophobic, shot in tight quarters and in confined conversations, to show the encroaching danger. The film is a straightforward companion piece to the propulsive Dunkirk, depicting much of the same time period, and the dandy drama The King’s Speech in which its protagonist monarch overcomes personal adversity and rises to the occasion. Honestly, aside from Oldman’s lived-in characterization of mania and mumbled and his arch to make his actions soar as profoundly as his oratory, Hour rarely gets great lift. The supporting characters including Kristin Scott Thomas and Stephen Dillane are unmemorable, and the film’s muted color palette of mostly dim interiors leaves the actions a bit in the shadows. It’s recommended for history buffs but offers few surprises or detours from the expected except for seeing exactly what the PM eats, drinks and dictates and how he one time rode on a train with commoners. There are parallels to contemporary leaders, whose nil by tweet stubbornness could tilt the world’s fortunes for war or peace. The present day overlay offers more prescient daydreams of adventurous storytelling than Wright actually commits to the screen.
Thoughts from outside The Tara theatre in Atlanta:
There’s a cougar in a crown and a monswoon-worthy suitor for the year’s most unlikely love story. A handsomely produced historical dramedy set in England midway through the British rule of India, Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul (A-) pairs a glorious Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and charming Ali Fazal as Indian servant Abdul Karim in a sequel of sorts to the 1997 film Mrs. Brown. Both films trace stories of confidantes to the monarch during her prolonged bereavement for husband Albert, and this one has unexpected bounce. Watching Dench play the plump and extremely aged royal as an entitled curmudgeon coming back to rapturous life is a joy to behold. Frears is well suited to the comedy of manners in this kind of material and undergirds the narrative with sustained sentimentality that never devolves into treacle. Anglophiles will revel in the costumes, art direction and pageantry as all viewers will be tickled by the wily wonders of a most eye-opening relationship. Dench’s monologue about why she isn’t crazy is alone worth the price of admission. The very talented Fazal makes a great foil for the Dame in her prime and helps surface some issues or race, religion and class apropos to today. This prestige piece is a little bit Driving Miss Vicky, but it’s one of the most thoroughly entertaining and moving tales of the year so far.
Provoking a desire for audiences to watch a movie again in order to further study how all the narratives connect isn’t exactly a badge of storytelling honor. Writer/director Christopher Nolan continues his march to cinematic glory with two lofty experiments within one compact and technically thrilling WWII film in Dunkirk (B) and sometimes succeeds in spectacular spurts. Nolan employs two unconventional approaches in telling the story of stranded British, Canadian, French and Belgian soldiers retreating to safety across the English Channel in small boats when large watercraft are sitting targets. One of these hat tricks – creating a war movie without showing any of the German army antagonists on screen – might have been enough. But by depicting three intercutting stories on a trio of timelines – newcomer Fionn Whitehead as a soldier in a weeklong journey across land and sea (where an inert Kenneth Branagh as a naval officer plots events from a pier), Mark Rylance as a citizen on a one-day timetable guiding a pleasure boat into enemy territory to save as many servicemen as possible and Tom Hardy as an ace flier engaged in one hour of hitting enemy targets from the skies – Nolan scores a paradoxical panorama that is intriguing but shuts out emotionally satisfying undercurrents. It’s fun to treasure hunt for how the three sub-stories interact, but to what end? The technical triumphs of tick-ticking musical tension (a restrained Hans Zimmer), ultra-real sound design, eye-popping stunts and the general eschewing of typical battle tropes such as backstories or motivations all contribute to the firm’s originality. But in trying so hard not to state the obvious, Nolan forgoes characterization nearly completely. In a story that’s basically about caring, he doesn’t give entry points for audiences to invest specifically in any of the individuals in the collection. So it’s a glorious visual piece of impressionism, an agile brain teaser and a so-so war thriller. Blunted by bland fictional characters standing in loosely for real-life heroes, the film is a new form of cinematic Sudoku in which the major victories aren’t given much ado while Nolan counts his creative flourishes.
Welcome to Silver Screen Capture’s latest crossover with Ashley Williams of The Book Fetish Blog. She read the novel Hidden Figures, and we both saw the movie. I’m reviewing the film, she’s reviewing the book and we both answered a few questions. Check out her site for the book critique and read our joint Q&A right after my movie review.
Somewhere in the common area of a Venn diagram plotting the space race and race relations in the American Sixties is Theodore Melfi’s inspirational historical biopic Hidden Figures (B), a film grounded in three sterling performances achieving lift-off when it counts. Anchoring the narrative is Taraji P. Henson as Katherine G. Johnson, the little-known African-American mathematician who helped calculate flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Her trusty friends and colleagues at NASA – Octavia Spencer as computer whiz Dorothy Vaughan and Janelle Monáe as engineer Mary Jackson – make history in their own right tackling heavy duty science while battling the last vestiges of segregation. The three women give dignified performances in a wholesome, family-friendly film that wanders for a while to find its tone and sometimes resorts to attitudes and platitudes over natural dialogue. Supporting performances are of little help, including Kevin Costner in one of his bland buzzcut roles and Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons as emotionally withholding bureaucrats. Mahershala Ali gets to shine as a persistent love interest, and Glen Powell charms as astronaut John Glenn. The director struggles a bit to keep appropriate focus on all three women and to put their historic accomplishments in context; some parts are rushed and others prolonged. Spencer is the easiest character to relate to and is the soul of the ensemble. There were moments the filmmakers could have amped up the drama for effect or opened up its world a bit more in cinematic terms. But the film’s shortcomings are forgiven because of its undeniable heart and the grace of its characters against undeniable odds.
