Antoine Fuqua’s relentlessly violent slavery survival film Emancipation (C) both showcases and demands endurance. It is tonally out of balance, caught between being a prestige piece about a grim time in American history and an exploitative action film. Will Smith is effective in an underwritten role, and the film’s tropes and characters don’t illuminate much fresh light on their subject. Fuqua’s monochromatic cinematography is often expansive and expressive but paints its images over a hollow story. It spends long passages with dogs chasing escaped slaves who must brave forests and swamps and brush fires in an attempted journey back to family. Ben Foster has the thankless task of antagonist in a nightmarish work that doesn’t give anyone much of a showcase. There’s an important and well-intentioned story shrouded in the film, but Fuqua goes about telling it with little new or nuanced.
Tag Archives: Historical drama
Movie Review: Belfast (2021)
Although it takes place in a specific part of history a hemisphere away, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming of age drama Belfast (C) manages to churn out sentimentality in a perfectly generic geopolitical bundle. The action is set during “The Troubles,” a time of religious unrest and warfare in Northern Ireland from August 1969 to early 1970, often seen through the lens of child star Jude Hill, a wide-eyed and rather unconvincing central protagonist. Branagh struggles with creating narrative momentum or a reliably consistent point of view on a rather limited milieu of cramped houses of a street and alleyway backlot. The film manages to keep the stakes pretty low. Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench all have strong moments as two generations of the protagonist’s family, but it also feels a bit like assembling a bunch of perfunctory stock characters. The film is a bit of a circuitous journey toward ultimate uplift and eschews many of the greatest hits in the family’s journey. Overall it’s a swing and a miss: surface gloss of history, mostly inert. Even the fact that it’s filmed in naturalistic black and white comes off as lazy shorthand for an under-stuffed memory box. The film zig zags between cloying, sentimental, cutesy, contrived and saccharine – and back again.
Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari
James Mangold’s ‘60s-set Ford v Ferrari (A) is a triumph, precision tuned with grit and grace and a combination of spectacular acting and “how did they do that?” practical action effects. Matt Damon and Christian Bale punch up everything fueling their winning screen personalities as the real-life racing team tilting at windmills to help America’s iconic automaker gain a shot at victory against Italian racers in the rigorous 24 hours of the Petit Le Mans. Mangold accomplishes a magnificent feat for historical drama by finding surprises around every turn. The film features an excellent ensemble, a cracking screenplay and stunning art direction and should please those who and aren’t typically enamored by car chase sequences. Damon’s character’s genuine swagger and boldness against the odds and Bale’s imaginative ingenuity plus a tender subplot with his family balance the film and anchor its action. Some of the best moments evoke the sheer wonder of boys and their toys as the central duo wrestles – sometimes literally – with the Herculean task they’re undertaking. It’s a tribute to friendship and teamwork and breaking out of conventions. The film is high-concept when it needs to be but possesses enough nuance to temper its ambitions. It’s a sterling entry into the American cinematic canon and deserves to be feted as year-end accolades are awarded.
Movie Review: Harriet
Director Kasi Lemmons crafts an exquisite glimpse at American hero Harriet Tubman in the historical epic Harriet (B+) about the successful “conductor” on the Underground Railroad who escapes slavery in Maryland and helps others on an exodus to Philadelphia freedom. Cynthia Ervio is perfect in the title role and displays her character’s faith and fearlessness with a mastery rarely seen when propelled to leading actress status. Ervio gets to display her beloved character’s physical and emotional strength as well as use her vocal chops in singing which punctuates the movie and appears in rousing form over the closing credits anthem. Lemmons keeps the story propulsive and the characters intriguing, which is always a challenge with filling in the contours around real-life historical events. Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe shine in small but exuberant roles in Tubman’s newfound freedomland, while Joe Alwyn’s one-note slaveholder character feels a shade underdeveloped, although it’s easy to dislike him. The use of “visions” when Tubman experiences spells or premonitions isn’t one hundred percent effective, but the art direction is continually surprising and authentic. The film is adventurous and illuminating and does justice to an important and urgent chapter in U.S. history.
Movie Review: Vice (2018)
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.
Movie Review: On the Basis of Sex
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.
Movie Review: Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
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.
Movie Review: Green Book
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.
Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman
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.
Movie Review: The Post (2017)
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).
Movie Review: Darkest Hour
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:
Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul
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.