Stephen Brown and Ashley Williams answer questions about the nonfiction book-to-movie translation!
Question: What made this an important story to tell?
Ashley: It’s an unknown or unrecognized part of history that celebrates minority women for major achievements, despite so many odds being stacked against them. It makes science and math heroic activities performed by smart women.
Stephen: The film is even more groundbreaking than its makers may have even known, what with glass ceilings, bathroom controversies and stereotypes still plaguing Modern America. The real-life characters were presented in a reverent, almost saintly portrayal. I almost wish the chronicle of their struggles had been a bit more visceral. These women were true trailblazers.
Question: What key points made it an effective tale to read or enjoy in the movie theatre?
Ashley: For me, reading the book, it was the reminders of segregation and that the women had to do so much more than white men to be seen as credible, even approaching equal. And the reminder that a success and advancement for any of these women was a victory for African-Americans as a whole- they were fighting for themselves and their community.
Stephen: The film valued sentimentality over genuine suspense. I found it approached the characters at surface level from a bit of a safe distance. But there are so few movies presenting such positive portrayals of women or African-American women that one can look past wishes that it would be a little less color-by-numbers.
Question: What characters fared the best in the translation?
Ashley: Katherine Johnson the best, I think. But really all three main characters- Dorothy, Mary and Katherine. The movie gave them a more vibrant personality that may not have always translated on the page, but all three were drawn true to the core aspects of the women in the book.
Stephen: Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy, in her bootstraps quest to become a supervisor, had the most satisfying story arch.
Question: How did the author/director bring history to life?
Ashley: The importance of the NACA and NASA missions- what it took to advance our fleet of aircrafts for military purposes, of course. But then the most important part was the effort to keep our astronauts safe. I’ve always loved stories of our first astronauts and the courage they must have had to take on something so new. But until now, I hadn’t really thought about all the effort and work it took behind the scenes, and Hidden Figures really explores that aspect.
Stephen: The actresses were superb, but I feel the director could have provided meatier material. We know going in that it’s a rather untold story, yet I’m still not sure I got in the veins of the characters to truly understand their verve and passion. Movies like this can have a slightly wax museum quality about them. I loved the story and even applauded at the end along with my fellow late-night theater-goers.
A peculiar fugue for both a nation in mourning and for a woman having a near out-of-body crisis to preserve the legacy of her slain husband, Pablo Larrain’s Jackie (B+) is a film that moves in mysterious ways. In the central role of Jacqueline Kennedy played out in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, in flashbacks to an awkward White House tour and in a guarded interview framing device, Natalie Portman is perfection. The actress conveys urgency and dignity in her rigorous pursuit to control the narrative, preserve the majesty of the POTUS office and bottle the enduring notion of “Camelot.” All the while she internalizes her grief and personal needs in a complex performance of considerable modulation. Portman’s Jackie is keenly aware of history and that all eyes are on her. It’s a wondrous lead performance wrapped in how’d-they-do-that historical reenactments. Overall the film is an artsy, absorbing character study that gets richer as it reaches final act crescendos. Lorrain surrounds his solid lead actress with superb period detail, lush costuming and natural supporting players including Greta Gerwig as loyal assistant Nancy, Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy and John Hurt as an otherworldly priest. Ultimately it’s all about that classic American tenet of meeting the moment when challenges arrive that are bigger than ourselves.
Reclaiming the title of D.W. Griffith’s controversial classic is the most subversive element of Nate Parker’s otherwise straightforward historical 2016 retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave uprising, The Birth of a Nation (B-), but the timing of this true-life tale could not be more prescient given continuing struggles with race in today’s society. Because the protagonist is both slave and scholar and an active preacher, the film brings up big themes about the nature of vengeance. It doesn’t always fuse those themes into a consistent tone, though. For a first time writer/director also in the lead role, Parker is a bit over his head; and his passable acting is largely enhanced by the gravity of his character and because he is opposite a very wooden Armie Hammer as the plantation owner (with unwieldy beard and novelty teeth). Hammer has evolved very little since his leaden Lone Ranger. In fact, the acting overall is a weak spot as many of the underwritten characters (especially the women) feel more like symbols than fully fleshed-out individuals. The film gains stirring resonance long after it has lost narrative momentum. Where’s the storytelling fire found in the final twenty minutes during the rest of the film? Aside from the gruesome rebellion itself, the film soars in a sequence when scriptures are used to argue both sides of the slavery argument. I couldn’t help but think how good the exchange would have been if embodied by more seasoned performers. Nonetheless the cinematography is intermittently gorgeous and Henry Jackman’s chorus-tinged score haunting. It’s an important film and a vital story to tell; it just could have been a bit stronger cinematically. But the first-time helmer should get some major credit for his brazen first choice in subject matter.